SEVEN years after he played an integral role in helping Bathurst Panthers clinch an under 18s Group 10 premiership, Andrew Mendes has returned to the club and is keen to reach another grand final.
It was 2011 when Mendes last wore a Bathurst Panthers jumper, the versatile back part of an extremely talented side. They beat Orange CYMS 28-12 that season, Mendes booting five goals in the decider.
It was the second consecutive 18s title Mendes had won – he kicked the winning goal a year earlier – and added to a host of Group 10 Junior Rugby League premierships.
That same year Mendes, who spent time in the centres, on the wing and at five-eighth, was also part of the NSW Country Championship winning under 18 Western Rams and part of the Bathurst High league side which made its maiden appearance in the University Shield grand final.
A prolific try-scorer and goal kicker who also played for the NSW Country under 18s, the future looked bright for Mendes.
He moved to Queensland to play with the Titans, but Mendes ended up taking a step back from the sport in became a fly in-and-out miner. He did spend time with Group 7 side Kiama Knights in 2016, but league in the main was not a priority.
That changed after he moved back to Bathurst this year.
“I had it all there, but I sort of just got over playing footy and sport,” he said.
“Last year I was back and forth because my girlfriend was in Bathurst. I’d come home and watch all the boys play footy and sort of got the itch to get back out there. Now that I’ve moved home I was keen to go and play footy again.
“When I first came home I went to Cowra and had a couple of games for them. But then I spoke to Dougie Hewitt and said I wanted to come back to Panthers and he was happy to have me.
“I played juniors with Doug Hewitt, Jack Siejka, Blake Seager, so I know some people in the team.
“I’m enjoying it more than anything now, it’s like being back in 18s because we haven’t grown up much,” Mendes, who is now 25, quipped. “We’ve just gotten older.”
After playing one first grade game for Cowra, Mendes made his comeback for Panthers at the start of June against Hawks.
Last Saturday he scored two tries in the 52-22 win over St Pat’s – including a 60 metres intercept effort – and he is keen to find more success with the side. But on top of that, Mendes also wants to help foster the next generation of talented Panthers.
“It’s good to be back with the boys. My whole life I’ve only lost one grand final, so now we’re back together I want to see if we can make it nine grand final wins together, that’s the plan,” he said.
“I’m enjoying it more now and it’s good to help the younger fellas at the club too. It’s great to help the guys that are all chasing that dream, give them a hand and point them in the right direction.
“The things you did wrong, you can guide them away from doing those things and give them a few pointers.
“Doug is doing good as a captain-coach and has introduced a lot of the young fellas, back when we were in 18s you had to fight tooth and nail to get a first grade crack. Now that’s what Doug wants to do, bring in those younger players so they are around the first graders and get a taste of playing first grade.”
This Saturday Mendes will line up on the wing against Cowra, a team sitting one point ahead of Panthers on the competition ladder.
Despite his long absence from Group 10, Mendes is well aware of the rivalry between the Magpies and Panthers this season. Cowra beat the men in black 30-14 earlier this season at Carrington Park.
“There are a few of the old Panthers boys over there like Jez, Brado Cassidy and Joey Bugg and there’s a bit of rivalry there too. I played a few games there when I first came home, so there’s another rivalry there,” Mendes said.
“It will be a good game, it’s not do-or-die but if we can beat Cowra, we go to second and they go to third and then we’ve got a bit of an easier run home.
“There’s also going to be a bit of emotion in the game because we are playing for the Chad Nealon Cup, if Cowra wins they take it … so there’s a bit to play for.”
Saturday’s match at Cowra’s Sid Kallas Oval will kick off at 2.45pm.