It hasn’t been the smoothest road to get there, but Norths Devils will get the opportunity to go back-to-back in the Hostplus Cup when they take on Redcliffe Dolphins in this year’s decider.
Last year’s premiers timed their 2022 finals run to perfection, finishing the season strongly to cement their place in the top four, before beating both the minor premiership winning Burleigh Bears and the second-placed Sunshine Coast Falcons during their road to the decider.
In any season, being the defending premiers comes with its own challenges, with oppositions lifting to try and push themselves against the benchmark team.
Following their title victory last year, players including try-scoring wizard Jono Reuben and Duncan Hall Medal winning prop Michael Molo were signed to NRL clubs, making their debuts this season.
Norths further lost a number of key personnel during the season to take on new opportunities, including forward Ben Nakubuwai to Leigh Centurions in the United Kingdom and Brendan Frei, who was signed to the North Queensland Cowboys.
Intriguingly, half Bryce Donovan also moved back to the Redcliffe Dolphins early this season after playing nine games with the Devils from his time with the club beginning in 2020.
Their most significant departure however came following Round 5 with premiership-winning coach Rohan Smith leaving to head to the Super League to lead Leeds Rhinos, helping the club turn their fortunes around to move from the bottom four of the ladder to grand finalists.
Kev Neighbour and Ben King, who had been working with Smith as assistants, stepped up into the head coaching role with aplomb to again see their side into a grand final.
Finals Week 3 highlights: Norths Devils v Sunshine Coast Falcons
Speaking after his side’s tough preliminary final win against the Falcons, Devils co-captain Jack Ahearn, an honour he shares with Michael Sio, said he was proud of how far the side had come, but there was plenty of work still to do.
“It’s a great accomplishment, especially after the year we have had, we have had a lot of change; in coaches and players getting opportunities somewhere else, so it’s a great accomplishment, but we are focused on getting that win next week,” Ahearn said.
To get that win, the Devils face a tough assignment against the Redcliffe Dolphins who have momentum on their side.
Match: Dolphins v Devils
Grand Final -
Venue: Kayo Stadium, Redcliffe
They will also no doubt have the majority of the crowd’s support behind them as well, with both the Cup and the Hastings Deering Colts sides winning their way through to the decider being played at their home ground of Moreton Daily Stadium.
For senior player and in-form forward Sheldon Pitama, the opportunity to write another chapter in the club’s storied history before the Dolphins enter a new phase of their existence was a huge incentive.
“It’s massive, we had a bit of a rough start the first six games, and obviously we’re at the top of the club (now) and next year the NRL team comes in, so for us to make the grand final and we hope to get the result next week and that’s a pretty big statement with the team coming in next year,” Pitama said.
“We have been working hard all season and we get to go to the big dance, and that’s at home as well, so that’s super exciting for us.”
Finals Week 3 highlights: Redcliffe Dolphins v Burleigh Bears
Both sides held plenty of belief that they could go all the way, but also held their opposition in high regard.
“They are a really good side, they are super skilful, they like to throw it around heaps so I think just discipline with them, because if you let them get on the front foot, they are a pretty hard team to stop,” Pitama said of the Devils.
“(But) we have the squad to do it 100 per cent; even through those tough times at the start of the season, we knew we had the team to win the comp and we have got faith in next week as well.
“Bring it on I reckon.”
For Ahearn, it didn’t matter which team his side was going to face on grand final day, the challenge and the focus remained the same.
“We need to bring energy and physicality in defence, they are (a big team) that play a physical brand of footy, so we are going to have to rest these shoulders and come out ready,” Ahearn said.
“They are big across the park… and have some speed out wide with players like Setu Tu.
“We have the belief in our squad that we have the squad to do it, belief has never left the group, even when we went through a bit of a lull in the middle of the season with all the changes.
“The belief hasn’t changed, so we’re excited.”