Collegians are the team to beat, Dapto are the dark horses, Corrimal will be the biggest improvers and a six-team competition will put an end to blowout scores.
That's the verdict of the six Illawarra Coal League captains who gathered to launch the season on Monday night.
The skippers unanimously nominated the defending premiers as title favourites and the fact that they will be the hunted side is no secret to Collies skipper Jarrod Thompson.
"We expect that from winning the comp [last year] but I think every side is just as strong as each other," Thompson said.
"There's a few big names coming to the comp this year and it's going to be a very tough comp.
"A lot of old heads and a lot of experience have come to a few of the other sides and every team's going to be as tough as the next.
"You've got to turn up on the day."
Collegians won last year's premiership is dramatic fashion with a Sam Duggan field goal inside the final 30 seconds of the grand final against Helensburgh.
The euphoria of such a win could leave any side susceptible to a premiership hangover, but Thompson said a torturous preseason has stamped past glories out of the squad.
"It's just hard work mate, like we did last year," he said. "We started training in December and have been working hard for each other.
"That's what wins matches, just being there for each other and being in the trenches with each other and that's how we win games.
"We've got no superstars, what we do have is a lot of good players who are all in it for each other and they're all in the trenches together fighting the war."
The other unanimous call from the skippers was that Corrimal will be the league's huge improvers.
The Cougars managed just one win last season but second-year coach Trevor Schodel has moulded a stronger roster that will benefit from an influx of Illawarra Cutters players not needed for NSW Cup duty.
Cougars skipper Matt Kent still expects his side to start as underdogs in the bulk of their games this season but is confident they will produce some upsets.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Kent said.
"We've got a good solid core of a first grade team now, which is only going to be helped with the Cutters boys coming back to us.
"Our performances over the last few years haven't been that strong in first grade and I think a lot of teams do write us off and they're going to get quite a shock when we run out this year."
The Corrimal - Wests clash on April 5 will kick-start the 2014 season.
WHAT THE CAPTAINS SAID:
‘‘We expect that from winning the comp [last year] but I think every side is just as strong as each other. You can’t live on the past you’ve got to live for the future.’’ – Collegians captain Jarrod Thompson on his side’s premiership favouritism.
‘‘I think a lot of teams do write us off and they’re going to get quite a shock when we run out this year.’’ – Corrimal captain Matt Kent on his side’s improved chances in 2014.
‘‘We hear about what’s going on down here [Wollongong] – this club’s bought this many players or they’ve bought this fella – but we just mind our own business up there.’’ – Helensburgh captain Steve McCallum on the Tigers home town mentality.
‘‘Whether we’re the underdog or we’re expected to win we’ll be ready for every team.’’ – Dapto captain Nathan Jones on being dubbed the competition’s dark horse.
‘‘There’s no walk-ups [in the competition] now, that’s for sure, and where I’ve come from there was no such thing as a walk-up so that’ll be no different for me.’’ – Wests captain-coach Jason Ryles on swapping the NRL for the Coal League.
‘‘I still get the same excitement running out on a footy field. It’s still the same dimensions and you’ve still got to earn respect when you cross that white stripe.’’ – Thirroul captain-coach Nathan Fien on leaving the bright lights of the NRL behind.