When Ben Gardiner was appointed head coach of the North Sydney Bears in round seven of the 2015 season, he was faced with mentoring a side that had an exceptionally unflattering record of three wins from their past 30 starts.
Fast forward just four-and-a-half months, and that same side will take on the Canterbury Bulldogs in Week One of this year’s VB NSW Cup Finals Series, following a turnaround that has been nothing short of remarkable.
Possessing the deadly halves combination of Cody Walker and Darren Nicholls, the experience of Darryl Millard, the class of Cameron McInnes and an influx of young blood, the Bears went on to secure eighth position on the competition ladder.
Greg Florimo, a legend of the 108-year-old club and their current CEO, is delighted with the vigorous improvement.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved this year after last year’s result,” said Florimo.
“I think the coach and the players can be very happy with where we’ve worked to after where we’ve been from, and I think that making the semi finals is a great achievement, but it’s also the start of what could be something very special.”
The addition of Gardiner is a welcome one for Florimo, as he can be credited for the fast-tracked improvement and progression the Bears have shown to make the finals from the position they were in.
“[Gardiner has] been good, he’s brought his own perspective to the team and his own energy,” said Florimo.
“He’s certainly a career coach, he’s a very determined guy that has an attention to detail like I haven’t seen before. I think that energy that he brings certainly translates into the team and I think they’ve played some good footy under him.”
The Bears defeated competition heavyweights Wyong in Gardiner’s first appearance in charge, then went on to overcome other incredibly strong teams including Penrith, the Warriors, Newcastle, Canterbury, and had two draws with Mounties.
They have shown they can stick it with the best and, all in all, Gardiner is somewhat satisfied with the performances shown so far in 2015.
“I’m reasonably happy. Like all coaches I’m frustrated at times, other times I think that we could’ve done better and other times I’m really happy with how we’ve done,” said Gardiner.
“But the one thing I say about our team, our club, our staff and players is that they apply effort every week, and the effort is on and off the field. If we keep applying that sort of effort, whether it’s this year, next year, or the coming years – the club is just going to get better as an organisation and ultimately that’s what we’re here to do.”
If Gardiner had to sum up the key to the Bears’ success, he would use the word ‘consistency’.
Consistency in terms of having a regular team each week, a line-up that presents an opportunity to develop partnerships, establish a culture, and build momentum.
“Having a consistent team on the field obviously allows you to build combinations and allows you to win some more games on the run because then you’re working with the same people week in week out,” explained Gardiner.
“If it’s not consistency, it’s teamwork. If you don’t have those consistent players on the field you need to have those players who are willing to adapt and be flexible and move around and play different positions. I think we’ve been able to get a balance between having some consistency throughout the year, then at the same time getting that flexibility where players will play in any position - that’s where our team attitude comes into play.”
Lining up in Week One of the finals is certainly an achievement to be proud of, however an early exit will certainly not satisfy Florimo, Gardiner, the players and the Bears faithful who regularly show up to North Sydney Oval to watch them play.
Gardiner is adamant there is still plenty of room for on-field improvement, and admits the job is not done with the re-building process ongoing.
“The club as an organisation is rebuilding and getting back to where they want to be at,” said Gardiner.
“We’ve probably had a situation at the Bears over the last few years where we’ve done our best to get where we need to be, but it hasn’t quite worked out for us. But this year we’ve been able to put together some good performances on the field which has reflected a better attitude off the field, and we’re starting to move forward.”
With only one win from their opening six matches of the season, a finals appearance looked incredibly unlikely, but if they continue to play like they have in the second half of the year the Bears are destined for big things.