Gary Belcher can't say for certain if he saw a budding coach lurking inside his Canberra Raiders teammate Ricky Stuart all those years ago.
But he remembers a few things hinting as to why Stuart is such a good mentor.
There's the drive, charisma, the footy brain, the larrikin, the respect, and the ambivalence to criticism.
"He might not be everyone's cup of tea. Unless you know him, from the outside he can seem pretty abrasive," Belcher said. "But that wouldn't bother Rick much at all."
Another former teammate at club, state and country levels is Glenn Lazarus
"I’ve known Ricky for most of my life. He and I played for the same junior club, the Queanbeyan Blues – although he was two years younger than me and played mostly with my younger brother," Lazarus told NRL.com.
"We progressed up through our rugby league career together, both playing for the Raiders, the Blues and Australia."
Belcher and Lazarus say Stuart's patience and attention to detail are central to getting the Raiders' name back up in lights. It's also the good and kind stuff under that crusty exterior – more on that later.
After winning the 2002 premiership with the Roosters in his rookie year, Stuart has not hidden from the fact he wants another title. Maybe it's to prove the first was not a fluke. Maybe it's just to feel that buzz again.
Stuart took the Roosters to three grand finals. Add in the Sharks (2008) and Raiders (2016) and he has taken three different NRL clubs to preliminary finals. His methods – and a little madness – work.
"When Rick first arrived at the Raiders, [coach] Tim Sheens spent a hell of a lot of time in his ear teaching him the subtleties and nuances of halfback play," Belcher told NRL.com.
"I remember having a chat with Mal [Meninga] because I was worried about possible information overload to the point of Tim confusing Ricky.
"Tim loves a chat, understands the game for all its complexities and loves passing that information on. I just thought he was expecting too much from a kid recently converted from rugby union.
"But Ricky proved me wrong, taking it all in and very quickly he was calling the shots and ordering the team around the park.
"I can’t remember thinking he’d make a great coach but I definitely knew he had a very sharp footy brain. Other things that endeared him to his teammates such as loyalty and his sense of humour prepared him as a coach."
What comes out of his mouth is also key, according to Lazarus.
"His ability to communicate is excellent. As a player in the role of halfback, he always had an innate understanding of the game, the field, the opposition and play – his reading of the game and the position his team was in on the field was second to none," he said.
"That's further demonstrated by the way he directed players across the field as needed in response. He always knew what was needed to win a game."
The Stuart brain helped win three grand finals with Canberra (1989-90, 1994) , collect a Dally M Player of the Year (1993) and a Clive Churchill Medal (1990).
Lazarus and Belcher were in the 1989 and 1990 sides with Stuart lifting the premiership shield. Smiles and back-slaps all round.
Then you watch a few post-match videos of Stuart as a coach and sometimes he looks like a kettle about to boil.
"There’s much more to him than that," Belcher says. "Rick’s definitely more laid back now, more mellow, less angry and he knew he had to do that. It's probably reflected by the way his team plays now.
How Ricky Stuart turned Raiders into a contender
"I’m sure his goal this year is to win the comp but I reckon a few years ago it had to be more about building a team capable of matching it with the front-runners and he’s done that.
"They needed improvement in many areas and have slowly achieved that. Ricky's in it for the long haul."
There's the patience thing ... the charisma begins with Stuart being such a good listener.
"He's keen to know and understand people," Belcher said. "He also has a great sense of humour and loves a good yarn or a stitch-up.
"To me he’s one of the boys and I suspect the players would walk over hot coals for him just as his mates would."
Lazarus puts a lot of the Stuart magnetism down to his parents.
"I’ve known his family including parents for a very long time. His parents are wonderful people and Ricky has the same qualities and values – down to earth, genuine, kind and sincere," Lazarus said.
'"His leadership qualities have formed as a result.
"Ricky's genuine concern for people is evidenced in the way he coaches. He cares about his players and builds good relationships with them. He takes the time to get to know them and understand them."