A decade of heartbreak for Panthers
SPECIALREPORT By MITCHELL DALE
SAWTELL captain-coach Craig Wallace has vowed to deliver a VB Group 2 premiership to the Panthers before he retires. The 32-year-old prop targeted the Panthers' defence, in particular their communication in defence, as an area which needs to improve if he is to live up to his promise. "For sure, defence was a problem, especially out wide," he conceded. "But defence comes from the inside out and if the blokes on the inside aren't talking it makes it difficult for the ones outside. "Our defence will have to lift if we want to win the competition." Wallace will also look at some positional changes over the summer in an attempt to rectify any defensive deficiencies. "It was a bit late in the season to change this year without upsetting the side, but a couple of positional changes will be made in the backs," he said. Wallace expects Sawtell to start next season with almost the same side that lost 48-42 to Macksville in Sunday's preliminary final. He said that will be a major boost in the Panthers' quest to end over a decade of finals frustration. "We will start with almost the same side we finished this year with, which gives us a much stronger base to build on," he said. "This year I came in and changed the whole structure, the game plan, everything. "It was a big re-vamp. "To get perfection takes time but this year was a big step up for us. "We will start next year on a much better platform than we started this year." But will that be enough to turn around the Panthers' disastrous preliminary finals record? The club has now lost six preliminary finals in 10 years. However, Wallace does point out this side hasn't played in a grand final qualifier as a group and will be better for Sunday's experience. "I don't think we have a hoodoo," he said. "Clubs like Port Macquarie and Macksville have a lot of players with big-game experience and they will tell you that you need to lose a game like this before you win one. "On Sunday we had two players who had played in a grand final (Wallace and centre Nathan Davies)." When the fulltime siren sounded on Sunday, the look of devastation was written all over the Panthers' faces. Wallace lay flat on his back with his forearm covering his face, while others cut forlorn figures on their knees and haunches. The hollow feeling of another lost opportunity was unmistakable. "When the final whistle went and the ball went out it all sunk in," Wallace said. "It was just shattering, one of those feelings of emptiness. "A lot of the boys were in the same boat." Once the Sawtell players had risen to their feet and congratulated the victorious Macksville side, Wallace rallied the boys together for a team huddle. He was already looking towards 2005. "It was pretty emotional," he said of the tight huddle. "I just wanted to tell the boys to be proud and to keep their heads up. "After being kicked in the guts like that, it is important the boys all stick together. "As much as it hurts right now, I can only look forward to next year." On the upside, for all their big-game inexperience, the Panthers came within six points of qualifying for their first decider in 26 years. Wallace is supremely confident they will take the extra two steps before he hangs up his boots. "We will win the comp before I retire," he said. "I have won a competition at every club I have played at and I don't intend on changing that here. "We will be stronger, faster and fitter next year, so look out for the Panthers."