Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien reveals Kalyn Ponga’s likely replacement during in-depth interview
Newcastle coach Adam O’Brien reveals Kalyn Ponga’s likely replacement during in-depth interview

O’Brien reveals likely Ponga replacement

Adam O'Brien isn't one for sleeping in the office overnight.

Instead, this Newcastle coach starts workdays at 4am.

Not simply waking by that time either, but opening the doors of Newcastle Knights HQ to plot, plan and sort his second year as an NRL coach.

And given the chaos of his rookie season, well, the early starts are understandable.

Recalling how O'Brien didn't simply arrive as an NRL head coach the same year as COVID, or then get lumped with the type of injury toll that can kill a season, but still, somehow, took Newcastle to its first finals appearance in seven years.

Which you likely don't need reminding, was some ride.

Yet now, this coach who spent a 12 years assisting others is looking to not only increase his own fingerprints on this team, and club, but improve on a 2020 finish which, by his own admission, had his players "running on empty".

Which again, is why he started the day of this particular interview at 4am …

 

Adam O'Brien has given a revealing interview on the Newcastle Knights' 2021 plans.
Adam O'Brien has given a revealing interview on the Newcastle Knights' 2021 plans.

 

You were only days into your new life as an NRL coach when COVID struck down the country, the competition, everything. Make for a tough start?

Obviously with COVID, nobody had the manual for handling that. And in hindsight, there were things (I could have done differently).

Like what?

While I make no apologies for the pre-season I gave the guys - because we had to set standards, build some resilience - that planning was all done thinking we'd get three chances to freshen up. A couple of byes, then rep round. But the goalposts moved considerably. We played 20 games straight, and 10 straight on the road. In the first seven days, we spent 13 hours on a bus. We also had some big injuries. So by the end of the year, I had a feeling we were running on empty. But they're excuses. The big challenge was that Plan A wasn't working, so we had to find another way.

The 2020 season also saw an unprecedented five head coaches sacked. Surely that's an intimidating truth for a fella looking to establish himself?

To be brutally honest, I didn't look at it. I have to be concerned about what's good for the team, not worried about what is going on around me with coaches. I certainly understand there's only 16 of these jobs in the world - I know I'm privileged and don't take it for granted. But I also don't worry about every little thing going on in the coaching world because my No.1 job is staying focused on the club and team.

 

Newcastle Knights head coach Adam O'Brien had a whirlwind first year.
Newcastle Knights head coach Adam O'Brien had a whirlwind first year.

 

There's a theory NRL coaches tend to be more conservative in their first year - agree?

I never made that a conscious decision. I do feel we played conservatively with the football, but that was probably because the only thing I spoke about all year was defence. That was the only conscious decision I made - that the players felt they had a coach who was going to pick them because their defence was strong. So whether that lends to being more conservative, I'm not sure.

What about your attitude early on with players?

I'm myself - extremely honest with them. And there were times where being myself, I got criticism from people for the way I am in the coach's box at times. But at the end of the day I can't bulls… this, I need to be who I am.

You're talking about throwing the water bottle?

One water bottle thrown led to a fair bit (of criticism). But I'd like to think I'm passionate. I want us to do well and sometimes when you're emotional, those emotions can get the better of you. But the guys know that I've got an extremely high level of care. And to sit there in games mute, that isn't me. That would be trying to be someone else, trying to be Wayne (Bennett) or someone like that. But that's not who I am. Although I'm only putting more kindling on the same story by talking about this one too much …

 

Knights coach Adam O'Brien is known for his blow-ups. Picture: Fox Sports
Knights coach Adam O'Brien is known for his blow-ups. Picture: Fox Sports

 

OK, so let's talk about sporting coach's who sleep in the office. Do you do it?

No, I've always been a morning person. Some people say I'm crazy, but I like to come in at four o'clock in the morning. It's a shock for some. But the flip side is, you won't see me at work after 8.30pm. I'm out. It means I still get the same amount of sleep as everyone else.

Why four o'clock?

Energy wise, I feel better. I get so much more work done in the first four hours too - sometimes a week's worth of vision. But I have a good work-life balance. It would be irresponsible of me to work myself into the ground because I'm not going to be productive to the players.

Speaking of the players, we keep hearing Kalyn Ponga and Blake Green could be sidelined for anywhere from the first five to seven rounds?

Well, that's the first time I've heard that. That (timeline) hasn't been spoken about internally at all.

 

Kalyn Ponga’s return date hasn’t been set. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Kalyn Ponga’s return date hasn’t been set. Picture: Phil Hillyard

 

So they'll both be back much sooner?

I'm not going to put pressure on either player, or the staff, by saying 'this is the round'. It's way too soon for that. But I know with Kalyn they're extremely happy with where he's at. He's working extremely hard and when it's right it's right. But nobody has put an actual date on it.

Can we assume Tex Hoy will start at fullback, with Kurt Mann in the No.6 jersey?

That's the logical choice. But we have a lot of guys who are doing good things. In the halves, we have Phoenix Crossland and we also have (English Super League recruit) Bailey Hodgson … he's only a young man but has played fullback. So right now Tex has his nose in front, but he has to get January right.

Speaking of Hodgson, there's plenty of hype around the Castleford teenager …

He's been excellent since arriving. Really committed. If anything, I'll have to remind him from time to time to enjoy being a young man. He's extremely committed and I know the staff are very impressed with him in the gym. But he's only at the start of his journey, so we don't need to be putting too much pressure on him.

How do you plan to use NSW Origin recruit Tyson Frizell?

 

Tyson Frizell is set to play a more attacking role. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Tyson Frizell is set to play a more attacking role. Picture: Jonathan Ng

 

I think we can design some attack around the personnel we have to really suit his game. I understand Tyson is always going to take the tough carry for us - that's who he is by nature. But I also see benefit in using him as an attacking threat. Go back a couple of seasons, he was a real threat off good ball. And I feel we can get that back without using him as a battering ram. Which isn't to say that's what happened at St George Illawarra. I just feel he's a good fit for us.

Young backrower Jack Johns could give you a nice headline at some stage, given his pedigree?

No one here looks at Jack because of his last name. And I certainly don't coach his last name. Jack's a great young man and has worked his backside off. And I look forward to the day he wears the Knights colours because it will be due to what he's done.

 

 

 

You've spoken at length about wanting to re-sign halfback Mitchell Pearce. Could he eventually break Cameron Smith's record for most NRL games?

I'm not too sure, but he's obviously put himself in a position for you guys to be talking that way. There's been some good conversations between Mitchell and our recruitment staff - it's a fair way down the track. Although as for him breaking records, I don't even know how many seasons that would be.

But he's a guy with plenty of footy left, right?

Definitely.

How would you describe his 2020 season?

With the injuries we had last year, the biggest impact was always going to be on our halfback and captain. Unfortunately for Mitchell, he was both. When your nine is constantly changing, and when your six is constantly changing, it's going to have a huge impact (on your No.7). But Mitch being the leader he is tried his backside off. At times, he probably felt the weight of the world. But everybody saw what happened when Blake Green first arrived and took some of that pressure. And I expect that to be the season for Mitch next year.

 

Mitchell Pearce, centre, has plenty more NRL left in him.
Mitchell Pearce, centre, has plenty more NRL left in him.

 

You've signed Anthony Seibold as a coaching consultant after a horror year saw him punted from Brisbane Broncos. What does he bring?

The short answer is he's a coach's coach. When you've got a young coaching staff - and it's the right staff, but young - I wanted to bring in someone to help. Not only with the top squad but also (new Pathways recruits) Mark O'Meley and Andrew Ryan, who are both young coaches. There is so much more to coaching than everyone fathoms. What are your plans for training sessions? For your speech before a game? At halftime? And Seibs plans really well. He's also had that extremely successful season with South Sydney when he took out Dally M Coach of the Year. He's also been through the worst of it. And you learn in the worst of it. At the end of the day, I trust him.

How do you bring consistency to a side that swung at times from outstanding to, in your own words, "embarrassing?"

Some of it will be through personnel, like when you get Jayden Brailey back onto the field with a guy like Tyson Frizell. But at the same time, it's all part of our journey. Consistency will come with experience, or time, and hard work. You have to remember this isn't a group that like, say, Melbourne or the Roosters, can look back 12 months and say 'OK, this is what we need to do'. Unfortunately we've found ourselves in a long period without success. So it's going to take time and a lot of hard work. And at the moment we can control one of those things … that's the hard work bit.

 

Originally published as O'Brien reveals likely Ponga replacement



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