By Jack Brady
While the Port Stephens Sharks, the newest addition to the Real NRL competition this season, aren’t quite at ‘Great White’ status yet, think more along the lines of a baby shark, they are nonetheless the most important team in the Newcastle competition at this point in time. The club at this point in time is attempting to secure the area’s rugby league nursery and support for the game north of Newcastle for seasons to come.
With the introduction of Raymond Terrace into the Real NRL in 2001, the Port Stephens area has been well represented in some capacity through the Northern Blues (Nelson Bay) since the competition’s inception in 1910. However, this hasn’t stopped the Port Stephens Sharks being touted as the saving grace for rugby league north of Newcastle this season as it looks to go far and beyond the now defunct Northern Blues and Raymond Terrace senior clubs within Newcastle’s premier rugby league competition.
This however will not come without its challenges. Without the significant financial support needed for a rugby league club to survive, the dire lack of senior players willing to play and the non-existence of a contributing leagues club, the Port Stephens Sharks are barely swimming let alone striking as fears that the club could fold as quickly as it was established are not far from becoming a reality.
Wayne Humphreys, the president of the Port Stephens Sharks, has labelled the club as the most important project there is for senior rugby league to exist in the area.
“Is it getting the level of support that it needs? No it’s not, not corporately and sometimes even the player base is a little bit slack,” Humphreys said.
Unlike every other club, the Sharks were allowed the concession of not fielding a third grade side this season. Yet only three weeks ago the club couldn’t even manage to field a reserve grade side.
This, plus the lack of finances that saw the Northern Blues and Raymond Terrace drop out of the competition only a couple of years ago, could end up haunting not only the Port Stephens Sharks but the existence of senior rugby league in the area: regardless of its importance to the region and the Newcastle rugby league.
John Fahey, the General Manager of the Newcastle rugby league competition stressed the significance of the Port Stephens Sharks existence and the club’s importance in tying up the area’s rugby league nursery for the sake of a quality competition and the rugby league region as a whole.
According to Fahey, the Port Stephens Sharks were positively received by the board before mentioning that the “well over” one thousand registered players floating around the Port Stephens area could’ve been left with nothing without the existence of the Port Stephens Sharks.
“The importance of the Sharks boils down to the future of rugby league north of the Stockton Bridge and to be frank the number of players that have dispersed from up there [Port Stephens] to other clubs in the last ten years with the Northern Blues in existence is a pretty clear sign of the importance of rugby league in the area,” Fahey said.
“The strength of Raymond Terrace as a club is something that also needed to be secured and to make sure that it remained viable in the future.”
In the end though it all comes down to money and without the backing of either a leagues club or significant sponsorship the Sharks could be left floundering as early as the end of the season.
“The biggest problem with rugby league in the Port Stephens area is that there is no registered leagues club, and that’s where the problem still lies…there is significant financial support for the club this season from the Newcastle Rugby League and now we’re just waiting for the baby and taking it from there,” Fahey resonates.
Having struggled from its inception off the field the Port Stephens Sharks have not fared much better on it, the club beginning its inaugural campaign, while competitive, in an abysmal fashion, having not won a game in both of its senior grades.
Beyond all this though, the club’s committee have still managed to lay the foundations in attaining the future of rugby league in the Port Stephens region for years to come.
From this, in a move that president Humphreys labelled as a “principle philosophy of the project,” the Sharks have attempted to bridge the gap between the area’s rugby league community by including a 16’s, two 17’s and an 18’s junior team under the senior Sharks emblem.
President Humphreys explains that the inclusion of the juniors under the Port Stephens Sharks banner was the cornerstone of the project and that was it an absolute essential to the success of the club.
“The Port Stephens Sharks was always going to be about developing our juniors to play senior football in our competition,” Humphreys said.
“We identified from the youngest age, the 16s, where we could start to teach them senior league effectively.”
This decision and the importance of the junior Sharks hasn’t been taken lightly throughout the club as junior coaching co-ordinator Ric Astorini reiterates the importance of the juniors’ relationship with the senior Sharks.
Astorini signalling that the most appropriate action for rugby league in Port Stephens involves having the juniors under the Sharks banner.
“The Sharks are very important for those kids who want to play first division and proceed through to the senior ranks,” explains Astorini.
“It’s essential that [the Sharks inclusion of juniors] be in place for something that the kids can strive for.”
Among all this it is now up to the Sharks to rekindle the area’s support towards senior rugby league and attempt to unite Port Stephens fragmented rugby league community that is Nelson Bay, Stockton, Raymond Terrace and Mallabula into the one entity.
President Humphreys notes that the Port Stephens Sharks longevity relies on the philosophy of incorporating and encompassing all of the shires through the Port Stephens Sharks.
While it may be a tough ask for the Port Stephens Sharks to get the whole community behind them in their first season, the area is not uncommon to success in Newcastle’s ‘Real NRL’ senior rugby league competition in the past.
In the last decade, a club from the area has reached the competitions’ grand final four times: Raymond Terrace in 2003 and the Northern Blues in three consecutive years: 2004, 2005 and 2006.
While only the 2005 Northern Blues managed to win on the day, the unbelievable support has all of those involved in the Sharks, including Ji Hill, convinced that the support for the ailing club will only grow stronger.
Hill, a lynchpin in the Northern Blues side for the best part of the last decade speaks of the Blues grand final run as the most memorable times and the best years of his footballing life.
Hill, who is now the assistant coach of the Port Stephens Sharks first grade side, describes the Blues grand final run as absolutely unreal.
“It was awesome, mate,” Hill said.
“The boys always loved playing at home especially if we got a home semi-final… the hill would always be packed full of blue shirts.”
When quizzed about whether the Sharks can ever reach these previous heights of support Hill is realistic about the matter.
“I do think it’ll happen although in saying that I think the club probably needs a more mature coaching staff to come in and of course for them to bring in some new players to come into the side and mix in with our local guys,” Hill said.
“I think that’s what it’s going to take.”
Like Hill, James McCabe managed to also play throughout the Blues grand final run in the mid-2000s. After beginning his senior rugby league tenure in the area in 1999 before being rewarded the captaincy of the Northern Blues in 2007, McCabe has forayed into unknown territory this season after becoming the Shark’s inaugural captain-coach.
While he says it has been fun, McCabe realises there’s still a whole lot of improvement to do.
“Coaching has been good, it has been difficult because we haven’t had a great start results-wise, but I’ve still enjoyed it,” McCabe said.
While 2004 may have seemed an eternity ago, McCabe still has fond memories of the three consecutive grand finals with the Northern Blues.
“While we didn’t win when we made our first grand final in 2004 it was very special because the area had never been in such a major grand final before,” McCabe said.
“I remember running out for that first grand final and the hill at the sportsground was just a sea of blue.
“It was something that I’ll never forget.”
Fast-forward eight years and the area’s rugby league landscape has completely changed. The Port Stephens Sharks are thus far the cellar dwellers of this year’s competition, and yet, McCabe isn’t fazed.
“This year was always going to be tough, everyone knew that,” McCabe said.
“I think we can turn it all around come the back end of the year; I think we’ll be better placed than where we’re at now.
“It’s a building process.”
While there have been some positive signs for the Sharks thus far the club is still floundering in the paddling pool. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of the club have been established this year allowing for the club to eventually become the aspired ‘Great Whites’’ in seasons to come.
While the club is still searching the waters for their first win, the Sharks will continue to swim in the Newcastle rugby league ocean, readying itself to attack everyone else in the competition.
In due time, the Sharks will strike.