A phone call from New Zealand coach Michael Maguire indirectly led to Phil Gould taking on a role with the Warriors that he hopes will result in the club emulating the success of NRL competition leaders Penrith.
Gould, who will work alongside incoming Warriors coach Nathan Brown in a broad consultancy role, revealed how the job had developed from a meeting he and Maguire attended with ARLC chairman Peter V'landys about growing the game in New Zealand.
Maguire, who is also the Wests Tigers coach, had read a column penned by Gould for Nine newspapers in June about how COVID-19 had presented an opportunity to redefine the game's future, including a greater investment and focus on international rugby league.
He suggested the NRL needed to invest heavily in the game in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, prompting a call from Maguire on behalf of the NZRL asking for help to make his vision become a reality.
"Michael Maguire reached out to me and he and I went and met with Peter V'landys," Gould said on Tuesday. "Michael is the New Zealand coach and he too has a stake and an interest in the development of talent in New Zealand, and the success of the Warriors.
"The New Zealand Rugby League seem very motivated down that path … and that is where I have been talking about the NRL or the ARLC investing in helping development pathways in New Zealand. Those conversations are very much in the embryo stage."
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Indeed, Gould's first conversation with the Warriors was just two weeks ago. Like Brown, who only expressed interest in coaching the Warriors last Thursday, he did not need much persuading to get involved.
In his first press conference since joining the Warriors, Gould told journalists in Australia and New Zealand that he:
- Would spend "every waking hour" and adopt a "whatever it takes" attitude to helping the Warriors succeed;
- Considered Brown to be the "right coach for the right time" at the Warriors;
- Aimed to ensure the Warriors attract the "best of the best" Kiwi talent;
- Wanted to help develop more coaches of Polynesian heritage;
- Hoped to make kids in New Zealand dream of "growing up to be a Warrior", and;
- Believed the Panthers philosophy of "farming the farm" could be a blue-print for the Warriors.
"Our program at Panthers was to develop from within. It has produced great results and we are very proud of it," said Gould, who oversaw the establishment of the Panthers Academy during his tenure as Penrith GM of football.
"It is a great model, I think, for every NRL club. It doesn't always have to be to on that grand scale. It will be exciting to see if we can develop those kind of philosophies in the New Zealand situation.
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The Warriors are considered the sleeping giant of the NRL and Gould believes they can become a powerhouse.
Penrith were in a similar position when he joined them in 2011 and while some mocked Gould's so-called five-year plan to rebuild the club, the Panthers are now leading the Telstra Premiership with a team dominated by players who have come through their junior pathways.
Besides the renowned Panthers Academy, the club developed relationships with western NSW by taking home games to Bathurst, establishing satellite academies and allowing juniors like Brent Naden, Billy Burns and Charlie Staines to stay at home after signing with Penrith at a young age.
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"What you are looking at with the Panthers at the moment is players who have been together for a long period of time playing junior football very successfully and winning premierships now coming though and feeling very comfortable in the top grade," Gould said.
"The Panthers won't lose any player they want to keep, that's a great place for any football club to be, let alone the Warriors.
"I think what we are seeing in the NRL at the moment is a great divide between the top teams and the bottom teams. The teams that are surviving and are competitive on a weekly basis are the ones that have actually invested in their own future and have invested in development over the years.
"It is a costly exercise to be developing talent and running academies and looking after your future like that but those who have purely become recruitment clubs are probably struggling for depth and struggling for quality at the moment in their salary cap, or struggling for value.
"The clubs we are seeing at the top of the competition have certainly invested in their future over the last six, eight or 10 years and I think it is a lesson for every club. Certainly the Warriors are mindful of that and they are very keen to go down that path."
Growing the game
Gould said he had been speaking regularly to V'landys since late last year about the need for the NRL to invest in New Zealand, the Warriors and international football.
The commitment of the Warriors owners, staff and players to relocate to Australia after the New Zealand border was closed so the competition could continue with 16 teams had demonstrated the importance of the club to the NRL.
"I have always had a great interest in international football and I have been talking to Peter V'landys ever since he became chairman and Peter has been very open to meeting people in the game that probably our commissioners probably haven't had access to in the past," he said.
"The NZRL came across and we had some discussions with them. I myself went to Samoa. I paid my own way to go over there in February just to see how things are done and our relationship in the islands.
"I think there is a real opportunity for international football. I have been campaigning for the Pacific Islands [to play] Tests for a long time, I think that is a growth area for our game and it is important for the NRL that we have international competition.
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"We need the UK to be strong, we need New Zealand to be strong, we need the Pacific Islands to be developed and nurtured and invested in.
"Watching what the Warriors were going through this year we all felt for them and we were all cheering for them, they were everybody's second team.
"Then they decided to have a change of coach and it got to a point where they were ready to appoint a coach and then they reached out to me. It all just gelled with the conversations I had been having with the NRL."
Why Brown's the man for the moment
Brown only decided he was interested in coaching the Warriors last Thursday after Todd Payten had turned down the job.
He had ruled himself out of contention as recently as last Tuesday but the former Dragons and Knights mentor contacted Warriors owner Mark Robinson two days later.
"I think he is the perfect coach for the Warriors at this time," Gould said. "He is a development coach, he knows the game very well and I have known Nathan for a long time. We have regularly communicated over the years.
"I have always had great respect for Nathan. He probably got his job at the St George Illawarra Dragons a little too early in his career and then he went off to England, won some silverware over there [with St Helens], then he came back and did a great job at the Newcastle Knights.
"They went through some hard times up there but he took his bumps and bruises so that he could make something special for the future and we can see now that they are starting to bare the fruits of a lot of his labours up there."
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Future the focus
Gould will act as a sounding board for Brown but he won't be directly involved in coaching the Warriors or the Kiwis.
"It will be more in the coaching of junior league coaches, junior representative coaches, pathways coaches and whether or not the NZRL or the Warriors set up an academy program," he said.
"Virtually every waking hour will be dedicated to the Warriors and their future. That is the job I have been given, that is what my passion is and there won't be a moment where I won't be thinking of the way we can do things and improve.
"I think we need to expand the game as much as possible and get as many kids playing it, to have the development pathways in place for those who have a dream of playing in the NRL and we want them to have a dream of playing for the Warriors. We want to make sure the Warriors are getting the best of the best."
He will also help to develop coaches in New Zealand also wants to inspire more people of Polynesian heritage to take up roles in the game.
"One of the things we tried to do as our mantra at the Panthers was to develop from within, not just players but coaches and staff – medical staff and training staff and administrative staff – and have as many people realising their dream of working in full-time professional rugby league," Gould said.
"One of the things that we have worked on in Australia is to help with Indigenous players to pursue coaching careers or refereeing careers or administrative careers. I would like to see the same with the Pacific islands.
"At Panthers we ended up with 50 full-time staff, men and women, and from all sorts of backgrounds and heritage. That is reflective of your playing ranks, that is reflective of your junior league and those who support our game."