Coming off a shortened 2021 season as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, Group Seven Rugby League is ready to kick off for the 2022 season bigger and better than ever.
We are under week away from round one of what is expected to be a return to normality for all 10 clubs, yes you heard that right, after sitting out last season, the Berry-Shoalhaven Heads Magpies will make their anticipated return to Group Seven.
With a well-rounded pool of teams set to surprise, who will come out on top and raise the Artie Smith Trophy over their heads?
Let's catch you up on all 10 teams and how the clubs are feeling about their chances heading into the 2022 season.
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Third Place (6 Wins, 5 Draws, 2 Losses)
Head Coach: Jay Efaraimo
The tide began to turn for the Eagles last season with one of the most promising squads in recent memory, one that had the potential to go all the way and win the Artie Smith Trophy.
However, with the shortened season it wasn't meant to be, but the promise and poise of the team left many people excited for what they can accomplish in the upcoming 2022 season.
Head coach Jay Efaraimo said the clubs expectations are high despite the loss of six different players from the previous year.
"As far as we're concerned we are a top four side, we proved that last year and I don't think year will be any different," he said.
The Eagles has seen roster overall with the team promoting a number of juniors while also picking up some other handy signings to help filled the void left by outgoing players.
One of the biggest losses was the departure of talented playmaker Sam Clune who moved to Newcastle, who was one of the club's most positive difference-makers with his crafty jack of all trades play style.
Other losses include Paul Roberts, Rodney Coates, Blake Jones, Ryan Jones and Josh Sainsbury.
However Efaraimo feels the young players they have coming through are really going to make a difference.
"I'm pretty sure we are now the youngest team in the comp, and our roster is very homegrown, I'm pretty sure 90 - 95% are locals," he said.
"They're all mates, they've grown up together, they don't want to go anywhere else, which is really nice and positive sign for the club," he said.
While the side is going younger, they have managed to hold onto a strong core of senior players, with Jack Walsh stated as someone to watch out for this season.
The team seems to be in good standing with Donte Efaraimo, Jarryd King, Brent Wake, Dallas and Chad Harrison all remaining with the club and looking to continue their strong play leading the side.
Efaraimo said the team prioritised defense this off-season, citing it as the area they wanted to improve most in.
"We've worked really hard on our defense, we won't be a side that's dropping 50 on other teams," he said.
"We are going to be quite happy with a 14-10 win, we've also done some work on our shape and things like that but defence was definitely the priority."
The side looks to have some of the best chemistry of the bunch with a significant portion of the players growing up together, Efaraimo feels that off the field connection will help just as much on the green.
"When you've got your mate next to you, that you've grown up playing all your junior footy with, there's a lot of trust built there," he said.
There is expectations for the Eagles this year among the group to be up there with the best.
Off the back of a third position and some massive wins last year, like their 28-26 win over Gerringong, the team feels "quietly confident" about their chances.
"We're expecting quite a bit from the boys and they're expecting quite a lot from themselves," Efaraimo said.
"We have lost a few people yes, but keeping the nucleus of the squad intact is the main thing and I'm very excited to see what we can do this season."
"I think this season may be closer across the board than people might think, so it's going to be very interesting."
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: *Did not field a team
Head Coach: Mitch Allgood
Last year was only the fourth season in the Magpies 109-year history that they did not field a team, with the last season being in 2002.
However in 2022 the team will return to Group Seven hoping to make a strong run in first grade and bring some excitement back to the Berry Showground.
Club President Joe Rogers said no matter what happened they were determined to get back to first grade this season.
"We had the attitude that no matter what we were going to get our team back into first grade this year," he said.
Last year the team struggled to get numbers and had to make a tough decision.
"Last year we had to bite the bullet, it just wasn't right for us to put some of the boys we had straight into first grade. So we thought it was best to consolidate and come back again this year," Rogers said.
With a year off and a mix of old and young as well as a new face in the coaching position, what can we expect from the Magpies?
Well with ex-NRL player Mitch Allgood in the drivers seat, the team is set to have an experienced voice and guide on the sidelines.
Rogers couldn't speak more highly of Allgoods' impact, just in the preseason alone.
"What he has brought to the team thus far is just a whole other level of professionalism, I'm really excited to see how he gets the team going. I think he's going to be a really good asset for us moving forward," he said.
Allgood says his excited to get going and has been super impressed with the squad so far.
"We've got a lot of young boys who have played a ton of footy together, and I think they're at the stage now where they're ready to step up and take on a leadership role," he said.
"I'm really happy with all of them so far and the way they have been applying themselves at training has been excellent."
With such a young squad there are going to be questions as to whether or not they'll be able to compete with the experienced giants of the league such as Gerringong, only time will tell, but for the mean time it's just great to have all ten teams back in Group Seven.
Rogers said the team has brought in a few experienced and former Berry players to mix in with the younger core and feels it'll wonders for the unit as a whole.
"There are a core group of young guys who have been together since U6's and we're mixing them in with a few old blokes, it'll be great to see the unit as a whole," he said.
From what Allgood and Rogers have said, the team's biggest strength is going to come with their speed and agility while the addition of some much needed veteran presence will help to keep the team moving and be the glue to hold the unit together.
"I've got 100 per cent belief and faith in every one of our boys and I'm really excited to get going," Allgood said.
"I'm keen to see the buzz and happiness that this sport brings and I think the community of Berry is really going to get around having footy back."
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Second Place (7 Wins, 4 Draws, 1 Loss)
Head Coach: Scott Stewart
Last year was no different for Gerringong as they continued their run of success as a club with a second place finish in the shortened season.
The strong unit looked poised to go all the way against Jamberoo in the finals, but unfortunately both players and fans were deprived of the big dance.
Heading into the 2022 season Gerringong is looking to be a force to be reckoned with again, with second year head coach Scott Stewart confident about the team's chances.
"You obviously never know what it's going to be like until round one, but it's a good group and I'm liking what I'm seeing," Stewart said.
Stewart highlighted the strongest aspect of the Lions being their experience and balance as a unit, citing depth at every position as a necessity they addressed heading into the offseason.
"I definitely have no complaints about our squad, there's plenty of experience in there, and I like how evenly balanced we are," he said.
Captain Nathan Ford echoed a similar sentiment to that of Stewart, but also addressed his excitement in regards to the balance of youth and experienced veterans on the team.
"A lot of our squad are still in their early 20's and are only going to continue to get better game by game," he said.
"Their speed and willingness to listen and learn from the older players, I think is going to be great for our team," Ford said.
Ford stated that the team is going to run things pretty similar to last year and continue to build on their previous success.
"We are going to keep things pretty much the same, and keep on building with the same group of guys," he said.
A huge addition for the team is that of forward Corey Grigg, who spent last season with Jamberoo.
Adding Grigg will bolster an already strong forward pack and continue to add the strong depth of the Lions.
"Getting Corey is great, he's going to be a super handy player to have," Ford said.
"Not only is the addition of Corey good, but we've also got a few young blokes coming through the 18s who might have a crack at first grade this year," he said.
With the recent bad weather Gerringong has yet to string together regular training, like many other teams as sessions continue to be washed out, however Coach Stewart hopes the units continuity will pay dividends with the uneven preseason.
"The fact that we haven't been able to get on the field has been frustrating, but with the whole group knowing each other for so long, the chemistry is already there, and they know what they need to do," Stewart said.
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: First Place (7 Wins, 5 Draws, 0 Losses)
Head Coach: Jono Dallas
Everything seemed to be going right for the Superoos when lockdown forced the cancellation of the 2021 season.
Through the seven fixtures the team made it through, they had yet to lose a game, looking strong on both side of the balls and looked poised to be making a strong run at the Artie Smith Trophy.
However, it was not to be, but heading into the 2022 season the team remains hungrier than ever, to take back what very much could have been their premiership win last season.
Head coach Jono Dallas said the group can't claim last season as anything more than any other team in 2021 and said the group remains steadfast focused on their 2022 campaign.
"There was still just under half a season to run so we can't really claim anything," he said.
"However, we have been lucky to retain the majority of our squad so hopefully when the season finally gets underway we can work into similar form."
Like Gerringong, continuity is a strength of Jamberoo and their player consistency has paid dividends to the teams performance and chemistry.
The team is strong across the majority of key positions, with the now four Asquith brothers playing major roles with half Mark Asquith, middle forward Luke Asquith, hooker Jimmy Asquith and newly signed fullback Paul Asquith who returns from an overseas campaign.
"They're a family that is very passionate about the club all born and bred in Jamberoo, and I know it is exciting for the boys as well as their parents to be able to have a season together," Dallas said.
Dallas said he feels very confident in his squad heading into the season and is excited about what they can accomplish.
"I'm very comfortable with the squad we've got this year; we have lost a couple of strong players from 2021, but we've managed to fill the void with a couple of new additions, as well as some younger guys progressing from our U18 and reserve grade sides," he said.
"Something a club like ours with such a small junior base can't always do. So it's very exciting to see we're going to have eight locals juniors in our first grade side for 2022."
The squad lost Corey Grigg to Gerringong and Jayden Morgan to North Queensland, who both played key roles last year, but the team is hoping their additions of young blood will be able to fill the void.
The Superoos calling card has been their tenacious defense which haunted the other teams last year.
The team in the cancelled 2021 season through seven fixtures only conceded 48 points and nine tries. This defensive prowess is something the team hopes to continue to build on heading into this seasons campaign.
The team has been deprived of sufficient training so far because of the weather, but Dallas remains optimistic about the squads chemistry.
"Unfortunately the last time we were able to set foot on our field was back on February 8, so obviously it's not ideal but it is what it is," he said.
"Luckily we've got a committed group that are still fronting up regularly, and while we haven't done a lot of field work, we have been making sure to do things that'll keep us close as team."
"I'm sure it'll be a strong start to the season and I'm very excited."
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Fifth Place (5 Wins, 4 Draws, 4 Losses)
Head Coach: Marc Laird
Last season was a mixed bag for the Knights who saw their share of highs and lows in the midst of a season that was already filled with enough uncertainty.
The team sat square in the middle of the pack but never was able to find the consistency they were after, with the teams depth being a large cause of that.
Heading into his second season as head coach Marc Laird is hoping to continue to build on the team from the last year, with the mindset that maintaining continuity will help yield results on the field.
"We really wanted to retain the players from last year that we had and continue to build on that," Laird said.
Coming into last year the team lost several players from their premiership team which Laird admitted "hurt them" as a squad.
The team instead focused the shortened 2021 season on developing their talented junior players as they transitioned to first grade. This "rebuilding year" helped lay the foundations for this season and Laird is excited about what his team can accomplish.
"Last year we gave the young guys a crack at first grade and they did really well and now having that year under their belt, I think that'll hold us in good sted," he said.
"I think this year we are going to see really strong development in them and I can't wait to see how they build on last season."
"In the offseason we really wanted to address a few different spots and really fix up our depth problem."
The team did just that bringing former 2019 Knights premiership players Tom Thistlewaite, Tom Angel and Tyler Clarke back to the team.
"They were really dominant for us in that 2019 comp, and them coming back is so great for the experience on our squad, they are going to give us such a boost this year," Laird said.
"They're just such quality players, they've got plenty of footy under their belt between the three of them, they are going to be fit and fire and ready to go."
"The way they train is really hard, they have good intensity and their leadership on the field is going to be very valuable."
With another year of talented youngsters aided by the return of some very strong players, it's no stretch to say the team could go far, but with the inability so far to properly train as a squad, there will definitely be an adjustment period.
"Everywhere we turn to train at the moment we are sort of getting roadblocked," Laird said.
"Once we are able to actually get on the training park and get the chemistry developed among the new and old players, we'll definitely be in there with a fight."
Laird said there's no way to "sugar-coat it" and that it may be difficult in the first few rounds, after being deprived so many field sessions but knowing every team is in the same boat has made the situation easier.
"It's going to take a few weeks to sort of get into the grind of the year, so i'm not expecting any miracles at first, but hopefully as the season goes on we'll hit our stride and improve week to week."
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Ninth Place (0 Wins, 3 Draws, 9 Losses)
Head Coach: Mason Harrison
Coming off a winless season, there were more positive signs than one might initially think with the Bulldogs.
The young squad brimming with potential had numerous highlights throughout the season mixed in with a lot of growing pains as they battled through the uneven season.
Albion Park head coach Jay Efaraimo had high praise for the young team, saying "it was the most physical game we played all year."
"They never game up, they never stopped trying, they ran hard, they tackle hard, they were just a high effort group," Efaraimo said.
The Bulldogs were always going to face a tough season coming off an 18-month hiatus from Group Seven, and no significant singing or depth within the club.
The acquisition of Mason Harrison as head coach however, the team has taken one step closer to fielding a strong and competitive side.
Like any rebuilding side, the biggest weakness for the squad last year was experience, where second half collapses in matches where they held the lead, often came as a result of inexperience across the board.
Head coach Mason Harrison who has come down from the Nowra Bomaderry Jets is excited to get going with the Bulldogs and is wants to re-establish the teams culture as they get acclimated to the top league.
"I was intrigued by the young group really, they have a really good core group and I'm excited to work with them throughout the season.
Harrison feels with almost a full season under their belt we could really see a lot of the young players from last years squad come into their own in the 2022 season.
"There's a lot of great young talent there and I think we are really going to see a lot of them step up to the plate," he said.
There were a number of stand-outs last year as noted by sports journalist Courtney Ward including five-eighth Travis Wooden, prop Lleyton Roach and hooker Lachlan Self who all had a strong campaign in the 2021 season.
The teams biggest need heading into the offseason though like the Magpies was experienced veteran players and depth.
The team addressed just that with three key signings.
Treymayne Chatfield from Batemans Bay, PJ Thornton from Mittagong and Nathan Deaves from the Jets who will all don the blue and red this season and should add some real punch to the team across the board while making the lives of the younger players a lot easier.
"They will all play a key roll for us. They are good, old and experienced players and that's just what this team needs.," Harrison said.
He said the team isn't going to go into the season with any lofty expectations, but instead are going to continue to focus on their development and see how it plays out.
"We are just going to take it week by week, hopefully we can make a push for the semi finals."
Harrison said that he's just excited to be here and excited to see how the team develops as a whole.
"We just really want to build a strong foundation and a solid platform for the Bulldogs for years to come."
The Bulldogs are on the right path, and while this season might not hold a grand finals appearance, there is sure to be more than a few positive signs that point to a bright future for the club.
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Sixth Place (2 Wins, 5 Draws, 5 Losses)
Head Coach: Ben Wellington
Last year the Jets as admitted by head coach Ben Wellington entered a "rebuilding" phase off the back of losing a significant portion of the their team from the 2020 season.
The team lost ten different players heading into the shortened 2021 season so it was always going to be a tricky time for the squad as they adjusted to a very different team.
While the standings from last year show the team only won two games, it doesn't tell the whole story as Courtney Ward said the team came "agonisingly short of winning countless others."
The main key the Jets needed to address heading into this season was to retain their players, and continue to develop the talented young players already in their team as well as the young guns coming through the 18s.
They also needed to sign some new players that would help them push through those second half struggles and into the win column.
The team did just that with the massive signing of Shoalhaven bred, talented fullback Adam Quinlan who will pack a massive punch for the Jets side with this experience, speed and skill.
"I think his experience will be really good for us," Wellington said.
"He's a hometown hero, he played for the Dragons, he's played overseas, everybody just loves him," he said.
"I just feel just with who he is, his character and what he brings, his professionalism, he'll make others want to play."
Wellington said that with the club going through its rebuilding phase it's one of those situations where you need someone to come along and help spark some interest around the community and the signing of Quinlan should do just that.
With his well known scoring prowess, the Jets should have no problem putting points on the board this season and the presence of the veteran will also do wonders for the play of their young players.
While Quinlan does have has had his fair-share of history with injuries, Nowra is hoping that he'll be able to put forth a full season as his presence will help immeasurably.
Wellington cited last year as a "character building season" which definitely rang true after losing nine players to injury early.
As stated previously the team had a significant amount of young players take the field in the wake of injuries last year.
Wellington said the development of those players last year was a massive highlight and that this year should be even better with experience under their belt.
"it was good to see a lot of rookies play last year, and I'm excited to see how they continue to improve this year," he said.
"We are a family like every club is and when they were called upon they didn't hesitate, they were right in there."
The Jets season appears full of promise and if things all go to plan, then this team could definitely be poised to make a run for the semi finals. The future of footy at Bomaderry Sporting Oval looks bright.
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Seventh Place (2 Wins, 6 Draws, 5 Losses)
Head Coach: Abed Atallah
It wasn't the season the Sharks had envisioned for themselves last year with a campaign that was from the dominant one the team had been hoping for.
While the team made a massive push in the 2021 offseason with an array of great talent coming the Sharks way, however, it never seemed to come together for the side as the Sharks experienced a rollercoaster of a season.
They were never dealt a fair deck of cards however as the injury bug took a firm hold on the team, with head coach Abed Atallah saying the team at one point had nine different grade one players out.
"In those type of situations there's not a lot you can, you kind of just have to roll with the deck of cards you've been given," he said.
There were two obvious areas of concern during the season however that club aimed to address prior to the 2022 campaign and that was defense and experience.
According Atallah the team in fact led almost every game they played the last season, but time and time again defensive and mental lapses would costs the Sharks wins.
"We found ourselves in crucial parts of the games lacking a bit of experience, and that comes with having a younger team," he said.
The team has looked to address those needs however with some good offseason acquisitions including wide-running backrower Hudson Spicer , and fullback Matt Nicholson.
"I think we've got a lot more depth heading into this season which I think will really help," Atallah said.
The side remains young with a nice mix of older experience, so on paper it's the perfect mix, but as anyone knows, no season ever goes as perfectly as you'd hope.
"It's a long season, so it's important to have players ready to go and fill in at a moment's notice."
"Some players may have to play reserve grade week one, but with how these seasons go, everyone is sure to get a chance, we'll definitely need them all," Atallah said.
Defence has remained the Sharks number one priority with the offensive side of the ball never really being an issue for the club.
"We could put points on the board, but we often couldn't grab a crucial stop," Atallah said.
"There's more than enough point scorers on the team, we just need to make sure we're defending well because I feel last year we were a far cry from where we could be as club."
However like every other team, the weather has made it hard to regularly get on the field and practice.
"We are just trying to get used to playing with one another and build that chemistry, but obviously its been hard with off and on training at the moment," he said.
"I think the players have worked super hard in their own time, busting themselves in and out of training so I'd really like to see them and the fans rewarded with a full season without interruptions."
The Sharks have rarely seen disappointment for too long so a run back to the post-season is a real possibility for the club.
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Eighth Place (2 Wins, 5 Draws, 6 Losses)
Head Coach: Brad Reh
The Stingrays underperformed last season, there's not many other ways to put it.
Off the back of a massive 2021 offseason the team looked poised to make a finals run, however it was not meant to be, as the team limped to an eighth place finish and never truly looked like the team they had the potential to be.
However, it is still a far cry from where the franchise was before the Reh brothers took over.
The club had only managed two wins in their first three seasons, and desperately needed a culture change.
"Three years ago the club wasn't in a good spot, they were getting beaten by eighty points in some games," Head coach Brad Reh said.
When Brad Reh and his brother Buster took over everything began to look promising.
"We've always preached 'buying in', I know it's a cliche but it rings true for what we expect," Reh said.
"That means getting to training, working hard, putting the hard yards in on the field, getting the wins and having fun."
With the season ending for Rays far from the spot they wanted to be in, the offseason was an interesting time.
While it wasn't necessarily the case of needing a roster overhaul, it was actually quite the opposite as the team needed more time together to establish continuity with one another.
So the team enters 2022 looking quite similar, however like in Shellharbour fashion, the team has made some splashy signings that should pay dividends for the squad this upcoming season.
"We've slowly improved the team overtime and we are really excited about the firepower we've been able to add in the offseason," Reh said.
The team has added George Campbell from Albion Park, Jake Horton, Matt Delbanco and former Gorillas player Jake Brisbane, who all look to play massive role with the team, with Reh saying they address all the teams needs for increased depth and experience on the roster.
"Grabbing the guys that we have will really help us across the board."
"In the past I feel as if we rush things, and often hit the panic button too soon especially in a number of close games," Reh said.
"We'd often chip and chase trying to cut a deficit with 10 to go instead of focusing on playing territorial football."
"These older blokes will really give us that experience to kick long and get those repeat sets and help to bring the group together and make everyone work hard to get the result," he said.
The team not only has gotten some new strength on the experience side of things but they also boast the largest junior base in Group Seven, with a number of talented young players who could take a step forward this coming season.
So with a solid core of experienced players and just the right balance of young blood to inject some energy into the team, there is no reason why this Rays side can't compete as one of the strongest sides in Group Seven and as things stand right now they should be up there at the end of the year.
Coach Reh echoes a similar feeling saying the club is definitely looking for results this year.
"I think we have a roster that'll be able to do a lot, we expect to make the semis at least," he said.
"It's all about focusing a getting wins in the regular season and then it becomes a whole new game if we reach the postseason."
2021 Position at Season Cancellation: Fourth Place (5 Wins, 3 Draws, 4 Losses)
Head Coach: Troy Grant
Gorillas head coach Troy Grant believes the team was truly building towards something special again when COVID-19 shut down the season.
The team battled adversity in the 2021 with the injury bug hitting the team hard, while they limped out of the gates, a strong second half propelled by the return of some key players saw the team making strides as they inched closer to another possible finals runs.
"I loved our group last year and I really believe were building towards a really strong end to the season and I was excited to see how we'd perform in the post season," Grant said.
Only two years removed from a surprise finals appearance in 2020, the Gorillas made sure to continue to maintain their current build as a team while adding a few pieces that would help to bolster an already strong unit.
"We've been able to keep the majority of our squad from the last two seasons which has been great for continuity," Grant said.
"The squad has been really solid the last few years and I'm really excited to see how they'll perform this year."
Grant sighted the signing of scrum half Beau Henry as a move that will really help the team.
"I'm really excited to see what the new guys will bring. Beau Henry has played for a long time and the experience he's going to bring is invaluable."
He said that some added experience across the board was something the Warilla side was looking for, and he think the depth of the squad is really going to put them in a good spot this season.
"Having the older guys out there really helps structure the team, their presence will really help with communication out on the field," he said.
"Overall I couldn't be happier with how the teams constructed, we've got some really nice depth in our forward pack, our halves are strong and our outside backs are great. Everyone is super solid, I think it's a great team."
While no one will doubt the well-rounded construction of the roster at the end of the day it'll come down to whether or not the team can stay on the field instead of the sidelines.
Through their additions though, the added depth should assist in combating any curveballs the injury bug might throw their way.
While Grant said he has heard a lot of chatter in regards to the strength of the other teams, he said he tries to just ignore and focus on what he can control.
"At the end of the day you don't really know anything until you actually get out on the field," he said.
Like the the rest of the clubs, the Gorillas have struggled to get onto the field so far this season to train, however Grant said knowing the majority of teams are all in the same boat helps.
"You don't dwell on it, we just have to deal with and move on," he said.
"We are just going to focus on our team and make sure that we turn up each week with the best performance possible."
Will the Gorillas be able to make another surprise finals run this year? It definitely isn't out of the question.
Sam Baker is Journalist with the South Coast Register on the South Coast of NSW. He also contributes work to The Batemans Bay Post, Milton Ulladulla Times, Southern Highlands News and Illawarra Mercury. Email: email@example.com Phone: 0472 904 583
Sam Baker is Journalist with the South Coast Register on the South Coast of NSW. He also contributes work to The Batemans Bay Post, Milton Ulladulla Times, Southern Highlands News and Illawarra Mercury. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 0472 904 583
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