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Culture or talent: What’s more important when building a rugby league team?

Jackson Hastings of the Sea Eagles warming up during the Round 2 NRL match between the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the Parramatta Eels at Lottoland Stadium in Sydney, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)
Expert
22nd April, 2018
31
1044 Reads

Manly playmaker Jackson Hastings will likely see out the remainder of the 2018 season playing for the Blacktown Workers.

It’s been widely reported that the enigmatic former Rooster and Dragon has been like a fibreglass splinter during his time at Brookvale, such has been his ability to get under the skin of teammates.

Things finally came to a head when Hastings got into a stink with Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans, prompting senior players to approach coach Trent Barrett and demand that he be dropped from the first grade squad. Or so we’ve been told.

Whether or not these claims are true, they place Barrett in an unenviable position. On the one hand, Hastings is an effective ball player at a club starved for playmaking options. His obvious talent and young age make him a tantalising prospect for the club to build around into the future.

But on the other hand, if locker room toxicity were able to be measured, Hastings would register somewhere between a Robbie Farah and a Jarryd Hayne. By all accounts the players don’t like him and don’t want to play alongside him, making his position in the Sea Eagles side untenable.

Barrett’s predicament raises an interesting question – when it comes to building a winning team, is culture more important than talent?

It’s a concept that isn’t isolated to rugby league, but rather a problem faced by businesses around the globe. And there doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer. Some companies choose to spend their time and resources acquiring the best available talent, while others prefer to invest in finding those individuals that mesh with their company culture and core values.

Jackson Hastings warming up with the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

In the case of the Manly Sea Eagles, they chose culture over talent. And they’re not alone in this approach. For years the Canberra Raiders have put the needs of the team above the ability of the individual. In moving on from the likes of Todd Carney, Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson, the Raiders sent a clear message that negative behaviour would not be tolerated. No one was above the team. No one was indispensable.

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Has it worked for them? Perhaps, but I guess that depends how you define success. The absence of this troublesome trio has kept the Raiders out of the headlines and created a more positive vibe in the dressing sheds, but it hasn’t helped them win many football games. Only the Warriors and Eels boast a longer premiership drought than the fabled Green Machine.

Publicly I’m sure the Raiders stand by these decisions. They’ll continue to promote the strength of their team culture and will continue to practice the ‘No Dickheads’ policy made famous by the Sydney Swans. Removing these toxic personalities from their squad allowed younger players like Jarrod Croker to flourish and step into positions of leadership.

But privately it must be a giant kick to the spuds for Don Furner and the Canberra hierarchy to watch the success that each of these players has enjoyed since leaving the Raiders. Deep down inside, I’m sure Furner has questioned whether it would’ve been the better approach to just retain the carcinogenic threesome and deal with their problems in-house, rather than cutting them adrift.

Ivan Cleary’s Wests Tigers are another example of a club that seems to hold team culture in higher regard than individual talent. After the defection of his highest profile players last season, Cleary had a significant war chest from which to restock his roster. But rather than targeting the biggest names on the open market (and there were plenty of marquee players there for the taking) Cleary took a more measured approach to recruitment.

Ivan Cleary NRL Rugby League Wests Tigers 2017

(AAP Image/Paul Miller)

The coach identified a particular style he wanted to play, a style that emphasised hard work and effort over silky skills and flair, and then went about signing individuals who he knew would be a perfect fit for this style.

And while it’s too early to gauge the results of this new approach, the initial returns have been positive. In the past the Tigers were regarded as a team of talented individuals who struggled to play as a cohesive unit, but that’s no longer the case. This season, Ivan Cleary’s men have redefined themselves as a squad committed to effort and discipline.

Through seven rounds of the Telstra Premiership, the club is ranked first in defence, first in errors and sixth in penalties conceded, resulting in an expert-defying 5-2 start to the season. But what’s been most impressive about the Tigers fast start to the season has been wins over Melbourne (twice) and the Sydney Rooster, two clubs with vastly more talented squads.

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Not all clubs subscribe to the team culture over talent mantra. Take the Brisbane Broncos for example. They agreed to sign Matt Lodge despite his highly publicised legal issues and the subsequent media circus surrounding his New York rampage.

The club knew that Lodge’s past was more heavily chequered than a pair of farmer’s pyjamas and that his unwanted celebrity would serve as an ongoing distraction for the team, but they took a chance on him anyway. Why? Because he’s got talent. He’s a young, mobile prop forward capable of playing long minutes, and the Broncos were crying out for a player of that calibre.

The signing of centre James Roberts was no different. Thanks in large part to his errant behaviour when he gets on the cans, the 25-year-old was moved on by both Penrith and South Sydney before he arrived at Red Hill. And true to form, since his arrival at the Broncos Roberts has been involved in a pair of alcohol fuelled incidents that would have seen him sacked at most other clubs.

But gee whiz, have you seen him run? Who really cares if he’s a liability off the field when he’s so bloody fast? Certainly not the Brisbane Broncos. And who am I to argue with them? Since the inception of the club in 1988, the pride of Queensland have captured six grand finals, which is more than any other team during that period.

Another team that fits this mould of prioritising talent over culture are the Sydney Roosters. As a club who’ve thrown out more lifelines that the Westpac Rescue Chopper, the Roosters often seem to covet controversy when it comes to player recruitment. Tri-Colours supremo Nick Politis doesn’t seem care what an individual has done in the past, so long as they help him win another premiership.

Todd Carney in his Sydney Roosters Days

AAP Images

And based on his results, it’s hard to argue with his methods. Todd Carney might have been a negative influence on certain members of the squad during his two years in Bondi, but he still led the club to the grand final. Likewise Sonny Bill Williams. The genetically-blessed second rower’s media magnetism was an unwelcome distraction at times, but the Roosters wouldn’t have won the 2013 premiership without him.

Does this strategy of chasing talented rugby league mercenaries and miscreants always work? Of course not. For every Sonny Bill Williams, the Roosters sign a Martin Kennedy, who was last seen facing charges of illegally importing and exporting native and internationally endangered animals.

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But the point is that the Roosters are happy to give it a crack. They’ll roll the dice on a player that other clubs won’t touch. They really don’t care how much baggage a player is carrying, or the impact an individual might have on the team dynamic. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters.

Ironically, when clubs likes the Broncos and Roosters are quizzed on why they’re willing to take risks on introducing potentially poisonous personalities into their squad, they invariability give the same answer – culture.

They back the stable culture at their club and the strong leadership of their senior playing group to handle these wayward warriors. And although it sounds like a noble sentiment, the truth is that it rarely works. For every Russell Packer redemption story, there are five Paul Cater cautionary tales. It’s a game of roster Russian roulette, and one that most clubs don’t have the stomach for.

So when it comes to building a winning football side, what’s the best approach? Should you follow the Canberra Raiders and strive for a team of happy campers? Or should you take the Rooster road and prioritise having the most talented players available, regardless of the negative impact they might have on the rest of your team?

It might sound like a cop out, but the answer is both. In an ideal world, the most talented players on your roster should be the ones setting the standards and creating the culture. They’re the ones holding teammates accountable both on and off the field. They’re the benchmark that younger players are measuring themselves against.

Achieving such a balance in a rugby league team is a game of juggling flaming chainsaws, but it’s not impossible. The Melbourne Storm are shining examples of the fact that talent and team culture are not mutually exclusive.

Putting aside their salary cap shenanigans, the Storm rarely make the news for the wrong reasons. And even when they do, as was the case with Cameron Munster, the issue is promptly handled and the errant player quickly steps back in line.

It’s fair to wonder whether, had he been under the leadership of Cameron Smith and the tutelage of Craig Bellamy, would Jackson Hastings be in this situation at all?

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