Knights CEO Philip Gardner hopes Adam O’Brien has the same instant impact another rookie head coach had when he took the reins at Newcastle almost 20 years ago.
O’Brien was appointed on Monday night as Newcastle’s coach for the next three years as a replacement for Nathan Brown, who left last Tuesday just two games short of his fourth season at the helm.
An assistant to Trent Robinson at the Roosters after 11 years in various roles under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, O’Brien was chosen from a short list including Craig Fitzgibbon, David Furner, Cameron Ciraldo, Jason Ryles and current Knights interim coach Kristian Woolf.
Explaining the appointment on Tuesday, Gardner credited Brown for helping rebuild the Knights in the past four years but believed O’Brien could take them to the “next level”.
Gardner pointed to Michael Hagan’s first year at the Knights in 2001, when the former Newcastle, Canterbury and Queensland playmaker steered Newcastle to a premiership.
“Probably the best [that can be said] is what [Roosters and former Storm halfback] Cooper Cronk said about him, rather than my words,” Gardner told reporters on Tuesday.
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“Cooper said: ‘He's a terrific person, and has tremendous relationships with everyone involved in the footy club.
“’He's a sponge. His work ethic is through the roof. He comes from a Craig Bellamy role in that regard. I've been at football meetings for the past 10 years with Adam, and he's got an encyclopaedic knowledge of rugby league which he can fall back on.
“’Probably the biggest rap I can give him is the time and effort he puts into improving individual players, whether it's on the computer screen or out on the track.
“’Any player from the No.1 star, to the bottom player on their list, he's out there for hours, after training, helping guys improve, so come game day, they can reach their potential.’
“That's the sort of coach we want for Newcastle. And if you look back into our history, the last time we won a competition, 2001, ‘Hages’ was a rookie coach.
“He came in after great work was done by Warren Ryan here developing that. Hopefully we're looking at a similar situation, with the great work Nathan Brown has done being followed by a quality person such as Adam O'Brien.”
Gardner said the Knights only interviewed two candidates on their short list.
It is understood the other was Furner, who may still play a role as an assistant, but that decision will be for O’Brien.
Given the speculation surrounding other NRL head coaches, Gardner said it was imperative for the Knights to move quickly to sign Brown’s replacement.
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“The issue that you have in the game is that … clubs have moved to create nearly a coach-in-waiting position, and they've signed the leading candidates in the game to long-term contracts on very big money as their senior assistants,” he said.
“… As you know, a number of coaches are going into the off-season in a precarious position. It would've been a disaster for this club if we got into a situation of having to go further down that list.
“We feel incredibly lucky to have got Adam O'Brien, and Adam then will work with us to put the right coaching group around him that he needs for a successful Knights.”
Gardner, who was flanked by Knights head of football Brian Canavan, said the Wests Group board appointed O’Brien after the board interviewed the two candidates.
This process came after recommendations from Canavan and input from John Quayle and Danny Buderus. Gardner described Quayle as a long-time mentor and Buderus as a Knights legend “and a great friend”.
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On the recommendation of Matthew Johns, another former Knights great, Gardner and Canavan spoke to Tim Sheens on Monday about filling an advisory role to bolster the club’s “football IQ”.
“He still has contractual obligations in England (Sheens was sacked by Hull KR in June), but he’d be happy to have a conversation once Adam starts in the club,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he took advice from Knights captain Mitchell Pearce and the club’s leadership group during the recruitment process and they approved of each candidate on the short list.
“What they want is a winning system,” Gardner said.
“What they want is for us to get back to being a top-four club every year. That's what we want to do.
“We've come a long way in two years. I think people have forgotten where we were two years ago. Bankruptcy, three wooden spoons, long-dated contracts – we had every problem that you could have at a professional sporting organisation.
“Two years later we have five State of Origin players, we're making a profit, we're building a centre of excellence at District Park, where we're putting $10 million in and the government's putting $10 million in.
“We have had great coaching development to this stage. We want to go to the next level.
“From what we've seen, Adam O'Brien can get us there with the right support people around him. Brian and I are 100% committed to making this the best rugby league franchise.”