Joey Johns visits Country
PROMISING rugby league players from the region received a welcome boost to their fledgling careers - words of wisdom from NRL great Andrew Johns.
The legendary halfback - recently named as the eighth 'Immortal' of rugby league - was a surprise guest at the meeting of the Northern Rivers Country Rugby League Academy at the weekend.
Stunned academy players had the chance to quiz the State of Origin and Australia star, and former Canberra Raiders stalwart Alan Tongue, who also appeared at the Lake Ainsworth camp.
Far North Coast NRL game development officer and academy co-ordinator Mike Donnelly said he was still savouring the reaction of his players to Johns' visit.
"They were beside themselves," he said.
"Having lunch with Andrew Johns will be the biggest thing that may happen to some of the kids in their lifetime.
"It was a fantastic experience for everyone."
Donnelly had pre-arranged for Tongue, who retired in 2011 after more than 200 appearances for the Raiders, to speak to the group.
While confirming arrangements late last week with Johns' wife Cathrine, who works for the NRL as a community officer, mentioned the family was holidaying in the area over the weekend and might pop by.
The group was unaware of the special guest's arrival, until Johns appeared with his family.
"You should have seen their faces," Donnelly said. "Their jaws dropped."
The 38-year-old addressed the group, answered players' questions and posed for scores of pictures during his visit.
"He talked to them about sacrifice and commitment," Donnelly said. "He also spoke to them about his favourite memories and toughest games.
"This was his holiday time, but he gave his time to us.
"He was absolutely fantastic," Donnelly said.
Donnelly also praised Tongue, who helped take the boys through skills sessions and offered advice on developing their games.
"Alan blew them away," Donnelly said.
"He is one of the nicest people you could meet and was great with the guys.
"He told me at the end, 'book me in for next year'".
This was the second meet of the off-season for the 2012/13 squad, which includes 43 players from the Northern Rivers and Far North Coast areas.
The academy, which aims to develop potential future NRL stars, will continue to meet over the coming months. Players will undergo further training before taking on other academies at the end of summer.
"I am already impressed with their skills," Donnelly said.
"Seeing the skills of these players really augurs well for rugby league in the Northern Rivers for the next 10 years."