Premier League Title Race – Round 15 Team by Team Guide
By Tim Klingbiel
Round 15 kicks off this weekend in North Coast Football’s Men’s Premier League competition and finally we are getting a clearer picture of the lay of the land in terms of finals contenders. With inconveniently-timed precipitation and a couple of deep FFA Cup runs playing havoc with the fixture list and leaving several teams with a number of games in hand, the 2017 season has been something of a stop-start affair. But with all clubs now having played between 11 and 14 games, we have reached the business end of the home and away season and it’s clear the chasing pack are going to have a titanic assignment on their hands to break the Coffs-Urunga duopoly at the top.
Both the Lions and Raiders have traditionally been competition powerhouses, regularly contesting grand final battles and dropping few points over the course of a season, and it is testament to the strong playing groups of both clubs that they have maintained this sort of dominance even after the retirements of key veterans in recent years. While the Lions have seen club legends like the Mackay brothers and ‘Flipper’ step away in recent seasons, the fact that youngsters like the Mayak brothers and Dut Garang have given the side a similar aura of puissance to before speaks volumes of their quality. Likewise, the emergence of players like Asama Radford and Tanjil Everett for the Raiders has helped them to augment the firepower of Fabrice Wamara, Kale Hopper and Tim Rupprecht.
Coffs would appear to be ever so slight favourites heading in, based on Urunga’s surprise draw two weeks back against Northern Storm, where an equaliser in the last 10 minutes put them 2 points behind the Lions on the ladder (the only other time either club has dropped points this season is when they met one another in a 1-1 stalemate at Forsyth Park earlier in the season), but meetings between the two competition heavyweights inevitably throw up some intriguing parameters and permutations. Coaches Glen Williams and Paul Pomroy have no doubt been preparing their sides for next week’s crucial meeting at the Patch, which could well determine the Premiership this season, but before that the Lions have the easier task of Westlawn at home on Sunday afternoon whereas the Raiders are away against an improved Sawtell Scorpions outfit.
The Scorpions thus far have been the ‘best of the rest’ but a run of 3 consecutive losses against the Bombers, Lions and Tigers where they conceded 13 goals while scoring only 3 has brought them crashing back to earth. One of the younger sides in the competition, the reinvigorated Sawtell squad are full of pace and energy but a tough run home will see them take on Urunga, Orara, Northern Storm and Coffs in the last 4 weeks, so every point from now on will be invaluable for their finals prospects.
They will need every bit of experience from their talisman Luke France if they are to challenge Coffs and Urunga for the title but they have been well organised so far, improving immeasurably upon a disappointing finish last season where the club only picked up 2 wins from 16 games.
Youngsters like Xavier Sproule, Keeden Corliss and Travis Lee will continue to improve and will be benefitting immensely from the experience they are gaining at this level. This weekend’s game against the Raiders will certainly be one to watch and may well be the round’s most crucial fixture in terms of semi-final implications.
This year’s surprise packet Orara Valley Dingoes currently occupy fourth spot on the table but spent time in an even loftier position until dropping 4 of their last 5. While that form would suggest a decline in quality towards the back end of the season, two of those losses came against the Raiders while one was against the resurgent Bombers and the other came in an evening of madness at Polwarth Drive that saw more dismissals than the Coffs Hotel on Cup night, with six players sent from the field. Though it’s been a tumultuous few weeks for the Dairyville Road club, they will no doubt be looking to right the ship against Northern Storm at The Cove on Saturday afternoon.
The last encounter between these two saw the Dingoes scrape home 3-2, and with Storm coming off the back of 3 wins and a draw against the Raiders in their last 5, it’s sure to be another back and forth battle separated by the finest of margins. The pace of Chris Dooley in attack will be key to Valley’s finals aspirations, and coach Joel Finlayson will also need experienced keeper Xavier Taylor to continue performing well between the sticks to keep the likes of Coffs and Sawtell at bay during the run home.
Perhaps the competition’s sleeping giant at this point is the Boambee Bombers. After a tough start to the season under Troy Fowler that saw a draw and 3 losses from their first 4 games, many were writing the Bombers off as title contenders. But two close contests against competition leaders Coffs United where the Bombers created a lot of chances and on another day might have come out on top, as well as strong wins over fellow finals contenders Sawtell and Orara have them within touching distance of a finals berth.
Brady Parker continues to weave his magic in the midfield – in recent weeks producing a 40-yard strike at Ayrshire Park that left Sawtell keeper Brad Palmer anchored to the spot, then being denied from replicating the feat the following week against the Lions’ Josh Wiseman by the woodwork – while livewire Christian Penny continues to cause problems for opposition defences with his rapid, unpredictable runs and acrobatic finishes.
With perhaps the kindest run in of the major aspirants, including two games against Westlawn and one against Grafton, the tussles against Northern Storm and Coffs Coast Tigers should prove to be make or break in the context of their season. A draw last week at home against Maclean will no doubt be frustrating for Shane Duncan and his troops, but they will be looking to get things back on track this Sunday at Rushforth Park against Grafton United.
Though the Maclean Bobcats lie only one point behind the Bombers on the ladder, a run in that includes two games against Coffs Tigers as well as fixtures against Urunga and Orara in the final two weeks of the competition leaves them in a precarious position if they want to sneak into the top 4 and usurp any two of Sawtell, Orara and Boambee. Bobcats coach Dennis Mavridis will no doubt be targeting 6 points over the two legs against Tigers, but it won’t come easily. The competition’s northernmost club will take a lot of positives out of the 1-1 draw against Boambee on the weekend, and coming into the run in with essentially nothing to lose and everything to gain, they should prove a tough out for anyone at this stage. They will need to rely on the composure and experience of veterans like Lance Knibbs and Jarred Doyle to get
them home in what will surely be a number of tight contests. Saturday afternoon’s home game against Coffs Coast Tigers is the next step in a very tough mission.
With performances often belying results, Northern Storm will no doubt be frustrated by a season that has promised so much and yet delivered so little. Two close losses against Maclean as well as narrow defeats to Sawtell and Orara have turned what might have been a crack at finals into what will most likely be an attempt at some sort of late season consolation. The draw against Urunga a couple of weeks back showed what this team are capable of, as did a strong win against Tigers in the midweek catchup game a few days before that, but too often the Thunder have found themselves on the wrong end of the scoresheet against the top teams and that has ultimately cost them. Scott Donaldson, back at the helm for a second season, will be encouraged by the form of the reserve grade side, who currently lead that competition – this bodes well for the first grade playing stocks in coming seasons. Defensive lynchpin Nathan Skinner and attacking wizard Jamie Kennedy have been the heart and soul of the club for countless years and it is the spirit of those sorts of clubmen that will no doubt carry Storm into a new era of success as the younger players start to make the step up to the top grade. The Thunder will see this Saturday afternoon’s home game against Orara as a chance to make a statement that they don’t deserve to be written off, even though their finals chances are mathematical only at this point with an 8-point deficit to claw back to 4th spot and only 4 games left to do it.
Coffs Coast Tigers are an interesting case too and shouldn’t yet be counted out entirely, purely through the amount of games they have in hand. Between three closures of Polwarth Drive as a result of inclement weather, a postponed face off against Coffs United for the Leo Baumgartner Cup due to the FFA Cup runs of both clubs, and a recently rescheduled encounter against Sawtell after a torrential Saturday afternoon downpour at Toormina, the Tigers will more than likely finish the season having played 5 midweek catch up games, at one point only training twice on the field in the space of 6 weeks. Going down 3-0 in the catch up against Northern Storm with a depleted squad due to 3 regulars taking an early shower in the spiteful Orara battle won’t have pleased gaffer Jason Snell, who would expect a lot more discipline from his boys. As it stands, the home and away games against Maclean will be an absolute must for the Tigers to take all 6 points, given three of their other 4 games are Lions, Raiders and Bombers. Attackers Amanuel Ayelew, Mark Ifrah and Innocent David will be key to the Tigers’ successes in front of goal, and their high intensity brand of football should put them in with a chance to spring a couple of upsets and potentially shake up the status quo late in the piece. This weekend’s clash against Maclean at Barry Watts Oval is very much do or die and every game from here on is a final for the Tigers.
Westlawn Tigers and Grafton United have both endured tough seasons, the lone highlight for the Junction Hill side coming in the 4-1 win over their South Grafton rivals. Grafton in turn will be looking to get one back in the home leg in round 17, but first they will have their hands full with a hungry Bombers outfit on a path towards finals making the trip up north and stinging after a frustrating draw against Maclean last time out. One would have to feel it will be a bridge too far for Grafton, but their efforts and determination throughout the season have been absolutely impossible to fault, often travelling with a full squad of only 14 or 15 between first grade and reserves but always turning up and competing for every ball. Their Clarence counterparts Westlawn have been similarly dogged throughout, refusing to roll over in the face of adversity and even putting 3 past Orara a couple of weeks back. They may head into the local derby as favourites but they will enter this Sunday’s away trip to McLean Street very much as rank outsiders. With Coffs looking to turn up the heat and consolidate their spot at the top of the ladder, James Joyce’s charges will be looking for a boilover of mammoth proportions to give the back page sports writers some material that would make next week’s issue of the Examiner fly off the shelves.