Story by Mitch Jennings – Illawarra Mercury
THE colours of their respective clubs run through their veins. It’s why, as they prepare to go head to head in Sunday’s Illawarra League grand final, the overwhelming feeling for Pete McLeod and Jarrod Costello is gratitude.
In a league where ex-NRL stars have dominated the coaching ranks – in particular the premiership winning ranks – Wests coach McLeod, and Thirroul counterpart Costello, know such opportunities are rare for even the most dedicated club men.
In Mcleod’s case, his four predecessors boast a collective resume of 770 NRL games, 18 Origins and 25 tests. It proved a fair apprenticeship, but McLeod admits the club’s approach to offer him the top job was an unexpected privilege.
“I’ve been very lucky for the club to put their faith in me,” McLeod said.
“I got a lot of confidence from the club and the confidence they put in me. They gave me a good grounding to, I’ve had some pretty good people to learn off while I’ve been here.
“At the start of the year we got some old Wests people back to the club, Glenn Stewart was massive for us, Jimmy Grehan, Luke Towers, Mitch Porter.
“They’re all Wests people, we’ve got eight local juniors playing in the grand final on the weekend and that’s what we made it all about. We’ve based it on effort and energy and it’s all come together since then.”
It’s one of the more intriguing aspects of Sunday’s decider, given Costello has taken a similar approach at Thirroul, basing a rebuild around developing and keeping juniors. The similarities aren’t lost on McLeod.
“Jacko and I have played a lot of footy against each other,” McLeod said.
“We’ve played a lot of grand finals against each other and we’ve coached lower grades against each other as well so there’s a fair bit of rivalry there. He’s always done a really good job with his sides, they’re always really well prepared and tough to play against.
“I’ve been competing against them for a long time and, especially in semi-finals and grand finals, they grow another leg. We know we’re going to have to be very good. I think both of these teams were the form teams of the competition and certainly deserve their spot.”
The respect is mutual in a rivalry that stretches back years in the playing and coaching ranks.
“Pete and I have both coached lower grades against each other and we played against each other so there’s a good rivalry there and a lot of respect there,” Costello said.
“We’re good friends and it’s good to see that some local coaches can give it a shake and a lot of local juniors in both sides. It’s great, I think it’s how it should be really.”
Like McLeod, Costello also followed in the footsteps of premiership-winning coach Nathan Fien and Luke Swain – the pair’s collective NRL tally totaling 388 games.
The Butchers missed the finals for the first time in 25 years in 2016, Costello’s first year in charge, but the 12 players he debuted saw the cub claim a reserve grade grand final and reach the first grade prelim in 2017. He’ll be looking to provide the ultimate reward for the club’s faith on Sunday.
“When [then president] Shane Millard called me and asked if I’d like to do it he said the club understood it would take a while to get back to being predominantly local players and local coaches,” Costello said.
“It takes a lot of trust from the clubs to do it because you don’t get that NRL profile. When it’s just someone like me they put a fair bit of trust in you.
“You’ve got to have good people around you, which I do. The senior guys, Joel Johnson, Aaron Beath, Jake Walsh, Joel Ruskin have all been super supportive of me over the last couple of years.
“To get where we are now in three years is really good. There’s been a lot of great work from everyone involved. Hopefully we can do the job on Sunday.”