Rugby League Heroes: Matthew Elliott

The man who coached the Bulls to glory

There were few more influential figures behind Bradford Bulls’ incredible successes in the first decade of summer Rugby League than Matthew Elliott.

Having been coached by Brian Smith at St George, the two men came to Odsal in 1995 as coach and assistant coach.

Smith returned to Australia after the 1996 campaign, paving the way for Elliott to become head coach for four glorious seasons.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

I wouldn’t mind reliving the 1992 Grand Final and having a different result this time! But I’ll go for the Challenge Cup Final win against Leeds in Edinburgh in 2000, when I was the coach of Bradford. My whole family was there, and my four daughters came on the field with me at the end. It was very special to share it with my family.

If I could pick one moment from that day, it would be Bernard Dwyer’s reaction at the end. It was his sixth or seventh final, and he’d lost all the others. He came on and made a really good contribution in the second half. He was such a stoic individual, but he was so emotional with me after the game. That’s my most immediate memory of the day.

Having the opportunity to coach someone like that is a gift. He wasn’t the centre of attention in the group, but he was a wonderful person.

Your final game as a player was for St George in the 1992 Grand Final, which you lost to Brisbane. Tell us about your playing career.

I started a bit late because I went to university. Rugby League was semi-pro and I also played cricket, so playing paid for me to get through uni. My first opportunity came with Eastern Suburbs (Sydney Roosters). Then I went to France for two years, which was an extraordinary experience – it was pretty violent!

I came back to play for St George. We worked and played at the same time, and it was a really good era to play in. We reached the 1992 Grand Final, but the Brisbane Broncos were an extraordinary team. I’d have liked more time on the field, but it wasn’t to be. In retrospect, it was a gift to be able to play in that game and enjoy the experience, but a different result would have been nice. We over-achieved because we were so well coached, and we had a leadership approach in the playing group that taught me so much.

I had to retire at 28 with continual knee problems. I didn’t anticipate getting into coaching. I’d been a director in local government, which was a good job, but Brian [Smith] offered me a chance and it went from there.

You played in that game with two other future Super League coaches – Mick Potter and Tony Smith. What sort of players were they?

Mick won the Dally M twice. He was an excellent fullback and playing in front of him was so easy. For his physical stature, what he was able to do was extraordinary. He was on the coaching staff at Bradford Bulls as well when I first got there. He lives very close to me now, so I see him a fair bit.

Tony was a very smart player with a really good understanding of what was happening in front of him. His biggest asset was what he could get the rest of us to understand. He was an old-style organising halfback.

You were a first-grade coach for 17 seasons. Is it a vocation you’d recommend?

Playing is much more fun than coaching, but coaching does keep you in the elite community. People talk about how frustrating it must be, but it’s the polar opposite. Working with 30-something young people who are striving to find the best in themselves every single day is a gift. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn as well. Being someone who is fascinated with elevating human performance – well, you don’t get too many other occupations when you can do that.

How much of an influence on you was Brian Smith? What were his best coaching traits?

Smithy was an educator but also an innovator. There were inside and outside centres, and then Warren Ryan came along, and it’s left and right, like it is today.

They started divvying up the field too in terms of field position, but Smithy took all that on to another level. He was smart in selecting coaching staff and he was able to merge the strategic approach and the skills into our practice.

He definitely had a huge influence on me. When the game moved from semi-pro into the era of full-time professionalism, Brian started to etch out new expectations and workloads for the professional player. People point out he didn’t win a Grand Final, but he was someone who brought in many of the innovations we still see.

Your 1997 Bulls team lifted the Super League title after winning 20 matches in a row. What was behind such an extraordinary feat?

We went from having a coach-driven culture to a player-driven culture very quickly. At some clubs, the coach walks into the gym and suddenly the players start working harder. That’s when you have a problem. That certainly didn’t happen at the Bulls. We didn’t have the best roster, but players like Brian McDermott, Jimmy Lowes and Bernard Dwyer set high standards.

The players couldn’t take it easy in training. I didn’t have to shout at them. If someone didn’t pull their weight, the whole group would pay the price. The Paul brothers and Paul Loughlin – these guys all bought into it. If you didn’t, you didn’t last in the group.

Another key player was Graeme Bradley. When Jimmy Lowes won the Man of Steel, I thought the best player was Graeme – but there was no way they were going to give him the Man of Steel! His team-mates loved playing with him, but opponents detested him.

In 1997, 1999 and most of 2000, your regular-season record was outstanding, but the Bulls seemed to be vulnerable in big games. Why was that?

One of the games you’ll be referring to is the 1999 Grand Final against Saints when they called back Leon Pryce and that cost us that game. So decisions like that didn’t help. Saints were a good team, and we were probably a little behind in some areas when it comes to someone coming up with something in a big game. Big moments went against us in a couple of big games, but it’s all part of the experience. Smithy never won a Grand Final – it happens. But there’s no excuse. Our opponents were better than us on those days.

Was it a mistake for the Bulls to sign Shaun Edwards?

That’s a really good question. It wasn’t a mistake, but we learned – both Shaun and me – that our environment wasn’t Shaun’s environment. His approach wasn’t our approach. It wasn’t a bad reflection on Shaun, but it was pretty clear in a short period of time. There was no animosity.

You must be regularly reminded about the Wide to West try. How do you look back it over two decades later?

It was never a penalty! It was one of the worst penalty decisions of all time, but it led to one of the most epic moments of Super League. You just have to live with it. We’d have loved to win a big semi-final away to a team like St Helens, but when you look at the try – as much as it makes me dry retch – it was pretty amazing.

We’d done so well in that game. We had some injuries, but we were 11-10 up. To get to that point – we just needed to defend one more play, but it was one hell of a play.

After the game, you downplayed the significance, justifiably pointing out that it didn’t dramatically alter the play-off picture. But what did it do to your team’s morale?

You have to be pragmatic in moments like that, but the truth is – imagine if we win, the energy levels go through the roof. But it was St Helens who benefited from that instead.

Tell us about your time coaching the USA.

I coached them a couple of times when I was in the UK, against Samoa and Cumbria. Then I coached a couple of internationals in Philadelphia and one in Hawaii. It was a really interesting experience. I got together with an Australian businessman, who was behind the England v New Zealand Test at Denver, to look at developing a ten-team domestic competition, but it didn’t come off.

I’d love to see the game develop over there. The best athletes tend to play football, basketball or baseball in college, so it’s the fourth batch that tend to go into rugby union. We considered looking into the lower socio-economic areas where perhaps some were not able to go to college.

You went on to become head coach of Canberra Raiders, Penrith Panthers and New Zealand Warriors. What are your most cherished memories of those days?

The greatest times were in the sheds after a good victory when it’s just you and the team.

I really enjoyed coaching Canberra. We had a very underestimated team and made the semi-finals most years, but not with a strong roster. In one year, we won about five games in golden point, and one of the winning field-goals was kicked by a 17-year-old Todd Carney against Wests Tigers. That was a wonderful moment.

Penrith Panthers was a rebuilding job. They had won the Grand Final in 2003 but many of those players had left. My favourite day was up at Brisbane when we were losing by ten points by just a few minutes left and we turned it round.

New Zealand Warriors is the one job when I know I didn’t coach at my best, and I can acknowledge that now.

At the Warriors, you were diagnosed with an illness called PMR. How did that lead you to setting up a business called The Change Room?

It’s an auto-immune condition called polymyalgia rheumatica, which I treated by injecting myself twice a day with a steroid. I was told I’d have it for life, but Anthony Minichiello helped me turn it around by suggesting I change my lifestyle – things like diet and sleep – and it worked. I no longer had to inject daily and live with pain.

I was a youth worker after university, so I had a background in wellbeing. What I started to acknowledge was how, if you’re not using a cutting-edge approach in professional sport, you’ll come last. And after ten years in pro sport, you have a double degree. Approach to recovery and wellbeing is a daily thing, and they’re things we focus heavily on.

Mark Hughes and Andrew Ryan also work with us. Andrew talks about transitioning for life after football. Every player understands transitioning coming out of pro sport – many become unwell and dysfunctional.

Mark has incurable brain cancer and raises millions of dollars every year. He talks to people and is so inspiring. We’ve had pretty astonishing results – our return-to-work results are the best in New South Wales.

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