Holbrook’s bold move from UK champs to NRL battlers
Justin Holbrook is a former soft drink salesman who has gone from coaching the best team in the Super League to the worst team in the NRL - the Gold Coast Titans.
Holbrook has promised it is a fresh start for a club that won only four of 24 games in 2019, and in his first in-depth interview since joining the club, he tells TRAVIS MEYN he can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
How did you get involved in rugby league?
I grew up in the Revesby area, which is in western Sydney - Canterbury Bulldogs territory. I was a Doggies fan growing up. I played my first year of rugby league in the under-7s with the Milperra Colts. The only reason I'm telling you that is because I played with Steve Price (former St George Illawarra coach), who ended up coaching Warrington in England. We coached the Challenge Cup final against each other this year.
Are you a career coach or did you ever hold a 'normal' job?
I played all sports growing up - I loved cricket, golf, surfing and footy. I started coaching as a captain-coach for the Dapto Canaries in the Wollongong competition. I worked with Schweppes soft drinks as a business manager in the licensed division looking after pubs and clubs. Before I went into coaching full-time, I finished at Coca-Cola looking after the golf clubs and pro shops for NSW. I got into coaching reserve grade at the Bulldogs in 2010-11 and won a couple of comps. I was coaching part-time while working. I enjoyed the commercial side of business. I loved coaching more and had to give up working in the end.
You played 17 first grade games for Newcastle, Penrith and the Roosters from 1999-2002. Do you reckon you were much of a player?
I was a halfback and played a lot of reserve grade - I was a reserve grade specialist. I had a couple of good first grade games and played with a lot of good players but wasn't really a good one myself.
When did you decide to have a proper crack at coaching?
I was always a bit hesitant to leave my job (while coaching Canterbury reserves). I ended up coaching at the Dragons and Parramatta, then Trent (Robinson, Roosters coach) got me over as an assistant at the Roosters in 2015. I'd always loved coaching but I loved working as well. I knew it was going to take a while not having a player background, but I was okay with that. I thought if I could keep doing well in the lower grades it might lead to something.
Why did Trent pick you to join such a successful club?
I'm not sure. Trent had followed my coaching and had a vacancy. Two and a half years there was terrific for my coaching. I had always been a head coach and that was the first year I went in as an assistant and you don't have to worry about a lot of stuff. You don't have to do the pre-game, halftime, post-game talks. You don't worry about away trips. It's just about the detail of it. That was key for me. I got to learn the real details of the game.
Midway through 2017 you were appointed head coach of St Helens in the Super League. How did that come about?
It all happened so quick - we were halfway through the year at the Roosters. They weren't doing well and parted ways with their coach Kieron Cunningham - one of the best players to ever play for St Helens. Their CEO flew to Sydney and I met with him. I had to speak to Trent as it was halfway through the year. He'd coached over there with Catalans and knew how important it was for himself. He was supportive of it, which was great.
Did you want to become a head coach again?
Even with the great learnings I had as an assistant, I missed being the head coach. I missed the things I said I didn't have to do. You're responsible for everyone. I always felt I would have to head coach somewhere (to prove myself). I might have got an NRL gig but you're never sure. I thought if I was at another club I would have looked at it as Trent's team and I'm an assistant. It was great for me to get over there. Not having a playing background, you're never going to have fans and board members pushing for you. I wanted to get over there. I had two and a half great years there.
You won the Super League premiership this year following a remarkable season.
It was a great finish. We didn't win the Challenge Cup which was tough but to finish winning Super League was awesome. We had the best season in the history of the game over there. We were 16 points clear of second spot. It's an incredible level of consistency from the players to only lose three games all year. It was hard to leave. Everything was going so well and we enjoyed living there. I felt a lot better knowing I was leaving the club and town in a good spot.
Your success over there led to you getting the Titans job after Garth Brennan was sacked. How did you turn around St Helens?
They've always had a good club, they were just in a bad spot and needed a new direction to go in. I stripped it right back. What happens when you're not playing well is you can tend to overcomplicate things and it gets worse and worse. I simplified it all and got back to two things. You need to work hard because if you don't you won't be any good. And enjoy what you do. You can't do anything good if you don't enjoy it. You've got to love it. I've always loved coaching and seeing players play well. The players bought into it.
You've gone from the best team in the Super League to the worst team in the NRL. What state are the Titans in after collecting the wooden spoon this year?
No one at the club is happy with the season. It's a similar approach to St Helens. They've all got a fresh start, I don't need to remind them they came last, they all know it. It's about doing something about it now. We're only halfway through our second week now but they've all come back in good nick. Dan Ferris (fitness coach) is really impressed with them compared to this time last year. That proves they want to do something about it. We're here to help them. That's what I want to instil. I want them to be better players, that's our job as coaches. They've got to work hard all the time. I'll create the environment where they want to come to training, that's what it's all about.
There is a perception that some Titans players have taken the club for a ride. Do you sense that?
That's not for me to say. There is so much talk about the club and what's wrong with it. I've addressed them. Regardless of what's been said, it can be all perception and perception can become reality. They've got a fresh start and I'll judge them on what I see. The early signs are good. They've taken their own initiative and I'll make judgment over time. I've had meetings with them all and they've all said great things about what they want to do. Now it's about seeing the evidence from them on the training field and delivering the standards every day, not just once or twice. It's making it the norm and as staff we've got to create that. We're all in it together.
Which players excite you?
You can see so much improvement in the younger guys like AJ Brimson and Phillip Sami. Tanah Boyd and Toby Sexton are in training and you can see they're going to improve so much. Their improvement is awesome and their confidence goes up. Youth brings a lot of energy.
Family: Wife Nat, and four sons Harvey (10), Fletcher (8) and twins Deejay and Bodhi (both 6).
Playing career: 17 games for Newcastle, Penrith and Sydney (1999-2002).
Coaching career: Lower grades at Canterbury, Parramatta and St George Illawarra. Assistant coach to Trent Robinson at the Sydney Roosters (2015-17). Head coach of St Helens (2017-2019), winning the 2019 Super League premiership.