Matt Richards is on the verge of grabbing a piece of Tumut rugby league history.
This Sunday he’ll be gunning for a remarkable fifth Group 9 premiership with the Blues, a feat no other player in the club’s 99-year existence can boast.
Richards was a mainstay through the club’s golden run beginning in 2003, winning four titles in eight years.
He put the boots away at the end of the 2013, seemingly marking the end of a glittering career. After all, who wouldn’t be happy to finish with a quartet of premierships, your name in the club’s prestigious Team of the Century, tries galore and a plethora of great memories?
But the creation of the Roddy Shield Nines competition meant Richards wasn’t entirely lost to the game, and it was clear to anyone watching those pre-season matches that he still had what it takes to hold his own in the 13-a-side game.
He resisted calls to come back into the Blues’ fold until this season.
“A bunch of old blokes, like me, made a bit of a pact over the off-season to come out of retirement and help out ‘reggies,” the 37-year-old said. “I think we got a bit excited after watching the premiership win last year.
“All the other guys dropped off like flies as the season approached, which is normally what happens. But I’d made that commitment to play, and so I did.”
His plan to play out the year in the lower grade was immediately scuttled by co-coaches Dean and Lachlan Bristow, who had other ideas.
“They tapped me on the shoulder to play firsts before the opening game against Gundagai,” Richards said. “I said no way, I need at least a couple of weeks to get my body right.”
The Bristow brothers came calling again soon after, and the evergreen finisher has been in the top grade ever since.
Now, he has a chance to achieve for a fifth time something many players don’t get to experience once.
“I definitely feel lucky, whatever happens Sunday,” Richards said.
Little wonder – he’s been involved in most of the Blues’ many highlights over the past couple of decades.
This will be his seventh decider and he nabbed his first title as a 20-year-old under Brett Goldspink way back in 2003, against this week’s opponent, arch-rival Gundagai.
“2003 was my first premiership, so I’ll always remember that one. Although it is 17 years ago now and I probably don’t remember it as well as I’d like,” Richards quipped.
“We had a good pack that year, like we do now – it probably shows that you need good forwards if you’re going to get to a grand final.”
He endured his only grand final defeat two years later in a surprise loss to Cootamundra – though he scored a memorable try – but was back at Eric Weissel Oval in 2007 for the last decider at the famous ground, in which a Warren Weir-inspired Tumut thumped Craig Field’s Brothers.
He was hoisting the trophy once more in 2008 as the Blues went back-to-back, with the winger scoring a crucial final try in a tough victory, once more against Field’s men.
Jared Teka led the team that year and Richards remembers most had written the side off.
“We were only getting three or four to training for most of the pre-season, but everything fell together once that year began,” he said.
Richards would make Tumut’s team of the century in 2008 in a mark of his value to local rugby league and there was more champagne flowing in 2010, this time under Clay Campbell, with a win against Junee in Albury.
Richards coached the following year – he blooded Lachlan Bristow in the top grade – when Tumut reached the preliminary final, before the club fell on hard times.
He put the boots away, only to dust them off again seven years later for another tilt in the Covid-shortened 2020 season.
He concedes he’s lost some pace – “lots of it” – but when you’re as quick as Richards was in his prime, he’s still fast enough.
He’s been feeling better with each game played.
“The mind knows what I want to do, but it takes the body a bit longer to get there,” he said. “The legs felt the best they have all year last week though, which was good.”
He still knows his way to the try line, scoring a memorable four-pointer in the preliminary final when he flicked a bomb back inside to his centre Tolo Aroha-Tuinauvai, before rebounding off the turf to snatch a return pass and dive over.
Richards is glad he’s come back, with his children a bit older and able to understand what dad’s doing.
He said the game is more technical in 2020 than when he first broke into the top grade two decades ago, with a particular emphasis on the ruck.
“Play-the-ball speed was always part of the game, but now there’s almost a science to it,” he said.
While he’s enjoyed more success than most, he said there’s no secret recipe, though he noted that all the teams he’s played in that have done well tended to have a strong bond and a strong leader.
Each successful coach had their own strengths and style.
“All those premiership winning coaches I’ve had were great leaders, that’s one thing in common,” he said.
“They each brought their own style based on their experiences. I’ve enjoyed playing under all of them.”
Richards is unlikely to be back in 2021 – “you know you’re old when you’re sore the next couple of days just from training”, he said – and a premiership would be a fitting send-off for one of the most decorated players the club has produced.