Winning back-to-back premierships at any level of Rugby League is a difficult challenge, and a task that proved all too hard for the Illawarra side in their 2017 Intrust Super Premiership NSW campaign.
Their regular season recording reading an indifferent 10-1-11, the 2016 premiers slid their way into the final eight only after a dramatic Round 25 draw against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in Wollongong.
Trailing 22-6 at half-time in that match, Illawarra scored two tries inside the clash’s final eight minutes to keep their premiership defence intact. But such was the tale of Mat Head’s side’s year, Illawarra were close, but not close enough – a far different story to that of their 2016, premiership campaign.
Their Highlight Moment
Accustomed with the need to find late points following on from their Round 25 triumph, Illawarra overcame the thoughts of panic when trailing inside the final two minutes in their Week 1 Finals, do-or-die clash with the Mounties at Kogarah.
Trailing 26-24 as time ticked on, a tidy outside-in play to find livewire back Jai Field in space saw the fleet-of-foot talent score one of the more memorable tries in the history of the Intrust Super Premiership NSW.
The try was Field’s second of the afternoon, and the clincher in seeing his side progress through to Week 2 of the Finals series.
Simply Their Best!
When speaking of Illawarra’s best, it’s hard to look past Field who shone time and time again throughout the 2017 season.
Heading into the Finals Week 2 clash with six tries, and five try assists to his credit, the NSW Under-20s representative was a shining light in an otherwise dark-at-times season for the 2016 premiers.
In a sign of his potential, Field turned out for the St. George Illawarra Dragons on three occasions throughout the season, and earmarked as a talent of the future he will remain a key figure in the ‘Red Vs’ plans until at least the end of the 2019 season.
Outside back Izaac Thompson earns an honourable mention for his efforts throughout the campaign, having scored 13 tries for the side – the most of any Illawarra player – in 2017.
Room for Improvement
Six of Illawarra’s 12 losses in 2017, including their Finals Week 2 exit at the hands of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, were by a margin of 18 or more points – a sign that when failing to win, the side were most often unable to stem the flow of points coming from the opposition’s attack.
Add to the fact that only one of the losses was by six points or less, and it’s clear that plenty of focus and energy will be put behind improving the defensive efforts in the 2018 season.
How It Will Be Remembered
A mass turnover in their roster following on from their premiership success, the 2017 campaign was always going to be an uphill task for the defending champions, as the hunters very quickly became the hunted.
Illawarra failed to string together more than three successive wins in 2017, in an up-and-down season that will be remembered as one that failed to live up to billings of the year that went before.