Much attention, and rightly so, is on this Sunday's Group Seven rugby league grand final between the Gerringong Lions and Shellharbour Sharks at Centenary Field.
Though in the week leading up to the 2023 decider, the Mercury has also looked back on what has been another drama-filled season filled with plenty of highs and lows.
Not surprisingly the Lions and Sharks feature heavily in many of the good things that happened in 2023.
It was an especially good year for the Scott Stewart-coached Gerringong side which will contest its third-straight grand final on Sunday.
Gerringong's ability to remain competitive despite losing a number of quality players heading into the 2023 season was impressive. The Lions finished the regular season in second spot with an impressive 14-4 win/loss record. There were times throughout the season when Gerringong were missing key personnel but Stewart's chargers found ways to win.
Come the back end of the season, with the return of experienced stars Nathan Ford and Alexander Weir, the Lions clicked into gear. They then showed September is the Lions favourite time of the year, with wins over Shellharbour Sharks and then Stingrays propelling them into another Group Seven grand final.
The rise of the Sharks. Having won only two of their first six games, Shellharbour looked little chance of playing finals football. But then the Sharks won 11-games on the bounce to finish the season in third spot with a 13/5 win-loss record. This impressive campaign was built on defence, with the Abed Atallah-coached Sharks finishing the home-and-away season with the best defence in the league, conceding only 243-points in 18 games. Three times the Sharks kept their opponents scoreless, with a highlight being a 20-12 derby win over the Stingrays in round nine.
The Shellharbour derby: Shellharbour Sharks v Stingrays games are always keenly fought regardless of how the respective teams are faring. But with both teams going well in 2023, this season's 'battle for Shellharbour' fixtures were true blockbusters. The Sharks won the first in enemy territory 20-12 but the Stingrays prevailed in a last-round blockbuster which secured the fledgling club its first ever first-grade minor premiership. Though Shellharbour had the last laugh with a thrilling 17-16 golden-point extra-time preliminary final victory last Saturday to deny the Rays a first ever first-grade grand final berth.
The emergence of the Nowra-Bomaderry Jets and Milton-Ulladulla Bulldgs. Both teams capped their impressive campaigns by playing finals football. The Jets, led brilliantly by player-coach Adam Quinlan were especially good, finishing in fourth-spot at the end of the regular season. Nowra downed the Bulldogs in their opening finals game before going down to the Sharks the week after.
The demise of reigning premiers Warilla-Lake South Gorillas. Last season's Group Seven champions could not take a trick in 2023. Injuries cruelled Warilla's campaign but the Gorillas also weren't helped by poor discipline and off-field issues. The consistent form of fullback Justin Jones was one of the only highlights in a bleak season for Warilla.
Tyrone Roberts suspended for 18-games: The Warilla-Lake South Gorillas five-eighth was hit with a mammoth 18-game suspension after fronting a NSW Rugby League judiciary panel in early June. It came after Roberts was sent from the field following an ugly incident in his side's round-eight clash with Jamberoo. The panel reviewed footage that showed the 20-year-old hit a Roos rival with a deliberate high shot before following up with two further strikes. He was eventually dragged away by his own teammates, with the on-field referee immediately dispatching Roberts to the sideline where he invited Jamberoo players to continue the confrontation. The seriousness of the matter saw it immediately referred to the NSWRL where he faced multiple striking and reckless high tackle charges.
Ugly all-in brawl at Berry: The brawl erupted in the clash between Berry-Shoalhaven Heads Magpies and Kiama Knights. Video footage showed players from both sides fighting in the dying minutes of the clash at Berry Showground won 38-16 by the visiting Kiama side. It's unclear what provoked the brawl, but the damning footage showed some players throwing and connecting with punches against their opposing players. Two players were sent off.
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