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REVIEW: 2023 Queensland Cup - Part 1
Their seasons have been over for a few weeks so we're overdue a look back on the bottom half of the 2023 Queensland Cup ladder
15. Ipswich Jets
The Jets have been on a long slow descent into madness since their premiership win in 2015, famously under the Walker Brothers. Since then, the Walker Brothers have moved on to more lucrative careers in real estate, covid happened, the Jets spurned any form of traditional relationship with the Q4 NRL clubs and they lost some of their talent to the new Toowooomba-based1 Western Clydesdales. The net result is a winless 2023, something that hasn’t happened for around 20 years, and a wooden spoon. There was nothing in particular to recommend watching Ipswich this year, unless you were a real sicko, but their last two games - playing the Washington Generals to the return of Papenhuyzen with the Sunshine Coast Globetrotters and a 72-10 dacking by Tweed - is as good a representation of the year that was as any.
Guy of the Year - Gerome Burns was the only one even attempting to keep the Jets competitive, which was not very. The five-eighth racked up 1.6 wins above reserve grade (WARG) in just 15 appearances, one of only six Jets to accumulate more than 0.5 over the course of 2023.
Highlight of the Year - That the year is over.
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14. Mackay Cutters
No one was hurt more by the Cowboys’ insistence on placing their NRL-contracted talent solely in Townsville than the Mackay Cutters. It’s been a tough road for the Cutters since their premiership triumph in 2013 (go look up who played in that game) and Mackay have not made the post-season in the decade since. Even so, with a couple of wooden spoons along the way, this was a new low. The Cuts had at least managed at least four wins each season (albeit in longer seasons) and could only compile three victories in 2023; against the Jets, the Clydesdales and, oddly enough, the Falcons. There were another ten losses by margins in the single digits. If even half of those could have been flipped with some first grade help, that turns a disastrous 3-17 into a merely bad 8-12 and elevates Mackay out of the basement fourteenth and into the also-ran tier of clubs.
Guy of the Year - The Cutters scored the fewest tries of any team in the league, four fewer even than the Jets. Of 61 four pointers, 11 were scored by Flynn Camilleri, including one of the tries of the year. The Walkerston Wanderers junior has come up through the ranks as a pure Cutters product and finished off nearly one in five of his team’s tries in his first full year in Cup.
Highlight of the Year - Joshua Smith scores the winning try in the dying minutes to give Mackay their first victory of the season, over Sunshine Coast at home, on June 3 in round 12. FT: Cutters 16 - Falcons 10.
13. Western Clydesdales
For the new look Clydesdales coming into 2023, there could have only been two realistic goals: 1) win a game and 2) don’t finish last. Not only did Western not finish last, they finished thirteenth and managed to beat out two well-established Queensland Cup clubs on the ladder with a sweep of the Jets and, oddly enough, a win over the Devils. That’s a big tick for the fledgling franchise, albeit only 1.75 points per game separated them from Mackay. The Dales have now set a solid foundation for this second iteration of the club. The next step will be winning more games, establishing a commercial base and finding more guys. The relationship with the Bulldogs seems to be delivering something, with Melino Fineanganofo being offered an opportunity with the Sydney club after the centre scored ten tries in 13 games this year.
Guy of the Year - While it’s tempting to anoit Fineanganofo, I can’t go past Darryn Schonig. The Clydesdales’ player of the year is heading to France in the off-season and Big Diesel leaves potentially a big hole to fill should he not return to the Garden City. Schonig had a career year, averaging 140 metres, 30 metres more than any previous season, and two tackle breaks per game.
Highlight of the Year - After 17 years, the Clydesdales returned to the Queensland Cup in round 1 against the PNG Hunters.
12. Townsville Blackhawks
Womp womp. The Blackhawks were among the pre-season favourites, being the assigned Mecca for all Cowboys players deemed surplus to first grade requirements. Townsville, with this surplus of NRL guys and dudes, promptly voided their bowels and put up an 8-11-1 season. Every time I tuned in to the Blackhawks, they’d be in the middle of scoring a slick, amazing try on their way to losing 20-36. Like the Devils, the Choppers finished with a positive points difference but firmly entrenched in the bottom half of the ladder in twelfth. A baffling season was capped off by dumping their Cowboys-aligned coach early and very publicly putting North Queensland on notice that things will change next year. Delicious.
Dude of the Year - It’s a bit early to certify Zac Laybutt as a Dude but he’s well on his way based on his late season appearances for the Cowboys as North Queensland searched for three-quarters that could do a job. Mini Laybutt demonstrated some versatility by playing nine games at centre, four at fullback, one at five-eighth and one off the bench.
Guy of the Year - We’ll be hearing more about Robert Derby over the coming year. The 21 year old Papua New Guinean made the move from Cairns to Townsville over the off-season and went on to score 13 tries in 16 games while chewing through 181 metres per game.
Highlight of the Year - The Blackhawks’ eight wins came against the Cutters (twice), Falcons (twice), Jets (twice), the Clydesdales and the Hunters. In summary, Townsville beat all the teams below them on the ladder, swept the notoriously unreliable Falcons and picked up a huge win over the Hunters at home. That’s the best we can do for a signature win. What a disaster. FT: Blackhawks 54 - Hunters 4.
11. Norths Devils
It’s fair to ask what the hell happened here. The two-time defending premiers just never got out of second gear and by the time the Devils showed anything worthwhile, finals were out of reach. Their first four rounds were a narrow loss to Burleigh, a draw with Redcliffe, a narrow loss to Tweed and a draw with Souths Logan, i.e. no wins from three games against top five teams. The Pitchforks found a strange pocket of competitiveness mid-season, beating the Phins, thumping the Mags and belting the Gulls over four games and a bye. The results were all too inconsistent and as the season wore on, big totals were the order of the day but narrow margins - beating Ipswich by only seven, losing to Western by eight in back-to-back weeks - as Norths dropped to 8-10-2 and eleventh place.
Dude of the Year - While Brendan Piakura would have been moved on to Souths Logan after the Devils and Broncos got divorced had he not already earned his spot in first grade, he played the hell out of the games he did pull on the two blue and gold jersey. Piakura will finish the season the second best TPR in the entire league, having scored tries in six of his eight appearances.
Guy of the Year - There couldn’t be and, probably in the time he’s been there, hasn’t been anyone else for this illustrious honour. 2023 was Jack Ahearn’s swansong. Ahearn was the perfect encapsulation of Guyedness, never quite breaking through to the NRL but certainly deserving of an opportunity to at least have a crack. He could play at fullback and in the halves and sometimes at dummy half, sometimes doing all three in the space of one game, depending on what the mad scientists at Nundah had cooked up. The competition won’t be quite the same without him.
Highlight of the Year - I wanted to do Bryce Donovan’s field goal to seal a 23-22 victory over local rivals, the Dolphins of Redcliffe, in a grand final rematch but QPlus cut out with about ten minutes left in that game, so there’s no footage. Instead, here’s the first and last goal2 kicked by Jack Ahearn in his final game of Queensland Cup, after asking the referee if he could take it from the sideline (this was denied by the fun police). FT: Devils 40 - Hunters 30.
10. PNG Hunters
Since winning the premiership in 2017, the Hunters have been on a slide. Seemingly the nation of Papua New Guinea was unable to produce a new golden generation to replace that of Ase Boas’. A mediocre 2018 was followed by several seasons in the cellar, including a couple of years based at Runaway Bay thanks to covid. Having now returned to Fort Moresby, the Hunters looked in much better shape in 2023 with the best form they’ve had in five years. While the Hunters didn't blow the competition apart, the signs are there that the Papua New Guineans have bottomed out and are rebuilding towards competitiveness under Stanley Tepend. Given the nature of the Hunters is to act as a shop front for rugby league talent, it will be hard to maintain the kind of continuity that might allow a premiership tilt but being in the six through eight spots should be achievable.
Guy of the Year - For an example of discontinuity, there’s Rodrick Tai. Tai is heading to Super League next year, joining Warrington, after an astonishingly good year in the centres. The sophomore out of Mt Hagen put up plenty of stats in attack - over 19 appearances, 8 tries, 7 assists, 78 tackle breaks, 10 line breaks and 144 metres per game - but was also reliable in defence.
Highlight of the Year - Morea Morea (and Solo Wane) go fast.
9. Tweed Heads Seagulls
A legitimately above average team in all respects, bar their presence in the top eight. Tweed had a better points difference than five of the teams ahead of them on the ladder, had a winning record but 11-9 ultimately wasn’t enough for more than ninth. Four of those losses came by a total of less than a dozen points and a hypothetical 15-5 record would have put the New South Wales club into the top three with the other clubs of similar points difference. The Seagulls have played with style for a few years now, preferring a coast-to-coast offence that can rack up big scores in little time. The archetypal Tweed game runs something like scoring 24+ points in the first half and then conceding 20+ in the second half (or sometimes vice versa), usually against Norths. That seemed to desert the Gulls as they were steamrolled in a win-and-in final round match against the Falcons and Melbourne’s reserve forward pack.
Dude of the Year - Perhaps by virtrue of playing almost an entire season for the Seagulls, while his Titans compatriots came and went as needed, Treymain Spry was a huge contributor to Tweed’s campaign. Spry accumulated 2.4 WARG, averaged 124 metres per game and 13 tries in 18 games. Instead of looking at his defensive efficiency, see the flick pass below.
Guy of the Year - Jason Oliver dubs him the Prince of Piggabeen but, mostly fullback and part-time half in a pinch, Lindon McGrady, has had a career year. Having played in the black and white since 2017, McGrady kicked at 85% to a career high of 10.5 points per game, including eight tries in 16 games, and despite an abbreviated campaign in the 1 jersey, accumulating the sixth most WARG of any fullback.
Highlight of the Year - I couldn’t find a coast-to-coast try in a game that was both emotionally meaningful to Tweed and also a victory, so we have JoJo Fifita icing an absolute thrashing of their fellow Seagulls in the first Flockbuster of the year. FT: Seagulls 44 - Seagulls 26.
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A district it turns out the Jets had been drawing down on. Ipswich is close enough to Brisbane for the bigger Brisbane-based clubs to pinch guys out of Ipswich Brothers, Redbank Plains, Ipswich State High, etc, so turned further west but now finds themselves hemmed in by the metropolis on the eastern side and a team that doesn’t require a 3 hour round trip for training on the western side.
According to QRL.com anyway.