Slice of Cheese

NPL TAS SEASON PREVIEW PART III: The Crystal Ball

After a long summer, the day has finally arrived and the new NPL Tasmania season is all set to resume. New teams, new players and new time-slots are set to make this a bumper season, with what appears to be an intriguing title race looming. So who is best positioned to take home the trophies in 2019? Lets gaze into the crystal ball and engage in that ever scientific art of long range prediction.

This season sees the NPL expanding to 9 teams, with two new entrants. One of them is Riverside, who will look to make the step up from the Northern Championship. Alex Gaetani will have his side disciplined and well organised and I think they will be competitive, but the leap in competition they face this season is significant. As such I’m not sure they recruited quite deeply enough to make too much noise just yet. The NPL is a project for the Roos and this is a transitional year for them, as they adjust to life in the top flight. Their youngsters will get plenty of action and be better off for it in the long term, but its a bridge too far to be expecting a major push up the table in year one.

On the evidence of the preseason action, Clarence are also going to be up against it. They have some reinforcements on the way, but it hasn’t been pretty in the Summer months for a club that already went winless in 2018. Coach Warren Burt will have some experienced heads returning to provide some defensive stability and physical toughness, but the loss of Jake Stuart is a blow to an attack that already lacked weapons. It looks like a battle to avoid the spoon is looming for the Reds and they will need to show significant improvement on their preseason performances.

The Kingborough Lions best finish in the league is 6th place, and that may well be the ceiling on them for 2019 as they hit the reset switch once again under the new management of Greg Calvert. Douce and Brennan are nice pickups from South Hobart and having the leadership of Nick Cuthbertson at the back is a boost. Timothy Baker will take some major replacing though, he was one of the most underrated players in the competition last season and carried their attack at times. I think they will improve upon their 15 point tally from last season, but I wouldn’t expect a massive surge up the table just yet.

Last year we saw Launceston City break into what had seemingly been developing into a competition ‘big four’ of  South Hobart, Devonport, Olympia and Zebras but if they were to go close to last seasons points tally in 2019, it would be a big achievement. They will be up against it to repeat those efforts with a coaching change coming right on the eve of the 2019 season. Lino Sciulli doesn’t have long to steady the ship and he will be hoping American imports, Patrick Sullivan and Greg Roller can give him the impact the club received from their overseas players last year. So much of their success last season came from the work of Niko Giantsopoulos in net, and Tyler Fischer up front, so they will need new match winners to step up if they are to outperform expectations again this time.

Replacing Tyler Fischer will be tough- Solstice Photography

On paper it looks like there could be a divide between the top and bottom four again, and the dividing line between them could well be the Glenorchy Knights. I think they will beat multiple sides above them on the table this year, but I am not sure if they are quite ready to challenge for a title just yet. I think fifth is par for them this season, anything more is a success, anything less will be a disappointment. Given their spending over the past few seasons, its a little surprising not to see import players in the squad. But Sherman is happy to back in local talent, which he certainly has no shortage of with last years already quality squad bolstered by Thomas Young, Thomas Bellini and Jake Stuart offsetting the loss of Declan Foley and Jono Ladic.

Which leaves us with four, and to my eye all of these sides sit firmly in the title contenders category. If any of these four sides end the season hoisting the trophy, I would not be at all surprised. I think each of their squads have the requisite talent to win a title, and it will come down to who can bring it all together, and who has that little bit of luck go their way every champion side needs. Whilst Leicester City reminded us all the improbable is not impossible a couple of years back; that stood out because of just how rare of a story it was and I don’t think we will have our own version of that. So which of the four is the best chance? Who deserves to enter the race as favourites?

The defending Champions Devonport may well deserve that label despite the departure of 3 key players who made the NPL Team of the Season last year in Brayden Mann, Michael Holden and Beau Blizzard. Their entire defensive unit of Pitchford, Bidwell, Lazcano, Mulraney and Smith returns, and it’s a unit that conceded just 18 goals all of last season. Blizzard’s departure hurts the midfield, but Todd Hingston and Daniel Syson strengthen it significantly. So the question for the Strikers is can they replace the goals up top they’ve lost? A combination of players from interstate and abroad in Fitzgerald, Giampaoli and Juarez Parrado as well locals Stone, Barnard and Denehey will need to step up if they are to defend their crown. Betting on the Strikers has been the right call more often than not the past 3 years, they have won 4 of the last 6 major trophies, but it did take Chris Gallo one season to first mould his squad. And 2019 could be that year for new boss Rick Coghlan, though it’s certainly a more experienced group than the 2017 Strikers were.

Joel Stone had a dominant second half of 2018- Solstice Photography

The Olympia Warriors tumbled out of the top four last season, finishing 20 points off top spot and well away from their expectations in fifth. There is reason for optimism this year though, probably impressing the most of any of the sides in the league over the preseason. The newly assembled squad has been looking sharp, and with star striker Jack Ryan leading the line, they look a particularly potent side. With no shortage of attacking talent, and a midfield set to be transformed by the return of Nick Mearns and addition of veteran Jono Ladic, the only real question mark is over the full back positions. It’s an area which has seen a rotating cast in recent seasons and again they have a surplus of centre backs but a lack of natural full backs, although this weeks signing of Ryan Cook could help address that need. Their smaller home pitch probably works against them given the technical abilities of the squad, but there is no reason this side can’t win the title this year, it’s their best squad since 2015 and might prove even stronger.

The Hobart Zebras are perennial contenders but for one reason or another, they have not been able to quite get over the line. Last year was another case of starting strong, then tailing away, as after sitting 3 points off top spot after round 14 last season, they posted a 3-1-3 record in the final 7 weeks and ended the season 11 points off the summit. Is this the year they sustain their quality for a full season? It’s certainly one of the deeper Zebras squads we’ve seen. Whereas depth has previously been an issue when injuries have hit, this squad looks like it bats deep enough to endure. They have kept most of last years squad, asides from Sklenar, Van Doorne and Alex Markaj, but those departures are offset by interstate recruits in Edwards and Yonezawa, as well as Lapolla and Fagg coming across from Beachside. Throw in Thomas Little joining from Olympia, a fit again Huigsloot and Mckeown and the depth problems that have previously haunted them, might not be in the way this year.

But when it comes to depth, South Hobart seem to have the competition covered, especially in midfield where they have Morton, Desouza, Foley, Feral and Turner to juggle into 3 spots, with one likely to play in attack where Hall, Walter, Leszczysnki and Hamlett are themselves fighting for 2-3 spots. Then in defence Ludford and Bowman offer good cover for what you assume would be the first choice pairing of Thomas and Phillepson. They may well need such depth to survive early on in the season though, with Schmidt, Hamlett, Foley, Feral, Hall, Sculthorpe and Lakoseljac all on the injury list as they head into round 1. Last season it was a slow start that cost South, and whilst you would think the longer season ought to suit them and their impressive depth, they haven’t set the world on fire in 2019. Running the gauntlet and producing long winning streaks will be harder to achieve this year so they can’t afford a repeat.

A broken leg will leave Connor Schmidt out of action- Solstice Photography

So there is the case for each of the four and I do feel the degrees of separation are minimal. If I were to stick my neck out, and for the sake of the piece, I will, I’d say that I fancy Devonport to defend their title, but it’s hard to be confident with such fierce competition around the NPL.  A more confident prediction I will make is that multiple sides will be in the hunt as we enter the final 2 weeks of the season. I think this race goes right down to the wire and its going to be fascinating to follow.

In terms of the individual awards, my Mitsubishi Medal pick is Callum Brown from Glenorchy Knights who I think is going to take the league by storm and cause absolute mayhem in attack. The Golden Boot is a tough one to split between Jack Ryan and Mathew Sanders, but I’ll take the Englishmen to just edge it out.

So that’s it, all the talk can end now and the players will let their football do the talking. I can’t wait for it all to get underway at Warrior Park tonight and think we could be primed for a truly special season. Stay tuned to Slice of Cheese, as we will have you covered, following every twist and turn that awaits.

NPL TASMANIA SEASON PREVIEW

PART 1- Payers to Watch

PART II- The Burning Questions 

PART III- The Crystal Ball