There was a quiet moment well after fulltime in Saturday's Illawarra Rugby League decider that summed up this reporter's 10 years covering the competition.
Well after both Thirroul and Collegians and had left WIN Stadium, man of the match Jarrod Boyle and Collegians skipper Blake Phillips shared a quick chat, away from the dressing rooms and - with an obvious exception - away from prying eyes.
It was the two champions of their era, with eight premierships and four grand final man of the match awards between them, two guys that have effectively held the competition on their shoulders for a decade.
Seven of the last nine grand finals contested have featured one or both of them. Saturday's result, Boyle's fourth premiership with a third club, was the first time one had inflicted grand final heartbreak on the other.
They shared a brief encounter before Boyle headed back to a jubilant Thirroul shed, and Phillips returned to a commiserating Collies one.
The grand final itself was as good as any, Thirroul winning 24-18 in an epic. Grand final day never fails to deliver in this competition and the players and clubs held up their end, and more, once again.
The truth is players like Phillips and Boyle continue to turn up year in year out and deliver. The other inescapable truth, is that the players and clubs are being let down at a governance level, year in, year out.
While the quality of football at the top end is undeniable, the six-team Illawarra competition sits hovering on the edge of tenability year after year on a path paved with used band-aids.
You can add another to the pile with the mooted creation of a new NSWRL division in which the Illawarra competition will be placed next year. It's a made-up thing.
To the uninitiated, it appears like the exact same competition under a different name, but it's much more than that. As far as Illawarra clubs are concerned, it's an illustration of how the NSWRL-CRL merger has failed them.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Finally, the adults were in charge. A haphazard cluster of self-interested fiefdoms would be replaced by a single benevolent governing body that would act in the best interests of the game.
Gone were the rigidly out-dated regional boundaries holding the game back, and with them the even more rigidly out-dated modes of thinking.
What does the Illawarra have to show for it? A competition again teetering on the edge of viability, with battling officials and volunteers pushing ream upon ream of administration crap uphill just to keep a top-grade side on the park.
This year saw instances where clubs, already facing the mandatory cost of employing a game-day club doctor for a single grade of football, were hit with 'show-cause' fine notices and threatened with the deduction of competition points when doctors weren't able to attend due to emergencies elsewhere.
Player registration contracts can run to 26 pages, and prevented clubs from promoting reserve grade players into first grade at different stages of the year - the entire point of a 'club'.
That was hard enough given clubs fielding multiple grades could you have three and four teams playing at three and four different locations on any given weekend.
Some nights saw volunteer administrators going back and forth with experienced barristers over mild to, at most , moderate judiciary matters. It was running club people out of the game.
Worse still, the rigmorale came with no tangible benefit whatsoever. As one official put it: "we've gone backwards."
Collegians stalwart Bruce Prior put it best in saying that this competition has been "left behind." Looking at other comparable competitions around the state, it's impossible to conclude otherwise.
The Newcastle competition (which has also disowned NSWRL major competitions status) has grown from eight to 11 teams - with the addition of Central Coast clubs The Entrance and Wyong and the newly created Northern Hawks from the Nelson Bay-Port Stephens area.
The Macarthur and Group Six competitions have been merged to run an 11 team first grade premiership. Out west, the successful Peter McDonald Premiership combines Group 10 and Group 11 conferences with 12 teams.
The comparable solution in our region sits just 13 kilometres down the road, but decision-makers at all levels seem more willing to let one of its premier regional competitions whither on the vine rather than make hard decisions.
Illawarra clubs aren't even calling for that. A recent survey of clubs presented to the Steelers board simply called for someone - anyone - to open a dialogue about what a combined Illawarra-South Coast competition structure could look like down the track.
Saturday's 'Illawarra and Group 7 Merged Competition' grand finals at WIN Stadium might provide a hint, but anything's better than the perennial 'don't mention the war' attitude to the elephant in the powerhouse league region.
There may not be a lot of love for the state body at present, but it's not where all frustrations of the Illawarra clubs lie. At a time when the competition has seemingly never had less direction, there remains no manager of rugby league in place.
Nigel Roy departed at the end of last season after less than 12 months in the role having not been part of the the initial recruitment process once predecessor Chris Bannerman was moved on.
Roy has not been replaced, with managing football operations now part of recently appointed Steelers Club general manager Rowen Cole's purview, in addition to overseeing the licensed club's operations.
All the while, the clubs are doing their own bit off their own bat.
Last week's decider was an absolute thriller. Thirroul's run from fourth spot to the title was as compelling as any, and underlines the fact all top-four sides were genuine title contenders.
Corrimal lost marquee recruit Jarrod Mullen before a ball was kicked and could only manage a single win in first grade, but turned up every week and put on a contest.
The Cougars reached the first division grand final and were the only club to field a first grade side in addition to reserve grade, Harrigan Shield, Open Women's and Under 18s teams.
It wasn't that long ago Helensburgh did the same thing - reaching the finals of the Sydney Shield in the 2020 COVID season. They also put a Harvey Norman Women's Premiership team on the park on the smell of an oily rag.
What do the Tigers have to show for all that hard work just a few seasons after the merge?
Worse still, we seem to be asking the same questions at the end of each season only for the clubs, players and coaches to go out and save the day by putting on a brilliant product, in spite of the additional hoops they've had to jump through en route.
This columnist says as much on the back of a decade-long record of virtually unmitigated positivity in coverage of the IDRL's competitions and operations.
Perhaps like the careers of Boyle and Phillips, it can't simply go on forever, as much as we'd all like it too. The players and clubs keep holding up their end of the bargain, it's time others held up theirs.
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