Foundation Titans hooker Nathan Friend, one of the NRL’s most consistent and toughest professionals, can certainly identify with the ups and downs of the Gold Coast Titans’ first nine seasons.
After riding the incredible wave of finals seasons 2009-10, his last season as a Titan in 2011 was the most frustrating and disappointing of his long career.
But he feels privileged to be given a chance he thought would never come to set the record straight and hopefully finish his second stint with the club on an upward spiral and him playing a major part.
Toowoomba-raised Friend began his NRL journey with the Broncos in 2002 when he played a lone match off the bench before heading to Melbourne where he became Cameron Smith’s understudy, playing mostly when Smith was on Origin duties or injured (13 games in three seasons) until 2006 when he played 21 games including off the bench in a grand final victory.
He came to the Titans as a 26-year-old premiership winning player and quickly established himself as the starting hooker and club leader, and won the Paul Broughton Medal as player of the year as the Titans went to the finals for the first time in 2009.
He was prominent as the side improved the effort to be one win away from a grand final appearance in 2010, and he remembers fondly the hype around the Gold Coast and the big vocal crowds and the confidence and belief that something major was brewing for rugby league in the region.
“It was a great time, running onto what was then Skilled Stadium and having massive support behind us,” Friend recalled. “I still have fond memories and great mates from that time.
“It’s going to take time but I’d love to see that feeling here again.”
But his last season with the Titans was not so memorable and he returns with some unfinished business.
In 2011 the Titans slumped from preliminary finalists to wooden-spooners while Friend mostly watched from the sideline due to a shoulder injury. At season’s end he and the club couldn’t come to terms and he moved to Auckland.
After having off-season surgery on a shoulder that kept “popping” he was a late starter but came into the side in round five. In round eight of that season ‘Friendy’ became the first player to achieve 100 games for the club … but his run ended that day too.
He never wore the Titans colours again.
“It was a really frustrating season seeing the team lose games and not being able to do anything about it because I was injured,” he said.
“I had off-season surgery on my shoulder and had a piece of bone from my collarbone placed into the shoulder pocket so it wouldn’t keep popping but it wore away and broke off during rehab so I had to go in for a second operation.
“I had to get it fixed and didn’t play again that season.
“It was a tough season for me and the club but it’s great to be back now and try to make amends.”
The Titans won just three more games in 2011 as Friend watched from the stand to finish last but Matt Srama developed as a NRL player after Riley Brown initially wore the number nine jersey.
Friend left for Auckland where he played 96 games in four seasons, including every match in 2014 and 2015, to bring his NRL tally to 221 games. However with the Warriors signing established Kiwi Test hooker Isaac Luke, he knew his game time would be limited but as one of the fittest players in the game at age 34, he hasn’t lost the desire to remain a starting hooker.
Now he gets a chance to atone for the disappointment of 2011, almost as if it was fate. And there will be several familiar faces when he starts pre-season training on November 2 with former teammates David Mead, William Zillman, Greg Bird, Ryan James and Srama still at the club.
“I didn’t think I would get a second chance at the Titans but now I’m here I’m excited about it and it’s good to be back on the Gold Coast where we intend to settle,” said Friend with wife Kelly and boys Axel and Oliver.
It’s also good to be close to family after being away for five years. He and Kelly have family nearby, Kelly’s parents at St George and Nathan’s at Grantham in the Lockyer Valley where the couple grew up.
“It was hard for the boys leaving their friends in Auckland but I’m sure they’ll love it here and it’s where we want to make home,” he said. “We really enjoyed our time in Auckland and made great friends there but it’s good to be back near family and I’ve already caught up with close mates from my Titans days like Luke Bailey and Anthony Laffranchi.
“I just want to work hard for the Titans and hopefully my experience can help some of the younger boys. I see a lot of potential in the team and think we can climb the ladder.”
Friend’s journey since being an inaugural Titan has also taught him to that finals experiences are to be savoured when they come. He played the finals football three times in five seasons from 2006-10 but not since, with the Warriors twice being in the reckoning until the final round but failing to convert their chances.