MURWILLUMBAH Mustangs coach Troy McLean isn't a religious man but he will be praying to the football gods that four of his star players avoid injuries when they represent Northern Rivers against Canberra in a Maher Cup Country Championships match in Cessnock today.
The coach is desperately keen to have Luke Covell, Lynden Murphy, Sam Panting and Damien Quinn come through the fixture unscathed and primed to back-up tomorrow when the Mustangs get their chance to avenge last year's grand-final loss against the Grafton Ghosts.
Panting, Covell and Murphy were original selections in the Northern Rivers squad and Quinn was called up earlier this week following the late withdrawal of Byron Bay halfback Jarrod de Thierry.
Grafton's McGuren Park is expected to be jam-packed to witness the re-match. If it is anything like last year's premiership decider, in which the Ghosts hung on to win 10-6, the spectators will be cheering themselves hoarse witnessing what is expected to be a bonzer game of rugby league.
"We have been waiting a long time for this and everyone in the team is raring to go," McLean said.
"They are keen, fully fit and have trained the place down this week. The only blemish to an otherwise perfect lead-up to Sunday would be news from Cessnock that any of the four rep players have been knocked about," he said.
"Ghosts are a terrific football side and we'll need all hands on deck to beat them on their home turf.
"They are strong all over the paddock and have two real match-winners in their halfback and captain-coach, Ryan Farrell, and a tough and very skilful second-rower in Aaron Hartman, whom I'm expecting to make his return to the Ghosts after a few weeks out with a back injury."
McLean is happy with how his troops are performing but is especially pleased by the efforts being put in by two newcomers, Caleb Howell and Tim James.
James linked with the Mustangs from last year's Gold Coast Rugby League premiers Bilambil Jets and has gradually become an integral part of a classy pack.
Howell has made a smooth transition from the junior ranks to first grade and is handling the centre role with aplomb.
Howell is big and strong, loves to run at the defensive line and in defence is proving to be a cracker.
"He was taught how to tackle properly and, just as importantly, he reads the play perfectly to ensure he is in the right spot to stop an attacking raid," McLean said.
In good news for the club, powerful centre Michael Keating looks to have finally overcome a broken hand and is likely to sit on the fresh reserves bench tomorrow.
Mustangs line-up: 1 Dylan Smith 2 Michael Forrester 3 Damien Quinn 4 Caleb Howell 5 Troy Macarthur 6 Matt Goodfellow 7 Nathan Jordan (c) 8 Lynden Murphy 9 Sam Panting 10 Shane Kijt 11 Luke Covell 12 Tim James 13 Shawn Dorney. Bench: 14 Lionel Foster 15 Chris Patison.