NO STRANGER to Albury’s tricks, Gundagai captain-coach James Smart has already anticipated Thunder’s plans to expose the Tigers in the Group Nine qualifying final tomorrow.

With exciting lock Brett Eccleston ruled out of the starting line-up with a medial ligament injury, Smart believes Thunder is quietly planning to target his stand-in man, Kieran Pearce.

“It’s not ideal, (Eccleston is) a very key player for us and everybody knows it,” he told The Daily Advertiser yesterday.

“We know it and opposing teams know it.

“That’s something that we’re going to expect (tomorrow), the area where Brett plays will be filled and might be targeted this weekend.

“The boys that are there are certainly up to the job though.”

On the eve of the biggest game of the season at Greenfield Park tomorrow, Smart announced Eccleston is all but ruled out of the finals with the knee injury that is worse than first thought.

“He’s no chance,” Smart said. “I doubt he’ll be right for next week either.

“It’s a medial ligament, so I think his best chance of playing is if we get to the grand final.”

With big boppers Logan Wright and Brandt Preston also in doubt for tomorrow’s Group Nine qualifier at Thunder’s fortress, Smart said Tigers will look to Pearce to step up to the plate.

An aggressive defensive style and creative play will put Pearce square against Thunder’s lock sensation Lou Goodwin tomorrow, and Smart insists he’s up to the task.

“Kieran Pearce has been in the starting front row for us for the last couple of weeks but before that he was on the bench,” Smart said.

“It wasn’t a performance based decision to put him back out on the bench but I felt like it worked best for us having him come on later.

“He’s played at lock once for us this year when Brett was out injured and I thought it was nearly his best game I’ve seen from him.”

Tigers held Thunder to their first and only defeat of the Group Nine season in the final round of competition, romping home to a 24-14 victory at Anzac Park a fortnight ago.

Despite the playing puzzle, Smart is determined to deliver the Tigers straight through to a second consecutive grand final with victory over Thunder tomorrow.

“Definitely, this is easily our biggest game of the year so far,” he said.

“It’s something that we’ve spoken about with the boys and the rest of the coaching staff, we want to get straight through to the grand final for sure.”

Wright and Preston faced final fitness tests at training last night.

Smart said he was “reasonably confident” Preston would be fit to play, while Wright is a 50-50 chance.

MARKED MAN: Gundagai lock Kieran Pearce (pictured) is expected to be hot on Albury’s radar as he steps up to replace injured star Brett Eccleston tomorrow. Picture: Michael Frogley

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