One of Penrith's favourite sons, John Cartwright has admitted there was extra pressure with his family association with the club. Credit: NRL Photos
As he prepares to take his table-topping Titans back to his home town of Penrith, Gold Coast coach John Cartwright sat down with Chief Queensland Correspondent Tony Webeck to talk family history, coaching conundrums and whether he's in it for the long haul.
Q. Your late father Merv was one of the original signatories on the Panthers being admitted to the New South Wales Rugby League in 1967, what are you earliest memories of the Panthers and the Cartwright family?
A. I remember probably around four years of age, going to work with Dad and sleeping on his office floor. The fondest memories are of being out on the field. He used to maintain the field as well so when he was out cutting the grass or doing what you had to do to keep the field up to speed just being able to go out and run around the footy field are my earliest memories of Penrith Park as it was known then.
Q. How much did that influence your life in rugby league?
A. You don't know what sets you on your path but footy was all I ever knew. I had three older brothers and an older sister, Mum and Dad, even after Dad finished with Penrith he was involved with junior football and he coached my older brother so it's pretty much all I've ever known. Every weekend of my life probably from when I was born up until now has been involved with rugby league. But those early years are definitely what shape you, watching what was the NRL of the day, those guys become your heroes and that's who you want to emulate.
Q. When you finished playing did you ever envision coaching the Panthers?
A. I never really had visions of what I was going to do when footy finished. When I did retire I knew I wanted to stay involved with rugby league and as it happened some coaching opportunities opened up with some junior sides at Penrith and I got a taste for that and that did give me something that I aspired to be.
Q. Was it hard to leave Penrith?
A. It was, enormously. I never really ever wanted to leave. I had a business in Penrith and I was coaching the kids part-time and ended up coaching the reserve grade part-time and I was happy if that was all I did ever achieve as far as coaching was concerned. There was a change in management at Penrith and a new coaching structure and they went in other directions so I was probably going to give rugby league away. But I got a call from Phil Gould to see whether I'd be interested in going down to the Roosters full-time, and it was too good an opportunity to knock back.
Q. Is Penrith the one team you don't mind seeing do well?
A. They're certainly the team that I look at once our game is finished. I'll always have a soft spot for Penrith, I have a lot of family still there, my nephew is playing there and there's another one on the way through as well. I really love the area and I have so many fond memories of the whole of the Penrith area as well as the football club.
Q. Were you happy to see 'Gus' come back in as general manager and bring Ivan Cleary in as head coach?
A. Gus is a winner, he's a great operator and he knows rugby league back to front. It was a very smart decision on their behalf to get him back involved and in the area that he is involved in. He played at Penrith, he was the youngest ever captain there, he coached their first ever grand final side and deep down I know he's a westie at heart. He's certainly got the club going in the right direction, that's for sure.
Q. Why has the Penrith junior nursery not produced a top-class Penrith NRL team in recent years?
A. It's a difficult thing down there. The juniors are drying up for the city clubs, from the Roosters, Souths, Tigers, St George, 'Dogs, the areas is drying up as far as the amount of kids that play in the junior leagues. Those clubs are very active, as they are here, in signing kids at young ages and it's tough to do, to pick the right kids at 15 and 16 and that's when they're getting spotted. All you can do is give them the best pathway that you can, hopefully instil a bit of loyalty that they want to play for their senior club and then keeping the right players. Penrith have always been able to produce players and while ever you're producing numbers of players you're going to get quality eventually. You'd be surprised at the amount of kids playing in other clubs that are actually home-grown Penrith kids.
Q. Your nephew Bryce appears to have a big future ahead of him; do you talk to him about what lies ahead?
A. He's got his head screwed on and he's n the right place to succeed. He' got great people around him, he can stay with his family, he doesn't have to pack up and move away, he's at a very strong club and more importantly it's a club that he wants to play for. He feels that there's a lot of history within the club and his name and I know that's a driving force for him. He doesn't really want to play anywhere else, he just wants to play at Penrith.
Q. He's got an offload in him, just like his uncle.
A. He's certainly got a rare talent with an offload and the higher he goes the harder it is to do those. He's going to have to be a little bit more selective as he gets older. It's great to see that he's not the stereotype player, he's a big lump of a kid but he's not scared to hit the line and try and create.
Q. Did the Cartwright name at Penrith bring extra expectation or pressures for you?
A. It was certainly tough when you were trying to crack into it. When you are young and they see the name Cartwright the cynical people – which there are a hell of a lot of these days – they tend to think that you're there for your surname and not what you can do on the field. In that regard it was quite tough in the early years but hopefully with time and being able to go through the grades and be lucky enough to do what I did in the game that went away, that sort of sentiment. As a kid trying to break in at Penrith with a surname like that, there were certainly a lot of cynical people there.
Q. What part of the job gets you down?
A. Knockers, cynical people, negative people. People who comment on how you do your job who basically have no idea and have had no experience in the job. The job entails so much and it is a job so it's like someone coming in with no experience and telling you how to write a column or write an article or bag you. You're proud people and you take things to heart so basically people who knock without having walked in your shoes.
Q. Are you a career coach?
A. Not really. I love what I do and I want to do it while ever the club wants me to do it but I'm also a realist and if I'm not here next week I'll go out and find something else.
Q. Would you coach elsewhere?
A. I don't want to coach anywhere else. I played at one club as a kid, I played at one club as a senior and I've been here as a senior coach from day one. I realise that I'm not going to be here forever and if I really want to coach for another 10 or 15 years I'm going to have to move on but my goal would be to win a premiership here and retire and go into something else.