Different ball game for Knights and Trent Robinson

Different ball game for Knights and Trent Robinson

TRENT Robinson was hardly a household name during his rugby league playing career.

The wholehearted forward made four NRL appearances between 2000 and 2002 for Wests Tigers and Parramatta but through no lack of effort, was unable to establish himself as a first-grade regular.

It is fair to assume, however, that Robinson is destined to reach far greater heights as a coach than he did as a player.

During his three years as an assistant coach with the Newcastle Knights, he has established himself as one of the game's bright young thinkers.

Robinson is an NRL coach in the making and there is no more popular or respected person on Newcastle's payroll.

Which is why the Knights are so keen to retain him.

They believe Robinson is the perfect foil for new coach Rick Stone who, no disrespect intended, is perhaps more an old-school operator than sports-science graduate Robinson, having learned his trade as captain-coach of Nambucca Heads and steering Burleigh Bears in the Queensland Cup.

Together Stone and Robinson who are not just work colleagues but good mates offer the best of both worlds and complement each other with their respective strengths.

The only problem is that Robinson has asked the Knights for a release to join Brian Smith, the man who gave him his start in coaching, at Sydney Roosters.

Newcastle's initial response has been to point out politely but firmly that Robinson is contracted to the club until the end of next season.

The Knights' board of directors will debate the subject but chief executive Steve Burraston indicated in The Herald on Saturday that a firm stance was likely.

"Trent Robinson is contracted to the Newcastle Knights for 2010," Burraston said.

"We will not be releasing him from that contract and I hope whoever is putting this out there understands the legal ramifications of enticing someone to break a contract."

The Knights are well within their rights to ask an employee to honour his contractual obligations, a point that Robinson has conceded willingly.

The disappointment Burraston and other officials may feel towards Smith is similarly understandable.

Whatever goodwill existed between Knights management and their former coach is fading fast after the decision to sack him with four rounds remaining in the 2009 season.

Robinson hopes his own dilemma can be resolved far more amicably but he is entitled to be confused.

Knights officials had no qualms about releasing Smith from his 2010 contract so that he could accept a lucrative four-year deal with the Roosters.

Likewise, they allowed Smith's son, Rohan, their under-20s coach this season, to walk away from his deal next year.

Various players, such as Matthew Gidley, have been granted early releases over the years after attracting better offers elsewhere.

Some would say that represents a precedent.

But in Robinson's case, Newcastle's mood has not been so obliging.

Asked about the apparent disparity in policy, Burraston offered a simple explanation.

The Knights had an obvious candidate to replace Smith in Stone and so had no objection to his early departure but releasing Robinson would leave a void in their ranks that would be difficult to fill.

From a business viewpoint, Newcastle's hard line is perfectly understandable.

Why should they allow one of their most valuable assets to link with a rival club, thereby leaving the Knights under pressure to find a replacement who may not measure up?

But the flip side to that argument is why would you stand in the way of an employee who feels he has a better opportunity elsewhere, quite possibly for significantly more money?

As Knights chairman Rob Tew said in July, after the Knights agreed to release Smith: "I wish him well. They offered him a significantly longer tenure and it's what he wants to do. I gave up a long time ago trying to get people to do something they didn't want to do . . . I'm disappointed he's going but I appreciate he's doing what he wants to do."

Tew's words certainly provide food for thought.

Whether they will carry any weight when the men in suits gather around the boardroom table to discuss Robinson's future is another matter.