Back in April this year, the NSW Cup Representative Team stayed over night at a hotel next to Sydney airport before flying to Brisbane the following morning. Coaching the NSW Cup side for the first time, Garth Brennan calls for a team meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page, realising there is one player absent. It turns out that jokester Peter Mata’utia is pulling one over his coach who is hiding under the table by Brennan. Mata’utia emerges from underneath like a character from a horror movie, much to the amusement of his teammates who erupt with laughter.
The coach joins in and allows himself to enjoy the moment before turning his attention to the matter at hand because he knows there’s more to life than just winning.
More importantly, he defers from the typical rugby league results-based orientation.
“I judge my success on how many players push through to play NRL more so than winning competitions,” VB NSW Cup Panthers coach Brennann says.
It’s been a remarkable season for Brennan, who has surfaced as one of the front-runners for the Newcastle Knights' first-grade coaching position. It would be a fitting homecoming for Brennan, going full circle to return to Newcastle where he played and was named NYC Coach of the Year in 2012.
After being poached by rugby league guru Phil Gould, Brennan led the Panthers to the premiership last season and in 2015 are poised to defend their title. However, it’s not the prospect of winning back-to-back premierships that excites Brennan.
“It’s always nice to be successful but at the end of the day I’m developing NRL players for when we need them in the NRL like [Penrith] have over the last two years with injuries. Having them step up and do the job means I’m doing my job.
“Last year we were expected to win with the calibre and experienced players we had in the side. This year, I’m getting a lot of satisfaction working with the young guys that are coming in and are looking for opportunities.
“The goal is creating more NRL players more than anything. Developing the young players to play NRL – I judge my success on how many players push through to play NRL more so than winning competitions.”
Brennan is proud of the plethora of young talent at the Panthers that is quickly rising through to first grade and he jumps at the opportunity to express his admiration.
“It’s more rewarding at the moment because I’m coaching lower-profile players than last year. Watching them stand up and deliver week in, week out has been very satisfying.
“I’ve seen guys this year like Reagan Campbell-Gillard step up and play every NRL game this season after coming through the NSW Cup last year. Waqa Blake is also establishing himself as an NRL player. Isaiah Yeo – there’s a list of others. Kierran Moseley who is with the Gold Coast Titans now played in the Panthers NSW Cup side last year. Seeing Kevin Naiqama go on and play well at the Tigers, Ryan Simpkins at the Gold Coast – that’s the rewarding thing. They’re things I get more satisfaction out of than winning competitions or going back to back.”
Brennan focuses on making those around him better instead of focusing on his own coaching record. However, there’s no doubting the amount of success that Brennan has hid at Penrith. But perhaps that selflessness is why his side is so successful despite a huge injury toll to the Panthers' squad.
“It comes down to the culture within the club at Penrith that Ivan (Cleary) and Gus (Gould) have developed. The philosophy is it’s nice to win and everyone wants to win but at the end of the day, I want to compete hard every weekend. If we don’t win, we want the opposition to say, “we beat Penrith but we had to work hard for it.””
The gameplan is working for Brennan and paying huge dividends for the Panthers’ future, with plenty of superstars ready to take the rugby league world by storm.
And, quite possibly, he's about to make his mark in the NRL too.