Illawarra Cutters v Burleigh Bears: Match preview
Intrust Super Championship
Sunday, 3.50pm AEDT (2.50pm Queensland)
The NRL State Championship – now known as the Intrust Super Championship – has followed a familiar storyline in the two years since its inception.
Recognising the need to showcase Queensland's champion team on rugby league's greatest day, the Northern Pride were invited to travel from Cairns to ANZ Stadium in 2014 to see how they would fare against seasoned first-graders such as Kevin Naiqama, Kevin Kingston, Nathan Smith and Panther cubs including Waqa Blake, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Leilani Latu.
A number of Pride players had never been to Sydney let alone played in front of such a big crowd but they caused a massive boilover, winning 32-28 and giving Queenslanders another team to be proud of.
The scenario was eerily similar last year when the Ipswich Jets – playing a brand of football under co-coaches Ben and Shane Walker that was unlike anything else in Australia – had the Newcastle Knights turned inside and out as a new batch of future NRL stars was showcased to the rugby league world.
This year the Illawarra Cutters and Burleigh Bears meet after both knocked off the minor premiers in their respective grand finals last weekend.
With nine players with NRL experience the Cutters have been installed as favourites but that won't concern a Burleigh outfit who have eight of their own and others desperate to prove they are worthy of an NRL contract.
An interesting sidenote is that Cutters coach Jason Demetriou was the man who engineered the Northern Pride's win in 2014 – of which current Cutters Tyrone McCarthy and Shaun Nona were star performers – and then went on to be an assistant with the Cowboys in their Telstra Premiership grand final win last season.
Watch out Cutters: If the British Government had not intervened Sami Sauiluma would be playing for Hull KR in the Super League finals series and not in the Intrust Super Championship on Sunday. Twice the NSW Cup centre of the year in 2014 and 2015, Sauiluma moved to the Gold Coast hoping for an opportunity with the Titans but left in January to take up an offer with Hull KR. Unfortunately for Sauiluma, because he had only played three NRL games for Cronulla in 2015 his visa application was rejected and he returned to Burleigh to play a key part in their Intrust Super Cup premiership. In last Sunday's grand final he had a team high 16 carries and pushed through the Redcliffe defence on almost every occasion, eating up valuable metres that his big forwards didn't have to trudge back to cover. With his former club playing in the main event, expect something special from Sauiluma.
Watch out Bears: Cutters fullback Adam Quinlan won man-of-the-match honours for his role in Illawarra's 21-20 win over the Mounties but may not have done so if not for his wingers. One of them, Kurt Mann, was St George Illawarra's leading try scorer (10) in 2016 despite only playing half the season. Mann found a home on the wing at the Dragons this season and made the most of his opportunities after Kalifa Faifai Loa broke his jaw. Luckily for the Cutters, Faifai Loa has starred for them since returning with the former New Zealand international managing two tries in the Intrust Super Premiership decider.
Key match-up: Drew Hutchison v Cameron Cullen – It should come as no surprise that the two individuals who put the final nail into their opposition's coffins last weekend will be responsible for their clubs' fortunes. Cullen's late try killed off any hopes of a Redcliffe comeback while Hutchison's field goal proved the difference against the Mounties. Hutchison and Cullen have featured fleetingly in the NRL this season – for the Dragons and Titans respectively – and will have one final playing opportunity in the State Championship before the biggest pre-season of their lives. Hutchison will try to convince Dragons coach Paul McGregor he is the right man to replace Benji Marshall in the Red V jumper while Cullen has signed for the Manly Sea Eagles.
History: This represents the first match-up between Burleigh and Illawarra who have over the years developed many players who have gone on to play in the top grade. Burleigh compiled a record of 17 wins and one draw from their 23 games to finish second behind Redcliffe in the Intrust Super Cup regular season. The Cutters won 15 of 22 games to finish second behind runaway Mounties on the Intrust Super Premiership ladder.
Match officials: Referee: Peter Gough. Assistant Referee: Jon Stone. Sideline Officials: Rohan Best and Nick Morel.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 3.45pm AEDT (2.45pm Queensland); Fox Sports 1 – Live from 3.40pm AEDT (2.40pm Queensland)
The way we see it: Whereas the Pride and Jets have brought somewhat unpredictable styles to the State Championship in past clashes the Bears play a power game that won't be unfamiliar to a polished and professional Cutters outfit. In Adam Quinlan, Hutchison and Josh McCrone the Cutters boast big-game experience in key positions playing behind a hardened forward pack. The Bears have class in their halves and at fullback but may struggle to contain the Cutters across the park. Illawarra by eight points.
This article first appeared on NRL.com