Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Whirlwind Elliott sets top goals

Visualise this: It is play-offs time 2013 and the Warriors have made the last four. Michael Burgess talks to the new coach

Warriors head coach Matthew Elliott has his players under the clock. Photo / Getty Images
Warriors head coach Matthew Elliott has his players under the clock. Photo / Getty Images

If the Warriors reflect their colourful coach next year, it's going to be one hell of a ride. Matthew Elliott doesn't do anything at half pace, whether it is running a training session, extolling the virtues of visualisation, tucking into a kumara pasta at lunch or driving his new Warriors-branded vehicle.

From all reports he has been like a whirlwind through Mt Smart. Elliott can do boardroom-speak but also loves playing the larrikin, whether joking with the club receptionists, warning visiting fans (about to renew their memberships) to be wary of his colourful language next year or mocking a large group as they noisily left an adjacent table.

It's a mix of serious and smiles. He is happy to talk about big goals for next year - including a prediction the Warriors will make the top four if they average 50 per cent possession - and about life as a leaguie in the south of France.

"League has given me a wonderful life," says Elliott, "and the game doesn't owe me anything.

I love my job and everything about it but if I lost it tomorrow, life would go on."

Elliott was born on Thursday Island, the biggest of the Torres Strait group. It's closer to Port Moresby than Cairns and is Australia's most northerly region. His father was a pearl diver and later a tugboat skipper while his mother was posted there as a nurse.

When Elliott was three the family moved to Townsville, where childhood play revolved around cricket in summer and league in winter. He preferred league but was better at cricket, once playing for Queensland Schoolboys with Ian Healy and against the Waugh brothers ("we whipped them, by the way").

A degree in sports science took him to Sydney. He played grade cricket and group one league, where match payments of $150 a week helped subsidise his studies. After graduating he "fell into footy", first at Bondi United then at the Roosters for two years.

A sabbatical to France turned into a longer stint as Elliott didn't come back for the final year of his contract, turning his back on his "massive salary" of $4000.

Elliott then played at St George for five years before knee problems forced early retirement. Brian Smith took him into the coaching ranks, then he followed Smith to Bradford, taking the head coach role within 18 months.

He enjoyed lengthy success with the Bulls where he put in place a player-driven culture, a model he was to follow at Canberra and (infamously) at Penrith.

"(At Bradford) we made a really constructive environment where the players ended up driving the culture," explains Elliott. "I had to be a bit of a nasty dude at first but in the last three years I hardly had to do anything. I'm probably exaggerating but the players wouldn't dare not train hard because Brian McDermott or Henry (Paul) or Robbie (Paul) would tear strips off them."

Elliott describes a scene where McDermott (the current Leeds coach) used to wander round the gym with a stick to hit players who weren't training hard while at Canberra renowned hard men like Ruben Wiki and Alan Tongue set the standard.

"The right people make it easy," says Elliott, "and somewhere in that model is what we want to see at the Warriors. I won't be with them on the field making tackles or telling them where to stand on attack".

Things unravelled at Penrith, a fact Elliott is happy to acknowledge: "I didn't pull it off in the last place. I had been so used to being able to create that environment and thought it would work there. I can't take responsibility for everything that went on but I will take responsibility for making some mistakes with approach. I need to take responsibility for those otherwise I would bring that stuff here and be no better."

It was a difficult situation, with reports of high-ranking club officials berating players after defeats, sometimes clearly affected by alcohol. There were also numerous differences of opinion with the chairman and CEO.

"I wasn't aligned to the attitude at Penrith," says Elliott.

"It doesn't matter who was right and who was wrong, we just weren't aligned. It's like a marriage and there is only one ending with that. With the Warriors it doesn't need to be love at first sight but we have to be on the same page."


Immediately after his first interview with the Warriors, Elliott says felt so inspired he wrote up an entire pre-season programme.

He then didn't hear from the Auckland club "for quite some time" as they were exploring all options but was well prepared once the second interview came round.

"The thinking was the same," says Elliott. "I was telling them stuff that they had already discussed behind closed doors."

The major question hanging over Elliott is his ability to achieve NRL success in September, when it really counts. He took Canberra and the Panthers to the finals on five different occasions without winning a single play-off game.

In 2003, Adam Mogg inexplicably dropped the ball in the in-goal to blow a certain try in the last minutes which would have beaten the Warriors.

In 2010 Penrith, who had finished second in the regular season, were severely afflicted by injury in their two finals defeats, losing numerous key players (including Michael Jennings, Frank Pritchard and Luke Lewis) in seven days.

Fans will hope his weight of experience - Elliott is the second most experienced NRL coach the Warriors have appointed, only behind foundation coach John Monie - will deliver a coach that is, well, ready to deliver.

Elliott is a proven developer of talent, having brought Jennings, Wade Graham, Tim Grant and Sam McKendry (among others) into first grade at Penrith while men like Mick Potter, Brian Noble and Michael Maguire served coaching apprenticeships under him.

He also has a reputation for doing things 'differently', whether it is using jugs of water to show players the important of achieving balance in their lives or encouraging them to try visualisation techniques and meditation.

"There are a few stories around about me," laughs Elliott, "but if you ask them for the hard-arse stories, they will remember those, too. I'm not scared of taking risks and I've had some shockers. But I do believe the easiest way to improve as a player is to become a better person. There are very few great players that are dickheads."

In 2011, after Elliott was sacked from Penrith, stories circulated of the entire NRL team being made to try visualisation techniques and also encouraged to meditate. Elliott doesn't deny that it happened but says the context was never reported.

Elliott had a long association with world champion surfer Mick Fanning (Elliott was a performance consultant) and brought him in to talk to the team in early 2010. Among other things Fanning extolled the virtues of various techniques Elliott had taught him, including visualisation. After a few senior players showed interest, Elliott arranged for a teacher.

"They found it useful and the next season asked me why isn't everybody doing it," says Elliott, "so we made it compulsory for a month and that is really where those stories came from. It does work though; most successful Olympic athletes do it."

Carl Jennings, the trainer who has worked with Elliott since 1996, says: "We have tried things and (sometimes) used players as guinea pigs.

"Some things have been great and some things haven't worked. But Matt is an innovator. I always say some people are bridge builders and some are bridge painters. Some people might be able to paint better but they can't build bridges."

Elliott is not ready to make statements on how the team will play but says: "My thinking is that the team will play with flair but that is not my decision yet. Fans will benefit but I am not actually thinking about the fans. Fans won't give a shit as long as we win and we win often. But flair and open play is where footy is going and my long-distance view is that suits our style, but I don't know yet. We'll have structure too - the 13 guys on the field will know what we are doing every second of the game."

Elliott is big on preparation, especially over the next few months.

"To be honest, my university degree is a crock of shit," he says. "It shouldn't be called a sports science degree, it should be called a 'you perform as you prepare' degree. If we are conceding tries the same way every week, it won't be the players' fault. It will mean we haven't spent enough time on it or we are not practising it properly - simple."

He is reluctant to talk about specific goals for 2013 but happy to aim high.

"We are involved in a competition and there is only one real goal," says Elliott.

"I'm not going to come out and blurt it out but if you are not in it for what the competition is there for, you may as well do something else.

"If we play our best footy every week and we prepare to play our best footy, we will be a nightmare [for other teams] and results will come. One thing I will say is if we average 50 per cent possession in every game, we will make top four."

- Herald on Sunday

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