The VB NSW Cup has long been seen as the breeding grounds for some of the greatest NRL talent to take the park, but it goes beyond that. It has also helped sharpen the tools of the club’s father figures, the mentors, the role models, the confidants, the motivators – the coaches.
On Sunday, two of the game’s brightest prospects in the coaching arena, Newcastle’s Rick Stone and Penrith’s Garth Brennan, will go head to head in the VB NSW Cup Grand Final at Allianz Stadium.
As Rugby League News finds Brennan in Grand Final week, he is making his way down the M4 from Newcastle to Penrith, as he does most days. He jokes that the two-hour drive, although the hardest part of his job, is nothing compared to the abuse and danger that he endured over his 18 years in the Police force.
Brennan credits his career change – from cop to coach - to good friend Peter Sterling who told him: ‘Find your passion, make it your job, and you will never work a day in your life.’ And his passion for the game and the development of the young men who are coming through the Penrith pathways is unwavering.
“It’s different for Cup players,” Brennan said. “NYC players are just happy to be playing at that level, whereas NSW Cup players are wanting to be playing first grade - and they can sometimes come back kicking stones. But in saying that, the guys at Penrith this year have been first class.”
Brennan went on to praise the professionalism of resident NRL players in Tim Grant and Kevin Kingston. “They knew that when they came back to me, my job is to get them back into first grade,” he said. “Those same players also know that when they come back – they’re going to have some competition for their spots.
“The guys like Bryce Cartwright, Isaah Yeo, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Keiran Moseley, they’re four players who were in my NYC Grand Final last year and they have made their debuts in the NRL this year, and that’s why I coach, to see those young kids get their first taste of first grade and fulfil their dreams.”
It’s no surprise those same cultural beliefs are echoed from Newcastle’s NSW Cup coach, and incumbent NRL coach, Rick Stone.
Both Stone and Brennan honed their trades side by side, under the watchful eye of Brian Smith at Newcastle. This year they were shortlisted for the top job at the Knights to succeed Wayne Bennett. Both admit their similarities in coaching style means this Grand Final will hinge on the which team can execute better on the day.
“Brenno is a good coach and great mate of mine and they’ve got good depth and experience, and good strike,” said Stone. “They’ve got a lot of blokes that can score quickly and that can really put a big gap on the scoreboard if you lack concentration.
“We’ve got some strike of our own in terms of scoring points, but most Grand Finals come down to the team that defends best and that’s what we need to concentrate on this weekend.”
The depth in the Panthers side is one also mirrored at the Knights, with Stone heaping praise on NRL stalwarts Matt Hilder, Timana Tahu and Clint Newton as well as some of the club’s up-and-comers in Nathan Ross, Pat Vaivai and Sam Mataora, who was a mid-season trade from the Raiders.
After hitting a horror run in the middle of the season with six losses in a row, the Knights were looking at missing the top eight, but a mid-season announcement may have been exactly what the doctor ordered to get the VB NSW Cup team back on track.
“The boys lifted a little bit and it’s just been a good coincidence that at the back end of the year it came out that I was going to be first grade coach next year,” said Stone. “It’s definitely helped inspire a couple of our blokes to do a bit better and give some a genuine chance of playing NRL next year.”
So the typical open lines of communication between the two coaches and long-time friends will remain dormant as the finishing touches are made behind closed doors. The next conversation between the pair may be bragging rights over a summer BBQ.
This feature can also be found in this weekend's Grand Final edition of Rugby League News which will be available for just $5 at Allianz Stadium.
Tickets on Sunday are just $10 Adult - $5 Conc/Child or $30 for a Family pass