Samantha Newsam: my top five stories of 2017

One of the things I love most about sport is it’s unpredictability and there was no shortage of that in 2017.

It was something of a year for breaking premiership droughts with the Gunnedah Bulldogs (AFL) and Kiwis both enduring lengthy waits to get their hands back on the silverware. In both instances they toppled the long-time premiers. 

Both too were pulsating and thrilling encounters as was the Central North grand final between Pirates and Walcha, which in light of recent developments could be the last played.

Our local sporting stars have also been achieving great things with basketballer Nick Kay realising his dream of representing his country.

In a nutshell it has been another great year of sport. Here are my top five stories from the year in no particular order.

1. Pirates clinch back to back premierships

Champions: Pirates celebrate back to back Central North premierships. Photo: Peter Hardin

Champions: Pirates celebrate back to back Central North premierships. Photo: Peter Hardin

“I knew coming here it would take a hell of a side to beat us. Walcha true to their word almost did,” Pirates coach Mat Kelly.

There were so many ingredients that made the 2017 Central North grand final one of the best for a while. 

Pirates had been unchallenged in their pursuit of back to back premierships until the penultimate game of the regular season when they encountered a Rams side out to avenge a 45-point shellacking in their first meeting. They well and truly did, Doug Biffin scoring with just under 10 minutes to go to snatch a 28-24 victory for Pirates and seal the minor premiership.

Three weeks later the two were at it again. Another titanic struggle, Pirates again overturned a half-time deficit to sneak home by six points and earn a home grand final.

It set the scene for what was a colossal contest between two sides boasting contrasting strengths and showcasing them to their fullest.

Finding themselves playing catch-up in their two previous encounters, Pirates came out firing and when captain Conrad Starr wrestled his way over for a 26-6 lead with 12 minutes to go in the first half there were fears of the decider descending into the blow-out of the previous year.

But those were quickly abated as, much to the delight of the sea of red crammed into the left hand corner of Ken Chillingworth Oval, the Rams cut the premiers lead back to six points at half-time.

The second half was a see-sawing affair, the lead and the momentum swinging from one side to the other.

2. Kiwis end 11 year premiership drought

Winners are grinners: Kiwis celebrate breaking their 11 year premiership drought.

Winners are grinners: Kiwis celebrate breaking their 11 year premiership drought.

“I’ve won state and national championships before but this is better than that,” Kiwis captain Josh Worpel.

Chasing their ninth successive Tamworth men’s first grade hockey premiership Workies were undisputed favourites against a Kiwis side playing in their first grand final since 2012.

Incidentally beaten by Workies, Kiwis returned the favour to etch their name on the shield for the first time since 2006.

Workies’ toughest adversary throughout the season, it took them an absorbing 100 minutes to overcome the premiers, skipper Josh Worpel’s penalty stroke midway through the first half of the second period of extra-time proving the difference as they prevailed 4-3.

Billed as a battle of the best attack, and the best defence in the competition, Kiwis’ defence was simply phenomenal. They continually repelled Workies’ raids. Out on their feet as the minutes ticked towards 100, somehow they mustered the energy to keep scrambling back as Workies searched for an equaliser. 

As the minor premiers that would have been enough for them to snatch the silverware.

For Kiwis, the jubilation of achieving premiership glory was mixed with sheer exhaustion, the joy of victory extra sweet for the five that were part of that 2006 side. 

3. Gunnedah Bulldogs reign supreme

We are the champions: Gunnedah claimed their first AFL premiership since 1991.

We are the champions: Gunnedah claimed their first AFL premiership since 1991.

“We knew it would take four quarters to get the job done and it did,” Gunnedah Bulldogs coach Greg Piggott.

The script couldn't have been written better for Gunnedah as they celebrated their 40th anniversary, as, in front of a big crowd at Wolseley Oval, the Bulldogs barked their way to their first North West AFL premiership since 1991.

Having beaten five-times reigning champions New England three times in their preceding meetings, and dished out a 63 point thrashing in the major semi-final, there was an understandable air of optimism that the Bulldogs could break their premiership drought. 

Comparable novices in the grand final environment, the Bulldogs showed little sign of being overwhelmed by the occasion, establishing a 16 point lead at the first break.

But as the saying goes you can never discount a champion side. The Nomads chipped away at their lead to trail by just a point heading into the final quarter, and then hit the front. The Bulldogs though never lost faith and on the back of some big plays form inspirational skipper Andrew George wrested the momentum back. 

How much it meant was perhaps best illustrated by George, who was overcome by emotion as he and coach Greg Piggott accepted the silverware. The Bulldogs’ heart and soul, George was fittingly named the player of the grand final.

4. Boom time for Nick Kay

Donning the green and gold: Nick Kay (back second from left) with his Aussie team-mates before their game against Japan. Photo: Supplied.

Donning the green and gold: Nick Kay (back second from left) with his Aussie team-mates before their game against Japan. Photo: Supplied.

“I think it is going to be one of those experiences you’ll always remember,” Nick Kay.

Could there be any prouder moment as a parent than watching your child represent their country?

Tamworth’s Terrie and Paul Kay got that thrill in November when son Nick played for the Boomers in their FBI World Cup qualifier against Japan in Adelaide.

The Tamworth product had made his Boomers debut in Lebanon back in August in the FIBA Asia Cup. 

Having been unable to get over there for that, Terrie said there was no way they were missing out again.

The pride she felt was obvious as she reflected on Nick’s ascension to the national team. Like many a sporting success story his is one of sacrifice and hard work. 

The latter in Terrie’s opinion is probably one of his best attributes, one honed through years of being on the periphery of higher honours. As she told me he was a very late bloomer, not making a state side until he was top age 18s.

Kay’s excitement was equally palpable when I spoke to him before he jetted out to China to play Chinese Tapei.

5. Central North vote yes to proposed joint competition 

Joining forces: Central North president Tony Byrnes and Moree president Paul King on what could be the last Central North grand final day.

Joining forces: Central North president Tony Byrnes and Moree president Paul King on what could be the last Central North grand final day.

“This is a huge shift for rugby in our area but I think it’s a very positive path we’re going down,” Central North president Tony Byrnes.

As 2017 was drawing to a close the winds of change were blowing through the northern rugby landscape with first Central North and then New England voting to trial a joint competition in 2018 and 2019.

Twenty years in the making, as the comment was made, it is a ground-breaking decision. And did, I admit, come as a bit of a surprise given the reluctance in the past. 

Back in 2004, only a couple of months after reporting on an historic grand final with Narrabri and Moree becoming the first joint champions, I was writing about New England having their pleas to join the Central North competition in 2005 rejected.

In 2005 a proposed competition was again on the table after, following the recommendations of the NSW Country Zone Boundary Review Committee, the NSW Country Rugby Union endorsed an amalgamation between the two zones to form a 14-team competition. But after backlash from Central North the proposal was quashed.

It hasn’t all been Central North, with New England in 2015 voting to not continue discussions about a joint competition for the 2017 season.

You got the sense then though that it wouldn’t be the last time it came up, and when both zones at their respective agm’s voted in favour of exploring a joint competition the wheels were set in motion.

How exactly all the pieces of the puzzle, so to speak, will fit together isn’t yet clear. There are still a lot of details to be hashed out.

RELATED STORIES