The Maitland Blacks have vowed to be back on the big stage next year after coming agonisingly close to ending their 19-year first grade premiership drought.
The Blacks will lament a missed opportunity in Saturday’s 20-12 loss to Hamilton Hawks but know they matched Newcastle rugby union’s benchmark despite a glut of ball handling errors and penalties in their own half.
Hamilton are a once in a generation team collecting their fourth straight premiership and etching their name into football history.
But amid the disappointment of the losing shed, fullback Josh McCormack reminded his teammates that they held the mighty Hawks to just two tries through manic defence and showed they had the team to beat them.
It was co-coaches MIck Hickling and Ryan McCormack’s final game at the helm after setting on a path three years ago to resurrect the club’s on-field success.
“We had our chances but just couldn’t mount any pressure,” Maitland co-coach Mick Hickling said after the game. “Even after they scored the try to go ahead by 12, I still thought it was our game. But we just kept losing the ball in contact. It was frustrating to watch.”
Hickling said he it was disappointing not achieving the ultimate prize, but he was extremely proud of the players’ effort and the foundation laid for future success.
McCormack said the past three years had been worth all the efforts to be part of such a tremendous team.
“It’s a tough day, but I love you guys and I’m proud of you,” McCormack told the playing group after the game.
“When we took over three years ago Hicko and I not only wanted to improve the standard of rugby with first grade, but improve the standard of rugby across the whole club.
“You blokes brought into it and I thank you for that.”
Co-capatin Michael Howell had hoped to be able to retire a winner on Saturday, but said the team had unfinished business and he wanted to be part of a long-overdue premiership.
“I’d really love another chance. It will be another hard year of work to get their and have a crack at it,” Howell said.
“With the young guy who put their hand up this year and the guys in second grade pushing through we’ll be a good chance to take it next year.
“I’ll have to see how I feel off-season but you can’t give it away it until we get that one, that elusive title
“It’s been fun to play this season. That back end of the season and particularly making Marcellin a fortress. We only lost one game at home and that was by one point on the bell that was massive for us.
“We’ll do it all again next year but go one better.”
Howell’s co-captain Chris Logan said the team showed it’s fighting spirit and commitment to one another.
“Unfortunately, when you have that many handling errors and penalties in your own half against a team like Hamo it’s a tough ask.
“I’m super proud of the boys, you can’t take away heart. but unfortunately we weren’t able to execute what we wanted to do today.
“It’s the first grand final for this group and it probably a little bit of inexperience thinking that pass is the one that’s going to do it. I was guilty of one of them as well.
“In hindsight you’d like to take it back, but if that pass comes off and someone scores under the post then you are in the game.
”I’m not going to ever criticise anyone for throwing that pass because that’s the way we like to play footy and have all year. Unfortunatley, today they didn’t stick, that is what it is.”
On a day when the Blacks threatened often, Max Stafford and Nick Davidson scored Maitland’s tries.
Davidson and fellow back-rowers Travis Brooke and John Birrell led the way for the Blacks who were mounting an attack when the final whistle was blown.
Logan said he expected the majority of the team to be back next year to go one better.
“Apart from Runch and the Uini brothers (Tuiri and Frank) who are heading overseas to play we should retain everyone,” he said.
“Carl (Manu) is probably at that stage where he will have to feel the hunger to go back at pre-season, but at the moment he is pretty keen.”
After winning back to back Anderson Medals, form will not be a question for Manu.