GANMAIN-Grong Grong-Matong and Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes looked destined to meet on grand final day before COVID had the final say last year. They've got unfinished business, but the chasing pack seems to have closed the gap with the likes of Collingullie-Glenfield Park, Coolamon and Turvey Park adding quality pieces to their rosters.
The top five looks more congested than ever and who can integrate their new recruits quickest may have the inside running on who prevails in the final year of Riverina League before the premier league era begins.
Coaches: Nick Perryman and Brett Somerville
Last year: Fifth (eight wins, seven losses)
Key gains: Sam Stening, Andrew Clifford, Steve Jolliffe, Brad McMillan, Matt Klemke
Key losses: Jack Thompson, Joe Schultz, Dusty Rogers
Coach Nick Perryman says: "We've picked up players in a few areas we needed to from last year. We've added depth in our midfield and a couple of tall targets (Stening and Clifford) in the midfield, which is pleasing. We've lost a couple as well in Jack Thompson, Dusty Rogers and Joe Schultz who played well for us last year. I think we're in good stead but it's un unknown for us with turnover of players, but it's exciting at the same time. It's hard to put a finger on it, I've come out in new-look teams and it looks a million bucks and others where it takes a while to build into it. Our expectations are fairly high, but we know it will take people a while to jel together as well."
We say: The Demons have been one of the big movers in the player market and have bolstered key areas which hurt them last year. The midfield rotation looks one of the best in the league with the return of Jolliffe and McMillan and tall forwards Clifford and Sam Stening will provide scoring punch they were lacking last year. If they can combine more scoreboard pressure with the hard edge they developed at the contest late last year, they will be a huge improver.
Coaches: Jake Barrett and Mark Carroll
Last year: Fourth (eight wins, six losses)
Key gains: Allister Clarke, Shae Darcy, Aiden Macauley, Bailey Wood
Key losses: Max Hillier, Ryan Allen
Coach Jake Barrett says: "We're pretty fortunate to have only lost a couple of blokes and gained a few, which is really good. Our trials have been really promising. I still think Mango and Ganmain will be the teams to beat this year, but having said that we've got a good game plan in place and hopefully we can press them. A few of our new boys have done really well and Shae Darcy and Allister McDermott are probably the ones to watch this year, and Bailey Wood from Leeton has been electric in the trials so far, but you never know until you get to the games. I feel like the top five or so teams are really tight.
We say: Coolamon has signed some quality recruits, particularly in the midfield, with the likes of Shae Darcy and Allister McDermott to complement incumbent guns like Jeremy Maslin and Jake Barrett. Jeremy Sykes was also hampered by illness and injury last year, and should be back to his best in his second year as a Hopper. The big issue is whether they can adjust their game plan to cover a lack of experienced ruck options.
Coach: Sam Martyn
Last year: First (13 wins, two losses)
Key gains: Mitch Taylor
Key losses: Riley Corbett, Jono Neville
Coach Sam Martyn says: "We're really happy with where we're at. The level of competition is always improving and our aim is always to improve with it. Some teams have pulled off some quality recruiting like Collingullie, Turvey look on the rise and also Coolamon. It's really exciting, you could see there was a break between the top clubs but this year it's become a bit closer on paper. It's a pretty similar system we'll use and the boys are now familiar with it. Not having a huge turnover helps a lot as well. We want players who can train with us, it's key to building that culture and making sure they buy into that system.
We say: The Lions looked primed for a flag assault last year and the stability of their list is a big advantage for them this season. Centre half-forward Corbett and key defender Neville are big losses, but they have options with forward George Alexander back from injury and talls like Daniel Foley able to play ruck, defence or up forward. Established a hard-nosed attitude in Martyn's first year as coach last season and have the slick ball movement to match. The team to beat.
Coach: Greg Dreyer
Last year: Eighth (two wins, 13 losses)
Key gains: Sam Foley, Darcy McDermott, Harry Rowston
Key losses: Henry Delves, Jack Powell, Tom Powell, Riley Irvin, Mitch Irvin, Blake Argus
The coach says: "We've had some key outs. The Canberra boys aren't with us this year and we've replaced them with some locals. The first month of footy will be a big test for us with MCUE and GGGM early. We're still pretty young this year, but we'll compete better this year now they've had some experience and know what to expect. We expect most of our improvement from the young guys. Taine Moraschi, Patrick Payne and Harry Rowston are in the Giants system and Kahlan Spencer and Oliver Bartter, Jordan Wentworth are all 18-20. We'll be local but I think we'll be OK.
We say: The Swans' have lost their key recruits from Canberra, and will now turn to their local talent to rebuild for the future. GWS Giants Academy talent Harry Rowston is back in the fold after playing for Echuca last year. They may be young but they will be more battle hardened with a year in the seniors under their belts, and should improve on their two victories last year.
Coach: Tom Groves
Last year: Seventh (five wins, ten losses)
Key gains: Tom Groves, Brad Boots, Will Wakeman, Hayden Mahalm
Key losses: Kyle Pete, Bailey Wood, Sam Darley, Alex Daly
The coach says: "Everyone is really excited to start the season and get into the games, which is the exciting part of the year. Our young players get another pre season under their belts and they're looking stronger as well, so that's exciting. It's a building process as we've lost a couple of good players, but it gives others opportunities to grow and take on more responsibility. With the players we've got coming in, combined with the growth from the young guys, I think we can fill those holes fairly well. Their commitment to training has given them every chance."
We say: Player-coach Sam Darley was arguably the most dominant player the league had seen last year, particularly in a side which struggled for wins, and his departure will be sorely felt. The Crows did show some good signs in the back half of last year, and it will be up to their youngsters to take on some more responsibility to fill the void left by Darley. Groves is a handy addition while veteran Brad Boots should play more games, while Will Wakeman and Hayden Mahalm are welcome returns. Will struggle to beat the top four or five teams, but will grind out a few upsets.
Coach: Jeremy Rowe
Last year: Second (13 wins, two losses)
Key gains: Jack Collins, Nick McCormack, BenHalse, Isaac Damme, Tim Smith, Zac Wiencke, Connor Quade
Key losses: Sam De Sousa, George Kendall, Lachie Kendall
The coach says: "If you look at our list the facts say us and Ganmain were the top sides last year. We've lost three players and picked up seven now, so you'd think a handy list is better than last year. There's some development opportunities in young players on our list like Jono Male, Zac Hanrahan, Luke Lawrence and quite a number of guys. The players losses we have had in an elite ruckman (De Sousa ) and centre-half forward (Kendall) are quite difficult to cover. We think we've got the workings within our list to cover that, it could take us half a season if not more to settle on the best way of doing that. This time last year we felt like we were flying and ready to jump out of the blocks, whereas this year our pre season has been a bit slower and clunkier with unavailability for trial games. How it looks in the long run I'm comfortable, but it might take a while until we find our best.
We say: The Goannas haven't lost many, but those they have were in critical key positions and it will be interesting to see what adjustments they make. Kendall and De Sousa were among the best players in their respective positions last season, but the good news is they have an abundance of defenders who can pinch hit up forward to find the right balance. Finding a forward target to take the pressure and focus off star full forward Trent Castles will be important. Matt Collins is also a virtual recruitment after playing just one game last year, while Nick Collins was also restricted to only a handful of games due to COVID-related travel issues. A definite contender again.
Coach: Shaun Brooker
Last year: Last (Two wins, 13 losses)
Key gains: Ben Jamieson, Shannon Randell
Key losses: Luke Paterson, Angus Durnan
The coach says: "Last year we showed we could be competitive in games and had chances to win, but fell away. We could sit here and say we want to win six or seven games, but if we're fit and competitive hopefully we get across the line in more games. It's a fitness thing and a skill level thing. If we can hold onto the ball for longer periods, it will hold us in good stead. There's some really good kids coming up in the 15s and I want to put some time into them, we've got a nucleus of a pretty good side."
We say: It was a tough season for the Eagles last year, and under former premiership coach Brooker expect them to be fitter and be able to hang around in more games as a result. But they still don't possess the class and experience to trouble the heavy hitters. Although work commitments means he will only play around half their games, former Sydney competition midfielder Shannon Randell is a welcome addition and Ben Jamieson, player of the match in Ainslie's 2018 Canberra grand final victory, adds x-factor. Can steal the odd win against the bottom four sides.
Coach: Michael Mazzocchi
Last year: Sixth (seven wins, eight losses)
Key gains: Corey Baxter, Andrew Emery, Jesse Margosis, Tim Doyle, Alex Smith, Callum Dooley.
Key losses: Mitch Ward, Billy Glanvill, Andrew Saddler, Angus Grigg, Ryan Shaw
The coach says: "It's been a much easier pre-season, not as much teaching and more refining and the improvement of young guys like Will O'Connor, Rhett Weidemann and Rhys Leary, Baxter Wallett, all of whom have had big pre seasons. We've had a fair turnover which is unfortunate, we'll take a bit of time to settle but I am expecting things to happen a lot quicker this year. The first four or five weeks we only play a couple of games with byes. Hopefully (ruckman) Shaun Allan has an injury free season (after an interrupted 2021) and Emery has been a big difference having a key forward as Brad Ashcroft is still hampered by his back. Hopefully we can get them back together but we've added height, with Tim Doyle down back as well."
We say: The Bulldogs took some time to adjust to Mazzocchi's methods and structures last year, but a couple of strong wins over MCUE and Wagga Tigers late gave promise it should be a faster start to the season this year. They have addressed their height issues with additions like forward Andrew Emery and defender Tim Doyle. Should be better this year and competing for a spot in the bottom part of the top five.
Coach: Murray Stephenson
Last year: Third (nine wins, six losses)
Key gains: Jesse Manton, Cayleb Dunne Argus, Ben Gould, Brayden Bigham
Key losses: Reid Gordon, Charlie Bance, Hamish Gilmore, Will Keogh, Brendan Myers
The coach says: "We'll be putting a fair bit of faith in Lewis Waters as a key position players. He's a bit undersized but he generally has a good crack and plays out of his weight division a bit. A lot of our young guys got thrown in to first grade last year and that's where our improvement will hopefully come from. We've put a focus on longer sessions this year to try and help the younger guys get fit enough to play senior footy. They're improving still. Ben Gould looks like a good pick up from Culcairn, judging by the trials it looks like he'll be a good player in the competition."
We say: The Tigers have lost some classy personnel, with key ball users Charlie Bance and Brendan Myers moving to Queensland and Wollongong respectively. The defection of Will Keogh and Reid Gordon to Marrar on season eve was another blow, although the Tigers had expected key defender Gordon to move to Queensland and were planning on life without him anyway. They will rely on the young players they blooded in Stephenson's first season in charge to take the extra step. Lewis Waters, earmarked to replace Gordon as their defensive pillar, is out for the first few weeks with a broken jaw suffered in the trials.
4th: Collingullie-Glenfield Park
5th: Turvey Park
6th: Wagga Tigers
Narrandera v Coolamon
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Turvey Park
Griffith v MCUE
GGGM v Wagga Tigers
Leeton-Whitton v Griffith
MCUE v Wagga Tigers
Narrandera v Turvey Park
Coolamon v GGGM
Narrandera v Leeton-Whitton
Wagga Tigers v Coolamon
Griffith v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
GGGM v MCUE
Turvey Park v Leeton-Whitton
MCUE v Coolamon
Griffith v GGGM
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Narrandera
Leeton-Whitton v MCUE
Narrandera v Wagga Tigers
Turvey Park v Griffith
GGGM v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
GGGM v Leeton-Whitton
MCUE v Narrandera
Wagga Tigers v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Coolamon v Turvey Park
Coolamon v Leeton-Whitton
Collingullie v MCUE
Wagga Tigers v Griffith
Turvey Park v GGGM
Leeton-Whitton v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Turvey Park v Wagga Tigers
Griffith v Coolamon
Narrandera v GGGM
Leeton-Whitton v Wagga Tigers
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Coolamon
Narrandera v Griffith
MCUE v Turvey Park
MCUE v Griffith
Wagga Tigers v GGGM
Turvey Park v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Coolamon v Narrandera
Griffith v Leeton-Whitton
Wagga Tigers v MCUE
Turvey Park v Narrandera
GGGM v Coolamon
Leeton-Whitton v Narrandera
MCUE v GGGM
Coolamon v Wagga Tigers
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Griffith
Leeton-Whitton v Turvey Park
GGGM v Griffith
Narrandera v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Coolamon v MCUE
MCUE v Leeton-Whitton
Wagga Tigers v Narrandera
Griffith v Turvey Park
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v GGGM
Leeton v GGGM
Narrandera v MCUE
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Wagga Tigers
Turvey Park v Coolamon
Leeton-Whitton v Coolamon
MCUE v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Griffith v Wagga Tigers
GGGM v Turvey Park
Collingullie-Glenfield Park v Leeton-Whitton
Wagga Tigers v Turvey Park
Coolamon v Griffith
GGGM v Narrandera
Wagga Tigers v Leeton-Whitton
Turvey Park v MCUE
Coolamon v Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Griffith v Narrandera
Third: Collingullie-Glenfield Park
Fifth: Turvey Park
Sixth: Wagga Tigers
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