Jul 05

Penrith Panthers’ young gun Bryce Cartwright proves he will be the real deal

I rarely talk about Penrith Panthers in my columns. I don’t like to put pressure on our team or our players.

However, there is little point trying to deny the fact that young Panther forward Bryce Cartwright announced himself to the rugby league world with his performance against the South Sydney Rabbitohs on Friday night.

It’s always difficult when talking about youngsters and their potential. Too many people go overboard with comparisons and predictions about young players before they have really found their feet in the top grade.

Suffice to say, Bryce is a tremendous young player with the world at his feet. He is still young and has a long way to go. It’s our responsibility as a club to ensure he gets every opportunity to realise his potential. We take that responsibility very seriously.

But Bryce’s performance gives me an opportunity today to talk a little about coaching philosophy.

Bryce is one of several young players coming through the system at the Panthers for whom we have very high expectations. Fans have already witnessed the emergence of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Isaah Yeo, Waqa Blake, Regan Campbell-Gillard, George and Robert Jennings. These kids have come through the junior rep program together and formed a special bond that will help them take on the challenges NRL football will pose in the coming years.

On top of this group we have the likes of Matt Moylan, James Segeyaro, Josh Mansour, Elijah Taylor, Jamal Idris, Dean Whare, Sam McKendry, Ben Murdoch-Misila and Tyrone Peachey, who are all approaching their mid-20s and the prime time in their playing careers. I can see this group of players staying together for a number of seasons and forming the nucleus of a very strong team.

The Panthers club is far from being the finished product, though. There is still a long way to go. However, the foundations are now firmly in place and over the next decade I expect this club to become one of the biggest and best sporting and community organisations in the country. We shall discuss more on this another time.

Anyway, back to Bryce Cartwright. The unique talents this young man possesses will be both a blessing and a burden to him as he makes his way through the important development phase of his career.

The age-old argument of structured football versus non-structured football, set plays versus ad lib plays, risk versus reward, will resonate around Bryce’s football in years to come.

On Friday night he produced a couple of “wow” moments when his actions simply took your breath away. For those of us who have watched Bryce play for years, these moments came as no surprise.

Bryce will now face tremendous scrutiny as a footballer. He’s an individual. We don’t coach what he does. We can’t, because he can do things his coaches would never dream of doing themselves. Itcomes from within.

How do you coach someone like Bryce? At what point does the team bend the rules for the individual? At what point does the individual bend for the team?

A line from one of my favourite songs says “nature has a funny way of breaking what does not bend”.

There have been many talented individuals burst onto the scene over the years but not all of them enjoyed longevity in the professional ranks. Many were broken before they realised their potential.

I don’t get involved in coaching at Panthers. That’s the job of our coaching staff. However, four years ago I sent all of our coaches a link to a YouTube video of a gentleman by the name of Sir Ken Robinson. He was giving a speech to an education seminar discussing the role of our current education systems in preparing people for employment and life in an ever-changing world. The major point he made was that all children were born with creativity. All children were born artists. They will have a go at anything. But for most kids, these attributes or qualities are educated out of them by a system and society that rarely values such talents. I guess if we want to get very philosophical about this, kids are not born with prejudice, scepticism, insecurity or self-consciousness. However, life can soon lead down the path to all of those things. I’ll leave that discussion for greater minds than mine.

Back to football and Sir Ken.

The basic premise of his presentation was that education quite often kills creativity. His fear was our world needs more creativity, yet such talents were being squandered pretty ruthlessly by a system that only wanted to create people in its own vision. It was pretty heady stuff.

After watching the video, the coaches said “Yeah, great speech. but what’s your point?” I gave them my opinion that from where I view rugby league these days, I believe coaches kill a lot of creativity in players. I then related this to the way rugby league coaching has evolved over the past decade. To my mind, coaching has become programmed, uniform, risk-averse and motivated by playing the percentages. We teach kids to play in lanes, in one corridor of the field, with simple roles and responsibilities. Some players may go through their entire career and know only one small part of the game.

I then used the example of a young fellow coming through our system at the time by the name of Bryce Cartwright.

At 16 Bryce was doing everything. Kicking long, short, high, low, cross-field. He would kick at any time from anywhere on the field. There were no rules. His passing was outstanding. He could offload at will, around the corner and over the top, he could pass short to a man hitting a hole, or throw it to someone in the next postcode. He had all the skills. I suggested to the coaches that while we may marvel at the way he plays while being only 16, if history is any guide, we will more than likely coach a lot of this stuff out of him by the time he turns 21 to conform to the modern systems.

I asked the question “How are you going to develop Bryce Cartwright as a back-row forward in the modern game?”

For that matter, how are we going to develop any player in any position in the modern game? Are we going to typecast them into a structure that merely replicates what every other team is doing? Or can we evolve our own development program where we encourage and value the creativity of individuals to build their own style?

I go back to the statement I made earlier in this column: “The unique talents that Bryce Cartwright possesses will be both a blessing and a burden to him as he makes his way through this important development phase of his career.”

It’s up to our coaching staff to protect him from the burden and to help him manage this blessing.

Bryce will attract plenty of comment and advice from experts as they analyse his football in years to come. This will be a real battle for Bryce and his coaches. We need to encourage him to stay true to himself and to trust his instincts without fear of hesitation. The same goes for letting Jamie Soward be Jamie Soward, Jamal Idris to be Jamal Idris, and for a young Matt Moylan to feel comfortable in his own skin. These are the kinds of players we want at Panthers. It will also be the kind of coaches we have at the Panthers while I have anything to do with this club.

Our basic philosophy is to train hard, play hard and never give up. This culture is becoming stronger and more ingrained in our club every day. However, our footballers and the stye of football we play will hopefully always reflect the skills and talents of the kids who first walk through our gates looking for a career in rugby league.

We well never win every game with this philosophy. No team wins every game. But I believe that as a club we will win recognition and respect for being ourselves and playing a brand of football created by the talents of our players and not by the insecurity of narrow-minded coaches.

It’s why our current head coach Ivan Cleary is a perfect match for the Panthers. His personality and style blend perfectly with the persona we want to be recognised with our club.

It’s what we believe best reflects our area and our fans. Western Sydney is home to so much potential. Kids just need to realise just how talented they are and how great they can become if they’re prepared to work hard and trust their talents.

They don’t need to be like anyone else, just themselves.

Phil Gould is the general manager of the Penrith Panthers.

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