THE opening round of the Nova Skill NRRRL competition kicks off on April 14 but already it's looking like a two-horse race.
Powerhouse clubs the Grafton Ghosts and Murwillumbah Mustangs are once again tipped to fight out this year's grand final.
Both sides have maintained the nucleus of their players from last season and on paper look to have most positions covered.
Last year's grand final between the Ghosts and Murwillumbah at Frank McGuren Field produced a decider loaded with big hits, punishing defence and a game that was in the balance until the final whistle.
For Murwillumbah the narrow loss to the Ghosts hit hard and it was rumoured the Mustangs would follow Cudgen and Tweed Raiders and join the Gold Coast competition this year.
But after several meetings with the NRRRL and the Gold Coast Rugby League they decided to stay in the Northern Rivers and have another crack at the Ghosts.
Former Cronulla NRL winger Luke Covell has decided to pull the boots on for another season and is hoping his side can repeat last year's performance and finish the season as minor premier.
"There was talk about joining the Gold Coast competition but the committee decided to stay for another year," Covell told the Examiner yesterday
"There were a number of reasons but from a player's point of view it will be nice to have another crack at the Ghosts and try to win the competition."
The Mustangs will field one of the biggest and most mobile forward packs in the competition but will be without the services of tireless back-rower Corey Maher, who has decided to hang up the boots.
And in another major blow, exciting outside back Ryan O'Connell has left the club to join the Byron Bay Red Devils.
"Losing Corey is a huge loss with the work-rate he gets through and Ryan scored 17 tries last season, so we'll miss him in attack," Covell said.
"But it looks like we may have picked up a centre from the
Seagulls State League side, which will be handy."
Mustangs' fullback Michael Ashburn, who controversially suffered a fractured jaw against the Ghosts last season, looks like missing the season after more bad luck in a trial game against Bilambil.
"We had a trial game against Bilambil and Michael broke his leg in two places," Covell said.
Covell said the Mustangs' last trial game, against a strong Toowoomba Brothers side, would have them entering the competition with plenty of confidence.
"We played Toowoomba last weekend and were down 20-0 after the first quarter," he said.
"But we came back and won 28-20, so there were plenty of positive signs for us."