AS PROMISED in my last Gold Coast Titans analysis, I am going to cover the Titans defence in this column. But to do that, I need to go around a few houses first if that’s ok?
I need to give what I say some context.
Well remember in the last offering I said that myself and a high ranking NRL mate were debating whether I should write about the Titans or the Dragons, and we had our ‘Basketcase-ometers’ out? You may recall I plumped for Titans but they beat the Tigers in the week I planned my article whilst the Dragons slumped to their lowest point. But I argued that one swallow doesn’t make a summer and a couple of weeks on, the Titans seem to have slumped again and the Dragons have clocked up a couple of wins.
I guess after two decades of coaching I can see patterns on the field, regardless of what the scoreboard might say. And winning a game by a five-point margin and conceding 23 points – as the Titans did over Tigers – simply serves to mask some problems sometimes.
To come up with a fuller picture, I wanted to watch the Titans in a few games, so I watched the next two rounds after the Tigers victory, namely a 32-12 loss to Souths and a 20-8 loss to those rejuvenated Dragons. And now the Titans are bottom of the ladder courtesy of a -115 points differential.
With those facts, it’s going to be easy for anyone to come up with tactical or personnel reasons why the Titans are struggling in defence – a defence that leaks about 30 points a game on average.
I’m not a huge fan of kicking people when they’re down, so I decided to at least start from where the Titans ‘should be’ rather than just sticking the boot in.
When I was a young coach at Manly Sea Eagles during the start of that successful era in 2007 and the premiership year of 2008, I observed some of the people who were in and around the Manly team. To put this bluntly, it was obvious there were quite a few tough characters in that first grade team and they had an old, experienced head in Steve ‘the Beaver’ Menzies.
The kind of ‘tough characters’ we are talking about are uncompromising on the field, they don’t mind defending for set after set if they have to. But essentially, in training and in their character in general, they don’t take short cuts, they always look to be better. They take their preparation seriously and they take harsh feedback from their coach with humility and a workmanlike attitude.
When we think of the Melbourne Storm for the period memorable to most of us, we can easily imagine, or we have read or heard, tales very similar to what has just been said of the Sea Eagles during the premiership years. Craig Bellamy’s video review sessions are the stuff of legend and apparently not for the faint hearted. Players like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk, as well as being exceptional, got better and better with age. Cameron is still doing it whilst Billy Slater retired at the very top and Cooper Cronk took things to another level helping the Roosters to become the next dominant force.
And then there is the Melbourne Storm recruitment. How many times have Melbourne signed a player and you’ve thought “why?” only for that player to flourish under Bellyache and his coaching regime?
I can tell you a few first hand tales about the Storm recruitment but there’s one that I think sums them up superbly. Their scouts call me about players I coached three, four and five years ago. And they have called all the coaches who’ve been involved in that player’s development since then, prior to calling me. The first question they ask is “what was he like at school?”
They are the only NRL club I have ever dealt with who go into such detail, so often. There is one other recruitment manager who has moved around the clubs who does that kind of stuff as a one man band but the Storm do a full, co-ordinated check on all their potential recruits and have done for years.
Both Des Hasler at Manly and Craig Bellamy at Storm do not recruit or pick players who don’t have the ability or mental toughness to defend for long periods. Fact. They may hide one or two weaker defenders in their defensive line but that is offset by the rest of the team being equivalent to defensive dogs of war.
The Storm right now might not quite be the force they were. But they won’t fall too far and they will rise again because their structures, their organisation, their culture and their values underpin everything they do and will maintain and thrive above all. More about ‘Culture and Performance” later.
Replacing the Storm at the summit, it seems, are the Roosters and the Parramatta Eels and a few hours after the Titans slipped to a very disappointing 20-8 defeat to the Dragons, the Eels and the Roosters played out a blockbuster. The difference in standard of the teams compared to a few hours earlier was obvious to even the less educated followers.
What stuck out to me was that, despite being under constant defensive pressure, the Eels and the Roosters defended their line like their lives depended on it. The goal line tackles and scrambling defence were particularly impressive. They stuck rigidly to their systems and didn’t do much of what I call ‘selfish’ defence (making defensive decisions to benefit yourself rather than the team).
Tries scored took four, five and six sets of consistent or relative pressure. When you compare this to the Titans and how they defend then you will now understand why I have taken this long winded route to answer the questions about the Titans defence. And why I have mentioned recruitment, culture and performance and all those kind of things.
The Titans as a club has turned a coach like Justin Holbrook into someone who is trying to prevent a wooden spoon. A few months ago, he left St Helens regarded as one of the best coaches in their long and illustrious history.
I saw how his St Helens team defended. It was reminiscent and had characteristics of the Eels and Roosters rearguard. Here, the Titans look like a team that don’t have a defensive plan. They make lots of poor individual decisions, particularly on the edges. They defend a lot as individuals, not a group. Some of the players tackle really poorly or at times, not at all. Look for one high profile player in particular who tackles with his head so far away, he looks like he’s cuddling someone who smells like a sewer.
When the Titans lose some defensive rucks, they lose them spectacularly. Not only that, the next set is a mess. It seems all you have to do against the Titans is get a repeat set, or get the ref to say ‘six again’ and you will be running at 13 individuals doing their own repair work, not a team with a defensive plan. Simply, they panic when they lose rucks in defence.
They often lose rucks in defence because many of their players don’t concentrate for a full set. They will kill a couple of rucks and look ok for one or two in a set, then lose one spectacularly thanks to poor collision, or poor unload to marker, or bombing out of the defensive line to try and solve a problem,
There is no way on earth that Justin Holbrook has lost his coaching powers since securing the Super League title in October. His St Helens team would be nowhere near the bottom of the NRL ladder on current evidence.
So an observer like me then looks at the players, the recruitment and the ‘culture’. There are obviously a few players in that team who aren’t mentally tough when it comes to hanging in there in defence.
I’ve been privy to a few of their players’ development as juniors, either as their coach or an opposition coach. I would not be exaggerating if I said that so many of them were weak defenders as juniors, it wasn’t corrected much then and it is still a problem now. It always staggers me how many recruiters and coaches ignore the defensive side of the ball. It’s 50 per cent of the game if all is equal.
The man hugging someone who smells like a sewer is top of that particular list. I find it laughable he’s got to the ‘top’ and this hasn’t been rectified. I noticed it when he was 16, 17 and 18 but nobody dared correct him, such was his ‘reputation’. I tried and copped a load of flak for it. It was like questioning rugby league royalty.
Mal Meninga is the current head of performance and culture at the Titans and, to quote the club website in November 2018, was appointed to “drive a winning environment.” Since that date, the Titans have had a period when they won a solitary game in a full calendar year.
So how is that winning environment going? It’s only natural that some of the microscope should go in his direction.
Firstly, let it be said: I’m a huge Mal Meninga fan. I am always willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has achieved so much in the game. At every level.
My alarm bells started ringing when I saw him in the Fox TV studios when the Titans were playing Souths. I asked the question why on my facebook page (@rugbyleaguecoach)
I was met with some defence of this sporting legend. But I wasn’t necessarily just questioning Mal. I was also questioning the organisation that allows one of its key employees (or essentially its most important one) to earn money elsewhere whilst they’re carrying out their core business as a club (games).
I don’t care for the excuse of him not being in the COVID 50 man bubble or whatever else. When your club is under so much pressure, when it has won one game in a calendar year then your head of performance and culture should surely be in and around the dressing rooms, the coach and the players if only to observe and give support. He should be in that COVID bubble. It needs to be all hands on deck to get the Titans out of this mess.
There could be excuses. Maybe he or the Titans board trust Holbrook so much that they allow Mal to be away? But it’s not a good look. If I was a Titans fan I’d be questioning this and would be doubting the decisions my club is making. By way of contrast, Phil Gould was rarely, if ever, on Channel Nine whilst Penrith Panthers were playing during his tenure as general manager of the club.
Before you accuse me of hating on Mal, nothing could be further from the truth. I recently did a series on my socials and on my website explaining why he was the true boss of the champion Queensland Origin side. To me, Mal is a genuine legend and should have been made an Immortal long before he was.
But something isn’t right at the Titans and questions need to be asked. For Justin Holbrook, it’s a titanic task!
Lee Addison is the Head of Performance for Spain Rugby League but any views expressed in this column are his own. You can find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au. He is also offering FREE 4 week training programs for Coaches and Players to help recover from COVID. Please visit the ‘Rugby League Coach’ YouTube page, click subscribe and send a screenshot to firstname.lastname@example.org for your free programs.