WESTS Tigers coach Mick Potter has had a tougher year at work than most. There was the seven-game losing streak, an injury list that could fill the beds in a hospital wing and now a star playmaker who wants out of his contract.
Most of us would have checked ourselves into a far, far away retreat by now and be sipping cocktails by the beach. But the first-year NRL coach remains stoic and committed – knowing that while the external Benji Marshall drama plays on, there’s nothing he and the team can do but play football.
“It’s out of our control. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Potter tells Big League. “We’ve got games to prepare for. There’s no point in kicking stones or doing something else, we’ve got a job to do and the players all know what they need to do.
“It’s been business as usual really, on the surface. I’ve had conversations with numerous players and nothing much has been a distraction as far as what we’re talking about… We’re not beating around the bush, we know there’s a Benji situation. But he spoke to all of the players before we even arrived at training [when the news came out]. Then we trained.”
It’s as simple as that.
Potter’s coaching philosophy, which started its formation with stints as head coach for Catalan, St Helens and Bradford in the English Super League, has been put to the ultimate test in the first year of a two-year contract in the cut-throat world of the NRL.
But the former two-time Dally M Player of the Year has never wavered in how he’s handled the intense media scrutiny and fan pressure that comes with coaching a Sydney-based club. Potter has been as forthright as he can be as head of the Tigers, knowing the only way to establish yourself as a leader comes through tough decisions, something England gave him a good grounding in.
“It prepares you about managing people. Ultimately, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “You’re managing a group of staff as well as 30 to 40 players. That’s the biggest challenge, making sure you manage all those people well. You can’t please everyone every week in a season because there are only 17 spots in the NRL. There’s going to be some upset players and managing that is the most important thing.
“The NRL is probably a little bit more intense with the media than what I anticipated. But I think I’m not doing too badly there as far as talking to everyone and covering what I need to cover without immersing myself in it.”
During 2013, one of the biggest challenges at the Tigers has been an injury list longer than even Greg Inglis’s right arm. Starting at Anasta and including Galloway, Koroibete, Pettybourne, Lawrence, Moltzen, Tuqiri and a host of others, Potter has been forced to introduce names most had never heard of and are still working hard to pronounce correctly. The coaching staff has unearthed some gems this year, a silver lining of an injury crisis that they so desperately needed to find.
“It’s been pleasing from that aspect. We’ve had those young guys that have come through and stepped up,” Potter says. “There’s young Ava Seumanufagai, David Nofoaluma… we’ve got a hidden gem there in Tim Simona. We’ve had Jack Buchanan come through as well, who was a guy we signed from the Dragons who was a 20s player. He’s played every single game this year. If you’d asked me in pre-season whether he was going to do that… you would’ve thought maybe he’d come off the bench a few times. Jesse Sue is another one that has jumped out of the box and is a very dedicated player.”
Potter dislikes the word ‘rebuilding’, but there’s no doubt Wests Tigers will undergo a radical transformation during this year’s off-season as they adjust to life without Marshall – one of just three constants in the black and gold throughout the past 12 seasons.
The blooding of these players will help, but he knows there’s a long road ahead.
“But just about every club has changes to it,” Potter says. “Some years there are a little more than others. You could call it a rebuilding phase, you could call it just another year in rugby league.
“I don’t disagree or agree with it. It’s just a word. We want to make our squad better and we’re trying to do that. We’re trying to improve the players all the time and we’ve got a really good young batch of players coming through and I’m hoping most of them will push through to the top.”
Right now, it’s all about rugby league.
“The top eight is still the goal and it’s not beyond us. Until we get the final nail, we’ll keep fighting.”