Joey’s savage call on the Knights
THE most stinging aspect of Andrew Johns' criticism of the Newcastle Knights was largely missed, and it was directed at the playing group.
Andrew accused the Knights' management of "sabotage," because "it gives people with a weak mind an excuse not to turn up... It gives players an excuse with what's happening with the coach, not to turn up."
That is a damning assessment of the players, both individually and collectively.
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And it's an assessment the players cannot ignore.
No player played with more heart in that jersey, week in, week out, than Andrew Johns.
The events of the week, Nathan Brown's removal as coach from season's end, can't be used as an excuse for what the team served up last Saturday night.
Any professional sportsman or sports team worth their salt has the ability to handle any kind of disruption and still turn up and perform.
The very best invite adversity because it focuses them, whereas the lesser crumble.
It's about standards.
The standards you set yourself and the standards which are set within the team.
Every team, every workplace, has standards, it's just that some are much higher than others.
As this Knights team return to the field tomorrow, they do so on Old Boys Day.
All clubs do this, but the concept was started by the Knights old boys and it's a special day for team and town.
It's a reminder to all players past and present on what the club was built on, and it would do the current squad a lot of good to do a refresher course.
When the Knights entered the competition in 1988, they had an extremely low budget but thanks to the coaching staff of Allan McMahon, Allen Bell, David Waite and Robert Finch, installed extremely high standards.
I spoke to Robert Finch last week about those early years, and he explained it like this, "Our weakness would lead us to our strength. Our weakness was we had no money, so we poured our energies into educating the players to be better and also setting extremely high standards around areas such as toughness."
That led into an era where we had great attacking football teams who were filled with tough people.
I remember when I joined the Knights in late 1989, my head was spinning. The training was so hard and the standards of play and practice so high.
Every Saturday morning in pre-season, the playing group gathered at Blackbutt Reserve for a torturous 10 km run through the bush.
The most difficult section of the run was a steep incline called 'Dead Man's Hill'. It was about 7km into the run, which made it all the more difficult.
One day we completed a Saturday morning run and I was feeling chuffed as I'd recorded my best time, when head coach Allan McMahon called me over for a private chat. My tail was wagging as I thought I was going to get a wrap, I was wrong.
"Matthew why the f--- did you start walking on Dead Man's Hill?"
Turns out Macca was hiding in the bush, spying on how players responded to the toughest part of the course.
I replied, "It's so steep, it makes no difference if you're trying to run or walk, you go the same speed…"
This infuriated the coach.
"It makes a f------g difference to me. Walk anywhere else, never walk the hill."
I never did again.
But standards existed right through every aspect of the club, and how you played the game was just a guide of what was expected. Some examples: if there was a loose ball on the ground you dove on it regardless of opposition's boots; no smart ass one-hand pick-ups; absolutely no chip kicking, and if the team are defending and you are injured, you absolutely must get back into the defensive line and present a jersey. Once possession is regained, then get treatment.
You were scared not to live up to these standards.
If you broke them you were gone.
I saw players do some incredibly courageous things to prove themselves to teammates that they were worthy.
In 1991 a first-grade back-rower, whose name I'll refrain from using for the sake of sensitivity, copped a savage accidental knee in the 'jatz crackers' and was in awful pain.
The problem was that the team were defending the try line with the game close. So the back-rower picked himself up, and in agony defended out the set of six.
He was then assisted from the field, where it was discovered that his testicle had exploded. (Sorry about that!)
Throughout those formative years there's a hundred stories that are very similar.
And not just stories of physical toughness either.
In 1992, club captain Michael Hagan lost his father just before an important game. The loss hit Hages hard and coach David Waite suggested resting the skipper.
Hagan played, the team won and he was the best player on the field.
That's what I'm talking about, the best professionals handle turbulence.
The smartest man I've ever met in rugby league is Allan McMahon's assistant from those days, Allen Bell, who I've spoken and written about often. Belly wasn't just smart, he really helped drive that tough culture.
I loved nothing more than sitting in the sheds at full-time and having Allen Bell give me a nod and a wink.
Just a little thing, but it's my fondest memory, because it meant that on that day, I'd met the standards.
And if you met the standards you were accepted.
The current squad have great talent, they've shown they are capable of competing with the best: but only on their best day, and therein lies the problem.
LISTEN! On the Matty Johns podcast, Matty lets fly on the crisis engulfing his former club the Newcastle Knights, and the team look at the best NRL rivalries and recall some of their favourite interview moments.