First task for 'odd but clever' Warriors coach seen as winning hearts and minds of leaders
Not long after he started his coaching gig in Bradford, a youthful Matthew Elliott turned up for a team meeting with five half-full pint glasses of water.
He explained to the players that each glass represented something in their lives. One was family, another was training, another was socialising, and so on. He then began to pour water from one glass to another, explaining that the key was to find the balance that worked for them.
The message was somewhat lost on his audience of grizzled northern-English footy players, recalls his then captain, former Kiwis star Robbie Paul. "You can imagine these Yorkshire lads," laughs Paul. "I think he ended up with the tosser of the week T-shirt for that one."
Paul also recalls a game at Salford when the Bulls were winning 60-0 by halftime. When Elliott addressed the players in the sheds "he tried to tell us this story about how he was bullied as a kid. He was obviously making it up because he got completely lost in the point he was trying to make. He ended up just going 'oh forget about it'."
They're both classic Elliott tales. Talk to those who have worked with him or followed his coaching career closely and the picture is of an engaging, friendly, clever but slightly odd man. "He's not afraid to laugh at himself," says Paul.
By the time he pitched up at Penrith after five years in England and a stint in Canberra, his sense of humour remained intact.
At a press conference he mimicked hanging himself with his tie when asked if his job was under threat.
"Hi, it's Matt Elliott at Penrith," his voicemail recording used to say. "Leave me a joke. If it makes me laugh I'll ring you back."
There hasn't been much laughing since Elliott has been unveiled as the new Warriors coach. His NRL record is underwhelming, and there are concerns about his tactical approach. In England he revolutionised the game by bulking players up in the gym and increasing their power to previously untouched levels.
However, he's been criticised for attempting the same thing in the NRL without much success.
Disgruntled Penrith fans described his power-oriented approach as soulless. "I wouldn't say he was the most technical coach I played under, but we are 10 years removed," says Paul.
"One thing I found with Matty was that he was always willing to try something new. But he was also very strict on sticking to what worked."
At Penrith Elliott dabbled with loosening the reigns, with mixed results. With his players unhappy at some training methods, he called a summit meeting at a Chinese restaurant to thrash out the issues.
"It was called the Lazy Susan meeting," recalls veteran footy journalist Steve Mascord. "The players had an input into the way training was arranged and Penrith's fortunes improved. That was seen as the reason they improved.
"But when they started going badly, obviously [new general manager] Phil Gould saw it as the reason they were going badly.
"So it's not a matter of being tough or lenient, it's picking the right time to do it. That is going to be the challenge for Matt at the Warriors."
Like his predecessors, the key to Elliott's fortunes will be harnessing the massive raw potential of the players," says Paul. "They can play for him through fear, which I don't think works out that well. Or they can play for him through respect. There's a little bit of give and take in the respect avenue. You've got to have the skills background, but you've also got to be true to your word.
"Matty knows all of that.
"He's not above laughing at himself. But it's his way or the highway and that's important. He'll make some concessions coming in because he needs to win some hearts and minds of key individuals.
"About a third of the way into the season they should be clicking. If they are not then something is wrong. It doesn't mean the coach is wrong. It might mean you have got a couple of bad seeds in the bunch and they have got to go."
Having successfully nurtured talents such as Joe Vagana and Tevita Vaikona at Bradford, Elliott has a good track record of bringing the best out of Polynesian players - a requisite for any coach wanting to succeed in Auckland. "His man-management was absolutely brilliant," says Paul.
"A lot of the Aussie coaches that have come across [to New Zealand] like the talent that they have access to but there has been a cultural divide. I know that was a problem with Daniel Anderson. But the Kiwis that have coached probably haven't had the foundation coaching ability that the Aussies have.
"So you need a unique type of coach to coach the Warriors.
"The talent is there in bucketloads. The question is: are you able to get those guys to bring that talent week-in week-out on a consistent basis? The team have to believe in the system.
"Getting the players to buy in is probably the biggest obstacle in front of Matthew now."
Born: December 8, 1964, Queensland
1995: Assistant coach, St George
1995-1996: Assistant coach, Bradford
1997-2000: Head coach, Bradford
2001: Co-coach, Canberra
2002-2006: Head coach, Canberra
2007-2011: Head coach, Penrith
2012: Assistant coach, Sydney Roosters
Coaching record 1997-2011
Games 361, Won 201, Drawn 7, Lost 153
Winning percentage: 55.67 per cent
First-grade club: St George (Winfield Cup), 1989-1992By Steve Deane Email Steve