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A footy club Christmas party at a south coast surf club in December has convinced under-siege St George-Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin
that his Dragons will play finals football this year.
Opening up after Saints bombed out of contention last season, Griffin has finally spoken about his team’s culture, his own future, his relationship with the players and the fact the Dragons will need to sign another five players for their 2023 campaign.
He says he feels under no threat and will coach for another decade.
In October, only three players turned up to St George-Illawarra’s awards presentation night – Ben Hunt, Zac Lomax and Michael Molo.
Former star Matt Cooper reacted savagely in this column
: “The club has no loyalty and honour anymore.”
Griffin admits he was disappointed.
“You can sugar coat it as much as you like but I won’t,” he said. “It wasn’t a good look.
“No-one was happy about it. As a club it wasn’t good enough but we’ve moved forward.
Dragons coach Anthony Griffin has spoken out to Phil Rothfield. Picture: Matt King/Getty Images
“There were reasons … it was five weeks after we finished. It was the culmination of a lot of things.
“A lot of the players had already gone to the World Cup or were overseas on holiday.”
Still, Griffin insists the camaraderie amongst the playing group is as strong as he’s experienced.
The club held a Christmas party at Woonona Surf Club in December.
“We had 150 turn up,” Griffin says, “Every player, the wives, the partners, the kids, the staff. The board. Everyone was there. It was a fantastic night.
“A great atmosphere with everyone together. It showed me we were going OK.
“I left there knowing there wasn’t a culture problem. It had improved immensely.
“Everyone is on board. They’ve all got a fire in the belly.”
Under the pump
Griffin is one of a number of NRL coaches needing wins to survive.
It is a four-man field for first coach sacking – Newcastle’s Adam O’Brien, the Gold Coast’s Justin Holbrook, Brisbane’s Kevin Walters and Griffin.
Griffin has had two years at the Dragons for 11th and 10th-placed finishes.
Before that he’d made the finals in every season at the Broncos and Penrith.
For a coach under siege, it’s hard to tell.
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We meet over coffee for this interview. He’s relaxed and looking completely stress-free.
I put to the 56-year-old that he’s got eight weeks to survive. He smirks.
“No, the season goes for 24 weeks,” he says. “That’s all I’m thinking about.
“I can understand it’s topical and you blokes (in the media) generate it.
“It’s just part of the territory. I honestly don’t feel the pressure.
“I’ve never enjoyed an off-season like the one we’re having at the moment.
“The other stuff doesn’t worry me. I’m concentrating on coaching the footy team. Nothing else.
“The plan is to coach for another 10 years.”
Just a month out from the start of the season and the Dragons find themselves in a position where they may need to sign an extra five players.
They have only 27 of their 30-man squad secured. Cody Ramsey, who is gone for the year, and Talatau ‘Junior’ Amone, who has been stood down by the NRL, are included in those 27.
The Dragons have approached the NRL to get a salary cap exemption for Ramsey.
They are also looking for cap relief while Amone fights his serious assault charges.
The club could have more $1.5 million to spend to finalise their roster.
Griffin is in no rush.
He won’t name the players he’s likely to chase.
Talatau Amone has been stood down while he faces charges.
“It’s a tough market but there will be some quality players become available,” he says
“We’re being patient waiting for the right ones.”
Your columnist suggested to Griffin that he signs too many old players.
George Burgess, Aaron Woods, Josh McGuire, Andrew McCullough and now Ben Murdoch-Masila.
“Is that what you think?” he says. “I also signed Moses Suli and Jaydn Su’a. We have produced Cody Ramsey, Junior Amone and Jayden Sullivan in the last couple of years. What about the Feagai brothers (Mat and Max).
“You want me to keep going?
“Some of the older guys you mentioned were minimum-wage purchases.
“They weren’t high risk. I signed them for depth in the roster.
“We’re actually really doing a good job as a club with the development of our juniors.”
There was talk last year that Griffin didn’t get along with youngsters Tyrell Sloan and Sullivan.
Burgess also had a crack at on the way out when he retired.
“I just didn’t get along with Hook,” Burgess said. “He made it pretty clear to me, he pretty much wrote me off. At the end of the day all you want is a coach to believe in you.”
Griffin hits back: “That’s life. If it helps that I’m the fall guy, I’m easy.
“You don’t get on with everyone although I thought I had a good relationship with him from my end.
English forward George Burgess (left) was critical of coach Anthony Griffin (right) when he left the Dragons. Picture: Julian Andrews
“I’ve got nothing bad to say. I don’t think my coaching was the reason it didn’t work out for him.”
With Sloan and Sullivan, he denies there was an issue.
“I only deal with the truth and the reality of my relationship with them,” he says.
“It’s always been fine. At the moment it’s as strong as it’s ever been.”
On Sloan he adds: “He’s going really well. Got a great attitude. He’s maturing. He sees the opportunity.”
Pressure on coaches
Last year Trent Barrett, Des Hasler, Nathan Brown and Michael Maguire were all punted.
Before that John Morris, Paul Green, Dean Pay, Anthony Seibold and Stephen Kearney.
I ask Griffin about the pressure and the mental health issue.
“There’s a lot goes into building a successful organisation,” he says.
“Obviously the head coach is the focal point. That’s life.
“As for the criticism, the pressure, the doubt … I’ve been around a while now.
“I’ve made mistakes but as long as you’re true to yourself and you’re confident in yourself.
“If you listen to social media or people whose opinions you don’t value, you’re going to turn yourself inside out. I don’t get distracted by it.
The Dragons held their Chrismas party at the Woonoona Surf Lifesaving Club.
“It’s the same with players and anyone in the public eye.
“If you take on board all the negative stuff, that’s where your mental health can suffer.
“I sleep well at night.”
Griffin has confidence in the playing group.
“We can make the playoffs,” he says. “I’ve seen a growth and change.
“We’re not that far away. Last year we were 12 (wins) and 12 (losses)
“We beat ourselves in a quite a few of those games.
“We’ve got something to build off.
“You can see it at training. They’ve all got a fire in the belly.
Highly regarded new assistant coach Ben Woolf is looking after defence, a weakness last year.
“There’s another level in a lot of the players,” Griffin says. “A lot of the boys in their early 20s.
“I’m not interested in what a lot of people think.”
We have a laugh about all the experts who tipped eventual preliminary finalists North Queensland to win the spoon last year, just like his Dragons have already been written off.
Losing his dad
Griffin’s family was rocked by the sudden death of his father, Vince, during the off-season.
His dad lived in Rockhampton and had lost consciousness by the time Griffin flew in from Sydney.
Griffin is excited by Tyrell Sloan. Picture: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Vince would religiously phone his son on game day on the morning of every match.
“It knocked me around,” he admits. “I didn’t get to see him before he went.
“He was my mentor and always had good advice for me.
“It was tough. It’s the first time I’ve lost someone so close to me.
“You get an opportunity to reflect and find some peace and I’ve learned a lot from the experience.
“That life isn’t as serious as you sometimes think it is. It’s only short.
“That life isn’t as serious as you sometimes think it is. It’s only short.
“It’s helped with my mindse