Pinching talent from other clubs only goes so far – building culture is far more important


The genius behind Wayne Bennett is explained clearly in the 2002 book, Don’t Die with the Music in You, which delves into the thinking and theories that form the bedrock of his coaching.

Essentially, the book enunciates the emphasis Bennett places on relationships and the simply yet profoundly effective way in which he builds trust with the young men that play under him.

Those relationships create something quite powerful and effective when it comes to success in a professional environment, ie a culture of work, success, trust and loyalty.

Craig Bellamy has done precisely the same in Melbourne, even putting aside the years where cheating tarnished the club so badly. Both men have enjoyed prolonged and unrivalled success in the modern game thanks to an ability to build a tangible culture that galvanises the playing group, whilst also allowing young players to access and express the talent their talent.

However, if building that culture was as easy as reading Steve Crawley’s book on Bennett or following the advice of Bellamy, everyone would indeed be doing it.

A handful of NRL clubs continue to battle with establishing a successful and winning culture, and despite their respective coaches talking the talk in press conferences and laying a platform of hope for fans, actions on the field continue to present a different narrative.

Wayne Bennett’s latest team remains a work in progress. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The Bulldogs have raided Penrith’s playing stocks in recent times and signed up some big-name players from around the league, yet the club’s horrific run of form has yet to officially end.

Seven years without a ladder finish better than eleventh and even after slowly recovering from an abused salary cap and beginning to attract more talent to the club, the win-loss column has shown little sign of improving.

Canterbury have won just 21 of its last 97 NRL matches, even as the expensive and bigger names have begun to arrive over the last four seasons.

In truth, players, coaches and administrators have come and gone, yet the individual machinations distract from the bigger point. The Bulldogs appear to stand for little.

The culture once leant on by fans has faded and coach Cameron Ciraldo has failed to imprint a new one on his team thus far, with the playing style and culture still not identifiable.

Bulldogs coach Cameron Ciraldo. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Much is made of the Eels and the long premiership drought they continue to extend year after year. Whilst far from the basket case that the Bulldogs have been in recent years, Parramatta still enter conversions around culture and are front and centre when people cite teams with losing mentalities and a weakness of mind that holds them back.

Personally, I feel that is a little unfair and perhaps the Eels are more cursed than culturally flawed. Current coach Brad Arthur does have five recent finals campaigns under his belt to prove that there is plenty going right at the club.

All teams who suffer long periods at the wrong end of the ladder grapple with the challenges that Ciraldo currently faces. No team has been more in need of establishing a new culture than the Wests Tigers; a group so bereft of success that they have not featured in finals since 2011.

Possessing the two most recent wooden spoons, it is interesting that after trying multiple coaches since the last finals campaign, the club has turned to a favourite son.

Benji Marshall is one of the few inside the club that can actually remember what it felt like when the Tiger culture was strong. Questions around his tactical ability as a coach and level of experience are in fact, secondary. Most important for the 39-year-old is the re-establishment of trust, loyalty and responsibility. in a culture that affirms and defines the playing group.

Andrew Webster set about building a new-look New Zealand Warriors outfit at the start of 2023 and despite a disappointing finals’ loss at the end of his first season at the helm, the cultural difference within the club was clear.

Andrew Webster’s impact at the Warriors has been considerable in just one full season in charge. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Gone were many of the lazy efforts, the excuses, the seeming contentedness with mediocrity. Webster set standards, high standards, demanded more and built relationships with his playing group that were profound in getting the best out of them.

Des Hasler is attempting to do the same for a Titans organisation that remains unfulfilled, with team culture on the Gold Coast an oft discussed issue for clubs that represent the region.

Adam O’Brien looked to have gone a long way towards changing a losing culture at the Knights, yet a poor start to 2024 on the back of a coaching extension have some re-evaluating what looked promising last season. Todd Payten’s Cowboys, off the back of an unexpected flat year, look to be now re-embracing the new standards he set back in 2021.

All the clubs mentioned are hunting for their next or first premiership and whilst recruitment plays an important role in that journey, what Bellamy in particular has proven time and time again, is that culture over-rides the individual.

As the Smiths – Cameron and Brandon, and the likes of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk, Josh Addo-Carr and Dale Finucane departed, another man stepped up inside a structure that held firm regardless.

It is the fundamental driving force behind rugby league success and something so many teams are still struggling to build.

When they do, they might finally be able to win something.

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