NEW SEASON: Sawtell/Toormina is at home to Port Macquarie today to start the AFL North Coast season in a fixture that also boasts the inaugural women's competition match.
NEW SEASON: Sawtell/Toormina is at home to Port Macquarie today to start the AFL North Coast season in a fixture that also boasts the inaugural women's competition match. Brad Greenshields

A fresh start for the Saints

IT'S been a golden age that's lasted 13 seasons but Sawtell/Toormina's period of AFL North Coast dominance could well be drawing to a close.

The Saints have lost 14 players from last season's losing grand final team.

Covering that would be hard enough for any team but when the retirements include players such as Mark Couzens and Luke Matthews, who have won five Brian Saville Medals between them, there's some huge boots to fill at Richardson Park.

First-time coach Brandt Lee is taking over the clipboard and will be looking to shape a fresh Sawtell/Toormina line-up into a competitive outfit in a very short space of time.

This afternoon the AFL North Coast season gets under way and the fixture at Richardson Park between the Saints and Port Macquarie has some added interest.

The introduction of a women's competition in 2018 will see the Saints and Magpies meet in the inaugural match, where these two clubs plus the Coffs Breakers will go head-to-head for the Linnett Perpetual Cup.

The big boys from down south have placed their coaching faith in Russell Dawson, who has joined the club from North Wangaratta.

The Magpies have experienced a couple of lean years but started to rebuild last season and will be looking to continue that process.

They will be boosted by the return of a reserves team, which will add much-needed depth to the club's list, a factor that was sadly missing last season.

Most of the club's key players and leadership group have returned this year, with Scott Dalton being the key omission following his return to Brisbane.

The Coffs Breakers find themselves in the unusual position of being the hunted, entering the season as reigning premiers.

Former coach Nic von Schill has returned to Tasmania, taking star key forward Fraser Duryea with him, so Kevin Wilson has stepped up from the assistant's position to take charge.

His job has been made harder by the loss of premiership players Mackinlay Pearce, Luke Symons and Liam Paige but numbers at pre-season training have been good and they enter the season as favourites for the flag.

This afternoon the Breakers host Grafton and will be unfurling the 2017 premiership flag as part of the return to the re-developed Fitzroy Oval/Old Camp ground.