NASH Birch remembers his first grade debut well.
The now 21-year-old lined up for Lakes in 2016, the season after the Seagulls won the Newcastle Rugby League premiership.
But it was the opposition that stood out for the East Maitland and Valentine junior, facing off against many familiar faces at the Pickers where his older brother Blake used to play.
"It was against Maitland, which was where we grew up and where my brother used to play," Birch said.
"He was eight years older than me and I was only 18 at the time [of debut], so there were plenty of his mates playing like Brenton Horwood, Peter Cronin and George O'Brien.
"Unfortunately I didn't get to play against him [brother Blake] because he was out that season after having a shoulder reconstruction."
This was one of only a handful of games Birch played for Lakes before joining the Newcastle Knights under-20 squad.
The playmaker stayed with the NRL club for three campaigns - finishing ninth first up, making finals in 2017 and then falling one short of the decider last year after being crowned minor premiers.
"We were red hot favourites to win the comp, but we choked," he said.
"Penrith scored a try on the bell to beat us the game before the grand final."
Birch, a plumber who lives at Wickham, has enjoyed his return to Cahill Oval in 2019 after being involved with the more "professional" system at the Knights.
"I'm loving it," he said.
"It's good to be back playing for fun ... and not having your performance judged [as hard] every week."
In a young Lakes squad, a far cry from last year's grand final 17, Birch has been reunited with a handful of his Valentine junior teammates in the senior ranks such as Aaron McGrady, Carl Randall and Sam Hibberd while the likes of John Toleafoa, Callan Guest and Jonathan Walsh were a year either side.
"It is a young squad but everyone who has come up has done a job," Birch said.
"Hopefully we can string a few wins together."
No.7 Birch is partnering Jack Kelly in the halves. They have played the last three games together after Kelly missed the opening few rounds with a knee injury.
"We've had a few changes, but I think things are starting to settle down a bit now," Birch said.
Lakes, who are in a three-way tie of last on the ladder but only two points away from the top five, host defending premiers South Newcastle at Cahill Oval on Sunday before visiting competition leaders Western Suburbs at Harker Oval.