Who Can Tame The Tigers?

Illawarra Mercury

Friday April 4, 2003

TIM KEEBLE

Batemans Bay reckons they'll be stubborn premiers but the Magpies are back, Shellharbour are on a mission, and the Warriors might actually win a game. The 2003 Group Seven season kicks off tomorrow and, while nine doesn't go into five, every team is optimistic about reaching the semifianls. Some players have swapped clubs, some have returned to their original clubs and others have retired, but most teams appear to be stronger on paper. TIM KEEBLE takes a look at who has gone where and who might be on top when the dust has settled come September.

Albion Park-Oak Flats

SQUAD: Ian Jones (player co-coach), Mick Gillespie (player co-coach), Adam McGrath, Dean Gray, Graham Smith, Gareth Foye, Wade Walsh, Aaron Lucas, Derek Gray, Adam Bezzena, Shane Sainsbury, Glenn Noakes, Trent Geary, Steven Buttfield, Sean Jenkins, Hayden Ramsey, Shane Buckman

Gains: Ian Jones (player co-coach), Mick Gillespie (player co-coach), Adam McGrath, Dean Gray, Graham Smith, Gareth Foye, Wade Walsh, Aaron Lucas

Losses: Luke Nies, Steve Zimmermann, Greg Smith

2002: 4-10 (7th)

2003 tip: 11-5 (3rd)

After a poor 2002 season, the Eagles are determined to recapture the form which propelled them to three straight premierships between 1998 and 2000. Ian Jones and Mick Gillespie have returned as playing co-coaches and the pair brought several former Eagles with them. ``A few people thought this would be a rebuilding year for us, but we think we'll go better than that," Jones said. ``The feeling among the players is that it's not a rebuilding year. We think we've got a crack at winning it." The only question mark over the Eagles is depth. If they lose key players to injury they might struggle.

Batemans Bay Tigers

SQUAD: Rod Connell (captain-coach), Steve Elliott, Mick Elliott, Dale Wright, Rolly Halligan, Josh Moore, Luke Moore, Simon Trewin, Brendan Ellis, Paul Gallen, Michael Potts, Matt Larkin, Warren Potts, Ben Ralston, Aaron Brierley, Brian Stephenson, Brad Rendle, Matt Cross, Hank Pickett, John Breust

Gains: Brendan Ellis, Paul Gallen, Michael Potts, Matt Larkin

Losses: Brett Cox, Adam O'Brien, Clinton Bennetts, Scott Buck, Justin Zutt, Robert Burke, Michael Johnston

2002: 13-1-1 (equal 1st)

2003 tip: 12-4 (2nd)

Experienced five-eighth Rod Connell has taken the reins after premiership-winning coach Mark Bell bolted in the off-season. The Tigers lost a host of talent on the field, including the multi-skilled Brett Cox and classy half-back Adam O'Brien. However, the Bay have recruited well and are confident of winning back-to-back crowns. ``We've definitely had some big losses, but we've replaced them with some very good footballers," Connell said. ``We've come up with a good mix of youth and experience and I expect us to be just as competitive as last year. I can't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to have a good crack at defending our premiership."

Berry Shoalhaven Heads Magpies

SQUAD: John Walker, John Dudgeon, David Price, Richard Luland, Rueben Brown, Jeff Johnson, Brandon McCarthy, Mick Blattner (captain-coach), John Carey, Athol Lestor, Joe Brown, Andrew Walsh, Troy Pender, Kurt Simpson

* returning to first grade

2003 tip: 6-10 (8th)

After a year in the Group Seven wilderness, the Magpies reckon they will be back with a bang. Former Shellharbour and Bomaderry prop Mick Blattner has been lured to the club as captain-coach and the veteran prop is tipping his side to cause their fair share of upsets. A final five berth is a long shot, but the Magpies won't be rolling over for anyone. ``It's a rebuilding year for us," Blattner said. ``We'll be competitive against the top sides and our forward pack can match any side. Our main goal is to put two competitive sides on the paddock, but we've picked up a couple of good players in the last few weeks and I'll be disappointed if we don't get fifth spot." Blattner is expecting big things from Jeff Johnson and Joe Brown.

Gerringong Lions

SQUAD: Greg Sharpe, Tim Jones, Peter Quine, John Ford, Matt Gallagher, Jason Shoebridge, Tim Poppett, Col Renton, Wayne Geer, Matt Quinn, Thomas Burke, Ben Ring, Jeremiah Kerrisk, Scott Stewart, Matt Vaux, Ryan Staples, Dave Norris, Steve Norris, Andrew Jackson, Matt Ring, Adam Stewart

Gains: Dave Norris, Steve Norris, Andrew Jackson, Matt Ring

Losses: Dave Cummins, Zac O'Toole, Matt Hingle, Ian Geer

2002: 6-8 (5th)

2003 tip: 10-6 (equal 4th)

The talk among rivals is that Gerringong will be the big improvers. Prop Andrew Jackson is back and is said to be as strong and skilful as ever, while fellow front rower Matt Ring has returned after a season with the Wollongong Bulls. As they do every year, the Lions will blood several under 18 players. The club lost a few experienced players to retirement, but they are significantly stronger in the forwards. ``We've consolidated in the forwards and we've got some good young blokes coming through," Lions coach Peter Ford said. ``Overall the club is just as strong as it was last year and we're confident of making the finals again."

Kiama Knights

SQUAD: Daniel Gunning (captain-coach), Steve Grimson, Mark Duncan, Mark Laird, Scott Morris, Adam Williams, Paul Boniface, Blake Glover, Joel Miller, Ryan Omrod, Brett Rorie, Brendan Timmins, Matt Hingle, Chris Dove, Mark O'Neill, Shaun O'Neill, Brad Dwyer, Brendan Jeffcott, Cameron Whittaker, Daniel Cohen, Steve Whittard, Greg Gunning, Andrew Brennan, Sam Parr, Paul Ross, Sean Byron, Josh Elliott

Gains: Brendan Timmins, Matt Hingle, Chris Dove, Mark O'Neill, Shaun O'Neill, Brad Dwyer, Brendan Jeffcott, Cameron Whittaker

Losses: Nathan Strong, Ben Strong

2002: 5-9 (6th)

2003 tip: 8-8 (6th)

Aside from a tribe of good under 18 players coming through, little has changed in Knights country. Daniel Gunning is back for a second stint as captain-coach and has set his side a goal of reaching the semifinals. ``We haven't lost many blokes and we've got three or four under 18 blokes who have strengthened us, and that can only make us more stable," Gunning said. The Knights will have their work cut out to better last year's performance, but the club is brimming with optimism.

Milton-Ulladulla Bulldogs

SQUAD: Brett Cox (captain-coach), Clinton Bennetts, Andrew Pierce, Paul Windshuttle, Matt Benjamin, Russell Chaffey, Nathan Cornwell, Murray Graham, Adam Costa, Steve Newton, Greg Sherwin, Wayne Layt, Brett Fowler

Gains: Brett Cox (captain-coach), Clinton Bennetts, Andrew Pierce

Losses: Steve Newton, Chad Burcher, Brock Siegert, Adam Hagan, Jason Wells

2002: 7-7 (4th)

2003 tip: 10-6 (equal 4th)

Brett Cox is back, this time as captain-coach, while former try-scoring champion Clinton Bennetts has also returned. With untested depth, the Bulldogs might struggle if injuries become a factor. ``We're just going to take it week by week and we're aiming to be competitive every week," Cox said. Veteran hooker Brett Fowler has shelved retirement plans to play on, but the Dogs will find it hard to repeat last year's grand final appearance.

Nowra Warriors

SQUAD: Shane Bennett (captain-coach), Jason Crockett, Aaron Cowan, Ray Haddow, Jonathon Muir, Shane Cox, Paul Skewes, Warren Ganderton, Steve Norman, Glen McMullen, Matt Abernathy, Steve Berry, Luke Langford, Michael Hill, Steve Hush

Gains: Aaron Cowan, Ray Haddow, Jonathon Muir, Shane Cox, Paul Skewes, Warren Ganderton, Steve Norman

Losses: Ken Kerr, John Carey, Dave Wallace, Athol Lester, David Price

2002: 0-14 (last)

2003 tip: 4-12 (9th)

With no wins last year, the only way is up for the Warriors. Shane Bennett has taken over from Ken Kerr as captain-coach and lured back several former players. However, it's still going to be a long season for Nowra. ``My aim as a coach is to win one or two from our first few games and hopefully get on a little roll early in the season," Bennett said. ``The first few games will give us a good indication of where we stand in the comp."

Shellharbour Sharks

SQUAD: Leigh Ardler, Justin Bird, Bill Brown, Matthew Coelho, Nathan Cooper, John Cresswell, Jeremy Davis, Paul Hartley, Craig Heyligers, Clayton Hobbs (captain coach) Damien Ingram, Daniel Jimenez, James Jimenez, Jamie Manukonga, Peter McLeod, Lee Moran, Brendon Nichols, David Oakley, Wayne Beauchamp, Daniel Bunt, Mick McCabe, Clint Poole, Darryl Rosser, Jason Smith, Dale McAlister, Jack Schofield, Glenn Roberts, Hans Schuster, Ryan Schuster, Cole Skelly, Marc Smith, Glen Staples, Adam Taylor, Kane Williams

Gains: Wayne Beauchamp, Daniel Bunt, Mick McCabe, Clint Poole, Darryl Rosser, Jason Smith, Dale McAlister, Jack Schofield

Losses: Mick Blattner, Craig Potts, Aveni Waqasaqa

2002: 12-1-1 (equal 1st)

2003 tip: 14-2 (1st)

Forget about what their rivals think, even the Sharks believe they deserve to be favourites after a strong recruitment drive in the off-season. ``I think Batemans Bay have a little less than what we have," new captain-coach Clayton Hobbs said. ``I reckon we'll be the benchmark this year and I'll be very dirty if we're not in the grand final." Hobbs has taken over from Cole Skelly, who has decided to concentrate only on playing. ``We've got some very good young blokes coming through who are definitely going to put pressure on and keep the established blokes on their toes," Hobbs said.

Warilla Gorillas

SQUAD: Dean Alaban, Ben Borg, James Borg, Kevin Bridal, Corey Blanch, Corey Bunt, Travis Clark, Troy Grant, Nathan Hardy, James Harrod, Chris Henry, Jake McDonald, Daniel Matthews, Luke Watts, David Aollo, Adam Nevin, Linken Hutchison, Alan McLaughlin, Joel Murtin, Brad Robinson

Gains: Jake McDonald, Daniel Matthews, Luke Watts, David Aollo, Adam Nevin

Losses: Jamie Pabis, Greg Hooper, Peter Hooper, Shane Olds, Liam Watson, Jim Brady

2002: 9-5 (3rd)

2003 tip: 7-9 (7th)

With the retirement or defection of six key players, incoming coach Paul Harrod will be relying heavily on youth and enthusiasm. The entire team is made up of Warilla juniors, a fact of which the club is very proud. ``Time will tell if the experience lost will have an effect on the younger players, but they're all very keen because they've been waiting for this chance to show their wares," Harrod said.

© 2003 Illawarra Mercury

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