Coffs Crushers prop Craeg Pow has been elevated into the MNC Northern team.
Coffs Crushers prop Craeg Pow has been elevated into the MNC Northern team. Bruce Thomas

Old wounds opened by rugby clash

DAYS out from the historic first intra-zone representative clash in Mid North Coast Rugby, ill-feeling is bubbling away behind the scenes.

The tension isn't between the Upper MNC and Lower MNC teams who will do battle at Harry Elliott Oval in Tuncurry next Saturday.

It goes back to last September and stems from a scathing attack on the zone executive launched by Port Pirates' official Brett Gilbert during last year's grand final presentation ceremony.

In a rough 'n' tumble affair in which retiring captain (and now independent member of the New South Wales Parliament) Peter Besseling was sent off, the Pirates downed Coffs Rugby Red 18-14 to win back-to-back premierships.

Gilbert accused the executive of continued bias in favour of the Coffs Harbour club and vowed he would continue advising Pirates' players against representing the MNC Axemen in Country Championship matches.

At the time, Gilbert had been retired four years as a player but at the beginning of this season, stunned the local rugby fraternity by pulling the boots on again at 43 years of age.

But that surprise was nothing compared to the open-mouthed shock when Gilbert was selected by coach Stewart Robinson as halfback for the Upper MNC team ahead of the expected choice, Coffs Breakers' 19-year-old whiz-kid Mitch Walton.

Coffs Harbour-based club (and former Axemen) coach Paul Butcher was yesterday doing his best to put a positive spin on this most unusual of situations, whereas at Park Beach Plaza Rugby Park last Saturday - where Coffs Crushers reversed the grand final defeat by thrashing Pirates 31-5 - the irony of Gilbert's selection was the subject of many discussions.

There was even talk of mass withdrawals from the side if Gilbert was allowed to remain.

Asked how he felt about the selection of the veteran halfback ahead of his youthful protege, Butcher replied: “As a coach, no comment.”

Butcher was asked if Gilbert was still in the side.

“As far as I know,” he said quickly.

When queried on his feeling about having as many as 11 Coffs players in the original team, Butcher remained just as diplomatic.

“The club is ecstatic with that number included but I'm just as impressed by the number of Pirates who've been chosen, despite claims they wouldn't be available,” he said.

“So far Tim Platt, Corey Waters, Daniel Byrnes and Matt Maney have been called up and anybody who saw them play on the weekend knows they deserve to be there and will add quality to the Upper MNC side.”

The sudden retirement of Kevin Simpson has seen him ruled out; Matt Hoy, Nick Joyce and Leith Vaughan have succumbed to injury while Ben Wallace will be at work flying a helicopter when the game is being played.

Crushers' prop Craeg Pow has already been elevated but the key selection is 110kg prop Tim Metcher.

Last Saturday, the 17-year-old boy confirmed his status as a robust rugby man with a starring role in Breakers' massive win over the previously unbeaten Kempsey Cannonballs.

Also noteworthy is the selection of Bowraville Goannas' centre Jesse McEwen who also plays first-grade rugby league with Macksville Sea Eagles.

Earlier this year, McEwen was picked to represent in Group 2's senior team and it's believed he's the first local player to represent at this level in both rugby codes during the same season.

The carnival at Forster begins on Friday when coaching clinics are conducted at schools around the Manning-Great Lakes region by visiting players and celebrities.

On Saturday, under 19s kick off at 1.30pm with the main event from 3.00pm.

After the match, former Warringah, Waratahs and Wallabies enforcer Steve Lidbury will be guest speaker at a presentation dinner.

He will present jumpers to the 22 players chosen on the day to represent MNC Axemen against Far North Coast Dolphins in Grafton on June 6 when the Observer Trophy goes on the line.

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