The third installment of the NRL State Championship plays out on Sunday afternoon as the meat in a three games NRL Grands Final day sandwich.

Once again it is a welcome addition and should be a fantastic match. It features the battle between New South Wales’ Intrust Super Premiership winners Illawarra Cutters and Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup winners Burleigh Bears.

Sure there are some who disregard the game as second rate between second tier sides. But those people are short sighted and ignorant of the quality that is on offer just below the NRL Grand Final. Those who dismiss this clash are probably the kind of people who said State of Origin wouldn’t work in 1980, or maintain that the earth is still flat. They don’t know what they miss every season.

The State Championship is a game of increasing importance and is something that has finally been made a permanent fixture and is a real point of interest for some on the Grand Final day.

For too long the NRL disregarded the rest of the rugby league fan base by showing the NSW Cup final on NRL Grand Final day. Now the clash between Queensland and NSW’s best can capture the imagination of all league fans on the day, not just Sydney based fans.

If only we could fix the Sunday 4pm game distribution next. It is a simple premise that took not much to make happen, and they will reap the rewards in the years to come.

The two previous clashes have been won by the Queensland based sides – the first going to the Northern Pride in a massive boilover against a star studded Penrith Panthers line up.

The Pride could barely assemble a 17 man squad but took it to the more experienced rivals. Ipswich Jets won in 2015 as their juggernaut of attacking freedom achieved another success after a hard fought win over Newcastle who came from eighth place to make the State Championship.

Will it be three in a row for Queensland in 2016? The bookies say no, but I say yes.

There are some similarities between the two sides heading into the game. Both finished second in their respective competitions in 2016. Both took care of more fancied and more traditionally powerful clubs in the Grand Final. Both sides are from the coast lines south of their major city. Both hand a handful of players who contributed to their overall competition’s Team of the Year.

The Cutters had four players – Levi Dodd, Shannon Wakeman, Tyrone McCarthy and Jacob Host. Burleigh had halves Cameron Cullen and Jamal Fogarty and coach of the year Jim Lenihan.

But there are some differences.

Illawarra played out a Grand Final game that was decided by one point and was reasonably free flowing on Sunday. They led 16-0 after just 12 minutes, and it looked like a cricket score could be possible. But the Mounties responded before and just after the break with 20 unanswered points, and all of a sudden it looked as if the Cutters couldn’t do it. Illawarra scored to level it 20-20 and leave the field goal to be slotted by Drew Hutchison.

Burleigh on the other hand had a tough physical game against their Grand Final rivals. Over the first 10 minutes it was a real arm wrestle with no team giving or getting anything. Eventually the Bears quality showed through and they went out to a 14-4 lead during the first half and 14-10 at the break. Burleigh then had to hold off Reclfife Dophins when they got close in the second half and had all the ball, and looked likely to haul them.

They were out on their feet until Cameron Cullen scored the final try that broke through the line and the minor premiers hearts and had the trophy heading to the Gold Coast.
Illawarra have loads more NRL experience with Josh MCrone accounting for 140 games himself, alongside those who have played NRL this year like Taane Milne, Kurt Mann, Adam Quinlan, Kalifa Fai Fai Loa, Jacob Host and others. Shaun Nona has actually played in this game before in 2014 for the victorious Northern Pride.

Burleigh have just 90 games between them, with Cameron Cullen being the only player to regularly taste NRL in 2016. But that matters no too much, as Ipswich had just 6 games of NRL experience before their sensational win in 2015. All of them were Matt Parcell.

So will it be three in a row for Queensland sides? I say yes, as the way the Bears shut down the Intrust Super Cup’s minor premiers who had the best attack and defence was super impressive. Their first half against Redcliffe in the first week of the finals would not have been matched by many NRL teams.

Prediction: Burleigh by 8.

KEY MATCH UP

The key battle lies in the halves. The Cutters have the NRL experience of Josh McCrone, the NRL prospects of Drew Hutchison, and the all round experience of Shaun Nona, who actually played in the State Championship in 2014 for the Northern Pride. Hutchison has been good enough this year for the Cutters to displace Beni Marshall at the Dragons, and Josh McCrone is a solid NRL standard half. Shaun Nona is the X Factor, and he gave the Cutters a lift when he came on the field in the Grand Final against the Mounties. A great interchangeable trio.

There’s nothing wrong with Burleigh’s halves either. Five eighth Cameron Cullen was Man of the Match and deservingly so in the Grand Final against Redcliffe. His partner Jamal Fogarty has been good enough in 2016 to impress Parramatta for a contract next year. Both of these players were named in the Queensland Intrust Super Team of the Year. If the halves are as dominant against the Cutters as they have nee against Redcliffe, then there’s real trouble for Illawarra.

Although if the Bears forwards are as fired up on Sunday as they were against the Dolphins then the Cutters halves may not get the chance to shine. Luke Page and Paterika Vaivai in particular were tremendous and damaging.

2016 RESULTS
ILLAWARRA CUTTERS
Season:
2nd – Played 22 – Won 15 – Loss 7 – Draws 0 – F/A +15o
Finals Series:
Quarter Final: Illawarra 32 Wests Tigers 22
Preliminary Final: Illawarra 18 Newtown 10
Grand Final: Illawarra 21 Mounties 20

BURLEIGH BEARS
Season:
2nd – Played 23 – Won 17 – Loss 5 – Draws 1 – F/A +183
Finals Series:
Week 2: Burleigh 40 Redcliffe 28
Grand Final: Burleigh 26 Redcliffe 16
TEAMS
Burleigh Bears
1. Kurtis Rowe 2. Waka Wanahi 3. Sami Sauiluma 4. Connor Broadhurst 5. Oliver Regan 6. Cameron Cullen 7. Jamal Fogarty (c) 8. Luke Page 9. Pat Politoni 10. Paterika Vaivai 11. Jamie Dowling (c) 12. Hayden Schwass 13. Lachlan Burr 14. Parahi Wilson 15. Jeff Lynch 17. Louis Fanene 20. Josh Ailaomai 22. Nathaniel Peteru
Coach: Jim Lenihan

Illawarra Cutters
1. Adam Quinlan 2. Kurt Mann 3. Taane Milne 4. Levi Dodd 5. Kalifa Faifai Loa 6. Shaun Nona 7. Drew Hutchison 8. Shannon Wakeman 9. Joshua McCrone 10. Jacob Host 11. Tyrone McCarthy (c) 12. Christopher Lewis 13. Siliva Havili 14. Sam Coster 15. Damien Sironen 16. Jay Gallagher 19. Sam Clune 22. Hame Sele
Coach: Jason Demetriou