Here’s a thought experiment for you: close your eyes, think of each of the 17 NRL clubs, and picture who the most important person there is.
There’s a decent chance you’ll get a coach – Trent Robinson, Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy – or a player – Latrell Mitchell, Shaun Johnson, Daly Cherry-Evans – and that stands to reason, given that they are the most important people at rugby league clubs.
The honourable exceptions might be the Wests Tigers, where their dysfunctional boardroom overpowers their rookie coach and unexceptional players, and, of course, the Bulldogs, where the General Manager of Football constantly steals the limelight.
This offseason has been a showcase of Phil Gould, with coach Cameron Ciraldo and captains Reed Mahoney and Matt Burton taking a backseat while the man above them in the pecking order dominates the coverage.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Gould is one of the game’s enduring figures, with a CV that few can match and a public persona that dominates the media landscape.
Gould is a leading official at one of the biggest drawcards in the game, controlling recruitment policy at a time when the only thing worth talking about is recruitment. That, alone, would be enough to generate a lot of coverage.
Then there’s ‘Gus’, the media character, who is a leading pundit for one of the two organisations that pay to broadcast the sport in Australia and thus guaranteed to draw an audience, positive or negative.
When you’ve got an interesting person doing the only interesting thing – and throw in that he’s doing a lot of it in a relatively quiet off-season – then it’s perhaps not surprising that Gus is the story.
Newspapers competing to show photos of him meeting players, as if a recruitment manager meeting players wasn’t a major part of his job, is more newsworthy because it is Gus who is shouting the coffees.
This isn’t entirely without merit or precedent.
Soccer fans will remember Harry Redknapp, that sport’s premier wheeler and dealer, with an arm out of the Range Rover window, holding court with journalists camped outside of the training ground as one of the endearing images of the 2000s and perhaps, one day, we will think of a blurry images of Canterbury Leagues with a similar nostalgia.
Where Gus might worry, however, is that when he is the story and not the players, the pressure will fall back on him.
That’s happened before, with the Trent Barrett sacking fiasco – “Trent will be the coach of the Bulldogs long after I’m gone” – and now, the pressure will ramp up.
Gould’s gambit on arrival at Belmore was to do to Canterbury what he had done to Penrith. It’s easy to see how that might happen, with the Dogs a sleeping giant in terms of junior base, Leagues Club cash and massive, if sometimes nascent, support.
The argument over the last few years has been about the coach, as evidenced by the Barrett sacking, and then the roster, which had gradually been turned over in the last two years.
Ciraldo is secure in the coaching role (as much as anyone can be) and now, the roster bears very little relation to that which ended the Barrett era.
Just four of the 17 from Barrett’s last game remain in the Top 30 and Connor Tracey, the latest arrival, is their 26th signing in 18 months. That’s a lot of turnover, and now it needs to work.
Recruitment is a collaborative business, of course, but it won’t look like that. It could be that Gould, who has the job for as long as he wants it, is taking the questions to shield Ciraldo, but it could also be that he is the one calling the shots.
Either way, if this doesn’t work, it’ll be Gould who gets the pelters.
What ‘working’ means is a bit nebulous with Canterbury. They finished 15th last year with the worst defensive record in the comp by a distance, conceding almost a hundred points more than the Dragons and Tigers.
Doing better than that is progress, but with such investment in the squad, it’ll be interesting to see how fans react.
The sides that finished 15th in 2022 made the top four. So did the side that finished 15th in 2021.
Nobody is quite expecting that, but with a roster that now includes four players who played in the Grand Final in 2022, two more who played in 2021 and another from 2020, it’s hard to argue that the cattle are the problem anymore.
Much as Gus is seen as one of the best at list management, it’s hard to discern what the plan is with the names that he has acquired.
Currently, they have more utes than a Bunnings car park, with a host of players who can cover a lot of roles, but no clear articulation of where they’re all going to fit in.
We can assume that the spine will include Burton at 6 and Mahoney at 9, with (probably) Toby Sexton getting first crack at the 7 jumper. The fullback, however, could be any of Stephen Crichton, who is either going to play there or be the league’s most overpaid centre, or Blake Taaffe, who one presumes didn’t swap backup at Souths for backup at Canterbury, with last year’s 1 Hayze Perham and now Tracey in the mix.
Josh Addo-Carr will be on one wing and Jacob Kiraz might be on the other, though he was a centre by the end of 2023 with Blake Wilson impressing late on. If Kiraz stays inside, then the other slot might be new arrival Bronson Xerri, or Tracey or another utility, Drew Hutchison.
The back row, one suspects, will be Viliame Kikau and Jacob Preston, but where does that leave Jaeman Salmon or Kurt Mann, two more of the utilities that have joined. Are they going to play lock? If they do, what about the four other blokes who played there last year and are still on the books?
The middle remains light and yet there are so many players. It looks scattergun and, if it plays like that, then Gus will be the guy fielding the questions.
That’s the problem with being the centre of attention. It’s great to be in the limelight and be proactive in the off-season – and lord knows, the Dogs have needed to be proactive – but when things go wrong, everyone knows where the fingers will point.
There’s a feeling that Canterbury might be fighting the last war with these signings. In 2023, they were slammed by injuries in the second quarter of the year.
That can happen to anyone, but at the time, few could remember it cutting so hard at the same time in the same positions as it did at the Dogs. There’s no accounting for that and, really, it probably bought Ciraldo some time.
If it were to happen again, they’d be well stocked in the utilities department at least.
The lack of cattle was already a problem, and it’d be hard to argue that anyone coming in is not better than the blokes that have walked out. Quality-wise, there are upgrades.
Jake Averillo and Paul Alamoti might go onto great things – expect Averillo to fire at the Dolphins in particular – but neither have a better record than Crichton if he plays in the centres.
Luke Thompson and Tevita Pangai junior, too, have great records and potential, but it would be hard-pushed to say that they have performed anywhere near their pay cheques at the Dogs.
What they were, however, was specialist middles, and now Canterbury are very light in that position and massively overstocked in guys that can play multiple positions.
That’s the thing about being a Jack-of-all-trades – the second part is that you’re often a master of none.
It has been said that rugby league only has three positions: halfback, prop and everyone else. Canterbury have the everyone else covered, but their weakest two areas remain the two most important.
If they fail in 2024, the responsibility for that imbalance will fall on Gould. No wonder he’s meeting front rowers.