If it wasn't for the sacrifices, passion and commitment from Russell Lardner and partner Tanara Howarth, the Macleay Valley Mustangs would have folded last year.
The Mustangs had endured a tumultuous 2018 season, which saw them forced to withdraw their first and reserve grade sides halfway through the year.
The club's immediate future was balancing on the edge of a cliff.
As the only senior rugby league club in Kempsey, disbandment would have been disastrous for the well-known breeding ground.
The Argus spoke with Lardner to uncover how the club managed to avoid its end and instead climb to the top of the Group Three Rugby Ladder in the space of eight months.
Mustangs on the brink
Macleay Valley went into the 2018 season on the back of reaching the Group Three grand final the year before, but the loss of key players in the off-season had an immediate impact.
Nine straight defeats to start the season, including conceding more than 50 points on six occasions, led to the first grade side withdrawing with five rounds remaining.
The Mustangs completed the season in the Ladies League Tag and Under-18.5s but their future remained clouded.
At the end of the season, Macleay Valley president Tim Moorehead stepped down from the role and Richard Campbell was elected to replace him.
However, Campbell was a no-show at the Group Three Annual General Meeting in November and the Mustangs were not represented.
The Mustangs were given 10-days to affiliate with Group Three for the 2019 season or they would not be eligible to participate.
In a further setback for Macleay Valley, Campbell stepped down from his role and the club was left in limbo.
Three emergency meetings were called and eventually David Fernando, who was the president of the Mustangs in 2014, returned to fill the gaping hole and began conducting a plan to keep the club afloat.
The club met Group Three's deadline and affiliated for the 2019 season, but to illustrate the dire situation, the Mustangs had less than $50 in the club's account and had to spend $22 on the affiliation fee.
Affiliating with Group Three was only the beginning of the journey, as the Mustangs were without a coach, players and financial support.
Prodigal son returns to lead first grade
Kempsey man Russell Lardner, who first played for the Mustangs in the Under-18s, hadn't played for the club in more than a decade.
The journeyman had played at numerous clubs up and down the coast but was coming off shoulder surgery which had ruled him out for the entire 2018 season.
Lardner was forced to watch on as his beloved club fell apart and the pain spurred him into throwing his hat into the ring for the first grade coaching gig.
"I wanted to take on the role to create a new era for the Mustangs. The club was heading in a really bad direction and I know now that if I didn't step in and take the role then the club would have folded," Lardner told the Argus.
"People had warned me about becoming coach because of previous years. The Mustangs had a bad reputation and the club had been tarnished many times, but that made me embrace the challenge more. I wanted to turn the club around and create a new reputation."
Lardner was elected as the new coach in November last year but the playing stocks remained limited.
"From the start, the club was dead set on its arse," he said.
Behind every good man, is a great woman and Lardner has had the support of Tanara Howarth through the entire process.
Howarth has essentially taken on the presidential role and picked up additional responsibilities since Fernando was forced to step down in April due to personal reasons.
"Bring the boys home": Lardner's recruitment drive
Sacrifice. The word can often be thrown around lightly, but for the players who made the decision to return to their hometown club, the word speaks only the truth.
Kempsey has produced many talented rugby league players, but the majority were playing out of town. Lardner sent a short but direct message to the Kempsey men who were playing for rival clubs in an attempt to "bring the boys home".
"I sent a message to everyone who I could think of who I believed would consider joining the Mustangs and be a part of the rebuild on the field and also improve the culture of the club," Lardner said.
"I simply told them I am the new coach of the Mustangs, that this is our hometown club and it needs us all."
Lardner is a well respected Dunghutti man and it didn't take long until local players were showing their interest in returning to play for Macleay Valley.
Jesse Douglas, Josef Barber, Tyler Roberts, Stephan Blair, Adam McMurray were the first to agree to return.
But Lardner had pinpointed a few key players who he believed would be instrumental in providing guidance and leadership to the younger players.
The 35-year-old spoke with Chris Piper and Ritchie Roberts, both former Group 3 Players of the Year and Port City Breakers premiership players, and posed the question to them face-to-face.
"Chris and I have been really close for a long time, he's like a brother to me. I met up with him at my gym and kept my pitch short and sweet. I said 'listen, I am the coach for the Mustangs' and before I could finish asking he was already shaking his head," Lardner said.
"I continued though; 'I will only ask you this once, are you going to play with me or against me'.
"Chris was smiling and looked me in the eye and said 'you know I can't play against you brother, count me in'."
Roberts was in earshot of the conversation and Lardner called out to the 80-minute prop and asked the same question but Roberts refused to answer.
Lardner admits he wasn't sure if Roberts would join Macleay Valley but his confidence increased after he noticed the Kempsey Dragons junior driving past Mustangs training sessions to see who was playing for them.
"I would see him drive in when we were training to see how we were going," Lardner said.
"The biggest thing with Ritchie is that he's a hard worker. He takes footy and training very seriously and that's why he prides himself on playing 80-minutes up front. He must have liked what he saw because he came over to my place unannounced one day and we had a long chat.
"I told him my plans for the side on the field and for the club off it and he told me 'I am with you'."
With arguably the two best forwards in the competition signed, Lardner then began work on the final piece of the puzzle, recruiting star fullback Owen Blair.
It took until two days before the season-proper but Blair finally committed to his old club and the recruitment of a premiership contender was complete.
"No one thought I would be able to bring them all here. They were getting paid by other clubs and we have no money at all. They all essentially sacrificed a second income to show their loyalty to me, this town, the Mustangs and the future of rugby league in Kempsey," Lardner said.
Pressing restart: Changing the culture, eradicating the past and building a future
Lardner admits the culture at the Mustangs, on and off the field, had been deteriorating for years.
The Mustangs were expelled from Group Two in 2013 and met the same fate after joining Group Three in 2014 for violent incidents and were left in hiatus for the 2015 season.
While the Mustangs have avoided major punishments over the last three years, Lardner knew the example the players and spectators were setting for the next generation was unacceptable and demanded a change from his players.
"I sat down with all the team and delivered the message that there was going to be no crap from any of our players or spectators anymore," Lardner said.
"But I let them know that as first grade players, we were the ones to set the example for everyone else. Everyone had a lot of respect for my wishes and there's been no troubles at all.
"Leading up to this year, it was rare to hear a positive word said about the Mustangs. Players and spectators have been scared to come here in the past. They would think they were going to come here and get in a fight or be abused.
"But we have worked hard to instill a change. We have heard nothing but positive stuff from away spectators this year and Group Three officials Mal Drury and Wayne Bridge have also told us they have seen and heard great things about the difference in the atmosphere."
Lardner claims the change is being felt by the wider community, as the crowd numbers continue to rise for home games.
"I believe the Mustangs have a strong importance within the community and it's been great to see so many people attend our games this season," he said.
"More and more people are coming each week. The boys run onto the field and look around and say 'jeez there's a lot of people here'."
Lardner is hopeful the new culture surrounding the club will lead to financial benefits.
"It's really deflating after our home games when we don't have a sponsor pub to go back to, where we can enjoy a nice dinner with the family and hold our presentation," he said.
"I hope a pub in town rewards us for our change and backs us to maintain our behaviour and gets on board.
"We are so thankful for the sponsors we have now though, without them we wouldn't have a club."
Mustangs prove to be a premiership force
The Mustangs have climbed into first position at the halfway point of the season and only have one defeat next to their name.
The side leads the Wauchope Blues, who they overcame a double digit deficit to beat 20-19, by one competition point.
While the Wingham Tigers, who handed the Mustangs their only defeat this season, are two competition points back in third but are riding a six-game winning streak.
Macleay Valley have picked up comfortable wins in the majority of their games and while Lardner doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself, the dummy half admits a premiership is now the new goal.
"At the start of the year, I wanted to finish the season in the top three. But we are now sitting in first position and we are in it to win it," he said.
"We want to host the grand final and win it on home soil. I don't think the Mustangs have ever hosted a grand final.
"But it's not what this was all about. Winning is beautiful but I would prefer to have success for the club off the field."
The club has faced many challenges over the years but one thing is for sure, the Mustangs will prosper with Lardner and co at the helm.
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