Group 20 rugby league
THE Griffith Black and Whites have been dealt a blow on the eve of the new Group 20 season with the sudden departure of import star Jeco Makatoa.
The powerful utility, who was signed by the wooden spooners last year and crossed for a team-best 16 tries in 14 appearances, has returned to Sydney for personal reasons.
His departure is a significant blow for Griffith given his tryscoring prowess, his ability to cover multiple positions - including second row, centre and prop - and his bright debut season in a very lacklustre side last year.
Former Canterbury-Bankstown under 20s star Makatoa, the first cousin of Sonny Bill Williams, was set to play a key role this season but instead leaves another gap that needs to be filled by the rebuilding Black and Whites.
President Craig O'Keeffe said it was a shame that Makatoa's unlocked potential would not be realised under new captain-coach David Milne.
"We fully expected him to have a big one this year," O'Keeffe said.
"He is a good footballer with loads of ability - tonnes of it.
"It's a pity his work ethic wasn't quite there because he'd be playing NRL if he knuckled down and got fair dinkum about it.
"If he wasn't so powerful and handy on the field you wouldn't worry about him leaving.
"But even then, he still was our best player and that's why he's such a loss."
Signed along with two fellow New Zealand imports last pre-season, Makatoa was the only overseas player who stuck with Griffith during a nightmare 2013 campaign and also assisted with coaching the club's league tag outfit.
The Black and Whites won't go back into the player market to find a direct replacement, with the imminent arrival of a new Kiwi contingent and the Group 20 points system keeping their hands tied.
Utility forward Jericho Tanuvasa, props David Uasula Jr and Clinton Lilo and centre Ratu Samuela are expected to touch down in Griffith by the end of the month, and O'Keeffe said the quartet should more than make up for Makatoa's absence.
"We've bought a lot of players - I'm not sure if we need anymore," he said.
"We've got a fairly strong reserve-grade contingent, too, to back it up.
"This year was never about going from wooden spooners to winning the premiership.
"It was more about consolidating the club, getting it back on its feet, being competitive and becoming a football club people want to be around.
"I'm sure we can still do that. If we do well, we do well.
"We'd like to be in the finals at least but we've got to crawl before we walk."
Meanwhile, the annual Doug Alpen Memorial Shield match has been locked in for Good Friday, April 18.
The date falls between the first two rounds of the Group 20 season but will still go ahead this season, despite the unfortunate timing of the season and the new league campaign.
There were initial murmurs the Doug Alpen clash would be called off but O'Keeffe said the Group 20 committee has given it the green light.
"It's always been on that day - maybe I'm just a traditionalist, but I can't see there being any dramas," he said.
"The group has sanctioned it so it'll happen."
In good news for the Waratahs, new captain-coach Kose Lelei arrives this Wednesday.
The team trains tomorrow night and on Thursday night from 6pm at Exies Oval with Lelei set to take control of the latter session, which will be followed by a barbeque for all grades.