Holbrook’s simple approach to toughest job in NRL
JUSTIN Holbrook has taken the Gold Coast Titans back to school in an attempt to turn the NRL's wooden spooners into a premiership powerhouse.
Newscorp has delved deep into Holbrook's overhaul of the Titans, discovering the coaching principles the NRL's newest mentor has implemented after taking on the toughest job in the game.
The Titans slumped to a second wooden spoon in 2019, winning only four games before coach Garth Brennan was sacked and replaced by Holbrook.
A former Knights, Panthers and Roosters player, Holbrook guided St Helens to a comprehensive premiership victory in the Super League this year and has brought his clear approach to a club desperately needing guidance.
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Having only signed a two-year deal, Holbrook knows he must make an immediate impact at the Titans and is ready for the furnace awaiting him in 2020.
"As a coach it's your job to make improvements immediately," he said.
"I'm honestly not worried about (only having a two-year contract). I've coached a long time and love coaching. This is another chance to do it.
"It's a great opportunity to do a good job here. It's about stripping everything back, getting the basics right, enjoying what we do and seeing where we can get to.
"When you have a year as bad as they did there are a number of things you've got to change. We'll start at the start and keep moving forward."
A father of four boys, Holbrook arrived at the Titans within weeks of guiding St Helens to a dominant premiership season where they finished 16 points clear of their nearest rivals.
Holbrook, 43, turned St Helens around by going back to basics and urging his players to rediscover their love of rugby league.
He has implemented a similar approach at the Titans.
When the team embarked on a four-day camp at Coffs Harbour last week, there was no army-style floggings, torture tests or sleep deprivation.
The pre-season has focused heavily on football-specific training and the players are thriving.
"He's brought such a good energy," Titans forward Bryce Cartwright said.
"We've practised a lot of things we hadn't in the last couple of years - basic catch-pass and those sorts of things.
"He's made training really exciting. He's kept everything really positive. He hasn't yelled at us and whenever someone blows up at training he tells us to relax.
"He wants everything to be positive and there is a lot of encouragement. I haven't seen him angry yet. He's been pretty calm but that's easy at this time of the year."
The core skills of rugby league is something that is regularly overlooked by coaches desperate to be pioneers and attacking experts.
Seven-time premiership winning coach Wayne Bennett still guides his teams through at least one core skills session a week during the season.
The super successful Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters are among the most fluent teams in the game when it comes to executing the simple things.
"It is overlooked - no one really practises the fundamentals anymore," Titans hooker Mitch Rein said.
"It's the most important part of our game. Everyone in the team needs to be able to pass and catch.
"We've had a huge emphasis on that.
"Every coach has got their own philosophies. We've had a real focus on getting everything right before we move on to the next thing.
"We've gone back to all the core basic skills and getting them up to speed. The same with our defensive structures. We're doing it all at walking pace and then ramping it up.
"Justin has brought a whole new approach. He's been a breath of fresh air for all of us. Everyone is happy and enjoying it."
Holbrook's early impact has been well received. The players have responded to his calm demeanour, relatable character and fundamental approach to the game.
Of course, a ball has not been kicked in anger and every team is equal on the 2020 ladder.
Brennan enjoyed a honeymoon period, earning a contract extension after his first season, before his coaching career imploded only months later.
He may be losing arguably his best player in South Sydney-bound forward Jai Arrow, but Holbrook has always been someone to find answers to problems.
When his Panthers teammates were complaining about the lack of steak and seafood restaurants in the town during the early 2000s, Holbrook decided to open his own.
He worked as a soft-drink salesman while coaching in the lower grades before working his way through the Dragons, Eels and Roosters on his way to St Helens.
Holbrook has arrived on the Gold Coast with a plan and is ready to back himself.
The Titans have sacked coaches John Cartwright (2014), Neil Henry (2017) and Brennan (2019) in their short, colourful history, but a philosophical Holbrook is too focused to worry about his future.
"I'm not nervous, I'm excited about coaching here," he said.
"I've been coaching for about 14 years now and loved every minute along the way.
"I'm the third coach here in a couple of years, so even if I signed for five years it doesn't mean I'll be here in five years.
"I'm OK with that, I'm fine with that. I'll crack on with coaching."