When the Dubbo Rhinos lost in the 2022 New Holland Cup preliminary final, the feeling was the platform was set for future success.
But come the start of the 2023 season and things hadn't gone exactly as hoped.
While the Rhinos were always aware they'd lose a few players - most notably young guns Lachie O'Malley and Nick Barton to the Canberra competition - there was a real struggle for numbers during pre-season.
Players leaving the club and leaving town left coach Doug Sandry starting from scratch again in some areas.
Much of this season was difficult and frustrating - highlighted by six straight losses midway through the year - but late in the campaign the Rhinos began to show what they could do.
After finishing fourth, a thrilling elimination final win over the third-placed Narromine booked passage to another prelim.
But, much like last year, it wasn't be as the Rhinos had their season ended by the Parkes Boars.
Playing at home at Spicer Oval on Saturday a powerful Boars outfit led by star playmakers Mahe Fangupo and Luke Bevan scored a 56-32 win.
After the immediate disappointment of a finals loss and elimination faded, Sandry was filled with pride when thinking of how far his side had come this year while he also had the same feeling as he did after the 2022 defeat.
"I really hope the guys we've got will stay," the coach said.
"We want them to stay, we really do. We want to be a strong club and you only get that by continuity so if we can get that at the start of next season and have a really good pre-season and put in that work from January through to April when the comp starts ... we'll be a different club next year.
"The rebuilding is really hard. When you've got to restart each year it's tough."
Early in the season the Rhinos were struggling to find players for some of the most important positions.
It took time to find the right No. 9 and No. 10 while a regular front-row was also a battle.
Alongside those players were the likes of Loni Langi, Ethan Smith, Josh Hill, Lachie Toomey and Alex Daley-Brown, youngsters who took their games to higher levels during the season.
"We've got some super talent coming through and some untapped talent," Sandry said.
"Guys who haven't done a pre-season joined us halfway through the season and they're still learning the game and that's what excites me.
"We've got a really good opportunity to build a strong, youthful club and, I think, next year if we can keep the young guys who finished off this year and have a few older heads and bring in some new talent I really believe we can threaten for a title."
On Saturday, Parkes were simply the better side as they ran in eight-tries-to-five.
NSW Country representative Fangupo and halves partner Bevan were brilliant and controlled proceedings throughout.
They continually won the territory battle and got their side into attacking range, and from there some of the biggest outside backs in the Central West thrived.
"It was a long season, I won't say it hasn't been, and it was a lot of hard work but we did our best (against Parkes) and unfortunately we just weren't up to scratch. You can't take anything away from Parkes," Sandry said.
"We built some pressure but then we'd lose the ball and then Mahe and Luke made us pay.
"We'll learn a lot from that. It's two years in a row we've made the prelim final so we need to just be able to get over that hurdle and get into the grand final because I think if we were there against Mudgee I think we could have rattled them.
"But the better team won and our errors cost us so we move on to 2024."
The Mudgee Wombats, the minor premiers, will host Parkes in next Saturday's grand final.
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