Illawarra suffered a disappointing finish in 2015. On track for a finals berth, the Cutters self destructed. With arguably the best pack of the competition, it was a bitter ending for the men from Steel City after early signs of promise. In their defence, Will Matthews and Peter Mata’utia cemented their places in the Dragons’ NRL squad with impressive performances in the early rounds of the season, leaving a large void for the Cutters to fill.
Despite the huge addition of Russell Packer, the Cutters couldn’t keep ground with the rest of the competition. With new coach Jason Demetriou taking the reins, Illawarra will be determined to solidify a consistent performance each week.
Off-season focus: Demetriou’s focus has sternly been on his team, and bringing the best out of each of his players. The Cutters are a well-rounded team with a strong forward pack and slick backline. Their halves are instrumental in bringing all the parts together, and on their day, Illawarra are a tough outfit to beat. The issue is their consistency and ensuring they bring their A-game every week. That comes down to everyone focusing on their roles and putting their best foot forward every time they step on the field.
Biggest gain: In what could be the buys of the season, the Cutters acquired halves playmakers Shaun Nona and Josh McCrone. Nona has been a standout star in the QLD Cup and many argue that his time in the NRL is overdue. McCrone joins the Cutters after a sterling season for Mounties, and his combination with Nona looms as the deadliest in the Intrust Super Premiership Cup this season. Sebastine Ikahihifo adds size to the pack while Levi Dodd brings polish to the Illawarra backline.
Toughest loss: Although Demetriou insists he isn’t concerned about covering for anybody’s departure, there’s no question Russell Packer was an impact for the Cutters in his comeback to the NRL. Packer was a reliable standout performer in his selection to the 2015 NSW Cup Team of the Year. If all goes to plan for the Dragons, Packer will be a force in the NRL this season.
Coach Demetriou says: “Everyone wants to play finals and that’s what we set out to do. With the quality of our team, there’s no reason why that can’t happen. But we won’t be talking about finals from here on in. We are focused on our individual and team performances each week and making sure we get better. If we do that, I’m sure we’ll pick up enough games to be there in the end. It’s about getting some identity about who we are as a team and what we want we want to be recognized as.”
Our prediction: The Cutters’ season comes down to one word: consistency. On one hand, Illawarra pose as a major threat to the Intrust Super Premiership NSW in 2016. On the other hand, their inconsistent performances end up costing them dearly in the standings. Coach Demetriou comes in with plenty of experience as a coach and player. Entering with championship success as part of the North Queensland Cowboys premiership winning side in 2015, Demetriou brings an element of professionalism that could be the final missing ingredient for the Cutters. Certainties for finals with top four on the cards.
Comings and goings
Gains: Josh McCrone (Canberra Raiders), Sebastine Ikahihifo (St George-Illawarra Dragons), Shaun Nona (Melbourne Storm), Levi Dodd (Canterbury Bulldogs)
Losses: Eto Nabuli (Rugby Union), Justin Hunt (Wests Tigers), Charly Runciman (Widnes Vikings), Shannon Crook (released), Tyron Cranston (Western Australia)