NOT THIS TIME: It wasn't Cudgen Hornets' year in 2018, with a second round finals exit to Murwillumbah on the weekend the first time they haven't reached the NRRRL grand final in three years.
NOT THIS TIME: It wasn't Cudgen Hornets' year in 2018, with a second round finals exit to Murwillumbah on the weekend the first time they haven't reached the NRRRL grand final in three years. SCOTT POWICK

Can the Hornets bounce back next year?

Cudgen Hornets

Ladder position: 3rd Wins: 13 Losses: 4 Draws: 1 Point differential: +301

Finals - Wins: 0 Losses 2 Point differential -28

UNDEFEATED through April and nearly all of May, it wasn't until round eight that the Cudgen Hornets appeared mortal.

Coming off tough defeats in the last two NRRRL grand finals, the Hornets carved through the competition for the first seven weeks of the season. And with defending champs and NRRRL perennial heavyweights Ballina slipping to 4-3, the Hornets looked steeled to go one better in 2018.

Cudgen Hornets front-rower Caleb Ziebell goes on the attack
Although Cudgen Hornets front-rower Caleb Ziebell was hampered by injury he had another terrific season. Mike Donelly

But round eight was when things went a little wrong for Cudgen. Coming up against cross-town rivals and emergent threat Tweed Coast Raiders, who had also waltzed through the first seven rounds undefeated, the clash was billed as a battle for local bragging rights, and premiership favouritism.

The Raiders came out on top by a hair, 18-16, and the Hornets never quite had the same swagger thereafter.

Key moment

The Hornet's final round clash against Tweed Coast at home, which they lost heavily, 24-12, signalled the club's sting had gone missing.

In round eight the Hornets almost had the Raiders' measure. One game out from finals, they weren't close.

Just as importantly, the loss bumped Cudgen off second spot and into third. Ballina rose into second, earning the right to host Cudgen in the first qualifying final, a game the Seagulls won easily.

Brad Hicks from the Cudgen Hornets scores in the corner during the Northern Rivers Rugby League Grand Final against the Murwillumbah Mustangs at Cudgen.
After making two grand finals in a row, Cudgen Hornets fell short of another shot at the flag this year. SCOTT POWICK

Finals fatigue?

After making it so close to the summit in 2016 and 2017, a grand final was again the expectation for Cudgen. But the season is long, the opposition relentless and the injuries, for Cudgen, unhelpful. It can be hard to maintain motivation all year when the place you're aiming for - a third grand final in a row - is a gruelling one to reach.

Hornets' hope

With formidable rep talent (Grant, O'Gorman), a robust forward pack including arguably the best front rower in the competition, Caleb Ziebell, and competitive reserves and junior grade stocks (Dellapicca, Mills, Hall) pushing as hard as ever for selection, Cudgen will reload next year and, most likely, again be better than good.

Caleb Ziebell, Sam Grant and Benjamin O'Gorman, three of Cudgen's top performers in the NRRRL during the club's undefeated start to the year, will represent Northern Rivers in the Country Championships Under 23's opener today in Lismore.
Cudgen's Caleb Ziebell, Sam Grant and Benjamin O'Gorman all played rep footy in the 2018 Country Championships. Tweed daily news

Coach's outlook:

- Coach Pat Rosser on the club's finals elimination at the hands of Murwillumbah

I think it was definitely a missed opportunity. Unfortunately we didn't play the level of footy we needed to, that we know we're capable of in those big games.

Our defensive attitude and physicality was really good. But again we put ourselves under pressure with errors and execution.

- On the team's drop off

We had a few significant injuries around the halfway mark. We lost a few troops around that period of time. But that's not an excuse to not win games.

There was a changeover in personnel, and those combinations had to be built up again. It happens in football.

Our goal at the start of the year was to finish top three. Unfortunately we didn't peak at the right time.

Cudgen lock Pat Rosser suffered a season-ending injury in Northern Rivers Regional Rugby League.
Cudgen coach Pat Rosser says the club is well-stocked to bounce back after a disappointing finals exit and contend next year. Mike Donnelly

- On the club's future

As a group we're all disappointed and probably need to accept we underachieved.

Having said that, we have a nucleus of really strong players, some great young kids coming through and strong reserve with guys who have played a lot of football.

Our Under 18's have gone through to the grand final, so the future is bright.

Final grade: B