On the eve of North Wagga’s biggest game in 14 years – and, potentially, their finest hour in a quarter-of-a-century – coach Kirk Hamblin has opened up about the support and inspiration behind their grand final appearance.
In his third season as coach, Hamblin says it’s ‘embarrassing’ to think how green he was when he started two years ago.
But his leadership this season has been unquestionable, culminating in the Farrer League Coach of the Year award, in particular for his off-field efforts after the Saints were rocked by a serious illness to Josh Hanlon.
“I’ll be honest, I definitely surprised myself. I’m a bit of a sook when it comes to these sorts of things – I’m the first bloke to cry as soon as one of my mates gets hurt or whatever happens,” Hamblin said.
“The reason I’ve held myself together I suppose is the support I’ve had around me – Lachlan Steward, Ned Mortimer, my wife Tessa, they’ve all supported me in trying to keep the boys level-headed and moving forward.
“I felt very privileged (to win the award). There’s a lot of good coaches in the league. There’s two RFL (Riverina League) premiership coaches, so I was very privileged to be given that award over those types of coaches. So, yeah, very proud.”
The way the Saints responded to the adversity which struck their teammate – from an emotional round nine victory against Marrar that same week, through to making the grand final – has been a credit to their resilience.
“It’s been a tough year off the field for sure, with everything that’s happened to Josh,” Hamblin said. “He’s battled through it like a champion.
“A lot of blokes in our team have taken it very hard and are probably still battling to come to terms with the fact that it’s all happened… But I’m super proud of how the boys have held themselves together and got around each other, got around Chook, and supported their mate at this time. I couldn’t be any prouder of the boys.”
He said Hanlon’s attendance at their last two finals has lifted spirits.
“Absolutely,” Hamblin said. “Those close to him weren’t surprised with the way he’s reacted to what’s gone on. He’s had a positive attitude from the get-go. As soon as he got crook, he’s had a positive attitude.”
For a club on the brink of extinction in 2007, the road to the grand final has been long, but rewarding.
Hamblin said he’s just tried to build on what was started before him, including by former coach Nathan Dowdle.
“Dowds probably set it in place a while back – we’re just trying to build a good culture at the club and I was starting to feel like the wheel’s turning and our club culture’s one of the best. All the boys are tight knit together and they really enjoy being a part of North Wagga,” he said.
“Personally I suppose I doubted myself as a coach in the first year. It’s probably a little bit embarrassing how little I knew about football when it come to a coaching point-of-view.
“I’ve really enjoyed this year. I’ve felt a lot more relaxed and I feel like this year’s playing group has shown even more commitment than previous years. They’ve bought in to everything we’ve been trying to build as a club.”
Hamblin said the leadership has been a team effort involving his co-coaches Lachlan Steward and Daniel Jordan and captain Ned Mortimer who’s evolved as their spiritual leader.
“Me and Mort are completely different in leadership. I like to talk a lot about the technical side of the game and Ned’s all about the club culture,” Hamblin said.
“He’s been one of our biggest driving factors over the past three years – about how we want to be perceived from outside the club looking in. He’s just a great on-field leader and anyone in our team feels comfortable talking to Ned, which probably makes him such a great leader.
“He’s a big game player. He always steps up when the game’s on the line. I know the boys feed off him a lot. It probably showed in that final against Marrar when he went down. Our heads probably dropped a little bit. He’s an out-and-out leader and what he’s done for me on and off the field this year, as far as support goes, I can’t thank him enough.”