He might have been by his own admission a bit of a reluctant coach at the beginning, but Mat Kelly has certainly found his feet in the role.
The former front rower will spearhead Pirates’ tilt for a fourth straight Central North premiership when the competition kicks-off on March 30.
Kelly has been at the helm for all three titles but conceded he did contemplate not going around again.
“The grand final was going to be the last (game) but a couple of days later it changed,” he said.
Exactly what it was that changed his mind he is still trying to work out but he spoke about what a good group it is to be around and the culture they have created.
“I think the culture is the best thing we’ve achieved. The work ethic has been fantastic,” he said.
That really came to the fore last season, which was without question the toughest of Kelly’s tenure with a lot of disruptions through injuries.
They used over 40 players in first grade.
The “silver lining” was that were able to give a few under-19s a taste of senior footy.
“I’m looking forward to seeing some of the young fellas step up,” Kelly said.
“Last year gave us a bit of a look at them.”
He is still waiting to see how the roster shapes up.
Prop Ben Goodman and centre Brendan Rixon both indicated that the grand final would be their last game.
There is also speculation swirling that Andrew Moodie will play league with North Tamworth, although the five-eighth said he hasn’t signed anything.
Their talisman, he would be a big loss.
On the plus side ever-green and inspirational captain Conrad Starr will “lead the charge again”.
Damian Reti is also set to pull on the boots again after sitting out last season.
“He played in the 10s (played prior to the NSW Country Eagles game).
“I look forward to him coming back,” Kelly said.
The former Manly Marlin was part of the triumphant 2016 side but was cruelled by injury in 2017 and will be a dynamic addition to the Pirates backline.
“Anyone around Central North knows what Damo can do,” Kelly said.
He said he’ll be great to have around the group, adding that without him probably knowing it he has turned into one of the most influential players at the club, especially for the juniors coming through.
They all look up to him.
“Jake Hartmann is coming back after virtually missing all of last year. He’ll be fantastic to get back,” he said.
“And Josh Devine, who took the whole year off with an ACL from the year before, he’s fit ready to go.”
“I’m really excited to see how he comes back and how he stakes his claim for what was his wing spot.”
Jake Douglas is also rumoured to be making a return.
The former NSW Country centre is unconfirmed at this stage but Kelly is working on him.
They officially start training after the Country Music Festival, although Kelly said some of the players have been doing their own thing to keep fit.
“With the bit of success we definitely know how hard they are to win. We’ll definitely be doing the hard yards,” he said.
“We celebrated well but now it’s time to go again.”
Luke Buchanan and Mick Squires will coach second grade, Matt Grinter the under-19s, Jeremy Maslen the under-18s and Andrew Bowden the women’s.