SEASON PREVIEW: Illawarra
Illawarra are the reigning premiers, and therefore are the team to beat in 2017.
Since their dramatic Grand Final victory, plenty has changed at the club, including a new coach, a fresh squad - even an eleventh-hour name change.
Matt Dufty, Reuben Garrick and Reece Robson all represented victorious junior-NSW sides last year, and also have the benefit of experienced campaigners Tyrone McCarthy, Shaun Nona and Kalifa Faifai Loa in their squad.
Premiership-winning coach Jason Demetriou has moved on to a role at the Brisbane Broncos, which gives Mat Head an opportunity to take over.
Walking into a premiership-winning side is a unique scenario but incredibly, it is not the first time Head has experienced this situation.
“It’s something that I experienced back in 2013 when I coached Balmain SG Ball, I’d come off the back of a team that had won the comp,” Head says to NSWRL.com.au.
“I suppose it’s pretty weird in itself, but there’s all different types of challenges that you look forward to and we just need to look forward, you never look back in this game, so it’s an exciting challenge ahead.
“It’s something I don’t think about, it’s something we haven’t touched on.
“It’s a different staff here at Illawarra this season, some that have backed up from last year and some new guys that have come in.
“The playing roster will be very similar from last year for the full time guys, but there’s a lot of guys who have come into the part-time squad.”
2016 IN 16 WORDS OR LESS
Premiers, perfect finish to a great season.
THEIR BIG FIVE
Reece Robson is a no-nonsense hooker that is a genuine star of the future. He played in the NSW under-18s victorious Origin side last year and spent most of 2016 in the Dragons under-20s.
Rhys Kennedy is a big back-rower that jumped ship from Mounties, who Head has identified as a strong runner of the football.
Experienced campaigner Shaun Nona is a genuine chance at playing NRL this season, but will start the season at Illawarra and will hope to steer the side to the premiership as he did last year.
Sam Clune is a Dragons junior who is currently injured, but can play centre or fullback and will push for selection once fit.
Tyrone McCarthy captained Illawarra to premiership glory last season; the tough Englishman will be a key player once again this year.
Mat Head played 78 NRL games for the St George Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers and is now transitioning into coaching.
He has experience coaching the Balmain Tigers in the SG Ball and being in charge of the Intrust Super Premiership side means he will oversee players from NRL through to under-20s.
“Obviously for myself juggling both the full-time with the part-time I see the guys that are obviously going to come back from first grade,” Head says.
“The challenge is not knowing where your team comes from over that pre-season, so it’s just been about getting my coaching right to teach certain individuals certain types of things that they need to work on in their game to give them the best opportunity of playing at this level.
“Now we get close to playing some real footy games which starts to come with selections and those types of things, so it’s going to be a juggling act throughout the season but looking forward to the highs and lows of knowing what team I’m going to have and what team I’m not going to have.
“It’s going to be a good experience for me this season.”
There has been a lot of turnover at Illawarra since winning the premiership, with the two big omissions being Shannon Wakeman and Adam Quinlan, who have both gone to Super League. Illawarra will welcome a host of players from the under-20s system, including Dufty and Garrick.
Illawarra won the competition last year and there is no reason they can’t do it again in 2017. They have one of the best squads in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW and should finish the year in the top four.