TWO of the favourites for the Gippsland League football premiership, Maffra and Sale, will clash this Sunday in a round one Battle of the Birds.
The Magpies have won the past four meetings against the Eagles, and eight of the past nine, but will have a new look under incoming coach Travis Ronaldson.
The Magpies will be missing the tall Ronaldson on the field to begin the season because of injury.
Ronaldson has playing experience in the VFL and SANFL and has coached in the VAFA and led Woodside to the 2009 North Gippsland finals.
Statistically, the Magpies have been the best team over the past three seasons, boasting a winning strike rate of 88.5 per cent, yet only has one premiership to show for it.
The change of coach could take some of the pressure off the Magpies.
Rather than recruiting from outside, the Magpies have focused on retaining local talent.
Gone are former league best-and-fairest Luke Collins, previous coach Matt Ferguson and forward Mitch Davis.
While Ryan Pendlebury has also left, the Magpies still have one of the best defences in the competition, including Shane Fyfe and Andrew Quirk.
Eager to improve on a fourth-placed finish last year, Maffra coach Wayne Butcher has assembled a strong list this season, with the return of son Danny after three years at Port Adelaide, the past season on Port’s SANFL list, to strengthen the Eagles’ midfield alongside the likes of Kel Porter.
Sam Pleming, a VFL premiership player at Port Melbourne and last year’s state team captain, has also returned to Maffra. With the ability to play key position at either end of the ground, Pleming’s experience will further bolster the Eagles’ premiership hopes.
Multiple league best-and-fairest and premiership player Gary Jones is also back after two seasons coaching Lucknow. Expect to see Jones playing in the forward pocket beside spearhead Darren Sheen.
Despite being linked to former club Heathmont, Sheen, who has kicked more than 100 goals each of the past two seasons, will remain at Maffra for 2015.
The Eagles are also hoping to blood some of their younger players who were part of their runs to the under 16 and 18 grand finals last year.
Brad Caldwell has returned to Rosedale after a year in the nest.
MORWELL will begin its bid for a hat-trick of premierships against last year’s runner-up Wonthaggi.
With dual premiership coach Harmit Singh leaving the club, a large part of last year’s grand final side has gone.
Tall forward Ash Close, best-on-ground in last year’s grand final, and former Collingwood star Tarkyn Lockyer, have followed Singh to Northcote Park.
Last season’s league best-and-fairest Adam Bailey, who is now coaching Yallourn-Yallourn North, taking with him team of the year defender Tom Hutton.
Dean MacDonald, Brandon and Boyd Bailey have also left, providing new coach Dean Warren the chance to build his own team. Warren has been an assistant coach at VFL clubs Box Hill, Coburg and Frankston.
Former league team of the year defender Jack Brown is a big return for the Tigers.
Morwell’s back line is set to benefit through Warren, who was most recently defensive coach at Coburg, as well as the return of 2013 premiership full back Jack Brown.
A more stable line-up, which includes 2014 team of the year ruckman Earl Shaw and defender Byron Dryden, could favour Wonthaggi on Saturday.
However, the Power will be without the retired Aaron Ware and Jack Blair, who is heading to Collingwood’s VFL side.
The Tigers have won six of their last eight games against the Power, but three of those wins have been by margins of no more than three goals.
A NEW look Drouin will host Bairnsdale.
Welcoming back a number of top players, many part of their back-to-back grand final seasons, expect the Hawks to be big improvers this season.
Among those returning are ruckman Bob McCallum, who will coach the Hawks, and former captain Damien Carmody.
Former Warragul forward Ben Hughes will also provide a boost for the Hawks, whose last win came in round two of 2013.
With former AFL player Campbell Heath coming back to east Gippsland, Bairnsdale will be looking to improve on its 2014 result, making the elimination final.
Tom Smith (Wy Yung) and David Donchi (Lindenow) could also prove handy acquisitions.
Star James Gibbs kicked 86 goals last season, but will miss the support of Sam Pickett, who booted 52 last year.
Also departing the Redlegs are Dale Johnson and Jack Vickers.
The Redlegs have won the past four games they’ve played against the Hawks by margins of 79 points or greater, including a 162-point thumping last year. Gibbs, in particular, has cashed in with tallies of nine, 12 and 10 goals from his last three outings against Drouin.
TEAMS which fell short of a finals berth in 2014, Leongatha will host Traralgon.
Both sides will be led by new coaches: Beau Vernon at Leongatha and Mark Collison at Traralgon.
Vernon takes the reigns at the Parrots less than three years after a on-field collision left him a quadriplegic.
The Parrots appeared to have recruited well during the off-season with Tristan Francis and Tas Clingan, both having been on AFL rookie lists, returning to the club, as is forward Jake Best.
Collison returns to the Maroons having played at Warragul and in Queensland in recent seasons.
The Maroons have lost former captain Jaime Aitken and ruckman Justin Fulton to Yinnar.
In a developing team, onballers Josh Jennings and Tim Northe will be carrying a lot of responsibility.
VAFA representative player Ben Amberg is among the Maroons’ recruits alongside Mark Van Dyke from Boolarra.
WARRAGUL and Moe, two of last season’s bottom three sides, will meet on Sunday.
Last year the Lions recorded their biggest ever win over Warragul, 135 points, at Moe. Although the Lions again won comfortably in the return match at Warragul, the 44-point margin represented a big improvement in the Gulls who will be looking to further their rebuild this year through the development of their talented juniors.
Looking long-term, both clubs have made concerted efforts in recent years to nurture their juniors.
Victory on Sunday will give either side a tremendous boost.
The match will be Steven Kidd’s debut as coach of Warragul, whose only two wins last season came against wooden spooner Drouin.
Senior team regulars Tom Fusinato, Chris Lee, Bryce Monahan, Ty Galley and Cooper Minichello have left.
Onballer Brad Scalzo was clearly the Gulls’ best player last season, he will need someone to step-up to carry some of the burden.
At Moe, some of the pressure was last season taken away from onballer James Blaser with the recruiting of half-back Lloyd Williams, who finished equal second in the league best-and-fairest vote.
The Lions had added Mark Engley from Glengarry and Michael Parker from Hill End, but have lost full back Kane Airdrie.