After months of searching high and low for a captain-coach for the 2013 season, the Tumut Blues this week secured their first-choice for the role when former local junior Eric Smith agreed to terms.
The agreement provides a monumental lift to a club whose spirits had been drained by the first grade team’s worst season in memory.
The Blues finished second last in Group 9, winning just two games, both against wooden-spooners Tumbarumba.
But there is now confidence in the camp that Smith can rapidly bring the club out of the doldrums.
Smith has the credentials to suggest he is the right man for the difficult task of hauling the Blues back to respectability.
Last season he took perennial Group 21 stragglers Musswellbrook to the grand final.
His previous five seasons as leader of Cairns Brothers resulted in three premierships, and he is regarded as something of a legend in rugby league circles in tropical Queensland.
Smith was the first man Tumut approached about the coaching position some months ago, on the initiative of official Ray Carr.
However, Smith could not commit at that time, and was considering a move into the Queensland Cup, either with Easts or Wynnum Manly, in a bid to further his coaching career.
The Blues were forced to broaden their search for a coach, always hoping Smith could ultimately be swayed to return to his home-town.
Chief recruiter Dan Roddy admits the club was becoming increasingly anxious in the last month, as other potential candidates – and there were not many – dropped off the radar.
“We’d exhausted other avenues over the past month or so but we never gave up on Eric,” Roddy said.
“He was the guy we wanted from the start, but to be honest I didn’t think we’d be able to get the deal over the line.
“There were really no other options in the end. Fortunately everything has fallen into place in the past week with Eric and it would be an understatement to say we’re delighted.
“I can’t think of a guy in bush football I’d rather have.”
Smith, a Blues junior who won a Sullivan Cup premiership with the club in 1998, has a rich rugby league pedigree.
Signed by Manly as a schoolboy, he later returned to Group 9 in 2003 to play a season with the Gundagai Tigers.
A beaten grand finalist that season, he switched camp to Gundagai’s conqueror, Tumut, in 2004, enjoying two successful seasons with the Blues, which culminated with another grand final appearance in 2005.
He was again beaten, and after heading north to powerful Queensland club Cairns Brothers, had to endure another grand final loss as a player. In 2007 he was appointed captain-coach of Brothers, and was finally able to secure his first premiership in 2008.
That debut title remains a career highlight, but he won again the following season, masterminding a victory over the Todd Carney-inspired Atherton Roosters, before finishing a five-year captain-coaching stint in the tropics with another premiership in 2011.
The challenge of turning around the fortunes of a struggling club saw him lured to Group 21 battlers Muswellbrook in 2012.
At one point sitting equal last in the premiership midway through the season, Smith’s team launched a sizzling late- run, negotiating a series of sudden death encounters to win through to the grand final, only to lose in the decider to favourite Singleton.
The prospect of helping his home-town club in their hour of need is what has drawn Smith to return to Tumut next season.
“I’ve always kept close tabs on what’s happening in Tumut and it’s been disheartening to see my home club struggling,” Smith said.
“Hopefully we can get things back on the right track next season.”
Smith, who will return to Tumut in December, with training to begin in the new year, said prospective players can expect a coach who emphasises discipline, fitness and defence.
“I want my players to be disciplined, on and off the field, at training and away from football,” Smith said.
“We’ll be doing lots of fitness, lots of work on the ground, trying to control the play the ball.
“A big thing with the teams I coach is mental toughness. That’s something that you don’t build overnight.”
Club officials are predicting Smith’s signing will have a positive impact on player recruitment for next season. Which is a good thing, because the club didn’t have many leads.
Former players Matt Free and Greg Crampton are already confirmed starters, while the involvement of Smith is expected to see the return of other Blues stars who have gone to greener pastures in recent seasons.
The club is expected to rely heavily on home-grown talent again, but Smith said he is also talking to a couple of players from the upper Hunter; and club officials are now negotiating with a prop from the Mackay competition and a backrower from Wollongong.
Smith’s appointment has provided a timely infusion of inspiration to a club that was in need of a saviour.