Newcastle Rugby League: Connor Kirkwood sets for his time out in middle with Cessnock

HOME GROWN: Cessnock's Connor Kirkwood, Nick Lawrence and Harry O'Brien ahead of Sunday's grand final. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
HOME GROWN: Cessnock's Connor Kirkwood, Nick Lawrence and Harry O'Brien ahead of Sunday's grand final. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Connor Kirkwood "remembers it like it was yesterday".

Then aged four, he was decked out in black and gold watching his uncle Luke Thomas play front row for Cessnock in the 2003 Newcastle Rugby League grand final at No.1 Sportsground.

Sixteen years on and halfback Kirkwood will be the one out in the middle for the Goannas in a first grade decider.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Kirkwood said.

"I was only four back then [2003] but Cessnock v Raymond Terrace at the old sportsground. I used to go to every single game and probably drove my mum and dad crazy kicking the ball around.

"All those guys like Lance Lennard, Kane Bradley, Adrian McNab, Daniel Smailes and Troy Petryson.

"Any my uncle was a tough player, in a tough position in a tough era.

"I really looked up to him and all I ever wanted to do was play first grade for Cessnock.

"When I debuted as a 17-year-old in 2016 Daniel Smailes was the coach, who played with my uncle in 03, that was a big moment for me. But now to play in a grand final tops it all off."

Kirkwood, who kicked off his own career with Group 21 club the Greta-Branxton Colts before joining Cessnock in under 16s, has endured an up and down season with the Goannas.

Normally in the halves, Kirkwood initially found himself on the wing.

He then suffered an AC joint injury and was sidelined for up to six weeks.

The recently turned 21-year-old came back through reserve grade and "lost a bit of interest in the game".

However, Goannas coach Todd Edwards recalled Kirkwood following Cessnock's 57-0 flogging by Sunday's opponents Western Suburbs in the penultimate round of the competition proper.

He has lined up alongside experienced five-eighth Scott Briggs ever since, Cessnock have won four games on the trot and the Goannas find themselves 80 minutes away from potentially claiming a long-awaited premiership for the club.

"I've loved it," Kirkwood said.

"Briggsy has been really good for me since coming back up at halfback and I've just been trying to play off him.

"He calls a lot of the shots and I've been trying to stiffen up that left-edge defence."

Kirkwood will be one of eight local juniors in the Cessnock side, combining again with hooker Nick Lawrence and fullback Harry O'Brien from the Goannas' under-19 success at the same McDonald Jones Stadium venue two years ago.

"I think we only lost one game that year [under 19s]," Kirkwood said.

"It's good playing with those boys again in firsts."

Joe Woodbury, Sam Apthorpe, Brendan Hlad, Reed Hugo and Kori Barber are the other Cessnock products.

This story Newcastle Rugby League: Connor Kirkwood sets for his time out in middle with Cessnock first appeared on Newcastle Herald.