Illawarra production line on show
Mitch Jennings - Illawarra Mercury
Scream it from the top of Mount Keira, let it be heard: Illawarra is the reigning king of country rugby league.
What other conclusion can be drawn when you look at a Country Origin lineup that, even with the withdrawal of Mitch Rein (Kiama), boasts five products of the greater Illawarra region?
Kane Linnett (Port Kembla/Windang) and Euan Aitken (Merimbula Pambula/Wests Illawarra) both earned maiden Country jumpers while Tyson Frizell (Corrimal), Tariq Sims (Gerringong) and Jack Bird (Berkeley) were all retained after playing in the annual clash last year.
Throw in the coaching staff that includes head coach Craig Fitzgibbon (Dapto) and assistant Shaun Timmins (Kiama) and the number swells to seven.
Amid ongoing debates surrounding the quota of top-flight NRL games currently played by St George Illawarra in Wollongong, it’s a timely reminder of the region’s status a genuine rugby league heartland.
It’s something Bird certainly hasn’t forgotten, despite shifting from the Dragons to the Sharks two years ago, with the Berkeley product insisting the Eagles – who this season returned to the top grade in the Illawarra Coal League – remain close to his heart.
“I was born down in Berkeley and I’m Berkeley through and through,” Bird said.
“My whole family’s from down there and I’ve got a lot of family and close mates still playing for Berkeley and it’s just great to see them back in the Coal League.
“If I wasn’t playing first grade in the NRL I’d probably be playing down there. Hopefully one day after I retire [from the NRL] they’re still there and I’ll be playing for them for sure.”
If the large contingent in the Country side wasn’t enough, Helensburgh quartet Sam Bremner, Maddie Studdon, Kezie Apps and Ruan Sims will represent Australia in the first leg of Friday’s Trans-Tasman Test double-header, with Sims to skipper the Jillaroos for the first time.
On the same weekend the Illawarra Steelers will face Penrith in the SG Ball (under 18s) grand final while later this month, Illawarra will begin their tilt a fourth straight Country Championship after securing a three-peat of titles year – their ninth crown in the past 11 seasons.
“It just shows how much talent has come through the Illawarra over the years. We’ve got a lot of guys in this [Country] side and it’s really exciting for those players,” Timmins said.
“We’ve obviously got our SG Ball in the grand final as well, which is a massive achievement.
It’s been 20 years since we’ve won that comp back when we had guys like Luke Bailey, Luke Patten and my brother Brendon so to be involved again on the coaching staff is great.
“It’d be great to get the win but just getting there’s a great achievement for those boys.”