The Maitland Saints have secured one of their biggest recruiting coups to date signing dual Cardiff premiership player and regular BDAFL representative Ben Stewart for 2016.
The Saints have been chasing Maitland-based Stewart for the past four years, but in the end it was the midfielder’s sons Zack, 10, and Xavier, 6, who convinced him to leave his beloved Hawks.
Stewart will be joined by former Saint Patrick McMahon, who played BDAFL Premier Division with Newcastle City last year while studying at the University of Newcastle, and speedy wingman Luke Damico who returns from Western Australia.
New coach Dave Ross, who led Nelson Bay to the 2014 BDAFL First Division flag, will have a strong squad with the most notable loss powerful forward Matthew Hogan, who has retired after continued injury problems.
Stewart admits it was a hard decision to leave Cardiff but he couldn’t miss the chance to fulfil his boys’ wish.
“The young fellows wanted me to come down and play with their team. They’ve been at me for a while,” he said.
“My oldest boy Zac has been there [the Saints juniors] for few years now and I coach his under-11 side.
“Xavier played under 9s last year.”
The Maitland Saints junior connection is a family affair with Stewart’s wife Mel on the junior committee and a team manager for both the under 9 and 11s.
“I live up here so it was getting difficult travelling to training all the time. Being out to eight or nine at night, it’s more convenient, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I’ve pretty much always lived in Maitland since I’ve been in the Hunter. Ever since I’ve played seniors I’ve been up at Maitland with Mel at East Maitland and Ashtonfield.
“For a long time Maitland didn’t have a side, so there was no issue there.
“But then they got a second grade team and have been pestering me more and more each year.
“It should be a good year, hopefully we will win the flag. I haven’t won one for a few years so it would be real good.”
Stewart, who came to the Hunter in 2002 from Darwin, played in juniors in 2002 before becoming a key member of the powerful Hawks back-to-back premierships in 2005-2006.
He was a regular in the BDAFL representative team from 2008-13.
“I played rep football with BDAFL from 2008-13 and missed the past two seasons with injury. I broke a finger one year and last year I hurt my ankle,” he said.
Stewart said the decision to leave Cardiff was even harder with the club struggling over the past few seasons and winning the wooden spoon for the first time last year.
“I was tough. They could understand the reasons, but I reckon they’ll still give me a bit of a hard time for a while,” he said.
Cardiff has had some recruiting success luring Beau Heeney, the older brother of Sydney Swans star Isaac back to Aussie Rules.
“Beau was injured and then tried out football for a year. They managed to talk him to coming back to Cardiff,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he noticed differences in the standards of skills and fitness at the Saints, but he was impressed by his new teammates’ endeavour and enthusiasm.
“It’s been pretty good. It’s a different standard in skill, but the effort they put in is pretty good and it’s a good social club.
“The main thing I noticed is the numbers getting to training. I was really impressed.”
Stewart said he believed the sharp curve in improvement across the Saints squad would continue and a more free-running, quick-movement style of game would develop.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with fitness and running. A lot of first initiative stuff is based on fitness,” he said.
“You’ve got to have that fitness base as well as learning where to run and when to give it off.
“I think we really can go in as favourites for the flag this year. I think we will be disappointed if we don’t make the grand final at least."