By MITCHELL DALE
WITH less than a week to go before his North Coast debut, a feeling of big-game excitement started building inside Bert Gray.
The butterflies in the stomach arrived. So did a few nerves.
The 28-year-old couldn't wait for the chance to represent his region.
Gray, who joined Coffs Harbour from Gimbisi Valley at the start of this season, captained North Coast in their trial-loss to Northern Division and, although it wasn't one his best-ever performances, he still felt his spot in the side was safe.
That was until Gray fielded a call from Comets' president Ian Trengove on Monday night.
"Ian had left a few messages for me to call him but that was the last thing I thought it was about," Gray said.
"I just thought it was something to do with the club.
"I was pretty surprised, and disappointed, when he told me I was dropped."
Gray wasn't just dropped from the starting side, the bloke who was deemed good enough to lead North Coast onto the park just two weeks earlier wasn't even in the squad or among the shadow players.
"It was very disappointing, I was really looking forward to playing at that level and I was pretty excited," he said.
"As far as I knew, I had done everything right to cover myself, especially after I captained the Group 2 side that flogged Group 3."
The fact it was Trengove, not a North Coast official, who delivered the bad news also stung Gray, who missed a day of work to train with the squad last week.
Incidentally, he was one of only eight players at that particular session.
"Yeah, I thought that was a bit rude," he said.
"After the way it was all conducted, I would be a bit iffy about playing rep again next year, I don't really want to be selected again and go through the same process.
"I'll just concentrate on playing well for Coffs now and hopefully prove the selectors wrong."
Gray's comments aren't just a case of a player spitting the dummy and letting off steam.
His tone of voice was calm and his message calculated.
He also displayed a touch of sportsmanship that was not shown to him by North Coast.
"Good on Benny McCarthy (who came into the side when Gray was dropped) he has only played a few games this year but he has been playing really well, congratulations to him," Gray said.
"I still hope they go well, just because I am not playing I will still be supporting them."
But the question still remains: What the hell has he done so wrong to go from captain to cast-off?
One school of thought is that Gray was a victim of Group 2-Group 3 politics.
The Coffs Coast Advocate understands that Group 3 officials blew up about having an extra Group 2 player (McCarthy) added to the squad in place of one of their own.
North Coast coach Mark Morrison also showed surprise at Gray's omission.
"I was extremely happy with Bert and I thought he led the side quite well," Morrison said.
"Things didn't go his way in Tamworth (against Northern Division) when our pack was dominated by Matt Parsons and the hooker John Johnson.
"That probably affected his chances, but I would be happy to have him anywhere in my side."
Both Morrison and Gray also expressed concern about how North Coast will be able to come together as a unit after so many changes.
"You can't expect to turn up to a game and play well after having one training session together," Gray said.
"You need a bit of harmony and togetherness."