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No Wayne Bennett and no Adam Reynolds? No worries says Souths’ new mentor

It was only a decade ago you started out coaching the Keighley Cougars (competing in a lowertier competition in England).

Today you are replacing Wayne Bennett as coach of South Sydney. Now that’s a meteoric rise by any standards?

Yeah, it is. It is crazy when you think of it like that.

And you didn’t come with a reputation as a big-name player but you can obviously coach. So what sort of coach are you? How are you different to Wayne?

I don’t know if I am that different. I have worked under him for five years and I had a lot of success as a head coach at lower levels, which led to Wayne wanting me to join him. I think morally we are both player driven and ensure that our players are good people off the field. Also creating an environment where they are happy to come to training and give their best. I think we are very similar in that path. Time will tell.

When you say you are player driven, what does that mean?

My job is to provide a platform for the players to be able to be the best they can. And that’s on the field, off the field, and making sure that I am building relationships with them so that there is a lot of trust between myself and the players.

Is it also providing a happy workplace?

Is that a big part of it? I think so, yeah. I am somebody who is motivated from what I can achieve and not fearful of what I can’t achieve. I want my players to feel that as well. I want them to come to training excited about what they can do and not turning up worried about what they can’t do. If we can get a group of blokes collectively looking forward and chasing a dream then we are always going to keep moving in the right direction.

That’s a great attitude because there is always this focus that every coach who replaces Wayne comes in with an expectation that they have never really stepped out of his shadow and had instant success. But what you just said sends a different message.

It does. I had that conversation with Wayne. I don’t fear being in Wayne’s shadow. I don’t fear being compared to him. If at the end of my career people are comparing me to Wayne Bennett, I will be a pretty happy coach. I would be foolish not to take plenty away from that five-year experience and that is what I will be doing.

Wayne has also given me the belief to know who you are as a coach and stick to the person you are and the players will follow that.

Different coaches work different hours. Are you one of those blokes who gets out of bed at 4am to wake the birds up, or are you more relaxed?

I am more relaxed. I do get there early. I am one of the first ones, if not the first one, in the building. I think that is important for the players to see that. I will be there until the players leave. But at the same time I want the players to understand that there is life outside of football. I can’t get them to buy into that if I am stuck in the office for 12 hours, 14 hours, every day. I have three young kids and a wife. I have a family outside of footy as well and I want my players to know that they are as much a priority as my job.

I was going to ask you about your family because you have been married 19 years I think (with wife Natalie) and have three daughters (Isabella, Maddison and Sienna).

Sometimes surviving at home is a job in itself. how are they handling juggling the two?

They are all right. Not a lot has changed so far because it is preseason.

They are noticing that I am on the phone a lot more than I probably used to be. But they are excited. They have been a big part, as you spoke about before, going from Keighley in England to head coach of South Sydney. My wife, in particular, and my three girls have been a big part of that journey. They have had to sacrifice plenty for me to get in this position.

What about your expectations. Souths have made the past four preliminary finals and a grand final in 2021. But I’d imagine losing Adam Reynolds is going to have a huge impact on the team.

Yeah it is, but like I said before, I am somebody who is motivated by what we can do, and I think we have a group of players that are exciting for the future. I think we have seen that last year when we went to Queensland and we took four of our development players in the 30 that all played first grade. Underneath them there are another four or five. So there is some really exciting talent.

I get to turn up to work every day and work with Cameron Murray and Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker and Damien Cook (pictured left) and a host of others. So we are in a pretty blessed place and fortunate to be at a pretty strong club.

How will Cody’s game change not having Reynolds?

I don’t think it does in terms of on the field. I think off the field, which he has done over the last two years, he will develop even further as a leader in the team and especially when we are out on the training field and that leads to game day. But we are confident in Lachlan Ilias, or Dean Hawkins if he is called upon, that we will be able to fill that role that Adam plays. They both play direct in the line, great kicking games. Are they Adam Reynolds? No they are not. But we know we can simplify their role and that will allow Cody and Latrell and Damien Cook to do what they do.

But it is a big ask for a young halfback. You talk to coaches at every club and they say the same thing. When young players, especially halves, are called up into the NRL it is usually an upand-down process. Yet one of those blokes is going to come into a team that just played in a grand final and that comes with huge expectation.

For sure. But that is up to us as coaches and as a club and particularly myself not to put that pressure on the halfback. He has a simple job to do and we will spend pre-season making sure that he is across that. The bottom line is we believe he can do it, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this position. We have backed them and it is a chance for us now as staff not to blink and make sure we give these players coaching and the guidance they need to go out there and be confident that they can fulfil their role.

Ilias (pictured right) comes with big raps. Where is he at in his development?

Well, he has come through and played union and league, which I think has been a good grounding for him.

In terms of his skill set he is very similar to probably a young Adam.

Like I said, he has a great kicking game, plays direct into the line, is very physical and fit, which is a major attribute you need these days coming into first grade.

The best thing about him is his temperament. He has a really good temperament. He is not overawed by anything and he keeps it simple. I think they are the qualities that are going to help him transition into first grade and have a long career with us.

You mentioned Latrell earlier. How is coaching a person like him, because he is a big personality but also a young man and he gets a lot of criticism. Do you think he needs to change, tone it down a little bit?

Not really. I think he needs to be Latrell and he needs to understand we value him at the club. I think everybody at the club loves having him around. I know for myself I am so excited to be coaching him. We get to work with him every day. We see Latrell for the great character he is but also the family man and the guy that wants to do anything to help his teammates. As long as we are seeing that, I am not too worried about what the outside noise is.

From a football perspective, how does he learn from that tackle on Joey Manu, because I would imagine that would have had a pretty significant impact on him?

I think it did, but I think there were a few previous charges that he had throughout the year that probably didn’t help him in defending himself against that charge. Look, I have been around a long time. I have seen a lot of people break cheekbones from accidental contacts, and I have no doubt that Latrell went in there to make a tackle and as coach, especially a defensive coach last year, we want to protect our line. We want to do whatever we have to do to shut down breaks and stop teams from scoring, and that was Latrell’s mindset going into the tackle.

Unfortunately, it went wrong and he has paid the price.

When you watched that tackle back, which I would imagine you did over and over, did you think that Joey lost his balance with Dane Gagai, I think it was Gagai, when he pulled at the back of his shorts?

There is no doubt he loses his feet and he drops a good half metre within a split second as contact is being made which contributes to the tackle. I mean, Latrell doesn’t leave the ground, he does bend his back.

But again, it is just an incident that no one likes to see because a guy has busted his cheekbone and is quite emotional about it. And from a spectator’s point of view it is not a nice thing to see. But unfortunately in a collision sport these things happen and, like I said, Latrell has

So how does Latrell approach that tackle next time?

I don’t know. I think he probably comes in on a slightly different angle, but who knows. Like, am I going to say that he is never going to be in a position where there is an accidental collision again? Well, you can’t predict that. That is what our game is, and it is unfortunate. Now if you look at (how) Sam Burgess breaks his cheekbone with a contact against James Graham, a head on head, there is no one at fault. It is just one of those accidental things that happen. Unfortunately, with the focus on head knocks now the game is getting harder on it. I think that is a good direction for the game to be taking, but it is tough when those accidental collisions happen.

He is a mighty player, Latrell. You think about what he has already achieved at 24, but he’s probably only scratched the surface of what he is capable of.

Without a doubt. Like I said, I am impressed with him every day. The way he trains, the way he motivates people around him. His skill set is second to none. Our job as staff is to get him doing what Wayne has done over the last few years and just loving turning up at training and playing footy. I am fortunate coming into this position, having worked with him for two years, that I have already developed some relationships with him and the other players so there is not going to be too much change for them.

You spoke about Murray, who is another outstanding character. In the grand final, I am not too sure what you saw but I reckon if he wasn’t knocked out he was rattled by that first shot of the game when Jaydn Su’A collected him in the back. What impact did that have on his performance?

It is hard to say because if it did have a negative impact I’d hate to see how good he would have played if he didn’t have that knock. He was outstanding for us. He was still out there in the 77th minute making line breaks. He went close to creating an opportunity for us to score to win the game. Look, the way we defended and the things we did, we wouldn’t have been able to do them without Cam Murray being at his best.

What about the blokes you work for, there are some big personalities there also. How do you get on with Russell Crowe?

Great. I have spent a lot of time in the off-season watching the Tales of Reinstatement and the South Sydney Story. So I have a real good understanding of those guys’ involvement. Nick Pappas has been outstanding for myself at the club, as was Shane Richardson in getting me to this point. But speaking to Russell, he just bleeds the club, and everything, from how many years ago they got reinstated to the takeover into where the club is now.

A lot of that is off the back of what Russell’s vision was for the club and I think he should be pretty proud of where it is at. I love talking to him. It just gives you that extra bit of passion that you need to have for the club.

Does coaching South Sydney also become a lot about knowing the history?

I think so. I think its recent history and its reinstatement and the efforts of Pappas and George Piggins and guys like that are pretty special in Australian sport, but especially in the NRL. It makes us unique. We are a club that didn’t take the new wave of the NRL and just fold and amalgamate with another club. We paid the price for a couple of years but found the way back, and now we are one of the strongest clubs in the game. And I think that is a story that any player or person that comes to work at the club needs to understand, because it does make us unique and it is something that we can be pretty proud of.

You talk about coaching at NRL level. To survive you have to ride the highs and the lows. So what are you expecting for 2022?

I am not putting too much expectation on where we are going to go. What I do know is that the successes in previous years don’t mean anything unless you get things right in pre-season and start the season and rebuild again. Every year you have to build your season. We know that is going to be no different.

What has been the biggest change so far? In your previous role you were almost like a cocoach with Wayne. But before we started this interview you mentioned you were running late because you were on the phone to a player manager. Has that been the biggest change, having these issues outside of the pure coaching to deal with?

I think that has been the biggest thing. I always wondered why Wayne was on the phone so much, but I have realised why. There are a lot of little things that go on and every player has different circumstances and different managers, and there are those conversations. Talking to the media comes into it. That is probably the only real change for me. The other side of it is obviously managing staff.

As an assistant, and even in the role I had which was probably a bit higher than a normal assistant that I had under Wayne, it was still all about the coaching. Now it is about making sure that the staff are as happy as the players are. It is my job to make sure they have an environment where they come to work and enjoy being part of this great club. I take that quite seriously because I know when people are happy they work at their best. Does that mean there is not expectation and I am not driving standards? Of course I am. But I want them to feel reward for the work they do as well.


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