GAME ON with Mitch Jennings
It's that time of year again.
The Illawarra Coal League is back and - the off-season departures of Shellharbour and Berkeley aside - there's plenty to be excited about for the 2014 season.
For the first time since 1974 two internationals in Jason Ryles [at one of his junior clubs, Wests] and Nathan Fien [Thirroul] will coach in the Illawarra league.
Between them they played 524 NRL games, 35 Tests and nine Origins. Both Wests and Thirroul are to be commended for bringing players of their calibre to the competition.
The fact the pair were willing to forgo opportunities elsewhere to play and coach in the Illawarra is a ringing endorsement for the league.
Add their tally to the other four coaches who have all played in the NRL and the overall ledger rises to 639 NRL games.
To go with that, Illawarra Division will likely be favourites to defend their Country Championship title this year which means, at the top end, the playing talent in the Illawarra comp is the best in country footy.
With only six teams, this year's premiership is shaping as one of the most even and hotly contested competitions in years with the consensus being - in the short-term - that the standard of football will rise.
Whether the likes of Dapto and Corrimal can improve enough to really challenge the other four clubs at finals time remains to be seen but both appear to be on the improve and 2014 certainly promises to provide some thrilling afternoons at the footy.
Those are the positives.
Now for the negatives.
Whether the predicted rise in the standard of football comes about or not, the fact that playing talent in a renowned league heartland can only sustain six teams for the first time in over 50 years remains a huge concern.
Most people agree that at least eight teams are required for a truly viable competition and the board hasn't ruled out "importing" teams from outside the Illawarra but it's hard to see where are the other teams are going to come from.
Shellharbour made it clear they see their return to Group 7 as a long-term move and Berkeley needs time to rebuild and hopefully return stronger.
Their departures sparked rugby league pub arguments across the Illawarra.
Fingers pointed in all directions, accusations of clubs "paying overs", "thieving players" and "big clubs wrecking the joint" but precious few solutions offered.
The board already sought a long-term remedy by restructuring the junior grades (under-17s and 19s competitions) to keep kids in the game at an age where they are traditionally lost, and hopefully see more players filter into the senior ranks - ideally with the same club.
It's a good move and the board and clubs are to be commended for making it happen but it will take a number of seasons for its effects to be seen at the top level.
One thing is clear: suggestions the league should restrict stronger clubs from recruiting the likes of Ryles or Fien in the interests of a "level playing field" are ridiculous.
In fact, the marquee captain-coach model may be where the solutions to the league's woes lie.
Would it not warm the hearts of all local fans to see Berkeley come back into the competition with a captain-coach of Fien's or Ryles's calibre at the helm?