KNIGHTS young guns Tyrone Roberts and Korbin Sims had heard the stories about former coach Malcolm Reilly’s mental toughness.
They have their own tales to tell about Reilly’s iron will after seeing him overcome an infected foot and a stomach virus to guts it out with them and former Knights captain Paul Harragon on the Kokoda Track.
As inaugural recipients of the club’s ‘‘Kokoda Spirit’’ award, Roberts and Sims accompanied Newcastle’s 1997 ARL premiership-winning coach and captain last week on the 96-kilometre trek through the unforgiving jungle terrain of Papua New Guinea’s Owen Stanley Range.
They returned to Newcastle on Monday night, assembled at Bar Beach last night for a debrief over dinner, and Roberts and Sims will clock back on at Knights training today.
Harragon said navigating the mud and slush of the track’s slippery, steep slopes symbolised the ‘‘emotional rollercoaster’’ they rode together.
‘‘That was definitely tougher than the first time I did it. We did it in seven days this time, and it was very wet, very muddy, and we had a thunderstorm on the last day which meant the river swelled and we only just got across it in time,’’ Harragon said. ‘‘But the boys got a lot out of it, I’m sure, and it was a very powerful experience.
‘‘Mal did it very tough, because he had an infected foot and a stomach virus and he didn’t eat there for a few days, but he kept on going and never once held us up.
‘‘He got through on sheer will, which the young blokes took a lot from. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything, it’s what you do that inspires, and that was the case with Mal.
‘‘It was a phenomenal effort, and was so typical of his mental toughness.’’
Reilly never mentioned the specifics of his own ordeal but acknowledged the expedition was ‘‘one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, without question’’.
‘‘It was very demanding, very challenging, but the company was terrific and it was an inspirational experience,’’ said Reilly, whose son, Glen, joined him on the journey.
‘‘To see the battlefields, the burial grounds, the cemeteries; to have walked the same path as those Diggers, was inspirational for all of us. I’m struggling to walk upstairs now but it was definitely worth it, and it was an experience I’ll cherish.’’
Their youth and fitness levels meant the trek was not as physically demanding on Roberts and Sims as it was on their elders, but they soaked up the stories Harragon and Reilly told them about the history of the club, and hung on every word of their Kokoda guides.
Along the way they met Ovuru Ndiki, the last surviving Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel.
‘‘Taking in all the scenery was good, and every time you looked up there was another hill and another target, but emotionally, taking in all the war memorials and everything the Diggers went through along the track, it was something I’ll never forget,’’ Roberts said. ‘‘At Kokoda Airport, we met one of the Diggers who was a part of the 3rd Battalion, and to be able to meet someone who went through all that was a great experience.
‘‘As for Mal, the stories are all true, because he’s such a tough bloke and so mentally fit. The way he carried himself along the track, he did what he had to do just to get through it, so if he can do it, anyone can do it.’’
Sims said he and Roberts felt privileged to be the first players chosen to walk the track with two of the club’s most influential leaders.
‘‘When they talked, you certainly listened to what they had to say,’’ Sims said. ‘‘It was a great experience and I’m glad to say I’ve ticked that box off. You could take a knife to Mal’s leg and he still would have walked the track, I reckon.
‘‘He was pretty crook for a couple of days there, but he pushed through it and he did what he had to do to get through. It showed up on the last day too, because he was exhausted, but he had the biggest smile on his face. You couldn’t wipe it off.’’
● The Knights have signed Queensland under-20s prop Mitchell Frei, who has played for the Broncos’ NYC squad the past two seasons, to a one-year contract with an option for 2014.
Frei, 20, has signed a second-tier deal to continue his development in the club’s NSW Cup team.