When Russell Lardner heard the final siren sound and was overcome by emotions after he led the Macleay Valley Mustangs from near extinction to a premiership in the space of 12-months, he knew the hard work was worth it.
But Lardner had icing placed on his cake last Friday night, when he was announced as the 2019 Group Three Rugby League Coach of the Year.
Lardner's commitment, sacrifices and dedication to the Mustangs have been well documented by the Argus this year and the first year coach is still pinching himself in disbelief at how successful this season was.
"The whole season has been filled with massive achievements, it's still all sinking in," Lardner told the Argus.
"I didn't expect it all to come together this well. I knew I had recruited a great team but I was just happy to win a couple of games. To finish the year with a minor and major premiership and now individual achievements for a lot of our players, it's surreal.
"There were a lot of ups and downs but in the end the premiership victory and recognition as Coach of the Year has made it all worth it."
Group Three would have been hard pressed to find a more suitable winner than Lardner for the top gong, as the Dunghutti man recruited Kempsey's most talented players back to their hometown club, bonded them together and created an environment for them to succeed.
The side won 12 of their 14 regular season games on their way to securing the minor premiership before they overcame a shock loss in the major semi-final to bounce back and defeat the Wauchope Blues in the Group Three grand final on Sunday August 25.
Lardner's achievements weren't restricted to on-field success, as the well-respected man demanded a change in the culture.
Group Three commended Lardner on his ability to stamp out indiscretions which haunted the Mustangs in past seasons.
"Even the Group told me they were very impressed with the turnaround of the club from where it was last year to where it is this year," Lardner said.
"They were commending me for fixing up a lot of issues, not just for the on-field success."
While Lardner admits the opportunity to chase consecutive titles is tempting, he will need to take time to weigh up what is best for his family before making a decision to return as coach for the 2020 season.
"Honestly, I am glad the season is over. I need a break as it has taken its toll on me as rugby league and the Mustangs was consuming me," he said.
"I plan on spending some time with my family, taking a holiday up the coast and then later this year we will work out what's best to do for next season.
"I would love to go back-to-back though, it's definitely something I am considering."
The direction of the Mustangs is in an upward trajectory, but with the club still struggling financially, Lardner concedes there is only so much that can be done before potential hardships return.
All of the Macleay Valley players sacrificed a second income to play for their beloved club this season, but there will almost certainly be lucrative deals offered to the 2019 premiership players.
Lardner concludes the Mustangs need to find a major sponsor to make the club financially secure and provide enticements to their players.
"I am here for the club, I want to see it keep moving forward but it's difficult without a major sponsor," he said.
"You put your body through hell in a season, there's injuries and always a risk that you could be unable to work.
"Every single one of my players left something on the table to come home and play for their community and hometown club. They deserve a lot of respect for that and I know they have got it.
"Ideally, they should all be receiving match payments. Every other club in the group pay their players and it will be hard to continue to compete when we don't."
Lardner claims the feeling of winning the premiership will never be lost and praised his teammates and friends for making it possible.
"I will always have a high from it, it will never go away. I remember watching Kempsey and the Mustangs as a kid and wanting to win a first grade premiership and now I have not only done that but coached the side too," Lardner said.
"I can't thank all of the players enough. They all gave up so much to come back and make this a reality. We will be able to share this special feeling together for the rest of our lives."
The Kempsey community has rallied around the Mustangs this season and Lardner said the support has been overwhelming.
"I have been congratulated on the street by strangers," Lardner said.
"At Big W, a lady rubbed me on the arm and told me she had travelled to Wauchope to watch us play in the grand final and how amazing it was for a Kempsey team to win.
"It's quite humbling to receive that support."
The Mustangs will host a presentation night later this month before the players enjoy a well-earned off-season.
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