TWISTS AND TURNS ON THE ROAD TO THE GRAND FINAL
By Les Muir
SOME thought it was inevitable that Southcity and Gundagai would be jousting for the Group Nine title at McDonald’s Park on Saturday.
After all, they played off in the grand final last year – Southcity triumphed 22-18 – and retained the bulk of their playing personnel for 2017.
Shouldn’t it just be a natural progression for the Bulls and Tigers to again be the dominant teams in the premiership this season?
As it has turned out, predictions of the 2016 grand final being rerun a year later have been accurate to the letter.
For the second year in a row, Southcity topped the minor premiership, but only just ahead of second-placed Gundagai.
And the elimination finals also went to script to leave the Bulls and Tigers to again fight it out for the coveted Group Nine crown in Saturday’s historic twilight grand final.
Still, the road to the decider has not been without its intriguing twists and turns.
Four months ago, Gundagai made a stunning start to the competition rounds, even bowling over Southcity 24-22 in round three on April 23.
Ultimately, Gundagai won five games straight before crashing to Temora (26-24) on May 21.
At the same time, Southcity had also won five times in six games to be sharing the lead with Gundagai after seven rounds.
Critically, it was about this time that things got sticky for the Tigers when Weissel Medal-winning forwards James Luff (injury) and Brett Eccleston (retired) were ruled out for the rest of the year.
Losing players of the quality of Eccleston and Luff would have decimated some teams, but Gundagai was able to recover because of their immense depth.
Significantly, there was also another team making a statement in the opening month or so of the season.
Coming off three years of bitter disappointment, including getting the wooden-spoon in 2014,Tumut was in resurgence, and ready to shoot for the stars.
Tumut’s revival was sparked by the appointment of Jarrad Teka as coach and the acquisition of a group of quality players, characterised by man-mountain Dan Kilian.
Early on, Kilian was absolutely monstering the opposition, but eventually was forced to sit out a huge chunk of the season because of troubles in his past.
Without Kilian, but with Teka making a surprise playing comeback, Tumut refused fall by the wayside and grabbed fourth spot for the finals.
Not a bad rejoinder after the dismal failures of recent years and a fitting tribute to skipper Adam Pearce, who has had a booming year.
Tumut’s rise was mirrored by the impressive efforts of Young to secure third on the table and to have their supporters deliriously thinking of the title.
Despite all the huffing and puffing, the Cherrypickers were shown the door in straight sets in the finals and are now 26 years and counting without a gold-plated success.
The business end of the season came down to four teams securely in the finals – and Kangaroos, Brothers and Albury trying to pick up the scraps.
Ominously, Albury’s slide reached a sorry conclusion when the Thunder finished seventh, while Brothers gave a yelp before settling for sixth.
In the circumstances, salvaging anything from the wreck of the sacking of Ben Black was a step in the right direction for a club that has not won a premiership since 1995.
Under the astute coaching of Black’s replacement Terry Westblade – he’ll be there again in 2018 – Brothers finished the year in better shape than they started.
Contrastingly, the further the season unfolded the worse it got for some teams – and no prizes for guessing Temora and Junee.
As usually is the case with Temora expectation was sky high surrounding the Dragons, but they fell as flat as a pancake.
Injuries were a curse but Temora still failed to mount a serious challenge and the agitated faithful might soon start getting hostile.
Yet again, Temora limped home down the ladder in eighth position, while Cootamundra collected the wooden-spoon, narrowly saving poor old Tumbarumba from more ladder misery.
And then there was Junee.
The Diesels were little more than a shambles and struggled through the year with no junior grades and barely any senior players.
Two years after losing the 2015 grand final to Gundagai, Junee was hardly a shell of the same team.
Like a few other clubs, Junee will be searching for redemption in 2018 with a new coach.
Two tough years with Diesels has gradually worn down Matt Hands and he has stepped aside as coach, but is not deserting the floundering ship.
Rather Hands will play on for his hometown team, but a coaching replacement is yet to emerge, while the lack of juniors is probably a more pressing priority.
With three exceptions, the coaching landscape for 2018 has already been neatly moulded.
As Junee and Temora start the long haul to get a critical coaching signature, and Teka debates his future at Tumut, the other eight clubs are all happily settled.
Excitement is building over the return of Adrian Purtell to Albury and Glen Buttriss to Cootamundra,
The two former NRL guns are certainly walking into a minefield at their respective hometown teams, but for the Bulldogs at least, anything will be better than this year’s disaster.
Likewise, Albury will be pinning their hopes on Purtell dragging the team out of a massive hole.
For a club still living on the fading memory of their premiership treble in 2012-13-14, the thought of another bleak season will be utterly intolerable.
Purtell is viewed as a saviour on the border and he will need wide shoulders to carry the responsibility.
Understandably, the pressure will also be on Buttriss to work a miracle at Cootamundra.
Already there are positive signs, with rumour and speculation talking up a lengthy list of recruits for the fallen team.
The guard will also be changing at Southcity as Nick Skinner hands over the reins to Kyle McCarthy.
Beforehand, Skinner will strive to lead the Bulls to victory on Saturday evening as McCarthy sits uncomfortably on the sidelines recovering from shoulder surgery.
One way or the other, Skinner will leave a great legacy at Southcity, while James Smart will be itching to finally take the big step that keeps eluding him at Gundagai.
For Smart, the grand final will mark another chance to finally achieve his precious goal.
And even the thought of possibly winning a second Weissel Medal in October won’t make another grand final near-miss the slightest bit palatable.
Smart and team-mate Luke Berkrey are the frontrunners for the Weissel Medal, but Hayden Philp and Robbie Byatt should be right in contention as well.
As much as personal glory will help ease the premiership pain for Philp and Byatt, the grand final verdict is all that matters for Smart, Berkrey and all the other Tigers and Bulls combatants.
As always, history beckons again.