Vodafone CEO Cameron George insists the club didn’t deliberately target Kiwi recruits but wanted a more balanced squad rather than one built around big names.
George said it was easier to entice players home rather than sign Australians of similar standing.
A series of reviews which began just days after George took over the CEO’s role at the end of last season identified the need to increase experience on and off the field if the Vodafone Warriors were to make the finals for the first time since 2011.
Brian Smith, one of three coaches with more than 600 premiership matches on their resume, was appointed general manager of football to work with head coach Stephen Kearney and nine new players were signed – eight from New Zealand.
Among the recruits are Kiwi captain Adam Blair and fellow internationals Tohu Harris, Peta Hiku and Gerard Beale while Anthony Gelling, Agnatius Paasi and Leivaha Pulu are also returning home to Auckland.
Only five-eighth Blake Green does not have a New Zealand background but George said the players signed were the best available talent to bolster a squad which in recent seasons had relied too heavily on the likes of Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke.
“Across the park now we have got a very even team with a really good mix of experience in our whole top 30 [squad] and that was deliberate,” George told NRL.com.
“In other years, we have had three or four superstars and the rest were young kids with a heap of ability who just didn’t have the leadership around them.”
However, only Harris was already signed and recruiting talent during the off-season meant needing to find players willing to relocate to Auckland and in most cases negotiating releases from rival NRL or Super League clubs.That was made even harder by the Vodafone Warriors' disappointing performances over the past six seasons.
“We had to go and create depth for our squad and we knew the holes that needed to be filled but then we had to speak to people about coming to New Zealand and, particularly with the times that we have had, it can be a difficult conversation to have,” George said.
For a lot of Kiwi players, I think there is a burning desire to come back to Auckland
“However, for a lot of Kiwi players, I think there is a burning desire to come back to Auckland to play football and to help us succeed.
“Guys like Tohu Harris and Adam Blair for example, while they are Kiwis and hold a Kiwi passport, they have spent more of their careers in Australia than New Zealand. These guys are passionate about coming back home and that is a unique asset that we have.”
Kearney’s position as New Zealand coach before taking charge of the Vodafone Warriors last season also helped attract Kiwi representatives and ensure the recruits suited the club's ambitions.
“Stephen Kearney has a great relationship with a number of players through his time with the Kiwis and some of them became available at the right time and they were the right fit for us,” George said.
“One of the most important things I want to put on record is that they are all good people and that was very important to ensure we signed the right people for this culture in order to change it and make it a winning one.”
While George played and coached rugby league at a local level in Australia, he had spent a decade in horse racing in New Zealand and was convinced two years ago by Vodafone Warriors owner Eric Watson and then-managing director Jim Doyle to join the club’s board.
Last July he quit his job as Auckland Racing Club CEO to become Doyle’s deputy at the Vodafone Warriors and on September 1 George replaced him as chief executive in a restructure of the club’s management.
“The club was probably at its lowest point in terms of where it was sitting and the criticism of the club was very vocal - and rightfully so,” he said.
It wasn’t just about finding out what we didn’t do last year and the year before
“It gave me the opportunity to review everything and make changes. It wasn’t just about finding out what we didn’t do last year and the year before, it was about what we have to do this year.
“I didn’t want to dwell on the past, I wanted to make sure we knew what we needed to put into this workplace and this club to ensure success going forward for our fans and members.”
Among the key changes George made was delegating the management of the football operations to Smith, who had coached 601 games with Illawarra Steelers, St George Dragons, Parramatta Eels, Newcastle Knights and Sydney Roosters, as well as two stints in Super League.
Coincidentally, George and Smith are from the Northern NSW town of Casino but had only met a few times previously. He said Smith would not be involved in coaching but was responsible for managing and overseeing the football department.
“I met with Brian numerous times, along with Stephen Kearney, before I appointed him and it is very clear what his role is, and it is very clear what his role is not,” George said.
“He is not here to coach, he is here to manage the whole operation of the football department and assist Stephen and everyone else in that part of the business.
“In 35 years of coaching and managing, he has forgotten more about this game than I will ever know. You can’t buy the experience he has got, you have got to earn it and in a short space of time I can see why is going to be a huge benefit to this organisation.”