IF anyone ever had any doubts about the strength of rugby league of the South Coast, you need to look no further than the success of the 2020 Group Seven Rugby League season.
The COVID-19 modified campaign, which saw Gerringong claim their 20th premiership on Saturday, was the only NSWRL competition to complete a season with its full complement of initial first grade sides - with Milton-Ulladulla already committed to playing reserve grade before the worldwide pandemic hit.
The Northern Rivers competition split into a green and gold first grade divisions due to COVID geographical restrictions - while leagues such as Group Two, Group Three, Group Four, Group 10, Group 11, Group 16, Group 19, Group 20, Group 21, Woodbridge Cup and Central Coast District Rugby League didn't even get off the ground in their original forms, as was the case with NSWRL's NSW Cup, Jersey Flegg, SG Ball, Harold Matthews and Tarsha Gale.
Competitions such as Illawarra Coal League, Canberra Raiders Cup, George Tooke Shield, Group Six, Group Nine, Castlereagh Cup (Group 14), Outback Rugby League and Newcastle and Hunter Rugby League all played but with fewer teams than in previous seasons.
"I'm massively proud of what Group Seven has been able to produce this season," NSWRL chief executive David Trodden said.
"Back in March when this pandemic hit, the prospect of playing any footy at all was remote.
"Then you get to about May and you think there might be a chance before we finally set a date in June, to kick-off in July - which we thankfully did.
"So to be sitting here at the end of October, having done it is a massive tribute Scott McLaurin [Group Seven president], Debbie Rowley [Group Seven operations manager] and their whole team.
"We have huge expectations of our volunteers and we put more of a load on them this season with all the COVID protocols.
"The easiest thing to do this season would have been to do nothing and nobody would have criticised anyone if the competition didn't happen, as it would have been perfectly understandable in the world's climate.
"People underestimate how important getting something like this off the ground is for local communities such as the South Coast and to be able to get through a whole season, is nothing short of amazing."
Trodden went to to say there were absolutely no plans to change how Group Seven operates in the future, despite the restructure to move it into the 'Southern Corridor'.
"The real strength of the South Coast region is two-fold," he said.
"It's the players that take to the field each week as well as the volunteers and administrators that make it happen.
"Entities like Group Seven will still be determining where they want to play and who they want to play against - we're not about imposing our will on local organisations, because they know far better than us in regards to what is the best for them moving forward.
"What we are about though is supporting them and providing whatever resources we can to ensure their products can run as smoothly and positively as possible."
This news is music to the ears of president McLaurin, who has been a massive asset to the competition in his first year in charge.
"From not knowing exactly what the year might hold at the start of the season to making it all the way through to the two grand final days, has been a huge effort by all involved," he said.
"From Debbie Rowley to the referees and all the volunteers at all our wonderful clubs, everyone has worked towards a common goal and deserve a lot of credit for their sacrifices in 2020 - as do NSWRL who have been a tremendous support.
"I'm proud of the way we've taken all the bumps in our stride this season, putting us in such a strong position going into next year and beyond.
"It's been a really positive season, despite all we've gone through, and I'm confident we can build on this year, which in my eyes has been the strongest first grade competition we've had in ages."
Even though full-time has only just sounded on the 2020 season, McLaurin and his team are already developing plans for the future.
"As our group continues to grow, with all the different competitions we offer - including possibly women's tackle next season, we need to keep developing ways to improve our product - including split grand final days [which were both sold out] for the first time in our history," he said.
"We obviously look at other competitions on how we can best continue to grow the sport of rugby league - it's very important to stay proactive.
"The only way we can do that is to speed up the process, without putting too much pressure on the volunteers.
"There's obviously plenty of variables we have to work out, in terms of how we facilitate that and don't put too much pressure on our clubs and volunteers, but it's an exciting time for rugby league on the South Coast - which is evident by the number of people playing and viewing our game on a weekly basis.
"I know we are headed in the right direction and after tackling everything that's been thrown at us in 2020, I know we can deal with anything else that's thrown at us in the future."
The statistics back up the points of by both Trodden and McLaurin, with 1120 seniors, 2608 juniors and 849 volunteers involved in the South Coast competition in 2020.
Looking at the larger picture, Group Seven has never had more players currently playing in the NRL, with Gerringong's Tariq and Korbin Sims, Jackson Ford and Reuben Garrick, Kiama's Brett and Josh Morris and Mitch Rein, Shellharbour's Trent Merrin, Euan Aitken and Jai Field, Albion Park-Oak Flats' Drew Hutchison and Adam Clune and Milton-Ulladulla's Jack Murchie all featuring the competition in 2020 - with Stingrays of Shellharbour's Teagan Berry also playing for the Dragons in the NRLW competition.