THIS rugby league season has been different to any your columnist has covered, at every level, but it's been thoroughly enjoyable - the Dragons results not withstanding.
It's not over. Helensburgh are in the Sydney Shield finals this weekend, and deserve a mountain of credit for it. We still have premiers to be crowned in Illawarra competitions and, despite COVID interruptions, Group Seven is putting on a belter of a competition with a host of title contenders.
As far as highlights go, watching Thirroul junior Max Bailey's NRL debut for the Roosters at WIN Stadium in round 15 is right up there. It's not often Kickoff makes a beeline for the away shed after a Dragons game but that night was different.
Bailey made sporadic appearances in the NYC for the Dragons but didn't soar to great heights as a 20-year-old. He ended up back at Thirroul and came of age there, eventually progressing through NSW Cup and then to the NRL. We asked him to reflect on that the night of his debut in Wollongong.
"I wasn't one of those blokes who went straight through the 20s and into grade, I actually struggled a bit in 20s," Bailey said.
"I think the biggest thing for my career was not playing much 20s and playing against men in first grade for the Butchers. I really think that got me used to that style of footy, really tough against blokes who've played a lot. I was only 18 playing grade and I think that helped me develop a lot."
It told us what we already knew, that first grade footy is a far better grounding for a guy then the boys stuff. It also shows how important it is to have a strong and thriving competition in the Illawarra and surrounds.
There's a few to watch from this Presidents Cup season. At the Butchers, Jackson Sherub is a beast in waiting, while Connor Muhleisen has huge upside. Similarly at the Devils, Jalal Bazzaz and Joseph Dickson can play NRL footy down the track if the opportunities are right. The experience they all got this season is worth two years of under 20s.
What Thirroul and Wests were able to do this season, to compete with the clubs they did on the smell of an oily rag, says a lot about the culture of both.
What it does pose is the question as to what rugby league will look like in the Illawarra next season. There are plenty who hold fears over it, legitimately so. You don't envy the people making the decisions because they're going to be criticised whatever they do.
This column has constantly been asked the question: is the Presidents Cup a look at the future? It's a big unknown but the answer is - hopefully not. It puts me at odds with a lot of opinions I respect, but it's a view based on practical and sentimental considerations.
Could some clubs do it - sure... for a while. Whether it's sustainable is another question. That's before you consider the engagement factor of players and supporters.
It's been great to watch the Butchers and Devils go around against some different opposition but - to be frank - it could get old pretty quick. Would you expect old boys to flock to the Gibbo Park hill, or The Rex Jackson Oval viewing gallery or Dapto Showground to watch games against Hills or Wentworthville with the same vigour as they would for games against their fiercer local rivals.
On the same score, will the locals flock to watch their team if it features a revolving door of Sydney imports? Would local juniors still aspire to play first grade for their club if these expats are blocking their path? Certainly the passion and tribalism would be diluted. Competitions don't survive on that alone, but it's not something that should be glossed over.
It's highly debatable, as is every question in current climes. However, any way you look at it, one conclusion is inescapable, the NSW Rugby League needs to seriously look at redrawing boundaries. Maybe not next season - clubs should be sent to their original competitions as they and their associations regroup post-pandemic - but beyond it.
Something will have to change. People are always quick to compare the state's two elite regional competitions in Newcastle and Wollongong. Illawarra Division winning nine of 12 CRL titles before it shifted to under 23s runs counter to the assumption that Newcastle is 'superior', but their competition has been in healthier state.
There are several reasons for this but, at its most simple, it's a matter of geography and demographics. The populations of Wollongong and Newcastle are comparable, but look beyond that. Maitland Pickers, half an hour out of Newcastle, represents a city of nearly 80,000 people.
Shellharbour, around 70,000 people, has four Group Seven clubs within 15 minutes of each other, all of them just over 20 minutes from Wollongong. To the north, Sydney competitions are a stone's throw from Helensburgh.
Cessnock is its own LGA an hour out of Newcastle and you have to go further past that to hit the first Group 21 club. The nearest Group Three club - the mighty Forster Tuncurry Hawks - is two hours north.
Group Seven is one the best country competitions in rugby league. The Illawarra-South Coast region is a league heartland and - combined - a powerhouse. For all the 'breakaway' talk from Kogarah types, it's the engine of the St George Illawarra joint-venture.
You only need to look at the Illawarra Steelers SG Ball and the Tarsha Gale Cup premierships last year, while the Harold Matthews were finalists, to see it's clout when combined.
It's already seen as the 'Greater Southern' region as far as the NSWRL's concerned. Look closer and ask, are the likes of Corrimal, Berkeley and Helensburgh vastly better resourced than Group Seven clubs? With a salary cap, are the richer clubs as far ahead?
It wouldn't be simple, it wouldn't please everyone, we're not talking full merger, but shifting some boundaries is something the NSWRL needs to consider, that was the point of its merger with the CRL after all.
This column doesn't have all the answers, or many at all to be honest, but creating a powerhouse southern region has more appeal than a handful of Illawarra clubs traveling to Sydney every second week.