Col Speed packs bags to start next chapter
FOR the past 13 years one name that has been synonymous with rugby league on the North Coast has been Col Speed.
From coaching Grafton Ghosts to two Clayton Cups and Coffs Harbour Comets to a 28-year drought-breaking Group 2 premiership, to an unceremonious midseason exit from Orara Valley Axemen and whistle blowing to the media about the flaws of bush footy, Speed has been right in the thick of it.
Looking forward to a fresh start, today Speed takes the first steps toward rejuvenating his coaching career at day one of preseason training as head coach of Newtown Lions in the Toowoomba Rugby League A Grade competition.
It’s a case of back to the future for the Queensland native, whose first coaching job was the Lions’ Under-14s in the mid-90s, and over the coming weeks Speed’s family will permanently relocate to north of the border.
“My wife (Sharyn) was fortunate enough to pick up a job opportunity, and between a few conversations with a mate up there and the former club I used to play with and coach at, I was given the opportunity to coach them next year in 2021,” Speed said.
“I’ve been out of senior coaching for a while now, and there’s a lot of things I’ve learnt in regards to what I could possibly do better, and I look forward to putting those into place.
“For the short term I’m just grateful to be back coaching and doing what I love. I just can’t wait to hook in and get it started.
“But long term, there’s already some interest in regards to representative rugby league and that’s one of the reasons for the move I guess, not only for myself but my sons as well.”
The move will end the passionate thinker’s love-hate relationship with footy in the region.
Not afraid to express his opinion, Speed knows all too well what it’s like to be the king of the hill one moment, and public enemy number one the next, especially at Frank McGuren Field - the spiritual home of the Ghosts and a place that will always hold a special place in Speed’s heart.
“There’s some really fond memories and some funny ones,” he said as he reminisced from the familiar blue and white stands one final time this week.
“I came here one time as the Comets coach and I was under the disillusion that I would be treated like I would be when I was here as a coach. I climbed up on the grandstand roof to where I always watched games when I was coaching the Ghosts.
“It was probably 10 or 15 minutes into the game, I’ll never forget it, the groundkeeper came over and ordered me off the roof.
“Well, I lost my lollies, and threw the clipboard down, much to the amusement of the Can Bar crowd.
“I got feedback later on that he was looking to put me off my game that day.”
Speed moved to the Clarence Valley from coaching Pittsworth at Toowoomba ahead of the 2008 season, when he was charged with lifting the Ghosts from 11th on the NRRRL ladder in 2007.
In his first interview with The Daily Examiner, Speed confidently predicted the team will be in the top five in “the not too distant future”.
Related Article: Ghosts inject some Speed into equation
Eleven months later he was guiding the ‘Baby Ghosts’, with an average age of 22, to the minor premiership and then the grand final, which they would ultimately lose 25-24 in extra time to Byron Bay Red Devils.
“That first side that I had, the 2008 side, was something special,” Speed said. “They were a very young, raw side, and they were locals and they were juniors, and no one gave us much hope.
“The next year we were unsuccessful in the semi-finals, and the look of devastation on Aaron Hartmann’s face; I made sure we were going to do everything we could possibly do to win the two premierships that we did.”
The 2010 and 2011 seasons will be remembered as one of the finest eras of any team in Clarence Valley sporting history. In successive years the Ghosts hosted and won the NRRRL grand final, against Ballina Seagulls (14-6) and then Murwillumbah Mustangs (10-6), and was awarded the Clayton Cup as the best NSW country rugby league team on both occasions.
“The Clayton Cups were the icing on the cake, you could say,” Speed said.
“I’ll be forever grateful for getting the opportunity to do what I love in regards to coaching and the plans we had in place.
“There was a whole group - the coaching staff and the committee - that I had for the four years here; we all had a vision and everyone was on the same page, and we had a great deal of success out of that which was fantastic.”
Speed took on the assistant coaching role under Anthony Seibold at Mackay Cutters for the 2012 Queensland Intrust Super Cup season, but returned to the region the following year to lead Coffs Harbour Comets to its first Group 2 title in 28 years.
“We were treated like rock stars, mostly due to the organisation of Steve Gooley the president,” he said.
“Steve’s late dad had given him a bottle of port as a present and he was looking for a special moment to open it, and we all had a shot of port out in the middle of the oval. That was pretty special.”
Living in Grafton, Speed also maintained ties with the Ghosts in 2013 as coach of his son’s Under-8s. But when the senior club switched to Group 2 in 2014 it meant Speed was forced to come up against the Ghosts, captain-coached by his former protege Ryan Farrell, and on his first visit to Frank McGuren Field the Ghosts defeated the defending premiers 36-8.
Related Article: Ghosts and Comets begin new rivalry that’s worth the 50-year wait
Speed returned to his old stomping ground again for the grand final, but an extra time penalty saw the Ghosts victorious 18-16.
Speed’s Comets were again bridesmaids in 2015, but this time across the river at McKittrick Park where South Grafton Rebels created their own piece of history, claiming their first title in 40 years with a 46-18 drubbing under equally decorated mentor Dallas Waters.
- Speed voted coach in Clarence Rugby League Dream Team of the Decade
- Waters and Speed talk compare notes ahead of 2015 grand final
After taking the Comets to three grand finals in three years, Speed stood down as coach and in 2016 returned to the Ghosts and opted for a change of pace as coach of the Under-18s, who were bundled out of the finals in consecutive extra time losses.
Then in 2017 Speed took the top job at Orara Valley Axemen. After missing the finals the first year - in which the Ghosts incidentally won a third Clayton Cup under captain-coach Danny Wicks - the Axemen started 2018 with a bang, taking out the Coffs Coast Nines tournament, and went on to finish second on the ladder before failing to qualify for the grand final.
But after a change in direction at the club and a disappointing start to 2019, Speed parted ways midway through the season, and had been without a senior coaching contract since before linking up with Newtown.
Speed has often been outspoken about improving rugby league across multiple facets from grassroots level to representative level.
Speed had been linked to the Ghosts Under-18s for 2020, but the challenges of COVID-19 saw the Ghosts, followed by the whole of Group 2, withdraw from playing this season.
Despite the challenges facing many rugby league clubs including the Ghosts after 2020, Speed is confident the club’s future is in good hands after Neil Payne, who was treasurer during Speed’s golden run and president from 2012 to 2015, agreeing to return to the role at the annual general meeting earlier this month, and Todd Cameron appointed captain-coach.
“I was fortunate Neil was around when I was coaching, and the position he put the club in financially was mind-boggling,” Speed said.
“To see him back at the helm doing it again, you can leave the town as a Grafton Ghost supporterknowingit’s in great hands, and the future of the club is in a positive state.
“My wife and I, we’re both sporting tragics, we love sport, and the opportunities given to our family here have been fantastic.”