Knights coach Nathan Brown talks about the past, the future, the pressure he is under and the expectations on a club devoid of any success over the past five years in this wide-ranging interview with the Newcastle Herald.
BT: Is it safe to say that after three years, your re-build is over?
NB: I would think so. We're at the point now where we have a roster where we are not going to turn over a lot of players each year and that's what rebuilding does. The best rosters are stable rosters where you get to build combinations and building those combinations is our next challenge now. We have seven players who are new to the club playing the Sharks in round one so it's a matter now of keeping that nucleus together moving forward.
BT: So is this your squad now, the one you may have envisaged putting together when you came to Newcastle?
NB: We didn't get everyone we went after but the quality in the squad suggests we've done pretty well in a short space of time.
BT: You didn't think it would happen this quick?
NB: It's probably come a year quicker than I originally thought. When you are not cheating and everything is above board coming out of your cap, it's taken some good management by Moons [former head of football Darren Mooney] with the cap to be in a position to buy Mitchell Pearce because those types of players don't come by every day. Sometimes you get a bit lucky with the timing and Dave Klemmer's another case in point. To get a halfback at the peak of his powers who has been an Origin player and a 25-year-old frontrower coming into his prime who plays Tests regularly, among others, we've been able to benefit because we've been shrewd with our money.
BT: So the pain of the first couple of years was worth it?
NB: We didn't have a choice back then because we couldn't buy anyone because of the cap situation. What we did back then has put us in the position we are now.
BT: Mark Geyer says you should be sacked if you don't make the top four. Others in the media say you need a top-eight finish to survive. How does that sit with you?
NB: With the media, everyone gives their opinion which they are entitled to and they are rarely personal. If that's Mark Geyer's opinion for example, he's actually telling me I've done a sensational job to date and if it doesn't work here, I should get another rebuild somewhere. That's what he is saying. If he genuinely thinks we are a top four side, I hope he is a good judge. Everyone wants to be there. If we come from where we've been to become a top four side this year, it will be a great achievement by the boys.
BT: You've been labelled as a "rebuilding coach" by some critics who doubt your ability to be able to go on and win a premiership. So, how do you respond to them?
NB: There was a time when I was coaching in England that I was starting to think that as well after what happened at the Dragons here and then again at Huddersfield. But we did win at St Helens and they hadn't won for a fair while before that and they haven't won since and there are plenty of good coaches who have had success here who have been over there and not had any. I certainly feel like I've got the experience that if we do get in certain situations, we can do well.
BT: So what would a pass mark for Nathan Brown be this season?
NB: The big thing for me will be stringing together good, consistent performances. We need to bring our average performances up to an acceptable level and bridge the gap between our good and our bad. Do that and our results will look after themselves.
BT: You manage to hide the fact that you are under plenty of pressure really well. How do you handle it?
NB: It will be what it will be. It's no good sitting here worrying about the ifs and maybes. We've had a good pre-season, we've got good staff and we've recruited in areas to help the squad really improve. There is no reason why we won't and I think most people will be pretty happy if we do.
BT: Should we read anything into the fact you are now into your fourth season in Newcastle and you and your family are still renting?
NB: In an ideal world, we'd love to stay in Newcastle. Results will probably determine where we'll end up living I suppose but if we lived here for the next 30 or 40 years of our lives, there's not going to be too many unhappy members of the Brown family.
BT: You've won 15 from 72 matches at the Knights. How did you personally cope with all those defeats?
NB: Years one and two were hard because you struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we had good support for what we were trying to do from you guys in the media and generally from the fans and obviously from within the club. That made it easier to deal with but when you know you are going to run last, that's not the greatest feeling. It's why when the coaching job originally came up here, there wasn't anyone with great experience, used to having quality rosters who put their hand up. There was zero of them. But I reckon if this job was to come up tomorrow, they'd be lining up.
BT: How does playing Kalyn Ponga at five-eighth strengthen the team?
NB: For our team, he is just a good fit there. He wants to be there and his skill set is suited to playing in the halves. If you look at a lot of five-eighths in the competition now, several have played fullback. It also allows Connor [Watson] to play in what I think is his most natural position. He's a great competitor who can play a variety of spots but I think where he is now is where he is at his most natural.
BT: For a lot of people though, the jury is still out on Watson at fullback. Plenty think he won't make it there. You obviously have confidence in him?
NT: The challenge for Connor is him understanding what he is good at. When he does what he does well consistently, he is a really good player and has played some outstanding games at fullback for the Roosters.
BT: In hindsight, should you have tried harder to keep Nick Meaney?
NB: We wanted to keep him and our actual offer to Nick wasn't miles away from Canterbury. In the end, it came down to Nick not seeing a pathway here at fullback.
BT: Mitchell Pearce regularly cops flak for his off-field behaviour and yet you've made him the focal point of the club on and off the field by making him sole captain. You don't see that as a risk?
NB: We can't hide away from the fact he's had his off-field issues and it's been highlighted for everyone to see. There is certainly more accountability around that now and no-one is working harder in that area than Pearcey. I know the club, the players and myself are very confident he will get it right in that regard. On the field, he was in the top two or three players in the comp when he was fit last season and his on-field leadership is outstanding. You live and die by these decisions but I have a lot of confidence in him.
BT: The off-season incidents involving Jacob Saifiti and Tautau Moga - did you take them personally?
NB: To a certain extent because it brought a lot of unwanted attention on the club and the playing group. Coaches have to share in the blame for what's happened off the field too because for a long period, we have contributed by covering up the behaviour. We've all justified it to ourselves by claiming we are only doing it to protect the player when the real reason is we are protecting the roster. There hasn't been too many coaches who have stood down star players over the past 30 years. It's always been about winning. But the accountability factor changes everything. The good thing here is the boss has come down heavy and I've seen a big change in attitudes and awareness now which is a real positive to come out of it.
READ MORE: Newcastle Knights
BT: What is the biggest challenge you face right now?
NB: Getting some cohesion quickly out of the squad. We have plenty of new players so how quickly and how far we move in that regard only time will tell. The greatest challenge for any team is getting good consistency. From a longer term view, we've now got a good junior system in place to develop players and the finances through Wests to identify and keep them. We've got a centre of excellence being built so we are getting a lot of things right going forward.
BT: It's the Sharks first up at home after they flogged you in a trial. Your thoughts?
NB: It doesn't matter how many good players you bring in, there are certain areas of the game that you needed to do well in back in 1915 that you still need to do well in today to give yourself a chance of winning. The Sharks are a good, consistent side. It'll be a great challenge.
- Sign up for a 12-month subscription to theherald.com.au for $3 a week and score two Knights tickets and the book Hard Yards: The Story of the Newcastle Knights. Go to theherald.com.au/winter-sports-promo for more details.