‘This short-sighted attitude is crazy’: Toulouse Olympique’s Mitch Garbutt on relegation threat

Mitch Garbutt is going back to the future in a bid to help French Rugby League succeed in the build-up to the 2025 World Cup.

The 33-year-old former Leeds Rhinos and NRL prop forward will take over as player-coach at Elite One side St Gaudens, ten years since he turned them down to begin his professional career at Melbourne Storm.

New Role

“It’s funny how it has gone full-circle,” Garbutt told League Express.

“I was going to join St Gaudens in 2013, I had some friends who had played there, Lucas Miller and Pete Mannion, and I was talking to them about coming over.

“But I got an offer from Melbourne, which was a bit of a contrast, and I stayed in Australia.”

Garbutt switched briefly to Brisbane Broncos before joining Leeds Rhinos for four seasons of Cup Finals and winners’ rings.

He will end his current two-year contract at Toulouse Olympique this year and move straight into his new role.

He said, “St Gaudens hasn’t been doing too well in the last few years and that might be why I’ve been asked to take the role as player-coach, to hopefully build some structure with the experience I have.

“I’ve been coached by some of the best coaches around in Craig Bellamy, Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens and Brian McDermott, so I’ve hopefully picked up some good things, traits and ideas that I could bring to the Elite competition.

Fighting for Survival

“At the start of the season I was thinking about staying on with Toulouse. I could have helped out playing and coaching with the club’s reserves in the French Elite One Championship, but when the opportunity to become a head coach at St Gaudens came around, I was really excited.

“It’s a bit early for me at 33 but I’m really looking forward to it.”

The immediate future is continuing to fight for Super League survival at Toulouse and Garbutt still believes the Olympians can avoid the drop.

He said, “It’s tough now, we’ve made it tough for ourselves, Sylvain (coach Houles) said the other day about how we can’t seem to click when it matters.

“We’ve been very close four or five times this season and if we win those games we’d be in the opposite position, potentially sneaking into sixth position.

“But now that Wakefield have got that buffer, it’s all on us now. We can’t worry about what other teams are doing; the only thing we need to worry about is our next game and doing everything we can to get those two points.

“There is so much frustration at the moment. To be in the positions we have been in and then give it away right at the end of games because of our own errors is so frustrating.

“As a playing group we know we’re a good squad. Obviously, we’ve lost some players from last year, but we’ve also gained more than 500 games of NRL experience just in the last month.

“It would have been great if those guys had arrived earlier, but it didn’t work out like that.

“We can’t look at or worry about the end of the season, it’s what happens in our next game that matters.

“There aren’t a lot of games left and we need to start winning them in a row, that’s the challenge now.”

No Favours

Garbutt isn’t expecting any favours from rival clubs, despite Toulouse’s torrid time so far in the top-flight and the extra financial burdens they have to bear.

He added, “I’ve been around long enough to know that other chairmen from other clubs don’t really care what happens to other sides as long as it’s not happening to theirs.

“That’s across the board; I’ve been at some of the biggest clubs in the world and that’s a common thing, to worry about your own backyard and no anyone else’s.

“That’s fair enough, they have big enough problems of their own, especially after Covid.

“The odds were against us, having to pay for all the travel of visiting teams and officials.

“It was an interesting way to reward a team that gets promoted, for sure, especially a team like Toulouse, who have been investing for years to reach Super League.

“But that’s the way it is with promotion and relegation, the team that comes up needs to spend big to stay up and it’s tough.

Short Sighted

“Ideally, for me as a player and supporter of Toulouse Olympique, the club should stay in Super League, it’s just short-sighted by the game to say “you’re out” when we’ve got a World Cup coming up in France in 2025 with potentially only one French team in the top tier.

“That’s crazy. As a bloke who’s played and been a fan of the game all around the world, if I’ve got a World Cup coming up, I’m doing everything I can to make sure the game has a strong presence in that country.

“We chop and change the system so often; we had the Super eights recently which left teams at the top playing games that didn’t matter, and the bottom eight teams were playing for their lives, which can’t be right.

“And if there was ever a situation where a Warrington or a Leeds club got relegated, it would cripple English Rugby League.

“I’ve been at the biggest clubs in the world and Leeds is the best run business model. They make money and they invest, they have a great junior system, they give 16-year-olds long-term contracts because they see the benefits.

“That wouldn’t be possible if they went down because you immediately lose all your good young players, their contracts are null and void. It happened to Widnes when they were relegated.

“They had a really strong junior system and other clubs came along and cherry-picked all of the talent.”

Hindering Investment

Garbutt believes the prospect of relegation is hindering growth and investment in the game.

He said, “Rugby League is an interesting sport because we don’t always appreciate people with money coming into the game.

“We find reasons for these people not to be involved. If you’ve got people willing to hand over their hard-earned cash to invest in the sport, I would look at every way possible to make them welcome.

“We find ways to deter these people and relegation is one of the biggest factors.

“If we were going to 14 teams next year, the teams like York, Halifax and Bradford, they would invest too.”

Garbutt not only feels that Toulouse should have had the safety net of relegation exemption that benefitted Catalans Dragons when they joined in 2006, he also thinks the whole concept of relegation is hindering the sport.

He added, “It’s tough, there is a massive potential here in France, and although I still believe we have a strong enough squad to fight our way back to safety, if we do go down then this short-sighted “too bad, see-you-later” attitude is crazy, particularly with a World Cup on the horizon.

“At the end of the day, if it happens Toulouse will take it on the chin, the RFL will say those were the rules that were in place and all of the other Championship clubs will agree.”

Paying the Price

Garbutt admits that the financial collapse of Toronto Wolfpack had influenced the RFL’s new rulings for overseas clubs joining the English leagues. But Toulouse had been left to pay the price for someone else’s failure.

He added, “Toronto was a different animal altogether because for most of the time they were based in England.

“I had friends who played at Toronto who all say it could have been the biggest thing ever for Rugby League.

“They were walking around Toronto and they were superstars. It’s one of the biggest sporting cities in the world and the Wolfpack could have been anything it wanted.

“It’s such a shame it didn’t continue; Covid has had such a huge impact on our game.

“It did for Toronto and if it wasn’t for the massive investment by our President Bernard Sarrazain it could have done for us.

“Add to that the relegation risk; it’s such a short-sighted approach to people who have the resources and the game at heart to stick with this system with complete disregard for the repercussions. It’s crazy.

“Because of the collapse of Toronto, the RFL has changed the rules for overseas teams joining the competition and we are the first to pay the price.

“It’s silly that we have Catalans, who are two hours away and they don’t have to pay for the travel costs of visiting teams and officials.

“That’s crazy because we pay for everyone.”

Pride in Leeds

When his top-flight playing days are over at the end of this season, Garbutt will look back with fond memories of a career in which he has won every team medal available.

He said, “My proudest moment was the 2017 Grand Final with Leeds. I know we did the treble in 2015 but after the following season everyone wrote us off and said we were done.

“To come back and take pride in proving others wrong, but most of all to send Rob Burrow out on a high, especially after what has happened to him, fills me with pride.

“Also, helping Toulouse get promoted has given me great satisfaction.

“To see the guys who had invested so much of their life into the club, and money, Bernard Sarrazain has ploughed in an absolute fortune, in tears of joy once they had gained promotion was massive for me.

“It would be crazy to see all of that effort and investment thrown away.”

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