In an unprecedented move, the NRL has been forced to suspend the season.
The Gold Coast Titans have everything necessary to be a force in rugby league, but instead they languish at the bottom of the ladder and will for the foreseeable future. Why?
The answer lies not with the players, the carousel of coaches or the long-suffering fans. The issue is much deeper than that. The Titans simply do not have a rugby league culture.
All teams in the modern NRL have what we will call – for want of a better word – ‘brand’. What is meant by ‘brand’? Culture, team spirit, a competitive ethos and, most importantly, an understanding of who they are and what they represent.
Brand is easy for some teams – they’ve been around for decades, perhaps even since 1908. Everybody knows who South Sydney is, knows their history and knows why they play football. Everyone knows the St George Dragons, one of the most successful sporting clubs in Australia. The Brisbane Broncos were for many years ‘the Queensland club’. The Cowboys, building their own brand, relied on this and positioned themselves as the alternative for all those Queenslanders north of the Pine River who felt under-represented by the Broncos’ domination of modern Queensland football.
The Melbourne Storm have fostered a culture of victory, success and squeezing the life out of their opposition, and their brand is built upon that. Manly revels in the fact that everyone else despises them – it probably isn’t true anymore, but it’s so necessary to their brand that they still pretend it is. And the Tigers have been living on their 2005 victory for the last 15 years, a blend of quixotism and wistfulness that makes their fans some of the most passionate in the game.
A team needs a brand, needs a culture, to define itself. To define its enemies. To define its purpose.
What, then, is the Gold Coast Titans brand?
When they were formed the Titans had a golden (heh) opportunity to build a new culture and a new brand from the ground up. Queenslanders are passionate about their rugby league – the Titans could have harnessed this passion and marketed themselves as another put-upon Queensland team struggling to fly the flag against the monsters from down south. After all, the Brisbane Broncos – a powerhouse of our game if ever there was one – has managed to live off this chip-on-the-shoulder attitude for over three decades now.
Or the Titans could have positioned themselves as the team for those in the general geographic area who don’t wish to follow the Broncos, a team in opposition to their brothers up the highway. This is largely what the Cowboys did, and the results, at least over the last two decades, have been encouraging.
Perhaps the Titans could have been the team for those who felt unrepresented by the other two Queensland teams. Perhaps they could have made a daring raid south over the Tweed and into the unrepresented northern coast of New South Wales, presenting themselves as the local club for a stretch of golden beach all the way down to Coffs Harbour.
They have done none of these things, at least not successfully. Instead they seem to have tried to present themselves as a glitzy and glamorous team from the golden sands. The party capital of Australia. It hasn’t worked.
The result is a team that doesn’t know who it is. What it is fighting for. Why it matters or whether it even does matter. And it shows in the lack of leadership within the playing group, in their tiny legion of battered fans and in the players themselves.
One dangerous myth that needs to be overcome – and coach Justin Holbrook alluded to it last week in his interview on NRL 360 – is this widespread idea that the Gold Coast is just a glamour district that isn’t set up to be the home of a national sporting team. That the city itself is missing something to make a team successful. This is an outright falsehood. Two of the powerhouses of the Queensland Cup come from the Gold Coast – Tweed Heads Seagulls and the Burleigh Bears – and the Bears are the current reigning premiers.
Further, local schools such as Currumbin State High have a long and gloried history of raising players who will one day play in the NRL, perhaps even for the Maroons. Some notable alumni of that rugby league nursery include Darius Boyd, Ben Ikin, Ben Hannant, Jahrome Hughes and dozens more. And that’s just one high school.
So local talent is not the problem. Local commitment to the sport is not the problem. Money and funding is some problem, true, but the club still has the cash to buy marquee players like Jarryd Hayne, whose contract was a symptom of everything wrong with the Titans, as well as pay a million a year to Ash Taylor.
No, the problem lies in the team’s culture. They do not have a brand. Who are the Gold Coast Titans? What do they represent? Why do its players run around out on the paddock for 80 minutes a week? At the moment the only reason seems to be because that’s what they’re paid to do. And if the team – the players, the management, the coaching staff – don’t start to believe in something bigger than their pay cheques, endless wooden spoons and bottom-of-the-table finishes will continue to be the result.
A solid team culture, a brand, was never laid down from the earliest years – though Matt Rogers did his best – and the club suffers from this today. And until the Titans figure out who they are, a process that could take years, they’ll remain at the bottom of the ladder.