A core of Cessnock juniors backed up by a group of experienced players playing for the love of the game have delivered the Goannas a long-awaited premiership.
Cessnock ended their 17-year title drought by beating South Newcastle 20-6 to claim the 2020 Newcastle Rugby League premiership at Maitland Sportsground on Sunday.
It was case of lucky seven for both the Goannas and their coach Todd Edwards who were able to put the disappointment of six grand final losses behind them at last.
Edwards was at the helm of five of the six Goannas grand final losses since the 2003 premiership and missed out with Lakes in 2018.
He admitted he was almost speechless and had tears in his eyes when the final siren sounded on Sunday.
"It's just surreal. I don't know what to say. My daughter was there in the crowd and I lost it. She was crying and that sends me. It meant a lot," Edwards said.
There were plenty more tears flowing as the Cessnock fans began a "Goeys" chant with five minutes left on the clock with their heroes leading by 14 points.
Many of those fans had been at the previous six losing grand finals. Young skipper Reed Hugo and player of the final Connor Kirkwood were equally well-versed in that history.
Both were members of last year's losing grand final against Western Suburbs and both had dreamed of repeating the feats of the 2003 team which featured Kirkwood's uncle, Luke Thomas.
Skipper Hugo was man of the moment when he lifted the premiership cup with a sea of placards with his face emblazoned upon them looking back at him.
"I've been to all those grand finals over the last 17 years as a kid standing on the hill watching, and to be here lifting that trophy I'll never forget it," he said.
"We have been so close as a group and worked so hard for each other. It is just such a great reward and great to be part of a Goannas premiership at last."
On the day there were plenty of heroes in black and yellow, with lock Kirkwood leading the way. He said it was unbelievable to be finally be part of a Cessnock premiership.
"All I wanted to do when I was a kid was to play first grade with Cessnock and now to win a grand final with them means everything," he said.
"I love this group, I love Toddy (Edwards), I love the players, I love this club - it's the best win ever."
Kirkwood said it was an honour to win the player of the grand final award, but there were 16 other players who took the field for Cessnock who could have taken the honour.
Proud coach Edwards said Kirkwood had taken his game to a new level in the past year, in particular the final month.
"He just kept on pushing up for us and his defence was huge," he said.
"He was a worthy winner of the award today, since his move to lock he has given us so much. He is a warrior."
From the moment the Goannas ran out on the field it was clear they were intent on bringing the premiership cup back to Cessnock.
Fullback Ngangarra Barker opened the scoring in the fourth minute finishing off a Brayden Musgrove bust down the left edge.
Goannas centre Musgrove followed up shortly after to give Cessnock an 8-0 lead inside 15 minutes.
After being seemingly unable to miss last week, winger Seaton Reid missed both conversion attempts and the score was 8-0 at half-time.
Souths replied early in the second stanza when second-rower Blake Campbell crashed over to the right of the posts. Lions halfback Jason Keelan added the extras to reduce the margin to two points.
In the 56th minute Cessnock's Josh Griffiths nabbed a try from a Barker grubber, diving full stretch to beat the chasing pack just before the dead-ball line.
Reid kicked his first goal to take the score to 14-6.
It was the turning point as the Goannas realised they could meet and better Souths' challenge.
Cessnock dummy-half Nick Lawrence went himself and scored next to the posts in the 71st minute and Reid converted to extend their advantage to 14 points.
"I didn't think I was going to get there at first," Lawrence said. "I was just so determined I wasn't going to give up and got across."
Lawrence said it was a special feeling to be one of the nine Cessnock juniors in the team.
However, he said by the end of such a tough year all the players were Cessnock through and through.
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