12 Aug 2020

Burgess: What difference can Phil Gould make at the Warriors?

2:04 pm on 12 August 2020

By Michael Burgess*

Analysis - The appointment of Phil Gould as a consultant to the Warriors brings to mind a quip by the late David Lange.

Philip Gould in 2019.

Phil Gould has joined the Warriors as a consultant. Photo: Photosport

The former New Zealand prime minister, who was renowned as an orator, was once discussing the practical abilities of a political rival.

If he was a mechanic, Lange said, he might be able to diagnose the problem - but you wouldn't let him touch the car.

Gould is much more than an analyst - he's got years of experience as a coach and football director - but this impending role is one of his biggest challenges.

Like many prominent Australian league commentators, Gould has spent the best part of two decades bemoaning the inconsistency and relative underachievement of the Auckland club.

As recently as June he opined that the Warriors should be "the strongest club in the NRL" and regularly in the top four, adding that "it's a whole country".

It echoes a cliched view from across the Tasman, as pundits see the raw rugby (league and union) talent, especially in Auckland, and wonder why it doesn't translate into a Roosters or Storm type dynasty.

Now Gould gets a chance to actually look under the hood, make informed assessments and work out how to transform the club's operations and pathways.

But is that really feasible?

For all his experience and knowledge, what possible understanding can the Sydney-based Gould have of the reality of the sport in New Zealand?

There are only a handful of schools (almost all in Auckland) where league has a strong presence. In most other institutions it is either an after-thought, or discouraged, as talented athletes are hoovered up by the powerful first XV system.

In 2017 there was a ten-fold difference in the national rugby and league participation numbers across secondary schools, and more kids were involved in water polo or table tennis than the 13-a-side code.

It's doubtful those numbers would have changed much, especially as schoolboy rugby grows in profile every year.

That's not an insurmountable problem - as NRL clubs have plucked raw material out of New Zealand's first XV systems and produced gems - but it's far from ideal.

It's also completely different to Gould's background in league-mad New South Wales, where kids emerge into ultra-competitive school and club competitions soon after leaving primary school.

It means that by the time they get a chance at the NRL, they've had a decade honing their skills, physical attributes and mental toughness.

That disparity is an issue the Warriors have been trying to counter almost since their inception.

Recently Brian Smith, whose NRL head coaching experience (629 games) is only exceeded by two others, spent two years in a full-time role at the Warriors mainly focussed on pathways and development.

He had made progress, and engendered positive discussions between the Auckland Rugby League and New Zealand Rugby League, and Gould will be expected to build on that.

The 62-year-old has powerful networks, and both the Warriors and NZRL will hope he can leverage more development cash from the NRL and third parties. Given his profile and experience, Gould could also be a key ally in discussions with government funding agencies here.

However, trying to transplant solutions from Penrith or the Roosters, where Gould spent nearly three decades as a coach, football director or general manager, simply won't work because the base here is so different, a leaning tower compared to a pyramid.

Gould is also omnipresent in the Sydney media, across television, radio and newspapers. That could be handy - as a vocal advocate - but also tricky, as he is often controversial and outspoken.

But ultimately the Warriors' hierarchy hope Gould can fulfil a `Godfather' type role, providing his advice and expertise to an organisation that lacks league experience in the front office and around the board table.

Gould's new role has almost overshadowed the announcement of new head coach Nathan Brown, which has been received with minimal fanfare.

Warriors coach Nathan Brown.

New Warriors coach Nathan Brown. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

That might be because his ascension was telegraphed - he was first linked with the job last December after taking on a technical advisor role and was the early favourite after Stephen Kearney's sudden axing - but also because fans don't know what to expect.

Brown is the most experienced coach to arrive at Mt Smart since inaugural mentor John Monie in 1995, with a total of 252 NRL matches at the Dragons (2003-08) and Knights (2016-19) under his belt.

That goes against a recent pattern, with Kearney, Andrew McFadden, Brian McClennan and Ivan Cleary all either NRL head coaching rookies or novices when they got the Warriors' top job.

Brown had success with the Dragons, reaching the preliminary final twice and making the playoffs in four out of six seasons. But he didn't manage the ultimate triumph with an extremely strong roster and moved to England to revive his career.

His achievement at Newcastle is also hard to judge; he was given free licence to rebuild for two seasons, when the Knights claimed consecutive wooden spoons, but finished no better than eleventh (in 2018 and 2019) once he had assembled the roster he wanted.

However, his supporters will argue that the Knights' current promise (sixth on the ladder) is the dividend of Brown's hard labours, especially his focus on developing local talent.

*Michael Burgess has reported on Rugby League in New Zealand since 2006, and has covered each of the last eleven Warriors seasons in the NRL.