As delegates fly into the Diggers & Dealers conference this weekend, it is to a vastly different landscape to the one they left after blearily packing their bags at the end of last year's swim-through.

The gold price wrecking ball has all but completed its demolition of the hopes and dreams of the sector's marginal players. The long-promised gold consolidation is well under way, courtesy of Barrick Gold's near exit from the State and asset sales by Alacer Gold and Newmont Mining. After an extraordinary buying spree over the past eight months, Northern Star Resources has risen as the heir apparent to the crown of local gold kings as other contenders fell away.

WA's nickel miners - most of whom delivered their presentations through gritted teeth last year - will climb onto the main stage with a swing in their step, having done the hard yards in slimming down their cost base ahead of the Indonesian-fuelled uptick in commodity prices.

There's even an emerging sense of optimism at the junior end of town. About $20 million has been raised by explorers in the Doolgunna region in the past few months. Money has also been coming in for nickel and base metals exploration.

The uptick in sentiment isn't yet sector-wide but the dash for cash may be about to start in earnest at Diggers this year, according to Morgans Financial analyst James Wilson in a Diggers preview note this week.

Wilson tips the Saracen Mineral Resources presentation as one worth watching for, in the hope of drilling updates from its Red October exploration program.

Diggers also offers the first opportunity for punters to eyeball Regis Resources managing director Mark Clarke and Wilson is hoping for some insight into the company's outlook for the coming quarter. He also tips an update from Gold Road over further assays from its Gruyere project.

Deutsche analysts are also upbeat, with Deutsche's Chris Terry telling clients this week there is "good reason to be excited" given producers have rationalised assets and repaired balance sheets and explorers are starting to see rewards at drill sites.

Terry tips WA's nickel sector as the place to watch this Diggers, as it sits in the shadow of the mooted sale of BHP Billiton's Nickel West operations. Western Areas and Sirius Resources are both worth watching, with offtake contracts for both expected by year's end. Feed from one or both is critical to Nickel West's future. Sirius may also give an update.

The Deutsche team also suggests Minotaur Explorations' booth will have a busy week, given its stunning run on Thursday after it released its Queensland exploration results.

The West Australian

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