Mick Potter – the star fullback for Canterbury’s 1984 and 1985 title triumphs – now has one of Australian rugby league’s toughest tasks. The new Wests Tigers coach took over from decade-long mentor Tim Sheens at the end of 2012, and his to-do list in his new gig is a long one.
Potter’s charged, among myriad other tasks, with re-energising the Tigers’ premiership push and kick-starting a club that has so much potential but one that has delivered just a solitary title since the joint venture was formed in 2000.
NRL.com caught up with Potter in the build-up to the club’s clash with Melbourne on Monday night to ascertain why he’s named Braith Anasta in the No.7 jersey; how he’s finding life at the helm of the Wests Tigers; who’s on his signings radar; and where his side needs to improve to become a genuine premiership threat in 2013.
So, a month into your first season as an NRL coach – how are the stress levels?
The stress levels are fine. When the games are on obviously they’re probably a little bit higher than normal but I don’t get too worried too often. There are always issues you need to address but I’ve sort of taken them in my stride, I suppose. They’re not too bad.
How would you assess the Wests Tigers’ performance so far? You’re two-and-two after four weeks of competition.
We know we’ve got work to do – and even when we won I thought we could get better, and there were things we needed to work on. I think the 26-0 loss against Manly [last week] wasn’t a true reflection of the game. We struggled to score points early but we had opportunities and we probably missed them in the second half which could have pulled the game right back into being an even contest. It’s irrelevant now, and the other team were too good on the night.
I’m not too despondent where we are and I’m very, very happy with some of the young players and how they’re coming through. I know there’s improvement in the guys that are there now… We started with a 50 per cent record up to Round 4, and we’ve got a tough task for Round 5. It’s not beyond us to get Melbourne but it’s one of the hardest games we’ll play, I'd say.
How does the team improve?
Defensively when we get a bit tired we fail to do our job for one play, and getting [the players] to understand that one play makes the world of difference. Sometimes that gets to them and they miss their assignment for one time. I think our attack can be a little bit more direct at the moment, and that’s with Robbie [Farah] and Benji [Marshall] and Braith [Anasta] at the moment and ‘Milky’ [Jacob Miller] if he’s playing, to square our attack up and make some space. I know we can improve on that.
Is halfback Miller unlucky not to be playing first grade this week?
Yeah, he is. He’s done a real good job for us, given he had a disrupted pre-season for us and only started training with us after Christmas and Braith was doing all the halves work before Christmas. He had a steady build-up and we knew he was always going to need to have a stint back in NSW cup. That’s the way that it is and all young players do that. There are not too many young players who come up in first grade and stay up. Cherry-Evans has done the same, Thurston has done the same – there are quite a few halves who need to spend the time, get their experience up, have some time down, come up, go back down again and come up.
What does Miller need to do better?
He probably needs to not let himself fade out of the game. I suppose when you’ve got some good solid halves around you that command the ball, you allow yourself to get squeezed out a little bit. He’s probably allowed them to get a bit over the top of him with talk, and that’s just a confidence thing for him. It’s not anything he can’t handle. He’s proven he can do it in the -20s and boss the -20s around – now he’s got the opportunity to do it in state cup and boss some men around and then he’ll get his chance to come back up again.
Braith Anasta at No.7: he’s played there once before in 2007 – and the Roosters got smashed 56-0. Sure it’s the right call?
That doesn’t bother me – I’m not interested in stats from six or seven years ago. It’s not relevant to me. What’s relevant to me is Braith’s come across and for six or seven weeks before Christmas he was playing that pivot role given that Jacob was in rehab recovering from a hernia operation. He was doing that beforehand and he was applying himself very well and I was happy with where that was going. That’s the difference from 2007 to now. I don’t know what the scoreline’s going to be, but I know he’s going to make a good fist of it.
Fair to say your squad is a work in progress?
I didn’t have any hand in recruitment – but that’s not to say we don’t have enough quality players here to do a good job. That’s always a work in progress with any club at any time and it comes up every season. You need to make the squad better and we’ll try to do just like every club. We’ll need to do something [with props before the signing cut-off deadline]. We’ve had quite a few injuries to our front row and that’s an area we need to look to strengthen and we’re looking at it at the moment. Hopefully something will come up soon. We look to England, we look to the lower grades and we’re scanning and watching videos constantly to see if someone’s going to suit our needs and requirements. We want good people to bring into our organisation.
You played in title-winning teams in 1984 and 1985 at Canterbury – what do the Wests Tigers need to do better to reach their premiership-winning potential?
Probably our concentration level and when we’re getting a little tired we let ourselves down at times, and sometimes it’s only that one big play we let ourselves down. For 80 per cent of the game we do the right thing, but that’s about building the confidence and resilience in one another. It’s something that’s hard to practice and mimic in training and it’s something you need to work on in games. That’s part of that ‘work in progress’, I suppose.
You coached from 2007 to 2012 in the Super League, at Catalans, St Helens and Bradford. Talk us through your Super League past.
I enjoyed my time in France and England and the players over there are really driven. The French guys were phenomenal; they were coming of a relatively low base and achieved a great deal. I really enjoyed my time in France, the lifestyle was great and the people just wanted to do better all the time. In England, it was similar but the personnel were coming off a different base. They were quite a bit better in their quality and they knew the game better and again my enjoyment was [high] because the players wanted to achieve.
Overall there’s probably not the depth of quality in the competition over there, but there are some quality players. I really enjoyed coaching the likes of Graham and Roby and Jon Wilkin and Puletua, and being in France coaching Adam Mogg and Casey McGuire and Stacey Jones, it was fantastic to be able to coach those blokes even if they were in the back-end of their careers. It was really good for me learning how to get the best out of senior players, and I feel like they helped me as much as I helped them.
The Tigers face the Storm in Melbourne on Monday night. What does the team have to do to challenge the premiers?
You have to have a similar mentality to what Melbourne have got – you know your job, you do your job and you don’t deviate from what your job is and you do it for 80 minutes. You don’t do it for 79 or 60 – you do it for 80 minutes. We’ve got the quality of personnel capable of doing it, and it’s my job to make sure they try to do it. On the flip side to try and stop them, we know what type of plays they’re going to come up with.
They’ve got a couple of trick plays which are really hard to stop, and we’re going to try to account for those. When you’ve got players like Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, they’re wily and they’re tactically sound and they do everything right and they’re sneaky with some of their plays. We’re going to have to account for that and the guys are going to enjoy the challenge.
You’ll celebrate your 50th birthday come finals time. Be nice to celebrate with a winning Tigers team…
I don’t know what day it is or what round it is [it’s between the second and the third week of the finals], but I want to make the finals. I’m obviously not interested in celebrating my birthday; I’m interested in going as far as we can with this rugby league team so hopefully it’s between playing and we’re celebrating a win either after or before it. We’re trying for the semis, then it’s a new competition from there and we’ll talk about it in September.