Strong performance marks great comeback for Wollongbar lad
TWO years ago Wollongbar-Alstonville second-rower James Gardiner was a skinny under-19s player who had just broken his leg.
Gardiner missed the entire 2012 season but returned this year to make his first grade debut in the first round.
He has been one of Wollongbar's best this season, with the team now in second place on the competition ladder.
"James had the year off and decided to hit the gym pretty hard," Pioneers coach Ben Grayndler said.
"I didn't know too much about him but he's stood out in our forward pack this season.
"I really only remembered him as the skinny kid who broke his leg in under-19s."
The Pioneers 32-22 win against Grafton at the weekend put them second on the ladder; the highest they have been this season.
It sets up a top-of-the-table clash against Lismore City at Lyle Park, Wollongbar on Saturday.
City is the team to beat this season with their only loss this season against Ballina in May.
Wollongbar has won five of their last six and will fancy their chances with new faces in their side since the teams last met.
Five-eighth Ben Damen has returned from playing Brisbane and flanker Michael Wilson is back after a stint in England.
Grayndler is also impressed with how Daniel Damen has handled the switch from wing to centre.
"We're very happy with out progress and we've improved a lot since the start of the season," Grayndler said.
"You set yourself goals along the way and it's great when the guys achieve them.
"We're coming off three away games and took 12 of the 15 points available.
"We've got a totally new squad from the first time we've played Lismore.
In other games, Lennox Head hosts the Southern Cross University Gold Rats with Ballina at home to Casino.
Byron Bay is scheduled to host Casino however the Bulls were forced to forfeit last weekend when they were short of players.