Welcome to The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discusses the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week, sports writers JOSH BARTLETT and JORDAN WARREN discuss the return of local football this weekend in the region with a particular eye on the District League competition.
WARREN: It's my favourite time of year Josh. Football returns to the South Coast. And whilst a lot of the attention is on the Illawarra Premier League, we should also point out how we should be in for a ripping District League campaign as well.
From the outset, it appears Shellharbour (formerly Shell Cove) are the current favourites to finish with the league championship. The side finished in second spot last year and despite the merger with Shellharbour juniors, have kept a lot of the same faces in 2023.
Of course, you cannot count out last year's grand final winners over the now-promoted Helensburgh in Unanderra, but they have lost their all-conquering coach Rod Williams to Shellharbour for this season.
Another major headline this weekend sees Gerringong make their District League debut. After years of setbacks due to COVID-19, the Breakers have finally been given the chance to prove their mantle. How will they fare up against Oak Flats in round one?
What about you Josh, what do you think is the biggest thing to look forward to in the District League this weekend?
BARTLETT: First of all, isn't it great to see football back? As you said, a lot of attention will be focused on the IPL, but it's also great to see the District League returning too. The DL is one of the more popular competitions for fans to watch in the Illawarra.
I think we probably got a taste of what to expect in last weekend's Bampton Cup games. Shellharbour flexed their muscles in a thumping 5-0 win over Oak Flats Kraken and, while admittedly against a Community League opponent, new striker Corey Haines-Grose scored a brace and looked dangerous in attack.
Unanderra also opened their Cup account with a big win over Coledale, while last year's preliminary finalists University thumped Berkeley Sports. There's also been plenty of talk around Fernhill's recruitment this off-season, and they secured a 3-2 win over 2022 semi-finalists Oak Flats Falcons.
Jordan, you mentioned the newly promoted Gerringong, who I believe will be a fascinating team to track this season. The Breakers earned their shot by dominating in the Community League, and they also prevailed in the Bampton Cup's first round, beating Dandaloo 3-0 via forfeit.
Heading into 2023, what's a realistic target for the Breakers? Should they be eyeing off a mid-table finish, or do you think they can finish even higher?
WARREN: There is no reason why the Breakers can't make the top five. That is not me saying that they definitely will, but with the squad they have they can compete with most, if not all of the teams in the competition.
The side boasts impressive talents such as the Josh (former Olympic IPL striker) and Zac (former SCU IPL midfielder) Hawker brother combination. One player who has gone under the radar but I predict to get his name on the scoresheet often this season is Jake Packham. He is a quick and intelligent striker who has been scoring for fun in the District League for some time for the Breakers.
Other than youth, they also have experience in their captain Andy Lockard who will marshal the defence from the back. Led by former NPL player of the year Brad Boardman, Gerringong will make sure that Gerry Emery Reserve is no easy trip for opposing teams in 2023.
Shifting my attention, I predict Fernhill to have a much better season than last year, and they have got off on the right track with their win against the Falcons.
Striker Daniel Djukic is already in red-hot goalscoring form in the Bert Bampton Cup and he should be able to lead from the front once more along with Kyle Del and Mitchell Turner. They will open their account against Warilla - who appear to be in all sorts of trouble early on following their early Cup exit at the hands of Community League side Hill Top.
As always Balgownie will be there-or-there-abouts and the same can be said about UOW, who looked incredibly dangerous in their semi-final run last season and as a result, I will take them as my dark horse in 2023.
One team we haven't mentioned so far Josh is Thirroul. Not the best campaign last season and of course they have lost Haines-Grose up top. Are they in danger of being down the bottom once more? A 4-0 win against Picton in the Cup suggests otherwise.
BARTLETT: You're right, Jordan. They might have lost Haines-Grose, but if Saturday's game was any indicator, they won't have trouble scoring in 2023. Brad Strudwick scored a brace, while Thirroul have also added former Kiama talent Toshiya Sato to bolster their attack.
The Thunder have managed to retain a key chunk of last year's squad, including Daniel Bond, Strudwick and Nathan Mucci, and I expect they will push their way up the table in 2023. Can they finish in the top five? I'm not sure, but I think they'll improve on their ninth-placed finish.
Speaking of the ladder, Jordan, it's inevitable that we have to talk about the bottom of it. Is there any sides you're worried about heading into the 2023 District League campaign?
WARREN: The aforementioned Warilla is one team that springs to mind. Last season they finished 11th with only four wins from 21 games. They are in danger of a repeat serve this year.
Just on Cup results alone, Picton also seem to be in a spot of bother with their relatively young squad coached by Mitchell Ramsey and the same can be said of Berkeley - who were thumped by UOW at the weekend.
Last season both the Wanderers, the Goats and the Rangers all had pretty awful defensive rates, conceding around about that two goal a game mark. If pre-season Cup results are to suggest anything, it's that the lack of tightness at the back has not changed much. So I predict a bit of a shoot-out between these three teams.