There is a familiarity about Pirates this season that would not have gone unnoticed by rival sides. And it is why they will commence their 2018 campaign away to Quirindi on Saturday as the overwhelming favourites to win three straight premierships.
For the fifth season in a row, Pirates have kept the nucleus of their side together – a fact that their coach, Mat Kelly, acknowledged as a rarity for sport in the region, where players are turned over like pancakes at McDonald’s.
Kelly said that had occurred because his players generally liked one another, and their partners also got along. The players never argued, he added, which he found unusual given the multitude of male egos involved.
And while he said the club was “grateful” for their success, the “hunger was still there”. “We’re very lucky with the boys and how well the group get on … It’s definitely a tight bunch,” he said.
The main source of Pirates’ power for the premiership double, the talisman the other players orbit, has been appointed captain for the third consecutive year. In athletic No.8 Conrad Starr, Pirates have a force of nature.
The credit for harnessing his full power goes to Kelly. For it was Kelly, in his first season in charge in 2016, who appointed Starr captain.
“He’s been a longtime player, but I thought the responsibility would do him good,” Kelly said. “I think he’s gone an extra level as a player because of his leadership qualities.
“He’s great. He hasn’t missed a single [training] session this year, and I don’t think he did last year. He loves his rugby.
“I think he scored 26 tries last season. When you’ve got someone in your side scoring 26, it makes for a decent side. Everyone in and around Central North Rugby knows who Conrad Starr is. He’s definitely an asset to us.”
Against Quirindi, Pirates are expected to increase their winning sequence to 23. They drew 25-25 away to Narrabri in round 10 in 2016. Their last loss was a 29-28 home defeat to Narrabri in round eight that year.
Kelly said his players “were putting in the hard yards” because they knew what was needed to win a premiership, and they knew Quirindi, like every other team, were desperate to beat them.
“On any given day, if you’re not turning up, you can be taught a lesson,” he said.