Under 19's Semi Final
Toronto-Awaba (4th) v Kahibah FC (1st)
2018 Meetings: KAH 4-2 TAW & TAW 1-2 KAH
Given the results this season, one could argue this looks the easiest game to predict on Saturday but with Toronto-Awaba getting through two tough fixtures to stay in the hunt, anything can happen and they will be playing to create history for their club. The Stags haven't sent a team to Grand Final Day since 2002 if research was done correctly. That is a very long wait and it'd be a good story in a horrible year for the club for that to happen.
Toronto finally knocked off a team above them on the table last weekend when they saw off Cooks Hill 4-1 but the test gets tougher here as they face the Premiers. A couple of injuries have left the Stags a little bit off "full-strength" and the rumoured omission of Sam Lynch is a big one. Still, this team will be determined to prove everybody wrong. Their attack must fire and that hasn't always been the case. Last week was a good start.
Kahibah will be a firmer test than Cooks Hill due to the fact that they have everything to play for over the next two weeks. This isn't a game they can afford to lose. The record of Kahibah FC in New-FM finals is appalling. The 17's failed twice, 19's once and 1st Grade three times. Six times Kahibah have sent a team to the finals and six times they've failed to make it to the big one.
What Kahibah have now is stunning form. 19 wins from 20 starts this year, 5 clean sheets in a row and the ability to win even when they're not at their best. Add to this some Championship-winning experience from Lakes 17's in 2016 and definitely they come into this game with high hopes. Their 8 goals conceded is a league-best and they have an ability to really grind teams into the ground. Club history is there to be made.
Prediction: Toronto's best chance of winning this final will come on defence. Their 28 goals conceded to Kahibah's 8 just doesn't match up so the Stags have to make doubly sure they try and get through this 1st Leg unscathed. They won't be able to get into a back-and-forth battle of goals because it's just very difficult to see Kahibah being breached that much. This reminds Newysports of the New Lambton v West Wallsend 17's Semi last year. The Stags have to try and keep them at bay here and play the "away goals" next week.
My Tip: Toronto-Awaba 1-2 Kahibah FC
Under 23's Semi Final:
New Lambton (4th) v Thornton Redbacks (1st)
2018 Meetings: NLE 0-3 THO & THO 0-1 NLE
Thornton coach Scott Winslade pointed out at the NS Awards that the only sides to have taken points from his Premiership-winning side are those in the top four. New Lambton were one of just two sides to defeat the Redbacks and did so just a couple of weeks ago but that being said, the Eagles had to work their backsides off. In fact their last four games have been 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 1-1 so they have really knuckled down defensively, largely thanks to the brick wall-esque Ben Prangemeier at centre back.
In very similar fashion to New Lambton 19's last year, they come into the finals as underdogs but hopeful of toppling the Premiers. With a few players who won that 19's Grand Final plus some experience, this is a team that is certainly no walk over. Someone like Peter Juchniewicz has been there and done it all before in terms of finals experience. Similar to Toronto 19's, they've got everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Thornton on the other hand have everything to lose. Scott Winslade's side fell short at the Semi Final hurdle last year and there's no doubt the ultimate goal this year was to go one further. The Premiership was a nice touch but the job is far from down and if anything the team have dropped off a little bit from where they were earlier in the season. They were comfortable in 1st Place and now face the stern test of finals football.
The big difference to Thornton now compared to when they lost to New Lambton two weeks ago is that they will have a stronger defensive line available this time round. That will boost their belief but they do have to find a way to goal after being a little bit wasteful and unlucky against New Lambton in Round 21 and even last week at Southy. This team will want nothing more than to throw down the gauntlet early in the Semi Final tie.
Prediction: The Eagles can credit the back end of their season to Ben Prangemeier. It's not always possible to call one player critical but the work he has done defensively has been enormous for their hopes. With Thornton playing for "away goals" here, they need to knuckle down defensively. Thornton if at their best should win it but you never know in finals football.
My Tip: New Lambton 0-1 Thornton Redbacks
1st Grade Semi Final
Belmont-Swansea (4th) v Cooks Hill United (1st)
2018 Meetings: CHU 1-0 BEL & BEL 2-2 CHU
It was the most bizarre set of events in Round 22 that ended up seeing Belswans slip down to 4th and set up a date with Cooks Hill United. For the last couple of months, this would have been a lot of people's Grand Final tip but now it's obvious that one of last year's Grand Finalists will be going out of the competition at the penultimate hurdle. Belswans are on the hunt for their third-consecutive Grand Final appearance.
Josh Rufo is leaving the club but his history in finals is strong. This particular game harks back to 2015 when he coached Wallsend to a stirring Semi Final win over then-Premiers Lakes. Some teams will be overawed by finals but Belswans is not one of them. They have a super experienced squad full of players who have won trophies at various levels. The likes of Gazzard, Cook, Matthews, they know finals football like the back of their hands.
The issue for Belswans is they've looked off in their last two games. Definitely missing Josh Sutton and they'll be hoping he is close to full fitness but if anything last weekend was the boot up the backside they needed. It's a clean slate now and a chance to really create club history. If they find a way past Cooks Hill then that elusive Championship will be closer than ever before.
Cooks Hill come into this game on the back of their greatest ever 1st Grade win. In 2003 they beat Broadmeadow White Eagles 13-2 when in the ID competition. Last week's 13-0 win over a helpless Toronto-Awaba showed one thing the Cookers possess more than anyone else and that is a competitive ruthlessness. Lee Ashton and Nick Russell went blow-for-blow in the Golden Boot race scoring nine goals between them and the latter prevailed 21 to 20.
It wasn't all that long ago that Lakes were the benchmark in this league but this Cooks Hill side have taken it to a whole new level. It's been 28 games since they last lost a game with Graham Law coaching and yes they did lose those two earlier this year but discipline let them down in both and since then they've gone 14 games in a row without losing. It's a considerable patch of form heading into the business end of the season.
There's really no doubting their experience either. Loads of players remain from last year's squad and new recruits like Jack Wilkinson are likely used to pressure games elsewhere. It'll be interesting to see if young Andrew Benbow retains his spot given the magnitude of what's ahead but it's safe to say the Cookers are running like a well-oiled machine going into the finals.
Prediction: Here's hoping this tie doesn't turn into the one-sided bore-fest that was Cooks Hill v Thornton last year. 10-1 was the aggregate score there and it's tough to see Belswans letting that happen. Blacksmiths Oval is not an easy place to travel to and given Graham Law has not won their with this squad in two visits, it's easy to see why. That being said, just cannot go against the free-scoring Cookers.
My Tip: Belmont-Swansea 1-2 Cooks Hill United
Under 19's Semi Final:
West Wallsend (3rd) v Cooks Hill United (2nd)
2018 Meetings: CHU 1-1 WWB & WWB 0-3 CHU
West Wallsend return to the 19's finals for a third-straight season and after missing out on the Grand Final last year they'll be hoping to go one step better and maybe more. The Bluebells were tipped to be serious title contenders once again but their season has not gone as planned for the most part and at one point it looked as though they may have missed the top four altogether.
What Westy must overcome in this game is their heavy reliance on Josh Knight for scoring goals and assisting in opportunities. The results don't lie, when their star man is not there they don't tend to do as well on the scoreboard. Their season was rescued by Knight "parachuting" in from 23's to 19's and with him apparently suspended for this first final, the test is firmly on.
Cooks Hill were travelling nicely with five wins on the trot and only one goal conceded in that time but last weekend conceded four against Toronto at the AthField. It can be argued that they didn't have a lot to play for last weekend and thus maybe weren't at the races so to speak but now the pressure rises enormously to what is a daunting Semi Final at Westy.
Confidence should be high after they knocked off the Bluebells 3-0 just three weeks ago at the same venue. But many of their players will remember their controversial exit last season and truly any given moment could see things fall apart. There will be a turnover of players given ages and how well the 17's are progressing so this could be the end of an era so to speak. They'll want it to go on another two weeks though.
Prediction: If you didn't realise by now, Newysports doesn't give Westy much of a chance without Knighty playing. 7 of their last 10 goals have come from their key goalscorer. Their defence has to stand firm with Cooks Hill playing for away goals and really that's where the tie will be won or lost. Have a feeling this could get out of hand for Westy.
My Tip: West Wallsend 1-3 Cooks Hill United
Under 23's Semi Final:
Cooks Hill United (3rd) v Cessnock City (2nd)
2018 Meetings: CHU 2-2 CES & CES 2-1 CHU
It's hard to remember a team over the last four years that have entered the finals on the back of such bad form than Cooks Hill 23's. Okay, they technically beat Toronto with the forfeit and would have won that anyway but against teams that actually have numbers to their squad they have lost four games in a row. Their last win came back on June 23rd against Thornton so it's been a forgettable time as of late.
Now when you factor in the fact that Ben Nichols team entered the finals last year with three wins in a row and still got knocked out, suddenly there's some significant worries about their chances. There will be no room for complacency this weekend and certainly they'll be hoping the likes of Adam Gunster and Emerson Augey are fully fit and ready to play their part in what will be a difficult Semi Final.
Now Cessnock aren't exactly in world-beating form themselves. A draw against Belswans was frustrating and then an away draw with Singleton was a bit of a worry given where they were sitting on the table. Normality resumed last weekend when they knocked off Kahibah but now they face a contender and not a team who's season ended last weekend. This is suddenly the real deal for the Hornets.
It is in some ways a young side but Cessnock 23's have been an exciting side to follow this season and the story behind this team has to be David "Skip" O'Hearn. Over 400 games for the Hornets, now breaking his brother's appearances record and a chance to maybe bring home a championship. Throw in the likes of Ben Priest and Kyle Gillis in the attack and this team is ready to do business in the finals.
Prediction: Cooks Hill were out-gunned and out-muscled last year against West Wallsend and will face a similar test here. Cessnock are not an easy side to face and will be in the faces of the former Premiership contenders now 3rd-place side. Cooks Hill's attack simply needs to fire and honestly not sure they will to a degree. Don't think this will be over in one game though.
My Tip: Cooks Hill United 1-2 Cessnock City
1st Grade Semi Final
West Wallsend (3rd) v Thornton Redbacks (2nd)
2018 Meetings: THO 6-1 WWB & WWB 0-2 THO
Both of these teams picked up mammoth results last weekend and have thus set up a mouthwatering Semi Final clash that has history written all over it. Westy haven't been to a NewFM Grand Final since 2007 and Thornton have never been to there in their 40 year history. Finals football returning to a spiritual finals venue in Johnston Park is a victory for not just West Wallsend but the league in general.
Given how close the Bluebells came to falling down to Zone League Three at the start of 2014, some would be very emotionally proud to see the club firmly back on its feet and on the brink of something special. Five out of six West Wallsend sides are in the finals and it's a testament to their youth development and their work on and off the field. The club is ran on passion and blue-and-white blooded belief.
It looks apparent that Gary Rowe's tenure will end this season and he'll no doubt want to sign off in the best fashion possible and that is to bring home this club's first major trophy in eleven long years. The side is full of confidence and belief and really the turning point was a game against Thornton when they were embarrassed 6-1. This now is the West Wallsend people knew in yesteryear. A group that will give their blood, sweat and tears to put this club back where it rightfully belongs.
Whilst it's easy to get wrapped up in this fairytale comeback story of West Wallsend, there's equally a story to be told of the opposition (which you wouldn't get for a Cooks Hill or Belswans). Thornton Park (now Redbacks) were founded in 1978 and joined the Christian Churches competition in 1979. They've worked incredibly hard to get to this point. Someone like Club President Mark Whitchurch who won the 1985 5th Division Grand Final could tell you their story. (FYI, TRFC Club History: http://websites.sportstg.com/club_info.cgi?c=0-8304-126303-482456-26161581&sID=246655)
This season was a topsy-turvy one and saw some doubting Gary Wand and his troops after the departure of Darrel McAllister. The exciting Redbacks lit up the competition early on but fell off to the point where finals looked a chance of fading away. Their win over South Cardiff last weekend was as gutsy and determined as they come. Just like West Wallsend, it was a game played with finals-like intensity and that will do them a world of good.
Thornton have at times lacked steel this year but they showed it against Southy last week and they'll need to show it again. Some of these players have obviously played in finals before but the ones who haven't been to a 1st Grade Semi Final will learn quickly this isn't any regular fixture. For 21 of the past 22 years, Thornton have competed in this 2nd tier competition. To finally secure a Grand Final spot would be perhaps the club's greatest achievement. Make no doubt, whether Westy or Thornton, there is a brilliant story to come from this finals clash.
Prediction: In all honesty, Southy didn't give Thornton a real go last weekend. The Redbacks will come to a hostile Johnston Park and if they aren't up to the intensity, they'll be quickly found out. West Wallsend will be up for a downright dogfight (mostly within the rules) and possess a very dangerous and quick go-forward. 2nd Leg will decide it but Westy to win on home turf.
My Tip: West Wallsend 2-1 Thornton Redbacks