Titans' embrace of local talent paying off
It's the NRL's greatest version of 'Buying Back the Farm'.
In case you hadn't noticed, the Gold Coast Titans – once near the bottom of the ladder when it came to fielding local juniors in their top side – have achieved a seismic shift in reconnecting with their talent nursery.
And no one is prouder of the transformation that captain-elect Ryan James, who last year negotiated himself a new deal that takes him through to the end of the 2020 season, because of the driving ambition to lead his home team to a grand final.
In 2014 James was the only Titans' regular first-grader from the Gold Coast/Tweed, while the extended NRL squad included just nine from the club's greatest catchment area that includes NSW's Northern Rivers.
Going into the 2018 season he is one of 11 Gold Coast locals in the full-time squad, plus four who hailed from Northern Rivers. That's half of the 30-man list.
And an even bigger statement is the story of prodigal sons who have returned, including four from rich, successful 'Big Brother' up the M1, the Brisbane Broncos.
Jarrod Wallace, Jai Arrow, Keegan Hipgrave and Jai Whitfield have all headed back from the Broncos, joining their once emerging golden boy Brisbane clubmate Ash Taylor (from St George/Toowoomba, just two hours away).
Others to return to their roots are Kevin Proctor (Melbourne Storm), Ryan Simpkins (Penrith), Michael Gordon (Parramatta, Cronulla, Penrith, Sydney Roosters) and Will Matthews (Dragons), a Kyogle product who made his NRL debut for the Titans in 2008.
Then there is Brenko Lee (Canberra, Canterbury) who grew up just north of the Coast at Logan.
The re-alignment began in 2016 under Neil Henry's watch and new coach Garth Brennan is just as passionate about aiming for prolonged success on the back of developing local, or previously unheralded, talent.
"When I started there were a lot of local juniors learning under some great senior players like Luke Bailey, Mark Minichiello, Preston Campbell, Mat Rogers and Scott Prince but we seemed to let them go," said Bilambil junior James, who made his NRL debut six weeks before his 19th birthday in 2010.
"Over the last three years we have been bringing a lot of players back to the Gold Coast and bringing plenty others through from the juniors which is great because you have a greater sense of pride when you play for your local team.
"It's not every day you get to throw on the NRL jersey and play in front of your family.
"Neil started buying back local juniors and Garth is big on it; which you can see by the way he has recruited this year."
James has been in big demand from rival clubs since he starred as a big, long-haired Australian Schoolboy but never budged.
"If you get to stay at home for a little less than what might be on offer at other clubs, that's a bonus in my eyes," he says.
"Sometimes it doesn't come down to money; it's the comfortability of staying home and wanting to represent the area you grew up in.
"I have my family including both my grand-parents here and every second week you get to run out in front of them and play the game you love for the team you love – you can't put a price on that?
"I debuted at 18 when the club gave me a chance to play NRL as a young kid and a local junior. I feel I owe it to the club to give it my best and you want to do it for yourself but also make it a successful organisation.
"To win a grand final with the Titans is the ultimate dream. I think we are building towards that."
James says the significance of Jarrod Wallace's performances last season should not be underestimated.
"For 'J-Wal' to come back after playing in a grand final  and have the best season of his career and play State of Origin says something," James said.
"Jai Arrow was also a regular first-grader at the Broncos and hopefully he, Keegan [Hipgrave] and 'Whitty' [Whitfield] can emulate J-Wal."
Brennan says succinctly: "You have a choice – to either be a development club or a recruitment club."
"We don't have the finances to be a recruitment club and we have 6000 juniors in our back yard, so we'd be crazy not to be a development club.
"I've seen over the years, when players make their debuts at home before family and friends and guys they went to school with, it means a little bit more than doing it somewhere else and that's what the young guys in the Gold Coast need to understand.
"We want players in the region to believe there is a pathway to the NRL through the Titans; they don't have to leave home and mum and dad, and it is one of the best places in the country to live and also play rugby league.
"But it also about our local heroes getting out in the community and mix with the people and be approachable, and be the heroes or the next Ryan James, and that's important."
Another feature of the development is the flow through from sports high school with a rich league tradition, particularly Palm Beach Currumbin and progressively from current GIO Schoolboys Cup holders Keebra Park High School, who were once closely aligned with Wests Tigers and provided little talent to the Titans.
James, Proctor, Hipgrave, Simpkins, Matthews, Kane Elgey and Karl Lawton are PBC graduates while Arrow, up-and-comers Tyronne Roberts-Davis, AJ Brimson, Phillip Sami and Junior Kiwi Moeaki Fotuaika attended Keebra Park.
TITANS LOCAL TALENT 2018
GOLD COAST/TWEED (11): Ryan James (Bilambil Jets), Kane Elgey (Tugun), Ryan Simpkins (Currumbin/Tugun), Kevin Proctor (Tugun), Jarrod Wallace (Burleigh Bears), Keegan Hipgrave (Nerang), Jai Arrow (Burleigh), Jai Whitbread (South Tweed Bears), Brendan Elliot (Runaway Bay), Michael Gordon (Tweed Coast Raiders), Karl Lawton (Burleigh).
NORTHERN RIVERS (3): Anthony Don (Grafton), Tyronne Roberts-Davis (Kempsey), Will Matthews (Kyogle)
LOGAN REGION (3): Brenko Lee (Logan), Phillip Sami (Goodna), AJ Brimson (Waco)
Regular NRL players: GOLD COAST/TWEED (1)- Ryan James; NORTHERN RIVERS (4) - Anthony Don, David Mead (Lismore), Kevin Gordon (Sawtell), Luke Douglas (Yamba, via Cronulla Sharks).
Squad members: Steve Michaels (Burleigh, Caleb Binge (Ballina), Tom Kingston (Tweed Heads), Cody Nelson (Mullumbimby).