Brennan would be lost without his three 'crocodiles'

Brennan would be lost without his three 'crocodiles'

They are the NRL's most experienced strength and conditioning team, with seven decades of experience between them, behind the least experienced team.

And the fact that they're also rugby league's version of 'fly in, fly out' workers more commonly assigned to the mining industry, makes them unique.

Meet Hayden Knowles, Scott Campbell and Craig Catterick - the team behind first season coach Garth Brennan at the Gold Coast Titans.

The 'crocodiles' (Catterick's self-imposed tag as they are not quite extinct to be termed dinosaurs yet) have served at a combined 15 clubs under 21 different coaches and won three NRL premierships (well Campbell has), three World Cups between them, without adding State of Origin experience with New South Wales.

As the Titans prepare to face the Roosters on Saturday, the previous club of Knowles and Campbell, they reflected on how they all came together.

Knowles came from a happy existence at the Roosters, Catterick from Leigh Centurions in England and Campbell, who was "carting bags at Qantas" after his contract with the Roosters had ended in 2016 and he was unable to get a visa to join Catterick at Leigh.

All three have left their families behind in Sydney after being inspired by Brennan's passion for the Titans, heading home in between games and training sessions before flying back to Gold Coast airport each week or two.

It all came together last October when Brennan honoured a three-year-old promise to Knowles, who for 12 years was head of strength and conditioning at Parramatta.

"Garth had rung me a few years earlier when he was going for the Newcastle job but unfortunately missed out on it," Knowles said.

"He said 'if I ever got a job in rugby league I'll ring'. Out of the blue, he rang me one night and I was flying to Italy to spend time with Juventus the next weekend on a Roosters study trip. I answered the phone and he said 'it's Garth Brennan here and this is that phone call I promised you three years ago. The Titans are going to announce me on Thursday [as head coach]'."

Knowles, who was working under Travis Touma at the Roosters, went to a meeting with Brennan in Sydney with the intent to say 'thanks, but no thanks', and that he was happy working with the Roosters. An hour later, he had committed to relocating himself to the Gold Coast.

"He convinced me of what he needed to do, his vision for the place and how he wanted me to build my own performance team," Knowles said.

"He made it that good, I had to take the job."

Knowles told Roosters coach Trent Robinson and chairman Nick Politis of his situation, and they gave him their blessing to leave. His next call was to Scott Campbell.

"The key reason Scott Campbell was the first person I called was because he cares about his players," he said.

"He has experience and wisdom that will guide and encourage character traits in our players that are characteristics of champion players.

The 'crocodiles' who keep the Titans in tip-top shape.
The 'crocodiles' who keep the Titans in tip-top shape. ©NRL Photos

"I told the boys and the coach the reason I brought Scotty was that when you talk to Andrew Johns, he loves Scotty; talk to Johnathan Thurston and it's the same.

"That's because Scotty cared about them at some stage in their career. That's what I wanted at Gold Coast.

"Craig Catterick is the same. He has 20 plus years [of] experience in the game at the highest level and genuinely cares. Cat will do anything for you and is someone you want on your team.

"He cares about the little things and will always put the team or someone else first. It's a trait he had in previous careers in the police force and emergency nursing where, if you talk with anyone, they always wanted him on their team because he had your back.

"It's the same in what he does in rugby league. I've seen him over the years drop everything in his life for a player. I've seen him drive to someone's house because the player's son was sick. I've seen him make the same sacrifices for a player that he expects them to make.

"He doesn't care if you are the superstar or a rookie, he cares about you the same. He can give it in tough love but whatever method he gives it the underlying thing is he cares to make a difference."

Campbell, who is in charge of the strength area at the Titans, began his career began with the Dragons in 1989 in a part-time capacity under Craig Young.

A PE teacher, he left a job lecturing on strength at the Oatley campus of University of NSW to become full-time at St George under head coach Brian Smith.

He moved to the South Queensland Crushers when they began in 1995 only to see them fold after two seasons and was picked up by South Sydney. After two years there he joined Warren Ryan in Newcastle and won a premiership alongside Michael Hagan in 2001.

He then joined Steve Folkes' staff at Canterbury for seven seasons, getting another premiership ring there in 2004, as he did under Wayne Bennett at the Dragons in 2010 during six seasons there. Like the players, he has a tattoo on his body for each title.

"I'd resigned myself to never getting a start again," Campbell said about his contract not being renewed at the Roosters after two seasons with the club

"I had 29 years in a row doing this and thought that was a great run and I'd walk away now. But once I got offered this job I realised it was something I really wanted to do. It's hard with family in Sydney, but I'm up here and committed."

Catterick and Knowles have been seemingly joined at the hip since coming together at Parramatta nearly 20 years ago.

'Cat' – a former policeman and trauma nurse who mostly works with getting injured players back to full training - has served with the Australian team since 2008. After leaving Parramatta in 2012 he had a season at Cronulla then two years on a part-time basis with Brennan at Penrith before heading to England with the aim of reclaiming a full-time club position.

Knowles says: "I'd trust Cat with my life. We'd worked together for 20 years and he is the god-father of my son."

Catterick, who has spent many lonely days with players struggling to overcome major injury, says honesty is the simple key to forging a trusting relationship.

"If you think players are doing something good, tell them. But when you think they're doing something bad, also tell them," he said.

"Be consistent and honest. They can sniff a fraud out quickly. I have evolved over the years myself; you think you can come in and change the world in your younger days but at the end of the day it's about relationships.

"They can all play football; it's about keeping them motivated and sticking within the structures."

The toughest part for the three (and former Roosters clubman of the year Steve Driscoll is another important member of their Titans team) is having their families in Sydney. They are all married with children.

During pre-season they all lived with Brennan but now Campbell and Knowles share a unit while Catterick lives by himself.

It's not an ideal situation for them or the team, but they head home at least every fortnight to be with family. On other occasions their partners join them on the Gold Coast for weekends and in school holidays.

Knowles, the son of well-known athletics coach Dennis Knowles, says the detachment from family is difficult but it has made the back-room boys even more invested emotionally in what they are trying to build at the Titans.

"Because we lived together, and have each other to lean on when away from family, we are living and breathing this team," he said.

"There is so much wisdom and experience we have gleaned from some of the top coaches in the game, and other sports, we just want to share what is such a privileged opportunity to be working with each other and with such a passionate and committed wider team around us."

Until the crocodiles can contently become dinosaurs.