THE most experienced coach in Group 9 is backing Albury to make it a grand final hat-trick.
Former New Zealand international Mark Elia, who has been coaching in Group 9 for two decades, yesterday threw his support behind the Thunder’s bid for their fabulous treble.
“To pick a winner before the first semis are played, I’d still just go Albury because of their forwards,” Elia said yesterday.
Coming after steering Cootamundra to sixth this year, Elia’s forthright selection will spark debate.
As much as Albury has won the past two Group 9 titles, the team has slipped a little this season, failing to collect the minor premiership.
In a grandstand finish, Southcity upstaged the Thunder for the top ranking, squeezing the Border’s team into second spot.
Albury’s surprise dip was also highlighted when the team was trumped by Gundagai and Southcity in successive games to finish season.
Breathing new life into the title race, the Tigers stunned the Thunder 16-6 at Anzac Park on August 17 before the Bulls also brought down the dual premier two weeks ago.
Amid a feast of tries, Southcity nailed Albury 40-38 at Greenfield Park, giving the Daniel Fitzhenry-coached Bulls their first victory at the border ground in four years of trying.
With gold-star coaching credentials, Elia has run the rule over all of the Group 9 finals candidates.
Yesterday the coaching guru plumped for Albury to win again, but only after a struggle.
Elia admits the Bulls and the Tigers cannot be easily fobbed off.
“In my view, Southcity has the best backs when Merritt, Bowden, Little and Lyons are on song,” Elia said.
“(And) Gundagai finally has all bases covered, and depth, so they must go close.
“They’re everyone’s sentimental favourite too.”
For Elia, Cootamundra’s rollicking 70-point thrashing of Junee at Les Boyd Oval on Sunday was his swansong with the Bulldogs for the short term.
The Kiwi has stepped aside as coach, but will stay with the club to help Aaron Byrne if he is appointed for 2015.