ILLAWARRA COAL LEAGUE
The term "old head on young shoulders" doesn't go far enough to describe Wests recruit James Smart.
After spending two years in the Toyota Cup with the Canberra Raiders, Smart wasn't offered a contract in the Raiders' top squad and opted for a return home to Gundagai rather than ply his trade in the watered-down NSW Cup.
There's nothing unique about a country boy returning to his home town to play after giving the NRL his best shake, but Smart's journey became one of the more remarkable stories in bush footy.
At just 21 years of age, Smart took the captain-coach reins at Gundagai and lifted the Tigers to a grand final appearance in his first year. He then took the Tigers to the grand final qualifier in 2012 and to another grand final last year.
"It [captain-coaching] was something that I always thought I'd do but not something I thought I'd do so soon," Smart said.
"I was fortunate to have a really good bunch there that showed me respect, and after that the results came.
"It would have been a fairytale to win it, particularly in that first year, but it doesn't always turn out that way.
"It was a really good experience, nonetheless."
After three years in the coaching furnace, Smart decided midway through last year that a sea change was necessary.
"I probably knew it was something I needed to do, but whether I was prepared to do it was a different thing," Smart said.
"It was very difficult but just kept going back to the fact I felt it was something I needed to do.
"When you're a captain-coach it's hard to improve your own game too much when you're worried about 20 other blokes.
"I wanted to take a step back from coaching but I wanted to play in a strong competition, and obviously the Wollongong comp has always been well respected.
"The training's been a bit more intense than I'm used to but definitely the planning and the headaches are something I don't have to deal with. It has really freshened me up."
Despite coming close on two occasions, Smart is still chasing that elusive premiership and he feels his new club has the potential to deliver it.
"I'd be lying if said I didn't have thoughts about that [premiership] in coming to this club," he said.
"I knew that they're a successful club and they've won a few of comps.
"It's something every player wants, and I'm certainly no different, but we don't want to get too ahead of ourselves.
"At this stage I just hope we can be there at the business-end of the season, and the way we're training at the moment I'm sure we'll give ourselves a good chance to be there on grand final day."