Wests raise the bar

AFTER what was the closest Newcastle Rugby League season in a decade, the Herald is pleased to present The Reals – our awards for the best and worst of the year.

Club of the year

Wests: The Rosellas’ many detractors will argue they have a ‘‘casino’’ behind them, but one cannot deny the club’s professionalism and record. The Rosellas won back-to-back premierships in first grade, made the grand final in reserves and finished third in under-23s and under-18s.

Coach of the year

Craig Miller (Wests)

Macquarie’s Noel Dent was awarded the honour at the Newcastle Rugby League presentation night and deservedly so. However, the way ‘‘Barney’’ Miller designed a game plan for the grand final to stifle Kurri livewire Nathan Ross gets him over the line. The premiership defence was not easy for Miller as constant injuries to his initial halves pairing Jade Porter and Zac Walsh caused a rethink and he also had to overcome rumble of discontent from his reserve grade about a lack of opportunities.

Player of the year

Riley Brown (Cessnock): The Goannas five-eighth won the Bert Agland Best and Fairest award and rightly so given his personal dominance during a disjointed season for Cessnock. The Goannas scored frequently from long range due to Brown and teammate Terence Seu Seu’s ability to expose weaknesses in the opposition’s defence. Little wonder Brown was fiercely sought after from rival clubs before Cessnock re-signed the ex-NRL star.

Import of the year

Mark Khierallah (Kurri): The ‘‘Killer’s’’ stint at the Bulldogs was only brief but he transformed the side from under-performers and instigated their dramatic run to the grand final. Kurri’s attack had been the side’s Achilles heel but with Khierallah and fullback Nathan Ross in the side, they became the entertainers of the competition.

Biggest disappointment

Lakes: Seagulls coach Rip Taylor always faced an uphill battle turning the cash-strapped and inexperienced Lakes into a force. But no one would have predicted the Belmont boys would go through the season winless. Macquarie also deserve a mention given they were on track to win their first minor premiership before losing six of their last seven matches to make a straight-sets exit from the play-offs.

Biggest controversy

There were several black eyes for the competition in regards to violence on the field. Cessnock halfback Joel Brown broke Souths No.7 Jake Hawkins’s eye socket with a punch but only faced sanction due to Lions citing the incident. That led the league to introducing video referrals for next season. Maitland lock Zac Solman’s king-hit from behind on Port Stephens’s Joel Osborn was certainly the ugliest moment of the season.

Game of the year

Minor semi-final – Kurri v Macquarie: There were better contests, but for sheer drama the Bulldogs’ 48-30 victory on September 7 was the highlight. After being down 30-6, the Bulldogs dragged themselves off the canvas to crush the Scorpions 48-30 with some magical tries. Kurri fullback Nathan Ross was electrifying and supporters created an intimidating atmosphere.

Story of the season

Kurri’s semi-final surge: Just to make the play-offs, the Bulldogs required a win of more than 22 points against a strong Maitland side in the final round. After leading 6-0 at the break they stormed to a 36-4 victory. To further complicate matters they then lost key playmaker Mark Khierallah back to Toulouse and captain-coach George Ndaira to a dislocated shoulder. However, their march continued beating the Goannas 23-16 at Cessnock, Macquarie 48-30 and finally Souths 36-14 at Townson Oval to qualify for their first grand final since 1995.

Team of the year

1. Nathan Ross (Kurri) Once Ross recovered from a broken leg that ruined the opening half of his season, he became arguably the best player in the competition. During the finals his speed, strength, and sidestep cut opponents to shreds. Higher honours are certainly possible.

2. Justin Smith (Wests) Sporting a hideous moustache for part of the year did not slow down Smith on the Rosellas wing. He scored 14 tries and proved himself to be an adequate replacement at fullback when Joel Penny was missing. With Penny retiring, the Wests No.1 jersey is Smith’s for the taking.

3. Royce Geoffrey (Macquarie) The Morisset-based personal trainer was probably the most improved player in the competition this season. In 17 matches Geoffrey scored 19 tries to comfortably be the competition’s most lethal.

4. Simon Williams (Wests) Late in the season Williams’s form ebbed away, but during the first half of the year the former Knights lower-grader was deadly. Deceptively quick and nimble on his feet Williams was one of the Rebels best during their rep campaign.

5. Liam Faughlin (Maitland) The rookie of the year filled a variety of roles in the Pickers backline with aplomb. The former Illawarra Steelers SG Ball recruit also proved an effective try-scorer with 13.

6. Riley Brown (Cessnock) Without a doubt Brown was one of the premier players in the competition. Brown scored 11 tries for the season and probably assisted in another 20. He was central to the Goannas cause.

7. Mick Moran (Macquarie) The former South Sydney recruit was certainly unlucky not to receive a call-up this season for the Rebels. Playing behind an aggressive forward pack, Moran had plenty of room to shine and provided real class for the Scorpions backline.

8. Jesse Royal (Kurri) In what could be his final season of rugby league Royal was enormous. His yardage and off-loads in the centre of the park provided the nucleus of many of Mark Khierallah and Nathan Ross’s try-scoring feats.

9. Terence Seu Seu (Cessnock) While not as dominant as his first year in the Real NRL, the former Knights, Manly and Cronulla rake is undoubtedly the classiest dummy-half in the competition. His trickery close to the line was a feature.

10. Danny Vaughan (Macquarie) The Scorpions skipper has a heart the size of a humpback whale. Not a week goes by that Vaughan plays without pain, but that never prevents him from trucking the ball endlessly forward. He only missed a third best and fairest award by a point.

11. Josh Desmond (Maitland) The former Singleton forward was one of the finds of the season for Pickers captain-coach PJ Ellis. Despite his size, Desmond was highly mobile and scored 13 tries for the season. A horror leg injury ended his stellar season on a sour note.

12. Matt Shipway (Souths) Free from the burden of captain-coaching, Shipway took his game to a new level. He earned his first Rebels jumper and impressed enough to book a spot on the NSW Country tour to South Africa next month.

13. Todd Hurrell (Souths) Lions coach Adam Bettridge made an astute purchase by signing Hurrell from Wests. Mid-way through the season he struggled with the burden of playing five-eighth, but once Hurrell returned to lock he excelled. His work-rate in attack and defence played a major role in Souths’ successful season.

Western Suburbs players celebrate their grand final win over Kurri Kurri. Picture: Peter Stoop

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