Former NRL star Beau Champion is set to play an integral role in laying the foundations for future success at the Macleay Valley Mustangs after being appointed the club's new first grade coach.
Champion was a South Sydney junior who rose through the ranks to play more than 100 NRL games, featuring stints at the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Melbourne Storm, Gold Coast Titans and Parramatta Eels.
He will be taking over from Ant Cowan and Adam McMurray as coach for the 2024 season.
At the Mustangs' first pre-season training, president Reuben Jones said Champion was a standout contender for the role.
"When Beau applied, it was hard to say no to what he was offering to bring to the role," he said. "It was an opportunity that we couldn't pass up.
"I think he will be good with the young guys as he can show them what it takes to be playing at the highest level of rugby league.
"We're excited to have him on board."
After entering a rebuilding phase since their 2019 fairytale premiership, Jones said the club is expecting results 2024, particularly as they made the finals in 2023.
"I think it's expected that the team makes the finals now," he said. "For a few years, it was just a positive to make the finals, but I think now we're at the point where they should be making the finals and they realistically can win the grand final.
"I am pretty positive about how it will all go next season, but only time will tell."
Champion, who has family ties in Kempsey and moved to Port Macqaurie in 2023, said he's excited to take on the challenge.
"It's an exciting opportunity for me," he said. "I am heavily involved in community programs here, and I think this is a great way to continue to make a positive change in the community."
Champion said he won't be letting his 10 years of NRL experience go to waste in his new role.
"I played under many different coaches and with a lot of different players, so hopefully I can bring that experience with me to assist the boys," he said.
"The main reason why I am here is to try and make them better players and better people as well. I also want to make sure they can fulfil their potential.
"Hopefully, my NRL experience - particularly around the training - will help the boys. In saying that, it's also up to them to buy in and make the most of it."
Champion's role will be made easier with the likes of 2023 Group 3 Rugby League player of the year Ethan Thompson and centre of the year Miles Mongta signing on for 2024.
Luke Calthorpe, who was named 2023 Group 3 representative player of the year, has also joined the first grade side following a successful under-18's campaign which featured a premiership in 2022.
He will be joined by fellow under-18's teammate Shane Davis-Caldwell who also helped lead the under-18's side to victory in 2019. His return to the Mustangs colours follows a one-year stint with Macksville.
Davis-Caldwell said he was excited to play for the Mustangs again.
"I missed paying with the boys here, I think I play better with them by my side," he said.
Davis-Caldwell is hoping the team will be able to go one step further in 2024 under Champion's guidance.
"That's the goal."
Champion said he was looking forward to developing the relatively young - but promising - side.
"The players we've signed are really exciting, and it's going to be good to see how they develop throughout the season," he said.
"I think [having a young side] is a good thing. A lot of the boys have played together for a long time and they know each other's game really well.
"I think they have a lot of talent, and they're at the age and experience where they can take their game to another level."
Champion said his strategy for the 2024 season was to take it "one game at a time".
"This season is just about taking things as they come," he said. "There's an old saying that goes, 'you'll finish where you deserve to finish'.
"We want to get as fit as we can and play a fast and exciting brand of football. If we do that, the scoreboard and results will end up taking care of themselves.
"I think the club has done a great job over the last couple of years in terms of creating a strong and encouraging environment for the players and community, and I really want to build on that going forward."
Mustangs' returning coaches
Under-18's returning coaches Robert Fernando and Dennis Ritchie are gearing up for the side's 2024 season campaign.
Fernando coached the team to a premiership in 2022 and led them deep into the finals in 2023 before falling short of a grand final berth. He said the team is focused on going all the way in 2024.
"Hopefully, we can go one game better than last year," he said. "We have a strong team this season who can get the job done.
"I'm excited about the season ahead."
Meanwhile, Simone Smith will be returning as coach for the North Coast Rugby League women's team.
The former NRLW star led the Mustangs to a premiership in the competition's inaugural year in 2022. They were also named minor premiers in 2023 before falling short of glory in the grand final.
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