My time Down Under

English coach working in Australia Alan Kilshaw continues his eye-opening blogs with a look at exactly what it’s like to work in Australia..

In early 2013 I arrived in Sarina, north Queensland.

After starting my coaching career in England I judged that, in spite of the prestigious roles I held with the Warrington Wolves and England Youth, it was appropriate to look towards the challenges of a different environment. I wanted to test myself in the role of a head coach in Australia and so sought an opportunity. My application to become Sarina Crocodiles RLFC head coach was successful and I took up the post in January 2013, bringing my family with me to settle.

I have always followed the Australian competitions closely and the country itself, so to be given the chance to coach and live here was something I didn’t want to pass up.

It was very hard to say goodbye to family, especially as me and my wife Danielle have a five-year old who was only three at the time. With Uncles, Aunties, Nans and Granddads all to miss him, this was one of many obstacles a big move like this brings.

Sarina Crocodiles

On the football side of things Sarina Crocodiles is a club with a rich history, there are not many towns across the world that have produced so many quality players, and in fact, international players.

Australian and Origin reps Wendell Sailor, Martin Bella, Dale Shearer and Kevin Campion have all grown up and played for Sarina through the ranks, and current Manly Sea Eagles NR star Daly Cherry-Evans had a spell with Sarina as a junior when his father Troy was the captain-coach of the side.

Sarina play in the Mackay and District competition, which has eight strong sides, and Mackay also has a Queensland Intrust Super Cup side in the Mackay Cutters.

The Mackay league is made up of four sides based in the city of Mackay – Souths Sharks, Brothers Mackay, North Mackay Devils and North Mackay Magpies, while just outside Mackay are Wests Tigers Mackay.

Based next to the Whitsunday Islands are the Brahmans, who have former Welsh international Antony Blackwood as their player-coach, and the other side who are based a long distance from Mackay are the Moranabah Miners.

Moranbah is a big mining town and over the past decade they have been able to attract some very good marquee signings due to the club having strong links with the local mining industry, which allows them to offer employment to their players. Lots of ex-NRL players looking for a post football career arrive in Moranbah for a swansong and have made the club very successful.

Daly Cherry-Evans played with Sarina.
Daly Cherry-Evans played with Sarina.

Currently former Melbourne Storm NRL grand final winner Jamian Lowe plays for them as well as Shane Tronc, the ex-Wakefield, Brisbane and Queensland forward. They were coached by Josh Hannay, the former Crusaders and North Queensland Cowboys centre, in 2012 and 2013 and another ex-Welsh international Neil Budworth has played for them for the past two seasons.

Last but not least is my club, the Crocodiles. Sarina is a small town 34 kilometres or 21 miles from Mackay. It has a population of around 6,000 and is located nearly 1,000 kilometres north of the state capital Brisbane.

The Mackay competition is strong and very competitive – Souths and Moranbah have dominated the finals over the past five seasons but last season saw the emergence of Wests, Proserpine and Sarina into the top four, with Souths winning their third grand final in a row with a narrow victory over Wests. I would compare the standard to the Championship in the UK, it’s very similar and is a semi-professional league.

There are plenty of ex-NRL, and current and past Queensland Cup players across all eight sides, and with the Queensland Cup side Mackay Cutters winning the competition in 2013, there has been plenty of talent come to the town to earn a contract with the Cutters.

There is a dual registration system in place that works very well with Mackay Cutters’ players dual registered with the sides in the Mackay League. Players who aren’t selected for the Cutters are released back to the local clubs on a Friday, so they can train and prepare with them for the weekends game.

The relationship between the clubs and the Cutters is very strong and the Cutters feed into the North Queensland Cowboys NRL franchise. They have a similar arrangement with their dual registered players, it’s not a flawless system but it seems to work very well in this region.

I am entering my third season with the Sarina club next year and will become the current longest-serving coach in the competition when I do so. There is a high turnover of coaches in the competition with a lot of pressure to make the finals each season.

Since I took on this challenging position I have worked within a limited budget to create a much more positive and professional culture within the club at all levels. I firmly believe that this has been achieved and, together with the coaching methods I have introduced, relative success was gained in my first season in charge making the finals with the same group of players who had only won two games the previous season.

Sarina Crocodiles 2

The 2014 campaign has been a huge challenge as we made a decision to invest in a new gym facility. This took a dent into our limited budget, which in turn had an impact on our player retention with nine players moving on to other clubs or away from the area. However, with a squad who’s average age was 23, including two 18-year olds and two 19-year olds, and made up of 14 players who came through the Sarina Juniors, we finished in their highest position since 2009. In the end we claimed fourth spot on the table and grabbed the club’s most points (21) before going out in the second elimination semi-final.

This season we have retained the majority of our young squad and added some good signings. I have also brought over Danny Fullerton from my former club Warrington, he will assist me and also coach the Under-18s.

Before I moved to Sarina there wasn’t many English people at the club but now with four players and two coaches, there’s a bit more of an international feel to the place.

My philosophy, which is shared by the club, is to always have the bulk of the side as Sarina junior products and aim to add a few players each year from outside that group to compliment what’s already in place. We haven’t got a huge budget compared with some of our rivals, so we need to offer an environment to players that they know their going to flourish and provide pathways for further development.

We are very fortunate we have so many local players who are dedicated and loyal to the club. I’m anticipating another big season for Sarina in 2015. As another pre-season is about to start, my second Australian summer, I’m just about getting used to the heat and humidity of Queensland in November.

Alan Kilshaw is the head coach of Sarina Crocodiles who play in the Mackay and District competition in North Queensland. He is also an assistant with the Mackay Cutters in the Queensland Intrust Super Cup. Previously he served as an assistant coach to England’s Under-16 team and managed the Warrington Wolves’ Player Development Centre.