Much has been written about the revival of club footy in the last 12 months, as lacklustre performances in the professional arena left fans with little choice but to wander down to their local club if they wanted to watch a game without a foregone conclusion. Some Shute Shield clubs will disagree with this sentiment, but north of the border there is no doubt that we witnessed one of the most evenly contested competitions since the turn of the millenium.
Traditional powerhouse GPS had a perfect finish to their 2018 season, despite being thumped by rivals University of Queensland a week before finals, and losing to them again in the major semi. They dominated proceedings against the students in the Grand Final (Uni having beaten GPS in the GF the year before), winning their first top grade premiership in 20-odd years.
While a fairytale finish is always good, the best thing about last year’s season is that with 3 rounds to go, you could ask five different people who would be in the final and get five different responses. Not only that, the teams that finished in the bottom half of the table all claimed a number of wins throughout the season over those that ended up making the semi’s. Nearly every game was hotly contested and it was fantastic.
Brothers ended up with 8 teams contesting Grand Finals, while their first grade team finished near the bottom of the table, and Bond put a slow start behind them (0 – 6 at one point) to win nearly every game of the second half of the comp, and only just missed out on the semi’s. Souths were the early favourites to go all the way with Quade Cooper steering the ship, but fell away towards the back end, and UQ consistently managed to win, despite being the team that everyone wanted to beat. Every game counted, which kept punters engaged, and they were rewarded with fast, flowing rugby.
The off season proved to be a tumultuous one, with plenty of player and coach movement between clubs, making me wonder what sort of spectacle to expect heading into the round 1 fixtures. With six clubs changing head coaches, surely it would be too much to expect the quality of last year’s comp straight off the bat?
As it panned out, I was mostly correct. There were a number of disjointed performances filled with uncharacteristic errors, and it was quite obvious that combinations aren’t there yet. The first round may have had only one game that was a cracker to watch, but, more promisingly, there was obvious intent from each team to play positive, ball-in-hand footy, and not die wondering.
The QPR match of the round was UQ hosting Easts, in what was a repeat of the opening fixture last year. Easts had plenty of good field position early on, but were unable to convert the majority of their opportunities into points, and let in soft tries. The floodgates opened after they lost ascendency in the set piece, as Uni again showed they are pretty much unbeatable if they have ascendency, or even parity, in the forwards.
Souths travelled to Sunnybank in what was sure to be a spiteful match after a number of Sunnybank players joined the magpies in the offseason. It looked like there wasn’t a single returning player from Sunnybank’s 2018 team, and the difference showed with Souths comfortably winning. Sunnybank will need to get more out of their tight five if they are to avoid consecutive wooden spoons.
Norths vs Wests turned out to be a real statement of intent from the Doggies, as they kept Norths scoreless and nearly notched up a half century. The Wests pack will surprise a number of people this year, as few would expect such improvement after losing Dillon Wihongi to Sunnybank, and Alec Fontalvo to Western Australia. Their tight five play has improved out of sight, and a number of good young former and current colts are balancing out the squad nicely.
What turned out to be the actual match of the round was Brothers vs Bond at Crosby Park. This was a fast paced game that was played like sheep stations were on the line. Brothers have signaled their intent early by picking three flyhalves in their three quarter line, and and used this to shift the ball smartly to new arrival Aidan Toua, who looked sharp from fullback. The Bond team looks to have greater depth than in recent seasons, with their bench adding real impact as they came roaring back into contention in the second half. If they can keep up that standard of footy, expect both teams to win a lot more than they lose this year.
The team to beat didn’t feature on the weekend, with GPS having the bye. The are not only the team to beat because they are the defending champs, but due to some smart recruitment they may well turn out an even better team than last year’s. Their strong showing in the Australian Club Championship put everyone on notice, and they will be chomping at the bit to get at Easts this weekend.
I can’t see them losing that match, as injuries will force Easts into some reshuffles, and the GPS pack will be too dominant. Brothers take on Souths at Chipsy Wood, in what will be a real test of the butcher stripes’ intent to play in the wider channels. If they pick a pack that will get them over the gain line, I see them winning a close contest. West’s host Sunnybank at Toowong in what is usually a close game, but the dominance of West’s tight five should see them finish on top. The battle of the universities rounds out the weekend with UQ probably still smarting after Bond upset them last year. Bond are very good over the ball so look for them to disrupt UQ’s rhythm and come away with a tight win.
As we progress into the 2019 season, Brisbane club footy is carrying the weight of expectation. The first round didn’t give us the spectacle we were hoping for, but it’s no surprise when you look at the coach and player movement during the off season. The intent of the teams was great, all are looking to play fast, open rugby, and once they get used to the new setups there will be some great contests. If you’re a bit disenfranchised with the professional scene in Australia, or haven’t had a good steak burger in a while, stroll on down to your local club this Saturday. The grass is greener at its roots.