Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

OF all the hours Garth Brennan has spent on the freeway to and from Newcastle over the past six years, the longest and loneliest drive occurred midway through 2011.

WAITING GAME: After six seasons in Penrith's lower grades, Novocastrian Garth Brennan has earned his first chance as an NRL head coach. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

WAITING GAME: After six seasons in Penrith's lower grades, Novocastrian Garth Brennan has earned his first chance as an NRL head coach. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

It was a trip home from Wollongong, after a face-to-face meeting with Wayne Bennett.

Bennett had been recently appointed head coach of the Knights and was working through the process of what players and staff he wanted to retain, and who was expendable.

Brennan, who had been Newcastle’s National Youth Competition mentor for two seasons, was concerned that he had not been approached, so he contacted the veteran tactician and asked for a chance to state his case, man to man.

Bennett agreed to meet but was apparently non-committal. By the time he jumped in his car, Brennan must have had a fair idea he was on borrowed time.

Sure enough, soon afterwards the Knights announced former Canberra and North Queensland assistant coach Mick Crawley would be be replacing Brennan, having signed a four-year contract.

The club’s media release said Brennan “has been encouraged to stay at the Knights next season to work with developing young players", but the no specific role was ever discussed.

After an eight-season apprenticeship with Newcastle’s junior teams, including becoming the first man ever to coach their under-20s into the play-offs, Brennan had been cast aside with scarcely a second thought.

Only Bennett and the powers-that-be of that time would know the rationale behind their decision.

My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that Bennett wanted his own people in key positions.

He was stuck with Rick Stone as assistant coach, at the insistence of new owner Nathan Tinkler, and perhaps he was concerned about the possibility of a clique in the ranks.

Whatever the case, Bennett seriously underestimated Brennan’s desire to forge a career as a rugby league coach.

A lesser man may have walked away from the game, especially as returning to his original vocation as a police prosecutor was an option.

Instead Brennan accepted an offer from Phil Gould to coach Penrith’s under-20s.

Relocating his young family to the foot of the Blue Mountains would have been problematic, largely because Brennan’s wife Rachel was running a successful law firm in Newcastle.

So instead he opted to commute, staying a few nights each week in Penrith, and the rest at the family home in Stockton. Over the course of six years, he racked up 500,000 kilometres in the trusty Holden Commodore he “borrowed” from his car-dealing brother, Shane Brennan.

After winning an NYC premiership in 2013 with the Panthers, he was described as “an NRL coach in waiting” by Gould. The next year he collected a NSW Cup title, a feat he repeated this season.

All the while, Brennan kept wondering if he would ever get a chance at the highest level.

Despite Gould’s glowing praise, when the Panthers sacked Ivan Cleary at the end of 2014, they hired Anthony Griffin rather than promoting from within.

Twice Brennan applied for the top job at Newcastle, after Bennett’s departure and then when Rick Stone was speared less than a year later.

Both times he was overlooked. Even when assistant roles came up at the Knights, he was never seriously considered.

Recently he applied for the vacant position at Super League club Warrington, only to be pipped by former St George Illawarra coach Steve Price.

Brennan could have been forgiven for thinking his lack of profile was counting against him. Despite playing more than 200 games in the Newcastle competition, he never made the grade at professional level.

Clubs are also more inclined to appoint a recycled coach with NRL experience than someone who is unproven in the top grade.

But all good things to those who wait.

This week the 45-year-old was unveiled as Gold Coast’s new coach for the next three seasons, and nobody could be more deserving.

The timing seems slightly ironic, given that Brennan spent the majority of his career playing for Wests Rosellas in the Newcastle premiership, and now the Wests Group are on the verge of assuming full control of the Knights.

It would be fair to say the Wests board of directors – men who, like Brennan, shed blood on Harker Oval in their day – will be monitoring his progress with interest.

Obviously Brennan faces plenty of challenges in his new role.

Learning how to manage highly paid superstars, including prima donnas like Jarryd Hayne, balancing a salary cap and dealing with the media spotlight.

It will be a learning curve, but no doubt it is one he will embrace. He’s dreamed about this for years, and now it is a reality.

In many ways, Brennan reminds me of Trent Robinson, who also spent several years on Newcastle’s coaching staff. When Robinson was handed the reins of the Sydney Roosters in 2013, many had never heard of him. He won a premiership in his first season and is now established as one of the best coaches in the game.

I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if Brennan is equally successful. Indeed, I’d be stunned if he’s not. 


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