Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Anthony Griffin Gamble

Phil Gould shocked the Rugby League world in mid-October by sacking then Head Coach of the Penrith Panthers, Ivan Cleary. It came out of the blue, it was unexpected, and it was almost mystifying. It went about everything Gould had been building the Panthers to since joining the club as Executive General Manager in 2011. As a fan, you questioned whether the much hyped five-year plan, which Cleary had been brought in to kick start, had been thrown out the window. Gould even went as far to say Cleary’s sacking was a ‘gut feeling’ he had at the time. What was more mystifying than the proverbial punting of Cleary, was the reigning in of ex-Broncos Coach, Anthony Griffin. While Griffin has now been in place on the east side of the Nepean for well over a month, the question has to be asked: what can Anthony Griffin do for the Panthers in season 2016 and beyond?  
An awkward looking Gus Gould & Anthony Griffin at the Head Coach's unveiling.  
Griffin was handpicked by Gould without board consultation or any recruitment process taking place. He is a one-club NRL coach, racking up 101 games at the helm of the Brisbane Broncos from 2011-2014. He has had a long coaching career, dating back to the late 90’s where he was involved with various teams in the Queensland competitions. He was an assistant at the Melbourne Storm under Chris Anderson, had a season at the Broncos as Assistant Coach to Ivan Henjak, and then was thrust into the Head Coaching role after Henjak was sacked. While a credentialed and respected custodian, the man himself doesn’t strike you as the most inspirational bloke on the planet with his relaxed and simple demeanor. But maybe that is his greatest strength, or maybe that’s all we can see from the distance of the couch.

The 49-year-old comes to Panthers at a time of transition, much similar to that of his time at the Broncos. In Brisbane, Griffin was the coach of the NYC under 20’s team in 2008 which went all the way to the Grand Final. A few years later, Griffin became first-grade coach and was charged with assimilating many of his young crop from 08’ into the top team. The Red-Hill franchise would have thought Hook’s experience working with the youngsters would help their transition into first grade footballers. While debate on whether he achieved that can be left to the experts, Griffin was unable to take his Brisbane first-grade side to the next level, with finishes of 3rd in 2011, 8th in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 8th in 2014. He would eventually be pushed out of the club to allow for the return of Super-coach and Broncos kingpin, Wayne Bennett.
It could be argued that given the success of some of the Bronco’s youngsters this year under Bennett Griffin was indeed successful in transitioning some of the youngster’s into quality first-graders. So if Griffin is a good coach from that perspective, but is not quite a coach who can take a side to the next-level of premiership opportunities, why have Penrith signed him?
Under the tutelage and guidance of Gus Gould, the Panthers have for the past three years driven a recruitment strategy based around developing many of their talented juniors. In the last couple of years, the likes of Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak have emerged from the vast Penrith District Junior Rugby League catchment to debut under the coaching of Ivan Cleary. Cleary appeared to have the right nouse and judgement on how much the juniors’ could handle, and when they were ready. He wasn’t afraid to give someone a start but was timely and measured when he did.
Cleary’s sacking followed an 11th place finish for his side; obviously not what the excellence-seeking Panthers would have liked, but after a season of almost catastrophic injuries, many commentators gave them the ‘unlucky, move on to next year’ summary. It’s difficult to understand why he was let go, but it’s even more difficult to picture Anthony Griffin leading the Panthers to a premiership.
Gould must see something in Griffin that the regular punters can’t, but he has taken a huge gamble on the future of the club by investing in Griffin. Perhaps Griffin is a stop-gap coach while the club waits for a world-beater of the Craig Bellamy mold. His ability to work with younger players - who at the Broncos have long lauded him as a reason to their success - could be what the Panthers needed. Maybe that’s why Gould brought him in, to help transition more of the juniors into first grade. With the club having won the 2015 NYC competition in 2013 and 2015, the conveyer belt of juniors is well and truly operating. Indeed maybe Gould knows that the Panthers are three-to-four years away from being title contenders, not one-to-two as the original five-year plan would suggest.
What’s clear is the appointment of Anthony Griffin by Gus Gould to coach the Penrith Panthers in 2016, is one of the maestro’s biggest plays during his forty-plus years in Rugby League. Whether that leaves Griffin with a mountain of pressure to carry, or Gould takes the responsibility himself remains to be seen. Let’s just hope those juniors can keep feeding into the NRL side and their talent, along with the structures and systems in place at the Panthers, can finally awake the ‘sleeping giants’ of the NRL. It’s been far too long for the mountain-men.