South East QLD has always been Rugby League heartland. From the Tweed to Brisbane has always been apart of the Rugby League landscape, the territory. The Gold Coast, the famous holiday strip, has been a vital component within that landscape. Rugby League on a professional level first came to prominence when in 1988 the Gold Coast Giants were established, joining other expansion clubs in Brisbane Broncons and the Newcastle Knights. This was the first major step towards laying a foundation for the future growth, development and pathway for the games future to one day become a national game (Sadly, we’re still waiting)
It was also significant in the fact that the Gold Coast would take the honour of becoming the first Queensland club to become an official part of the NSWRL competition, however that would be short lived at Brisbane had an agreement with the governing body that it was to be the only Queensland based NSWRL Club. So the Gold Coast became known as the Gold Coast-Tweed Giants, playing out of Tweed Heads, home to the Tweed Heads Seagulls RLFC. It was a bold move for the administrators at Phillip St, the old Rugby League Headquarters, as it was their first venture outside of the Sydney metropolitan area. Be it that in 1982 Canberra and Illawarra were still within the state of NSW and not far from Sydney, Newcastle was a couple of hours away, although two Queensland clubs was ground breaking for the game that prided itself on being a Sydney competition.
Since 1988, the Gold Coast has had an array of lives, identities and opportunities. In the top tier; they have taken the form of the Giants, the Seagulls, the Chargers and in 2007 were re-born as the Titans. Why so many ventures and re-branding exercises? A fair summation would suggest the Gold Coast’s life as the Giants, Seagulls and Chargers were complete failures. They struggled for success. Even signing the King, Wally Lewis as captain coach in 1992 couldn’t lift the Seagulls to the Finals or a crack at the title.
Many hold the opinion that the Gold Coast and Rugby League will never work; is not meant to be and will never amount to anything or achieve any significant amount of success in the game. They base these views and opinions on the fact that history suggests, players who are either from the region or sign to play for the Gold Coast are not there to win a Premiership, instead, are there for a holiday, lapping up the sun, surf and overall, lifestyle that the Gold Coast offers and is renowned for. I guess there may be a solid case and argument by those critics if you scroll through the history books.
In 1997, the Gold Coast made the ARL Finals; the first time a Gold Coast team had ever qualified for the Finals in Premiership History. The Chargers would take on fellow 1982 entrants Illawarra Steelers. The game would bring down the curtain on a fell travelled journeyman in Martin Bella. The Chargers boasted a competitive team, striking a balance between enterprising youth and the right amount of experience, lead by Bella and Graham Mackay, whilst the enigmatic Wes Patten was the team’s X-Factor. Their Coach, Phil Economidis, still coaching in France, was a revelation in getting the Chargers to the Finals.
1998 was a disappointing year in more ways than one. Not only did the Gold Coast fail to back up their maiden finals appearance the previous year, they also fell victim to the bitter ARL-Super League War’s compromise. The formation of the National Rugby League came with certain stipulations and conditions from both governing bodies. Both would cull respective clubs to get the number of teams down to a respective number. The ideal number that the NRL had identified was 14 and was going through a process as they called it ‘rationalisation’ in other words, killing off clubs and forcing clubs into unwanted Joint Ventures to get to that magic number.
The Chargers were sent to the grave, along with the Adelaide Rams. 12 months prior, it had been the South QLD Crushers, the Perth Reds and Hunter Mariners. There would be more blood letting to come, but punting the Chargers into the abyss in my opinion was a horrible business decision. But then, forcing Foundation Clubs to forgo 100 years of history to be apart of the Game’s future, the Game they helped create and establish was also shocking. You would never see the AFL kill off the likes of Richmond, Essendon, Collingwood, Carlton. The AFL understands its history means everything. Something Rugby League dropped the ball with and has been struggling to recover from ever since. But I deviate from the topic (Back to the Gold Coast…)
Enter Michael Searle, a former Seagull himself, face of the new Gold Coast consortium, vying for re-entry into the NRL competition. Selling and spruking a profitable, sustainable business model including two arms of the business; a football club arm and a property arm, with the property arm housing the Gold Coast administration and training base, (later to be known as the Centre of Excellence) and a State Government funded Stadium in a fresh, new, vibrant area known as Robina. Searle was a man on a mission. He engaged the local community and area in his quest to get Rugby League back on Gold Coast. And it worked, the NRL gave the green light for expansion, taking the 15 team competition to an even 16. The Titans would now rise to the shoreline of the majestic beaches of the southeastern coast of QLD.
Searle went on a spending bonanza. Securing Former Penrith Panthers Premiership backrower John Cartwright who was serving his apprenticeship at the Sydney Roosters was appointed the inaugural Gold Coast Titans Coach. Searle lured former Australian and NSW Origin prop Luke Bailey from the South Coast of Sydney, whilst Scott Prince, Premiership winning Captain of Wests 2005 triumph would leave Campbelltown and relocate to QLD to be closer to family. Preston Campbell, an original Gold Coast Charger would also return to the new club as they assembled a roster that wanted success and to do dispel any talk or criticism like in previous years that it would once again become a holiday destination for Rugby League players.
The Titans would narrowly miss the Finals in their inaugural year, but it would not be long before Finals would beckon. 2009, 2010 and 2011 saw the gold Coast make the Finals, and in 2010, fall one game short of a maiden Grand Final appearance going down to the Brian Smith coached Roosters. Since then though, they have failed to make a dent in the competition. Not even a ripple. A team that on paper, has a very competitive roster when comparing it to its rivals. Representative players like Nate Myles, Greg Bird, Ashley Harrison who have been staples in the Origin arena for years, combined with exciting youth who possess tremendous speed, power and enthusiasm.
So what’s gone so terribly wrong? Apart from alarming ticket prices at Skilled Stadium, where one feels that they may have to donate an organ to watch a fixture at the ground; avoiding potential insolvency and administration after the property arm of the club’s business went belly up as a result of the Global Financial Crisis which saw founder and former Managing Director Michael Searle step down and relinquish control, moving into a different role within the entity and a messy break up with club captain Scott Prince, they have just failed to fire.
Sure, injuries have impacted, but then again, injuries hurt every team. Anyone who has watched the Gold Coast perform over the past few seasons would tell you that they are a frustrating football team. They are hit and miss. One day they’re on, the next week they are not. I could sit here and sight reasons such as players being out of form, multiple refereeing decisions have cost them finals appearances; bounce of the ball has not and never goes their way. But excuses mean nothing in what is a performance-based industry.
2014 looms as a potential make or break year for the Titans. Not just the club and its players, but also its Coach, John Cartwright. Cartwright has been at the club since day dot. He is going into his eighth season at the Gold Coast based club. Several finals appearances in his 8-year tenure is far from an attractive look. In fact from a performance perspective, it is unacceptable. The below par results have also started to impact on other areas of the business. Crowds and membership have taken a massive hit, an integral revenue stream, with both slowly declining since 2010.
The Titans also do not have a monopoly on the Gold Coast with the AFL’s very own Gold Coast Suns, being their main competitor, trying to dominate and increase their market share, luring disillusioned Rugby League fans to the Dark Side. Even more reason why success is so crucial for the Titans. The club is up against it. Thankfully for the Titans, the Suns have yet to set the world on fire themselves, but that is bound to change in the coming seasons with their squad maturing and signing the AFL’s best player in Garry Ablett. And possessing one of our own in Karmichael Hunt. A great strategic move to generate interest and support.
What the Gold Coast also has to contend with is during the period of 1998 and 2007, a whole generation of fan and member was lost to the Titans and the Game leaving many Rugby League folk disgruntled due to no longer having a team of their own. These fans became Brisbane Broncos fans, embraced other NRL teams or lost interest in Rugby League altogether. The Titans admission in 2007, whilst it was welcomed, the lack of fanfare and patriotic support from its community is disturbing. Apart from its diehard legion of fans and members, Skilled Park on most weekends can be a desolate place.
Enter Graham Annansley, former NRL Referee and Chief Operating Officer of the NRL turned NSW Politician. In late 2013, he made the bold move to take on the challenging role of new Chief Executive Officer of the Gold Coast Titans Football Club. A posting that is bound to provide the one time Super League Referees boss many a headache over an extended period. Annasley is already making an impact and leaving his mark, even in his infancy in the role. He has gone through the Titans administration with a broom and has cut out the deadwood, restructuring the business and cutting unnecessary costs, streamlining the organisations and enforcing some much needed accountability from those in the front office, charged with the responsibility of selling the Titans brand to the Gold Coast region. There is a new emphasis on fan engagement, something that has been severely missing from the Titans since their inception. Many clubs and administrators are of the view that all you have to do is plant a football team in a new area with a ‘you beaut’ looking stadium and presto! The people will come.
In a utopian world, yes, in reality, its much more complex than one thinks, especially in an area and region like the Gold Coast. People of all demographics, the community at large need to be won over. Many will say on field success will be enough, because lets face it everyone loves a winner right? But they are wrong. The Titans need to saturate their market, their city. Their brand, their image needs to be everywhere and anywhere all over the Gold Coast, from the Tweed to Tugan. From Broadbeach to Biggera Waters.From the Hinterland to Surfers Paradise esplanade. They need to take ownership of their town, of their metropolis. Give the people a reason to call the Titans their team. The Titans must win the hearts and minds of their community.
Annasley’s appointment is their best signing since 2007. A shrewd administrator who will get the front office in order and heading in the right direction. He has identified the weaknesses and is intent on rectifying them; knowing that the Titans must increase their membership base, increase gate receipts and home ground average and providing value for money with game day experiences. The last competency to complete the revolution is the football team itself to really make them an attractive proposition commercially.
The recruitment of former Nth QLD Cowboys Coach Neil Henry will provide the football department with tremendous experience. Henry brings a tactical nonse that has been missing from the Titans attacking and defensive structure. Coach Cartwright will be hoping his expertise will be able to assist in making his football team a much sharper, diligent and controlled team in 2014. The Titans star signing and recruitment of Jamal Idris turned pear shaped last week with the former representative centre seeking a release, having only played 2 seasons into his 5 year contract. A massive blow for Cartwright’s team and the Titans as Idris brought much more than a strong, intimidating on field presence, his personality off it was just as vital.
But even without Idris, the Titans still boast a highly competitive squad. Good fortune will be needed and the injury Gods to be kind. A young halves pairing still finding their way in the NRL, young, quick outside backs, strong, experienced, seasoned forwards. All the right elements seem to be there. It’s now down to Cartwright to ensure this playing group achieves it potential and meets its own expectations, let alone everyone elses. If the Titans do fail to produce the goods on the field, serious questions need to be asked and some hard decisions will have to be made surrounding the future and longevity of John Cartwright remaining at the helm of the Gold Coast Titans.
Excuses will only go so far, when Cartwright has had what will be a 9 year tenure at the Titans to lay a foundation, build a team, implement structures and pathways for depth and talent to draw upon, and create a culture of success. How long is too long? Brian Smith remained at Parramatta eels for 10 years, although had far more success than what Cartwright has had. Bennett, 21 years at Brisbane. Bellamy 11 years at Melbourne. But unlike Cartwright, all 3 coaches brought success to their respective clubs. Consistent and consecutive finals appearances, Grand Final appearances and Premierships (minus the serial bridesmaid in Smith)
Is 9 years at the helm too long? Has the playing group stopped listening to their coach? Do they need to hear a new voice with new ideas, new concepts, a new philosophy? That’s not for me to say, but there is a strong and ever growing case for change should the Titans once again, fail to deliver. Their fans, members, respective stakeholders need the Titans to be successful. But most importantly the Game needs the Titans to be a success. They are an expansion club. They are apart of the games strategy moving forward into what will eventually become a ‘national’ model, shoring up the Gold Coast community and ensuring it remains very much apart of the Rugby League landscape and heartland.
(Photo source http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2011/07/14/1226094/856697-gold-coast-titans-coach-john-cartwright.jpg)