Ladder position: 1st (grand final runners-up)
Competition points: 44
Points scored (including finals): 609
Points conceded (including finals): 453
Little can be said about Mounties’ season that hasn’t already been said, but upon looking through all the come-from-behind wins and dominant performances one thing becomes very clear: the minor premiers will be nothing but disappointed with how their season finished.
Four losses throughout the entire year is an extraordinary effort and from kick-off in the first game of the season, it was always obvious that Mounties were the team to beat. Four inclusions in the Team Of The Year – as well as the Assistant Coach position – had the men from Mount Pritchard well and truly on top of their game in 2016, completing an outstanding club record with minor premierships in the Sydney Shield, Ron Massey Cup and Intrust Super Premiership NSW. The trio of teams then continued their form to feature in all three NSWRL Grand Finals, with hopes of creating history in all three grades.
As the history books will say, the Intrust Super Premiership NSW side fell at the final hurdle to eventual Intrust Super State Champions Illawarra. Mounties were defeated in the most heartbreaking of circumstances in the final match at Pirtek Stadium, coming back from three tries down after just 12 minutes to lose by a single point in the dying moments. It was a spectacular finish to a thrilling year of competition, but unfortunately Mounties came off second best in what was a toss-of-the-coin final battle.
A cruel irony arose from the nail-biting grand final loss for Mounties, who had previously become the undisputed kings or grinding out narrow victories. In total, the runners-up won 17 of their 21 wins by 12 points or less – and also went down by 12 or less in all four of their losses. In particular, a number of amazing comebacks featured in Mounties’ season, including a memorable 26-point comeback against the Tigers in Round 21, a 16-point comeback against the Jets in Round 23, an 18-point comeback against the Tigers again in the Preliminary Final and, of course, 20 unanswered points a week later against the Cutters – a result they couldn’t close out.
Successful coach Steve Antonelli, however, maintained throughout the year that he was yet to see the best from his players and continued to push for a genuine 80-minute performance right until the final game. His high standards were what got the side to the decider in the first place, but a mixture of bad luck and early lapses in concentration cost them the ultimate prize. With player depth that all 16 NRL clubs should be envious of, however, there is no reason why Mounties can’t go one better next season.
With 21 wins in 2016 – still three more than the next-best Cutters – there is plenty of choice for Mounties’ best performance, but as previously mentioned only four of these were by significant margins. The most recent of these was also the most impressive, coming against the high-flying Jets in the opening week of the finals.
Mounties were nothing short of dominant in the 30-12 victory, with NRL-standard forwards Jeff Lima, Shaun Fensom and Jarrad Kennedy all standouts. A continuous trend for Mounties all year was the muscle of their second row and this was on display against Newtown as they ran for 409 metres to their opposition’s 213. Throw in a completion rate of 79 per cent and it was a performance that asserted the expectation of Mounties to win the premiership.
Unfortunately, the game hit a sour note in the first half, with leading try-scorer Kato Ottio going down with a season-ending ruptured ACL. Ottio’s absence undoubtedly played a part in Mounties’ premiership hopes.
Mounties’ second loss of the season was their worst, in a shock result against an inconsistent North Sydney outfit in Round 14. The major upset came a week after one of the Bears’ worst showings of the year and while Ben Gardiner’s men were exceptional in the first half to put away the ladder-leaders, it also came thanks to an uncharacteristic 52 missed tackles and 13 errors for the visitors.
The result was the first of two consecutive losses for Mounties, which brought them back to the field midway through the year. Performances did improve significantly for the rest of the season, but it was a rare slip-up for the eventual runners-up.
There can realistically be no such thing as a turning point in a season that was so consistent, but the moment that defined Mounties’ season came in the 80th minute of the grand final. With Intrust Super Premiership NSW Player Of The Year Sam Williams lining up for what would have been a game-levelling field goal, the ball sailed just wide and Mounties’ season was over. The disappointment of that missed field goal is beyond words, but unfortunately for Mounties it sealed their fate in 2016.
The entire team was outstanding all year and it is difficult to single out individuals, but it is important to note Mounties four players in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW Team Of The Year: Sam Williams, Zac Santo, Kato Ottio and Jarrad Kennedy. Williams, who is off to the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in 2017, was judged the competition’s best at the 2016 Brad Fittler Medal, while Ottio topped the try-scorers’ list with 28 tries before his injury. Santo and Kennedy were mainstays for Mounties, while teammates Brenko Lee, Shaun Fensom and Scott Sorensen were dominant. When they played in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW, Paul Vaughan and Jeff Lima made it clear that they are a step above the rest.
Destined for the NRL:
Ottio is the most obvious contender for an NRL berth next season and with the movement of Brenko Lee, he should be a near-certainty for some first grade time in 2017. Santo earned his second NRL appearance – two years after his first for the Cowboys – this season, but with an outstanding year for Mounties he too will be hopeful of nailing down a regular spot. Brent Naden and Eddie Aiono will consider themselves outside chances, while Scott Sorensen did all he could in his first year for Mounties.
The future focus for Mounties remains the same as their focus for the entire 2016 season: play for the full 80 minutes. A team with such class should not have been content with winning the majority of their games by narrow margins and would have liked to put forward more dominant victories, while all the come-from-behind victories point to lapses in concentration early in games. Steve Antonelli will leave no stone unturned in bringing improvements in this regard next year.