Nathan Brown’s Newcastle exit has been met with controversy. Picture: Darren Pateman
Nathan Brown’s Newcastle exit has been met with controversy. Picture: Darren Pateman

Kent: Naive boss dragging Knights down

The naivety of the Newcastle Knights and their boss Phil Gardner is disturbing.

The symbol for where they are at will remain Kalyn Ponga sucking back on his strawberry thickshake last week as news arrived that the Knights had sacked his coach Nathan Brown.

"I was at lunch having a nice strawberry thickshake so I wasn't too sad," Ponga said.

Ponga is at a vulnerable age but is already being sucked into the wider politics at Newcastle, with detrimental effect.

Gardner is making the classic mistake of assuming that because he is an expert in one industry it automatically makes him an expert in a neighbouring one.

Just because he knows the licensed club industry, heading the powerful Wests Leagues Club group that owns the Knights, does not guarantee he knows the particular politics of rugby league.

The cemetery for others who assumed the same is always growing.

It takes a pocketful of brains or a pocketful of cash to navigate your way out of trouble in the NRL. The Knights are heading for one while assuming it is the other.

He totally cocked up the negotiations with incoming Knights coach Adam O'Brien, effectively sabotaging any chance the Knights had of making this year's finals when news leaked.

That some players were allowed to be part of the coup reinforces the naivety of their actions.

The players spoke about Brown's sacking last week and appeared largely unmoved. They insisted it was merely part of professional sport, an apparent reason for their lack of shock.

 

Newcastle Knights CEO Phil Gardner. Picture: Supplied
Newcastle Knights CEO Phil Gardner. Picture: Supplied

 

Their professionalism did not carry through to their performance on Saturday night, though, when a Wests Tigers outfit with $2 million sitting on the sideline went through them like Raper's Dragons.

"We really let our coach down, we let our fans down, and as a team it was totally unacceptable," captain Mitch Pearce said on Monday.

"Weak minds," Andrew Johns called it.

Several directors remained concerned at Gardner's behaviour. They had no knowledge of the backroom game to secretly woo O'Brien, even as the season was on the line. Neither did Knights director of football Brian Canavan.

Trouble began, as best as anyone can tell, about eight weeks ago when Brown told Gardner that recruitment boss Troy Pezet had to go.

 

Mitchell Pearce is among the Knights players under the microscope. Picture: Matt Blyth
Mitchell Pearce is among the Knights players under the microscope. Picture: Matt Blyth

 

Brown had lost trust in him. In any normal business a head coach telling the boss that relations with a lower-tiered employee had become unworkable would be the end of him.

But it was a fatal mistake for Brown.

He did not know that in the past 12 months Gardner and Pezet had formed a strong alliance.

Pezet, a former player from the 1990s, has operated around rugby league for many years without any great success. He managed players for a while before finally moving into junior football.

Between them, it seems Pezet and Gardner have realised they can benefit each other.

Pezet can tip to Gardner on football matters he should already know, and which would make him appear like he knows in the often murky world of NRL politics, while the powerful Gardner could take Pezet to places he has long dreamed to be.

 

Kalyn Ponga’s contract negotiations are complicated. Picture: Darren Pateman
Kalyn Ponga’s contract negotiations are complicated. Picture: Darren Pateman

 

Soon after Brown wanted to offload Pezet it has emerged Gardner, on the quiet, sent Pezet to have a meeting with O'Brien.

It was a naïve move. Some club officials have wondered why the Knights would disrespect the Roosters by secretly approaching their assistant, when the two clubs had an amicable relationship.

More trickery is afoot, though.

At the same time O'Brien was being wooed by Ponga, the Knights superstar, began seeking an upgrade and extension to his contract.

But Gardner told Ponga's father Andre Ponga they won't discuss an upgrade while Wayde Rushton remains his manager. Andre Ponga told Rushton this earlier this month, a day before Rushton left for America.

The reason why Gardner delivered the ultimatum is mysterious. There seems no reasonable explanation.

Rushton delivered what was then considered a massive deal for the unproven Ponga and has not done him a disservice since.

It has put Ponga in a position where the sooner he discards Rushton the quicker he gets his upgrade and extension. But they have a contract until October next year.

At the same time Gardner has told Andre Ponga he can introduce him to another player manager, Isaac Moses.

Moses happens to also be the manager for O'Brien, soon to be appointed the head coach.

It would link the club's coach with the club's future in a way beyond management's control.

A loop that closes once it is understood Pezet and Moses once worked together at David Riolo's Titan Management.

It is a small world rugby league. For some, it gets smaller by the minute.

 

 

Stream the 2019 NRL Telstra Premiership on KAYO SPORTS. Every game of every round Live & On-Demand on your TV, computer, mobile or tablet. Get your 14 day free trial >

 

Stream the 2019 NRL Telstra Premiership on KAYO SPORTS. Every game of every round Live & On-Demand on your TV, computer, mobile or tablet. Get your 14 day free trial >