It was business as usual for Newcastle players on Wednesday as they trained for the first time since learning coach Nathan Brown would leave the club at the end of the season.
Starting with a win against Wests Tigers at Campbelltown on Saturday, captain Mitchell Pearce said the Knights want to create a “fairytale finish” to their topsy-turvy season and star fullback Kalyn Ponga revealed Brown had “made me the player I am right now”.
“I guess the timing’s not right – I don’t know why it happened now – but this is the way it is, we’ve got to look past that and get the job done,” Ponga said.
“We trained pretty good today. Everything was the same, our preparation’s going to be the same, he’s still our coach, so it was pretty good out there. It didn’t feel any different.”
Ponga was eating lunch with team-mates when he first became aware of Brown’s impending departure on Tuesday, then their soon-to-be former coach addressed players before fronting a media conference on Wednesday morning.
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“I was pretty shocked at the time but we’re in a professional sport, we’re professional athletes and we have to move on to this week and the next three [games],” Ponga said.
“I was pretty young and naïve and didn’t know much of my trade but he put confidence in me, a lot of leadership and accountability, and he’s been a good man for my family, so I respect him a lot.”
Ponga played two seasons under Paul Green at North Queensland before Brown signed the then 19-year-old prodigy to a lucrative four-year deal with Newcastle.
“Browny’s still here, and while he’s been here he’s been good to me, he’s respected me, and he’s made me the player I am right now,” Ponga said.
Pearce was pleased Brown and Knights CEO Philip Gardner worked out a potentially disruptive decision as amicably as possible, and it was his job as captain to maintain a positive environment among the players.
“I don’t know what Browny’s going to do next year and for us, it’s about us finishing the year off with Browny this year,” Pearce said.
“I’ve had a good relationship with him and I’m sure the club’s got plans for where they’re moving.
Knights react to Brown quitting as coach
“It’s been healthy the way it’s happened. As a playing group, you come in and react to a decision, you keep your head down and stay together and worry about results.
“Everyone seems to be pretty together about the situation, so our job is to focus on our little fairytale finish, hopefully, to the end of the season.
“As a group, we spoke this morning, and… you’ve got to try to create a dream. For us, if we can get three wins, we give ourselves a chance to play finals.
“Our focus is purely on competing and trying to win this week against the Tigers, and let’s try to create a fairytale. As a captain, that’s what I’ll be pushing.”
Brown still had the players’ support and respect, Pearce said, and he was not interested in speculating about a possible successor.
“At the end of the day, it’s very fresh, so for me to come out and comment on a [new] coach is ridiculous, and I’m not going to do that,” he said.
“But one thing I know about Phil and this club, they want the best, and if they’re going to make a decision, it’s obviously what they feel they need."
Utility Sione Mata’utia is one of a handful of Knights “survivors” who were at the Knights when Brown was appointed to replace caretaker coach Danny Buderus at the end of 2015.
Mata’utia, who represented Australia as an 18-year-old winger at the end of the previous year, has since matured into a consistent NRL player as a centre, back-rower and part-time middle forward, and credits Brown for teaching him about professionalism and accountability.
“We were a young team a couple of years back, and he definitely did a lot to turn around a team with two wooden spoons to fighting for a finals appearance this year, so that’s a massive achievement,” Mata’utia told NRL.com.
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“The biggest thing I’ll take from him is his approach to my off-field preparation, that he definitely made me a better player who played more consistently, and to take my job seriously."
Mata’utia said making the finals remained their motivation, and Brown reinforced that when he addressed players on Wednesday.
“He’s just that kind of bloke. He wants us to play for ourselves, and all the work we’ve done since pre-season and everything we’ve been through these last four years, this is what it’s come to and this is what we train for,” Mata’utia said.
“That’s what Browny said, his main goal was to bring this club back on its feet and fighting for finals appearances, and he’s definitely done that for sure."