As the Warriors cross the ditch to base themselves in Australia again for the NRL season, Ashley Stanley talks to new head coach Nathan Brown.
After almost 30 years in rugby league, Nathan Brown sums up his biggest lessons as a player and coach in two sentences.
They slide off the tongue without skipping a beat, something New Zealand fans have come to see as synonymous with Australian banter.
“As a player, playing with players who have lots of talent but bad attitudes cost you games,” Brown says. “As a coach, picking players with plenty of talent but a bad attitude will cost you your job.”
He’s had his fair share of both.
You can’t help but think these two lessons are a perfect summary of his time in the game — but also a window into the type of thinking the new Warriors head coach has around the way he sees the world in general, not just the sport.
Brown takes the reins at Mount Smart Stadium with over 170 first grade games under his playing belt, three grand finals (no wins), just under 450 games as head coach across four clubs and one Super League title with St Helens.
Most recently he left the Newcastle Knights in 2019 and joined the Warriors in a consultancy capacity in early 2020 before Covid-19 put a halt to that gig.
The 47-year-old brings all those varied and colourful experiences to the Warriors’ main seat: the soaring highs of grand finals and a title, to falling agonisingly short at the finish line and the relentless scrutiny that rightly or wrongly comes with the top coaching positions.
Experience is what Brown says he brings to the Warriors, coming into their 26th NRL season – the second with Autex Industries as sole owners of the Auckland-based franchise.
“This is my fifth club as head coach so I’ve been fortunate to coach for a long time,” he says. “Coaching is certainly like a lot of things in life, where the more you do it, the better you get. It’s no different to being a builder, doctor or anything, the experiences help you learn a lot.”
The country kid who was born in Grafton, and spent most of his younger days playing rugby league, surfing and fishing, moved to Sydney at 18 to play for the Dragons after being invited to an open trial.
He ventured into coaching at 27 after suffering a career-ending neck injury playing for St George Illawarra and in 2009 headed to England.
Brown spent six years in Europe with the Huddersfield Giants, taking them to the Challenge Cup final in his first year, and St Helens, with whom he won a title in his final year. Brown and his wife, Tanya, and their three daughters (who are now 17, 15 and 12) returned to Australia with an additional member of the family, a young son who is now nine, to take on the Knights’ head coach job in 2016.
Brown may not look the goods on paper. His Knights record left him with back-to-back wooden spoons in his opening seasons. But diehard ‘leaguies’ will understand it takes more than a one-man-band to change things and make it to the top.
For example, his predecessor at the Knights, Wayne Bennett, reportedly left the team sheds a little untidy when he took over.
Brown should have a range of experiences to call on to help the Warriors out of tight situations and ideally shape them into a consistent footy side that will get another shot at their first NRL premiership ring.
Getting the club pipeline to first grade right for younger players will also be definitive. It was an area bolstered when Phil Gould took on a consultancy role last year to offer a blueprint – something he managed to successfully build at the Penrith Panthers. And Brown provides a good combination with Gould having already been involved in development pathways with other clubs.
“I certainly enjoy developing players,” Brown says. “I believe the Warriors have some good young players who are really talented and I’d like to think, not only myself, but the staff we’ve got can hopefully provide some tools to help them mature, grow as players and advance their careers.”
So who is the person, away from the coaches’ box, tasked with taking the Warriors into the future?
Asked how his family and friends would describe him, Brown laughs “Oh jeez, that wouldn’t be real good there, Ashley.
“But I think I’m a fair person. There was probably a time when I was younger where I was probably too fair, you know. But I would like to think I’ve got a reasonable balance about the fairness of life now.
“I’m not perfect, no one is, but I think I can reward the right things and not reward the wrong things, so I’d like to think they’d say I’m reasonably fair and personable.”
That balancing act will come in handy with the blend of players on the Warriors roster. An exodus of players at the end of 2020 meant new recruitment manager Peter O’Sullivan had the ability to re-shape the shed with salary cap purse strings loosening.
And he did well in key areas – up front, with Tongan representative, Ben Murdoch-Masila and Addin Fonua-Blake and a specialist centre in Euan Aitken. He also bought more utility coverage in Marcelo Montoya and Bayley Sironen to round out a solid seven player signing haul.
Changing personnel is nothing new to Brown but is it just he players, or the environment or both that needs adjusting to get a winning recipe at the Warriors?
It’s a combination of tweaks.
“You get clubs at different stages. But I think there are plenty of people who will be excited by the Warriors squad where it’s at and the growth that it’s got,” says Brown, who temporarily moved to New Zealand for pre-season with the Auckland based players.
Assistant coaches Justin Morgan and Craig Hodges have been training the Australian-based playes in Kiama, New South Wales. But the full team reunited on Sunday in Tamworth as part of the Warriors’ relocation to Australia for the first part of the 2021 season.
“It’s certainly by no means the finished article but there’s certainly a lot of promising signs that we got to see last year.”
Brown says the biggest thing they’re working on now is individual player development.
“And the players who are coming into the squad, lifting the level so we’re working really hard in that area,” he says. “Then you’ve got the next group of young players in your system – so between those three areas, getting that balance right is probably the key to the growth of the club.”
He credits Stephen Kearney for bleeding some of the young players into first grade, a move which has helped the club’s progress.
“As a coach, introducing players at the initial time is always the hardest because regardless of what you’d want to tell them as a coach and as hard as they prepare, until young players get to go and experience it, then they start to learn, not only how difficult the NRL is but they can actually feel accepted as if ‘I’m good enough for it’ and ‘I’ve got to work hard to become a good player’,” says Brown.
Brown says the new rules suggest the game today is more open so there is an element of structured footy. A six-again call for infringements was one of the new rules introduced last year.
“But now there’s also a lot of fatigue in the game. The sets are going longer back-to-back with the new rules which I’m sure everyone agrees with…[ which leads to] more holes in the defensive line so there’s more natural, ad-lib footy,” Brown says.
“We’ve got a number of players who naturally unload the ball so those types of players that can do that, I believe should be encouraged to do it and there’s another element of players who aren’t quite at that skillset – so getting the players to play to their strength is probably any coach’s key.”
There’s still a fair bit of time on the coaching clock for Brown but at the end of the day winning grand finals is what he wants to be remembered for in a professional sense.
“I think anyone who coaches, we want to win grand finals,” he says. “And for me, being the coach coming to the Warriors, like the last coaches would’ve been, everyone who comes would like to be the first coach to win at the Warriors because that person will never be forgotten.”
He puts football in context, though.
“If you take footy away, the greatest legacy you leave behind is your own family, your own children. That’s anyone’s greatest legacy, you know, and everything after that is a bonus.”
The children of sports people are often exposed to an unforgiving spotlight. For coaches, it’s the same. But Brown says his children know no different.
“All they’ve ever seen is Dad as a coach so they’ve seen plenty of things said about me,” he says. “To cut a long story short they accept that and give me shit about all the bad stuff and turn it into a joke. They tend to give me a hard time.”
A new coaching contract brings another move and the Brown family are generally looking forward to relocating to this side of the ditch.
“They’re all really different [children] but the long and short of it, once they get here as a family and they get to meet people, I know they’ll all really enjoy it,” says Brown.
“We’re used to travelling and as a family we like to embrace where we are going and buy into the lifestyle that each culture, country or town provides.
“When we look back on our life and the kids in particular, I know they’re going to be far more rounded and really enjoy it for the experiences.”
Besides the titles, when Brown looks back on his career, success would also be: “Being able to play sport and coach at an elite level for an extended period of time, I think that’s an achievement in itself.
“For any of us in the field of professional sport, having any sort of longevity is worth achieving something but there is no doubt the ultimate is winning.
“I was fortunate to win at St Helens and when you win one, you sort of get greedy, you want to win again. Because that feeling, there is no better feeling.”