By STEVE SPINKS
DESPITE being one of the form props of the Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League, Ballina teenager James Rix can't crack a spot in the Seagulls' starting line-up.
But it's not from a lack of form.
Rix, who has played most of the season in first grade, has been playing a full game of Under-18s and then starting off the bench for first grade in recent weeks.
It will be no different tonight when Ballina take on Casino at Queen Elizabeth Park, Casino, in the second last round of the home-and-away season.
Ballina have had to play a host of potential first-graders back in Under-18s so they can qualify for the semi-finals in the junior and senior grades.
Rix is one of those players walking the qualification tight rope.
Despite being out of the starting side, Rix's star is on the rise.
He was a member of the Northern Rivers Under-18 team that won the NSW Country Championship and has been one of Ballina's best forwards since making his debut in the fourth round against South Grafton.
Let's not forget that he's a teenager playing in physically the toughest position on the field, often against bigger and more experienced opponents.
In a massive wrap to the youngster's ability, he was named in Rugby League Week as a possible for the Gold Coast's NRL team in 2007.
Gold Coast have earmarked the young prop as a player of enormous potential.
For an 18-year-old to be mentioned in the same breath as other members of the possible Gold Coast starting side such as State of Origin prop Luke Bailey, Panthers star Preston Campbell and Wigan winger Brian Carney is a great honour.
The speculative squad was named after talks with Gold Coast officials, including club chief executive officer Michael Searle.
"I believe he's the form front-rower of the competition," Ballina coach Chris Binge said.
"I know Gold Coast are interested in him and that they are keen for him to come through Tweed Seagulls.
"James was finding it hard to make that decision because he said he would find it difficult to play against us.
"But with Seagulls looking like they might not be here (in the competition) next year, it might help him."
However, next season is still a long time away and before then Rix will have plenty of football, starting this afternoon playing Under-18s and first grade for Ballina against the Cougars.
Under-18s will kick off at 2.45pm.
BALLINA: Fullback, Matt Thompson; wingers, Clarence Kelly, Trent Gasnier; centres, Shaun Laurie, Ashley Moran; five-eighth, Justin Bolt; halfback, Troy Johnstone (c); props, Dean French, Tyler Iverson; hooker, Matt Temby; second-rowers, Matt Slattery, Corey Windle; lock, Josh Mather. Coach: Chris Binge.
CASINO: Fullback, Ben Birney; wingers, Matt Johnson, Todd Walker; centres, Clinton Vidler, Tim Stark; five-eighth, Gary Roberts; halfback, Matt Roberts; props, Dene Petty, Chris McGrath (c); hooker, Jason Blakey; second-rowers, Chad Pearce, Andy Barker; lock, Adrian Robson. Bench: Brad Birney. Coach: Cavill Heugh.