The 2017 Opening Round Preview
Article by Michael Shillito
There’s always a sense of excitement and anticipation when a new season starts. All the sweating in the heat at pre-season training, and all the hours the coaches have plotted the minutiae of game plans have all led to this moment. If you can’t be optimistic this week, you never will.
There’s always winners and losers, but the overall health of Sydney footy is good. More people are playing the game than ever before; with 98 teams over 10 divisions. And there’s a full round of games, a round in which dreams will be made and broken.
We’ve got four Premier Division games on Saturday to kick-start the season. All of them have plenty of potential to impress.
At Olds Park, it’s a replay of last year’s Preliminary Final as St George play host to North Shore. It’s a new-look Olds Park, having had some upgrades over the off-season; and the Dragons have a massive game in which to show off their facilities.
Last year’s Preliminary Final saw the Dragons win through to the season decider, running away with the contest in the last quarter. The Dragons haven’t lost too many players over the off-season, and veteran coach Terry Mudge has an impressive list to work with in 2017.
North Shore have recruited well during the off-season, and also have some big names from last year’s premiership-winning Under 19s team looking to step up to senior footy this year. The fadeout in last year’s Prelim Final still hurts the Bombers, but they have an early chance to put things right.
The stakes are high. Most people would be expecting both these clubs to be there at the business end of the season. This game is not only a chance to get four points and deny a key rival the premiership points, but also an opportunity to establish a key psychological advantage.
East Coast Eagles will unfurl their premiership flag at Kanebridge Oval ahead of their clash with UNSW-ES. The Eagles have lost some premiership stars, but not as many as they may perhaps have feared, and will welcome Trent Stubbs back from interstate. Jamie Vlatko moves from the forward line to the coach’s box in 2017. Going back to back won’t be easy for the Eagles, but it’s a challenge they’ll be looking forward to.
UNSW-ES were well short of the finals last year, but they’ve got a solid stream of talent coming into their lineup. With an Under 19s team that made the Grand Final for the last two years, they’ve got some young guns in their ranks. Many of them had a solid taste of senior footy last year, and will be looking to make it a regular thing in 2017.
It’s a clash of youth against experience. The older heads of East Coast would be favourites to prevail this time; but the enthusiastic Bulldogs will be keen to take the fight up to them.
Two teams who will be hoping to rise up the ladder after missing the finals in 2016 are Wests and Sydney Uni. And when the Magpies and Students clash at Picken Oval, the winner will give their finals hopes a welcome boost.
The Magpies welcome former Port Adelaide player Nick Salter to the club. His experience at the game’s highest level will bring invaluable lessons to his charges. He’s brought some quality recruits with him, and hopes are high that they can make some progress up the ladder in 2017.
Sydney Uni are always something of an unknown quantity, the quality of the Premier Division team from week to week being heavily tied to the strength of the NEAFL team. But there’s a solid core of players at the Students, and the quality is there to rebound from a disappointing 2016 season and return to finals action this year.
With both teams hoping to make steady progress up the ladder in 2017, a first-up win will be a momentum builder. Both clubs will be going all-out to get some premiership points on the board in the opening round, and this has the ingredients of a desperate, hard-fought battle.
Meanwhile, another high-stakes clash will be played out at Weldon Oval, as Manly play host to UTS.
Manly missed the finals for the first time in their Premier Division existence in 2016; but it’s a new-look Manly this season. The Giants identity is gone, and the traditional Wolves name is back. And a new coach is at the helm, with Michael Ford at the helm this season. But despite the changes around the club, it’s a reasonably settled lineup on the field in 2017. Some quality players who didn’t have a great 2016 season have been training hard during the off-season, looking to regain their form from prior years this time around.
While last year was the first time Manly missed the Premier Division finals, it was a breakthrough year for UTS as the Bats finally made it through to the playoffs. And in 2017, they’ll be looking to build on last year’s form; the next target will be to win a final. The Bats have again recruited heavily through their interstate networks, with some new faces who aren’t currently well-known in Sydney but soon will be.
On last year’s form, the Bats will go into this game as favourites. But with the home ground advantage and a new direction around the club, the Wolves can’t be ruled out. And there’s plenty of Manly die-hards who will be happy at seeing the traditional identity restored to the Northern Beaches club.
With the opening round bye, Pennant Hills will have to wait another week to get their 2017 campaign under way.
There’ll be winners and losers this week. We’ll see some star players continue to soar; and some rising stars making the next step up in their football. There’ll be dreams coming true, but some dreams shattered. The start of the season sees a whole new range of possibilities unfold in front of us. It’s hard not to be excited, but a bit nervous, at the prospects of what may unfold.
It’s great to have the footy back!