Titans prop Ryan James has opened up about the difficulty of seeing close friend Greg Bird leave the club with a year to run on his contract but says he now has the grounding to become the club's next captain in 2017.
The reigning Paul Broughton Medal winner had a breakout year in 2016 but is still coming to terms with the fact that Bird won't be at the club alongside him next season.
When an 18-year-old James was 'welcomed' to first grade by Manly hardhead Jason King in his debut game in Round 14, 2010 it was Bird who rushed to his defence and the pair have been virtually inseparable in recent years.
They and their young families – their respective wives are also close friends – were holidaying in Bali together when it was announced that Bird had been granted a release from the final year of his contract in order to take up a five-year deal with Catalans Dragons in the Super League.
Privately many Titans players are devastated that on the back of such a strong showing in 2016 that the Origin and Test veteran has been allowed to leave a year early and with Luke Douglas, Nathan Friend, David Mead and Josh Hoffman also departing a serious leadership void has been left in their wake.
James won't be anointed Titans captain until after pre-season begins at their new facility at Parkwood International in a fortnight's time and says he will take the lessons he has learned from Bird forward throughout the remainder of his career.
"It's still pretty hard to comprehend. He's been there since I debuted and I've learnt a lot from him over the last seven or eight years," James told NRL.com.
"He's been great to have around and will be sorely missed.
"He's just that person that I watched as I was growing up and you see him play for Australia and play for New South Wales and he's just a great bloke and a great mate. He's one of my best mates so it's hard to see him go.
"We see them a lot and seem to be doing everything together and he's just been that person that I can always talk to. He led us all around last year so they're big boots to fill."
Describing their relationship as similar to that between a big and little brother, James said that Bird has not only helped him develop into a leader on the field but also a better person off it.
"He gives you a smack around the head if you need one and tells you how it is when it needs to be told how it is and then gives you a pat on the back when you need a pat on the back," said James.
"If anything he's probably helped me to build as a person and I thank him for a lot of the things he has helped me with, especially off the field.
"He's been great and that bloke I always seem to call if I need something and he always answers his phone.
"He's a great competitor and you don't really want to lose a player like that but he's really extended his career by going to Catalans.
"He'll be 58 by the time he retires!"
James is yet to discuss the prospect of captaincy in 2017 with any of the Titans hierarchy but at 25 years of age and with 93 first grade games to his name believes he is ready for the responsibility.
"I'd love to do it, to be able to speak to the refs a little bit more often and try to build a better relationship with a lot of them," said James, who has been one of the most penalised players in the Telstra Premiership the past two seasons.
"I'm willing to take on the role and I think I can do it. It's something I would love to do.
"You look at previous years where I was looking to leaders and you look at everyone who is doing well in pre-season, someone like 'Dougie' (Douglas) who was always good, 'Zilly' (William Zillman) has always been a fit person so they were the people you were looking to try and beat.
"Someone like Kane Elgey before he hurt himself last year was smashing pre-season and even though he's still young he had everyone wanting to try and beat him because he was miles ahead in front of everyone.
"You just need to go out there and smash the pre-season. I usually come into pre-season feeling all right so just need to make sure and everyone knows that you're up to scratch."
This article first appeared on NRL.com