The optimism was high during a gruelling two-day training camp at Cessnock Sportsground in February under new captain-coach Al Lantry.
Lantry and the Goannas recruiting staff had assembled a squad which was the envy of the Newcastle RL with the star signings headlined by former NRL players Paul Carter (Sydney Roosters), Chanel Mata’utia (Newcastle Knights) and giant forward Alex Mammone from Halifax FC in the UK.
The plan was for Lantry to lead the Goannas from the front and back into the finals.
“I know how to lead from the front and how to control the team around the field, that’s probably my strong point,” Lantry said, reflecting on his decision to not seek reappointment as coach in 2019 after playing just one and half games this season..
“I’m sure that’s why Cessnock looked at me as a captain coach, because they know what I can do on the field.”
Cessnock still want him at the helm next year, but Lantry said he had made his mind up and would not be swayed.
“The club has been unreal, they really have. They’ve still been trying to talk me out of it,” he said.
“I take that as a positive and it makes me feel a bit better that they still want me there, but I’ve made up my mind. I’ve been feeling a bit better every day now. It’s a good relief.”
Cessnock and Lantry’s planning for 2018 came unstuck in the opening round when the Goannas were smashed by a red-hot Maitland Pickers 36-0 in front of a huge Coalfields crowd for the Pickers’ return to the Maitland Sportsground.
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Lantry and Mammone were sidelined by half-time with shoulder injuries and, in the wash-up, front-rower Kurt Warden was suspended for three weeks after pleading guilty to a cannonball tackle.
“You take playing, leading on field away from me and it made me change the whole way I had to coach,” Lantry said of his injury.
After plaing the first half of the Pickers game, Lantry returned against the Macquarie Scoprions in round seven and led his team to a 26-6 victory.
It was sign of what could have been, but it came as a cost with Lantry re-injuring his shoulder in the first half but soldiering on to score a telling try in the second.
Injuries and suspensions have denied the Goannas from fielding anything like their best 17 from the squad which filled the club with such high hopes in February.
“I take blame for our lack of success. It has been frustrating and the losses at home have really hurt,” Lantry said. “I’ve tried everything I could think of to turn things around, but I couldn’t do the one thing I know best.”