With just two weekends left in the 2023 Peter McDonald Premiership season, it's the perfect time to look back at what we've seen in 2023.
Our reporters from around the region have been out and about every weekend during the winter months, taking in matches from Tony Luchetti Sportsground at Lithgow through to Larkin Oval at Nyngan.
After much deliberating, the team have come up with a list of awards winners and are ready to share with you the great (and not so great) moments from this season.
Player of the year: Alex Bonham (Dubbo CYMS)
The best footy he's played during a decade in green and white? You won't get any arguments here.
Back at home at hooker in 2023 after a number of years in the halves, Bonham has been the best player in the competition's best team. His intelligence is so clear to see each and every week. He knows when to run, his ability to pick out a forward to crash over close to the line is top-notch, while his kicking game has got CYMS out of trouble many times this year. Add to that his defence is pretty handy too.
Dubbo CYMS has lost three games this season and they're three games Bonham missed.
Honourable mentions: It was a season for elite numbers nines as Hayden Bolam (Bathurst St Pat's) was the best player in the Group 10 pool until his untimely knee injury while Jack Beasley (Mudgee Dragons) was another standout.
Beasley's teammate and coach Clay Priest was again everything you expect a former NRL prop to be. In Group 11, Parkes' Will Wardle remains one of the very best players to watch while Jarryn Powyer continues to perform at the top level with minimum fuss.
Most improved player: Ryan Manning (Orange Hawks)
Possibly the best player in the competition over the back half of the season.
Having bounced between five-eighth and fullback last season for a Hawks side that missed finals, Manning has become one of the best No. 1s in the competition this year.
After scoring just one try last year, Manning was the top point-scorer in the Group 10 pool in 2023 and scored 30 of his 116 in one match against Orange CYMS.
His toughness is underrated too. He gets whacked each week but keeps on coming.
As good as Hawks have been this season (and they're playing a prelim final this weekend) it does feel like they are probably still one elite player away from winning a competition. There's no reason why Manning can't keep developing into that player in 2024.
Honourable mentions: Tyrone Tattersall went from a versatile under 18s player at the Nyngan Tigers to another of first grade's best with fullbacks with Wellington. Cale Dunn took a real leap this year at Nyngan and turned into a hard-running second-rower or centre and scored 14 tries, the second best of the regular season behind Dubbo CYMS star Jeremy Thurston. James Goonrey also went to another level during his first season at Mudgee after previously spending time with the Parkes Spacemen.
Coach of the year: Shane Rodney (Orange Hawks)
The former NRL premiership winner didn't set the world alight in his debut season last year as Hawks missed the finals. But Hawks is a team loaded with youngsters and he's been bringing them on very nicely.
A vastly improved Hawks finished second in the Group 10 pool this season and will play in a prelim final this weekend. But it's the way Rodney has improved players like Lachie Lawson, Mack Selwood, Ryan Manning and Ben Blimka and expertly transitioned Matt Boss from a halfback to lock that stands out.
Hawks could also be the fittest team in the Group 10 pool and are a team that rarely makes a mistake and makes opposition sides earn every point.
Honourable mention: Justin Toomey-White at Wellington deserves some praise. The Cowboys were bolstered by some new signings but it was a number of young players and Wellington regulars who impressed this season as the team went from the 2022 wooden spoon and just one win to the second week of the finals.
Game of the year: Mudgee Dragons v Dubbo CYMS, round 9
So often matches with plenty of hype fail to deliver. Think of any Dubbo derby in recent years.
But this one between two powerhouses certainly did. This was like two heavyweight boxers going head-to-head. Mudgee dominated possession, especially in the second half, and had the craft and guile of Jack Littlejohn and Jack Beasley and the sheer power of Clay Priest but CYMS took every hit and produced the standout defensive effort of the season. It was engrossing and everything great about bush footy as both sets of fans were in full voice at Glen Willow.
CYMS scored an 18-16 victory in a match that wasn't without drama as multiple players were put on report and a number of others failed to finish what was a truly bruising encounter.
Honourable mentions: Teenager Cooper Egan stepped up in the final minute to nail a match-winning penalty goal from 40 out against Macquarie in a round eight belter while the Raiders also lost a thriller to Wellington under lights at Kennard Park.
Biggest disappointment: The demise of Orange CYMS
We knew it was going to be a rough season for those in green and gold, but CYMS' performances in the top two grades bordered on embarrassing for a club of its stature.
After playing a prelim only last season, CYMS had the worst record of any first grade side this season. They won just once in 14 games and conceded more than 40 points on average each week.
The club lost a huge amount of players over the off-season and the playing ranks got so thin this year the reserve grade side folded ahead of the final four rounds following three forfeits in four weeks.
Luckily for CYMS, its red-hot league tag team and under 18s side flew the flag for the club and both played finals.
(Not so) Honourable mentions: Willie Wright copping a mega 18-week suspension for swearing at an official and confronting the crowd at Orange was a bad look for the competition, but not as much as the ugly off-field brawl during the Forbes-Wellington match on July 23.
That brawl gained national attention, resulted in a host of suspensions - some of which have since been reduced on appeal - and was a real blow to the Forbes Magpies' image.
Best quote: Jake Betts (Bathurst Panthers)
Let us take you all the way back to round one. Much was expected of the Dubbo CYMS-Bathurst Panthers match but it was a bloodbath. CYMS ran out 60-0 winners and the mercy rule was used in the final minutes of the game. It was a dark day for Panthers and captain-coach Jake Betts didn't hold back post-game.
"That performance was embarrassing right across the park," he said.
"We're meant to be a first grade side and what we threw out there today was nowhere near that. It wasn't even reserve grade standard ... we'll have to take a good hard look at ourselves.
"Other clubs will be looking at us and laughing, and rightly so."
Tune in tomorrow for part two, where we pick our under 18s and league tag players of the year, the best new signing, look ahead to 2024, and more.
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