Ballina Under-6 players grow into grand final
RIVAL hookers Nathan Groves and Bill Johnston are no strangers to each other ahead of the Far North Coast Rugby Union grand final at Crozier Field, Lismore today.
In fact they met 25 years ago and were two of the original players in the Under-6s when junior rugby union started as a Saturday morning competition at Ballina in 1992.
Today they will be key men for Ballina and Wollongbar-Alstonville in the first-grade grand final.
Ballina second-rower Josh Hickey was also part of that junior competition and will play for the Seahorses today.
Groves and Johnston played against each other through juniors but this will be the first time they have met in a grand final.
Johnston played most of his juniors at Wollongbar and has been back playing on the FNC for three seasons.
Father Eoin Johnston is a life member at both clubs and has coached junior and senior sides at the Pioneers.
"It's a pretty big moment when you look at where we've come from,” Groves said.
"Bill has always been a good challenge and we still see each other and get along to this day.
"It all started at Ballina on the Saturday mornings and it slowly moved into Friday junior rugby to what we have today.”
Ballina coach Chris Hickey helped set up the Saturday junior competition before going on to a decorated coaching career which saw him coach the NSW Waratahs in Super Rugby.
Hickey has been back coaching at Ballina for two seasons and has the Seahorses one win away from breaking a 10-year premiership drought.
"You can feel the buzz around town and people will stop you in the street and wish you luck,” Groves said.
"Obviously all our boys are keen to get the win and bring the premiership back to the club.
"I never expected to be playing first grade under Chris Hickey after all he's done but it's been good fun and I love the place.”
Grant Knight, Ballina v Justyn Keir, Wollongbar- Alstonville
A season-ending injury to Wollongbar-Alstonville captain Ben Damen has denied spectators a mouthwatering clash against Knight at five-eighth.
Keir usually plays halfback and will have to contain Knight while worrying about steering the ship for the Pioneers.
However, the Pioneers have plenty of options with five-eighth Reece Brown on the bench who could still start with Keir moving to halfback.