IT'S been a helluva season in the Illawarra Rugby League. Kickoff can't recall a more even three-horse race for the premiership and the clashes between Thirroul, Collegians and Wests have been battles to savour.
Each one has gone up a notch on the previous blockbuster which bodes well for the finals series that kicks off this weekend. The battle for fourth spot has been equally enthralling, with it only decided in last week's final round.
Corrimal were undone by injuries after a positive start to the season that was ultimately full of them, while Dapto's run towards a finals berth after 0-5 start had another great story in the offing.
Ultimately, it's Helensburgh who have the chance to throw a spanner into that three-horse race in this week's minor semi-final against Wests.
With the regular season done and dusted, your columnist issued a challenge to Taste of Steel Podcast co-host Johnny Pett to name a Team of the Year. Guess it's only fair I do the same.
It's a task full of tough calls, criteria is loose but we've decided players will only be selected in positions they've predominantly played in this year - no throwing the second-best fullback on the wing.
The players are selected on 2019 form, the 13 as they would take the park with slightly more latitude given in picking the bench. There are some other gongs thrown in, let the debate begin.
FULLBACK: Tony Pellow (Wests)
Arguably the toughest position to pick. You could make a case for several but the Devils custodian is simply the most dangerous player in the competition with ball in hand. Can attack from anywhere on the park and gives rival coaches more heart palpitations than any other player. Nursing a hamstring injury heading into the finals and will be a a huge loss if he can't get back on the park.
WING: Hayden Crosland (Thirroul)
Not the biggest, not the fastest, not the most skillfull but the Butchers Mr Reliable makes up for it with brilliant positional sense and the ability to pop up in the right spot. It shows with his 11 tries - equal top of the league tally this year.
CENTRE: Brad Manton (Collegians)
The easiest call to make in this line-up. Came into the year as an underrated player but is anything but by the end of it. Has been the best centre in the competition by a stretch with a knack of turning games with a brilliant solo effort. Has 11 tries to show for it.
CENTRE: Callum Tutauha (Thirroul)
Plenty of candidates to partner Manton in a comp stacked with quality centres, but Tutauha is the standout. An old-school centre in the sense he just needs some early ball and he can do the rest. Defensively sound and has played a very blue-collar role out of his own end as the season has gone on.
WING: Rob Buaserau (Dapto)
Has been a mainstay on the wing for the Canaries over a number of seasons, and earns his spot with his ability at both ends of the park. Can make the the toughest of finishes look easy and there were plenty of contests Dapto wouldn't have been in without his carries out of trouble.
FIVE-EIGHTH: Jarrod Boyle (Collegians)
Also Kickoff's choice for Player of the Year. Simply the best playmaker in the comp. In the Cameron Smith mould when it comes to the ability to influence the result. Ironically has probably been less involved in terms of touches in games this season but just constantly comes up with the right play at the right time.
HALFBACK: Justin Rodrigues (Wests)
Another really tough one to call. Jake Walsh and Jack Cross make compelling cases but on his consistency over the whole season the Sugar Man gets the nod. In a spine that's undergone drastic changes in recent seasons, Rodrigues has been the constant. More brilliant players out there but few more reliable.
LOCK: James Horvat (Corrimal)
There's some quality No. 13s getting around but this was another easy call. In a resurgent year Horvat was the standout for the Cougars and performances didn't wane as his side's fortunes did. Belongs in Paul McGregor Medal reckoning IMO.
SECOND ROW: Joseph Dickson (Wests)
Also the runaway winner in Rookie of the Year stakes. Wests coach Pete McLeod has had no shortage of back-rowers at his disposal but gave the local junior a start in round one and has been rewarded ever since. Does the hard stuff but has some footy in him with a deft pair of hands and ability to play before the line.
SECOND ROW: Blake Phillips (Collegians)
Slower start to the year by his lofty standards but produced the best individual performance by a forward in his side's win over Thirroul in round eight that was, to my mind ultimately season-defining. Was skipper and man of the match in Collies' 2017 triumph and will be looking to replicate the effort this season.
PROP: Josh Dowel (Collegians)
First forward picked in this side. Has played the full 80 minutes at prop on all but a handful of occasions and has a bit of Glen Lazurus about him in his ability to combine the tough stuff with covering tackles on runaway outside backs. Props normally get stiffed in voting but should be a Paul McGregor Medal candidate.
HOOKER: Joel Johnson (C) (Thirroul)
Game, set, match. With all respect, no other No. 9 quite on his level. Has ominously picked up his performances as the finals have drawn closer. In the Boyle class when it comes to influencing results.
PROP: Damian Sironen (Thirroul)
The Statue is another standout. Has also played on the edge but best work comes in the middle. Can play the 80 and has brought valuable leadership and experience to the Butchers. Sets a high mark for himself and others on and off the park.
COACH: Nathan Fien (Collegians)
Had more questions to answer than his counterparts at other heavyweight clubs and gambled on a young group and won big. Gunning for his third premiership in four seasons coached n the league. Becomes one of the league greats if he can get there.
BENCH: Jack Cross (Collegians)
Also grabs Most Improved. For a back-rower to go from stopgap halfback to genuine No. 7 in a season in remarkable. Transformation so complete he was only just edged out for the halfback spot above.
BENCH: Corey Willis (Helensburgh)
Fell just short of Most Improved gong. The Spark Plug produced some brilliant solo tries and became the focal point of the Tigers attack, a huge leap on his previous role at the club.
BENCH: Zac Blay (Wests)
Probably the smallest prop running around in the league but, in a season where injuries and suspensions have tested the Devils middle-forward depth, Blay has been ever-reliable upfront for McLeod. Every good team needs a tough red-head and he's that for the Devils.
BENCH: Tyson Tamakaha (Dapto)
Dynamic running hooker, was the key whenever the Canaries attack did click into gear, particularly the mid-season run that propelled them back into the finals contention.
So there you have it. Punters will no doubt disagree in some areas but it's the best Kickoff can do. Another big thanks to all clubs, coaches and players who make covering this league a pleasure.
A particular thanks to all the great club people and volunteers I see out there every weekend on my rounds. I get paid to be there, they do not. It's a fact never lost on me. Well done all, now bring on the finals.
COACHES STRIPPED BARE BY NEW RULE
THERE'S been plenty of debate about the new stripping rule in the NRL but Kickoff is fan of it. Loves it in fact.
The game has evolved to the point where there are virtually no contested possessions at all. The stripping rule brings a point of difference and unpredictability to game is sorely lacking.
It turned Sunday's belter between the Roosters and Raiders on its head a couple of times. Roosters coach Trent Robinson wasn't happy about it afterwards (for the record the Roosters have successfully managed just two one-on-one strips all year).
Stephen Kearney was another coach to voice his opposition to it. It's not surprising. Stripping adds a variable and coaches hate variables. It's also illustrates why incumbent NRL coaches should have nothing to do with rule changes in the game.
As a group they generally oppose any proposal that adds unpredictability. It's why they've been one of the loudest voices against a reduction in interchange that is more overdue than the second coming of Christ - and seemingly less likely to occur.
Coaches are naturally self-interested as they should be, must be in fact given their jobs are constantly on the line. They never have any interest in making the game more exciting or entertaining. The wider interests of the game should not be left in self-interested hands.