RUGBY LEAGUE: While the pain of losing a grand final was etched across his face, South Grafton Rebels captain Grant Stevens refused to let his players hang their heads as they left Frank McGuren Field on Sunday afternoon.
The Rebels had been served the tag of underdogs long before the first whistle blew in the Group 2 first grade grand final, but Stevens said the side looked far from outclassed by their Grafton Ghosts opposition.
The visitors had been first to score in the clash and outplayed the undefeated Ghosts in the opening stages of the grand final before a few errors and wayward passes began to hurt them in the middle stages.
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For the courageous captain there was not a single player among his troops that could be faulted in the 32-12 grand final defeat.
"I am definitely disappointed, our effort out there was bloody awesome," Stevens said. "I could not fault any of our player's efforts on the field, we had some good ball possession and we defended really well and they scored a lot of tries out wide on the flanks.
"We didn't want them to come through the middle and we achieved that. They got a few lucky tries off of kicks, and they are things that are hard to control for a side.
"We came here as the underdogs, but we definitely didn't think that. We thought we were in with a chance and I think we proved that out on the field. We didn't get the win but we can hold our heads high and celebrate our season and the effort we put in on the field."
Stevens said there were a number of factors that plagued the Rebels in the middle stages of the contest but it was their ability to not land the final blow while on the advantage that cost them most dearly.
"I thought our effort out there was something else, we haven't put that much effort into a game all season," he said. "In patches we definitely played to our game plan, but I think a few times we went away from it and the lack of ball control hurt us a bit. Giving away silly penalties also hurt.
"We didn't capitalise and build pressure when we did have the football and I think that is what hurt us the most out there. But I cannot fault any of our player's performances."
With more than 2,500 fans at the ground split evenly between the two arch rivals there was no real crowd advantage. While the Ghosts fans cheered loud and proud after every try, it was quickly drowned out by a chorus of "Rebels" chants.
Stevens said it filled him with pride to see the number of supporters who had crossed the Clarence to lift the Rebels when they needed it most.
"Our community turns out in support every weekend not just grand finals, but nothing showed it more than that tunnel we ran out in," he said. "They travel with us anywhere. We have the best supporters of any club in Group 2 and they showed that again during the grand final.
"I can't thank the community, the committee and all the people who help out behind the scenes at the Rebels club and our families otherwise football does not happen."
It has been a club defining time for the Rebels over the past four years after ressurecting the club back into the top flight before featuring in three consecutive grand finals from 2015-17.
"(At Frank McGuren Field) in 2014 we got beat 96-6 by the Ghosts, to come three years and we have won two grand finals and been in a third has been a massive achievement for the clubl," Stevens said. "We are definitely going in the right direction as a club and hopefully we can recruit well this off season and go again in 2018."
While he is yet to make a final decision on his playing future, Stevens said it would likely take medical intervention to stop him from leading the red and whites into next season. But for now the focus will be on a bit of rest and relaxation with family.
"There is every possibility I will go again, with the off-season you are a long time retired so I will keep pushing myself for as long as I can," he said. "I have a few weeks before some knockouts coming up so its just about getting myself fit for those.
"Then I will have a camping season and drink plenty of beer and then worry about pre-season when November comes around.I've just got to upgrade the bull bar and we'll be right."