BATHURST Panthers are on the prowl and ready to pounce head first into the new season, looking to secure their third consecutive Group 10 premier league title.
With the draw released last week, the Panthers are in for a massive start to the season with round one a repeat of last year's grand final against Mudgee Dragons and round two a local clash with St Pat's at Jack Arrow Sporting Complex.
"It's going to be a big start to the season for us with two fiery games first up," captain-coach Doug Hewitt said.
"We have the derby in round two and it's always a fiery game. After last year's grand final, I'd say round one will be just as fiery."
Last year's grand final came down to the wire, with both teams sitting on eight points at full-time.
With both teams giving it their all, the game came down to a one point difference with Hewitt kicking the winning field goal during extra time.
Round two will see the two Bathurst teams go head-to-head in the fight for local supremacy, with round three played in Lithgow against Workies.
"Lithgow is always a tough game, it will be good to get it out of the way early in the season," Hewitt said.
In round four the Panthers will be back at Carrington on home soil against Orange CYMS in a curtain raiser for the Penrith Panthers versus Cronulla Sharks NRL game.
"We've been doing these games for the last five or so years and it's always a good thrill," Hewitt said.
"It'll draw a good crowd itself and we love that sort of game because we can get in front of a bigger crowd and have a bit of a go."
In the final three rounds, Panthers will verse Cowra in an away game, the Hawks in a home game and in round seven they will take on Blayney.
Although the Panthers team is yet to be finalised, Hewitt is happy with where they are currently at.
"We've pretty much kept the same team but we have ended up with a couple more players joining the team," he said.
"We'll have a few trial matches at the start of the year and hopefully with everything going right and if everyone's fit and healthy and on par, I think we should have a pretty strong team."
Panthers lost impact player Josh Small to a knee injury, which takes away one of their flexible options on the park.
However, recruitment news has been positive for the Panthers who have gained Josh Starling and Jeremy Gordon among a few others to fill in.
Hewitt said more pre-season work will be needed to determine a definitive starting 13 for the new season.
"Josh Small was a big loss for us, he played every position from winger to front row and unfortunately he'll miss the whole year," he said.
"Josh Starling came over from Oberon and Jeremy Gordon has returned from a stint at Cowra and we had a few guys just turn up to training.
"We'll see how we go during training and we'll trial a couple of players in a few different positions and see how we go."
With limited pressure during his first two years in the roll of captain-coach, Hewitt is now starting to feel the pressure with the team's success over the last two seasons.
"The last couple of years we haven't had much pressure on us, we haven't been tipped to go too well," he said.
"This year we're closer to the top so there's a bit of pressure to start off on the right foot but hopefully we can make an impact right away."
With most of the team having played together for a while, Hewitt is hoping that this will only improve their chances at retaining their premiership title.
"Hopefully because we pretty much have the same team we'll be just as good, if not stronger, now having played together for another year," he said.
"Hopefully we can set it pretty early in the comp that we're here to do it again."
The new season for Panthers gets underway against Mudgee on April 12.