SEASON REVIEW | Illawarra Cutters
Ladder position: 2nd (grand final winners)
Competition points: 36
Points scored (including finals): 595
Points conceded (including finals): 445
They finally climbed the mountain – the Cutters brought an historic first premiership to the Illawarra, a week before becoming Australia’s undisputed best with an NRL Intrust Super State Championship thrashing.
The 2016 season brought the ultimate success to the Cutters, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing and they needed a pinch of luck along the way – right down to the bounce of the ball before Drew Hutchison’s ‘poor’ grand final-winning field goal.
The one-point victory will live on in spectators’ memories forever, but there was no luck involved a week later as the Cutters stormed to a massive 42-point win over Burleigh to be named national champions. Ten players shared the points in that game – including nine conversions from nine attempts for Shaun Nona – as a fitting reward for their efforts all season and in the most dominant way of taking the trophy to New South Wales for the first time.
A look at the Cutters’ results shows a vastly different picture to grand final opponents Mounties, who had appeared to be more dominant throughout the year. While 21 of Mounties’ 25 games were decided by 12 points or less, just nine of the Cutters’ results featured margins of less than 12 – seven of which they won. Importantly, three of those narrow wins came in their three finals matches, but it also tells that it was difficult to get a read on Illawarra for much of 2016; big wins would be followed up by big losses, including three thrashings of 30 points or more.
Consistency was always the name of the game for the Cutters and with three wins from five games heading into the finals, they still seemed to be some way off the level set by Mounties. Jason Demetriou’s men found their feet when it mattered most, however, and having lost just twice against top-four teams this season – both against Mounties – they certainly deserved to be there on NSWRL Grand Final Day. They edged past the minor premiers and demolished the Bears the following week, earning Demetriou the incredible feat of three consecutive national titles at three different clubs.
It is very easy to identify the Cutters’ best game this season; they saved the best for last. Illawarra’ 54-12 drubbing of Intrust Super Cup premiers the Burleigh Bears was a sight to behold in the lead-up to the NRL Grand Final at ANZ Stadium, with Queensland’s best never given much chance from kick-off.
A completion rate of 84 per cent and incredible possession count of 62 per cent will beat any team at an elite level and having run for 686 metres than their opposition, the Cutters were deserving national champions. Central to this was man of the match Drew Hutchison, who had two line-break assists, two line-breaks and a try to his name, and halves partner Shaun Nona, who laid on three tries and as mentioned, kicked nine from nine conversions.
Illawarra only had one win bigger than that this season, which came in the form of a 48-4 victory over the Knights in Round 10. With 61 per cent possession they ran for 892 metres more that game, but against the eventual wooden spooners it was not even close to the performance demonstrated in the NRL Intrust Super State Championship.
As mentioned, some of the Cutters’ most dominant wins were somewhat countered by their disappointing losses this season, none poorer than their 30-0 showing against the Bulldogs in Round 20. With the boys from Belmore in do-or-die mode as they desperately tried to make the finals, they shut Illawarra out completely – one of only two occasions a side failed to score in 2016.
The Cutters pack was dominated in that game, making just 410 metres to the Bulldogs’ 643, while 14 errors certainly didn’t help their cause. Despite this, a missed-tackle count of 26 was not devastating given it was the worst game of their season. The Cutters would go on to have six tight finishes in their final seven games of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW, but history shows they did enough to turn things around and win the title.
It was a cold Friday night at Henson Park when the Cutters faced up to the Jets in a rescheduled Round 13 encounter between two of the form teams of the competition. Illawarra had won their past four games when they took on Newtown to assert their position in the top four and they made it five straight with a 38-14 win in difficult conditions.
Against a rampant Jets outfit – which completed at 90 per cent for 52 per cent possession – the Cutters made it hard for themselves and trailed 14-10 at the break, but the 28 unanswered second-half points proved vital in the course of their season. While they would narrowly lose their next game in Auckland, the Cutters’ composure late in games got the better of their opposition at the back end of the season when results became much tighter.
Along with coach Jason Demetriou, four Cutters players featured in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW Team Of The Year: skipper Tyrone McCarthy, Shannon Wakeman, Jacob Host and Levi Dodd. The fact that three of those were forwards is significant, but playmakers Hutchison, Nona and Quinlan can all consider themselves unlucky to have missed out. A backline including Quinlan, Dodd, Taane Milne, Kalifa Faifai Loa, Kurt Mann proved unstoppable, while the McCarthy, Wakeman, Host, Damian Sironen and Chris Lewis did the hard yards up front. In summary, it’s impossible to single out individual standouts from the well-rounded Illawarra side in 2016.
Destined for the NRL:
The most surprising thing about the class Cutters side is that many of the players have little or no NRL experience; compared to their grand final opponents Mounties, they were not a side full of ‘big names.’ Many of the above players could easily perform at the top level and while he has played 30 NRL games in the past, Quinlan would be hopeful of more time in the Dragons side next year. Benji Marshall’s departure is highly likely to give Hutchison an extended opportunity to prove himself, while any of Wakeman, McCarthy and Sironen could also put their hand up. Twenty-six-year-old Nona, described by coach Demetriou as Australia’s best playmaking talent not playing NRL, is also deserving – but with a move to the Townsville Blackhawks next year, he will have to wait at least until Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan are playing representative football.
Perhaps the most deserving of an NRL position, however, is Demetriou, whose recent coaching record speaks for itself. An NRL head coaching role mustn’t be too far away for the three-time premiership-winning mentor.
Teams traditionally pay for their success in Rugby League and with a shake-up of the playing stocks at St George-Illawarra, the Cutters will need to contend with significant changes if they are to go back-to-back. With a Holden Cup side that made the preliminary finals, the challenge will be getting young talent up to speed as they play Intrust Super Premiership NSW next season. At this stage, there is nothing to say the Cutters can’t do it again in 2017.