Teacher/coach: winning at Penrith Panthers

Digital image by Grant Trouville © NRL Photos

Rugby coaches can learn a lot from classroom teachers, says Matt Cameron, Penrith Panthers Rugby League CEO. The former Catholic school teacher spoke to Sue Osborne about the teachers who have helped his coaches relate to their players (and lead a team to back-to-back premiership titles in 2021-22).

As a child, Cameron attended Patrician Brothers Blacktown (St Pat’s) in western Sydney – a school with strong links to rugby league. However, inspiration came not from sport, but a Technological & Applied Studies (TAS) teacher at the school. So Matt studied at Sydney Teachers College before beginning a career as a TAS teacher at his alma mater in 1991, where he stayed until 2006.

While at St Pat’s he volunteered as strapper for the boys’ rugby league games and over time graduated to coach. A colleague had a connection at the professional Parramatta Eels Rugby League Club and a position opened for someone to get involved with the lower grades after school and Matt’s name was put forward.

“I was strapping and assessing injured players, things like that. If that job had not come up, I’d probably still be teaching now,” Matt said.

In 2006 he was coaching reserve grade for the Eels part time and still teaching. Then Eels Head Coach Brian Smith left, and a full-time position opened up and Matt jumped at it.

He took long service leave from school, but he needn’t have bothered, as he’s never looked back since.

Eels to Panthers

In 2012 the general manager of footy at the Eels was contacted by Phil Gould who had just taken over as General Manager of Football at Panthers and was looking to instil a new culture at the club and needed someone to coordinate the coaching side of things. Matt took the position.

“They were looking to try something different. The role was more administrative. I still went to work in shorts and runners, but it was more about putting systems into place to future proof the club, to ensure that there was a pathway for players to go through the system and become first grade players,” Matt said.

Panthers is lucky in that it has a huge talent pool to draw on in western Sydney. Close connections with schools and the community are key to accessing the vast resource of players on its doorstep.

Matt said he used his system-orientated skills as a TAS teacher to approach the coaching regime at Panthers.

“In Technology and Applied Studies, if you’re going to build a breadbox, there’s a sequence, so I drew on that experience, and we put some sequences in place on how we are going to develop those young men. Looking to our local schools to find teachers to act as role models, to come into the club and help us out, that was one sequence.

“The boys start training at 5.30pm, so it’s easy to get teachers to come in after school and help. A lot of teachers take for granted the skill set they have acquired. They are quick thinkers and can problem solve. I wanted to draw on those abilities.”

Using his connections from his Patrician Brothers days, Matt has organised for teachers from Sydney independent schools such as Knox Grammar School to come in and run sessions for his coaches on how to communicate with players.

For example, during video presentations, which are content heavy and analytical, how does a coach engage with 40 or 50 young players and get them asking questions and contributing comments?

“You might be critiquing someone’s performance on the field, which is a confronting thing in a public forum. Everyone just sits and doesn’t say anything. How do you get players comfortable contributing to that discussion?

“Classroom teachers are used to prising more information out of students, so they brought some of those techniques here to our coaches to use in these video sessions.”

The teachers from Knox also spent a day with the club, observing lecturers, watching coaching on the field, and providing feedback. In turn, Matt visited the college to give talks to the staff.

Catholic tradition

Traditionally the Panthers has a good relationship with local Catholic school such as St Dominic’s Kingswood, St Gregory’s Campbelltown, Patrician Brothers Fairfield and Patrician Brothers Blacktown. The Catholic Schools NSW Metropolitan Cup is a breeding ground for players.

But nowadays government sports high schools are providing healthy competition to the Catholic schools. Junior rugby league for both boys and girls is growing exponentially at the club, ensuring an ongoing talent pool. Many of the club’s current star players, such as Brian To’o, Dylan Edwards, Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton, Nathan Cleary, Spencer Leniu and Lindsay Smith have been nurtured locally.

The Panthers deliver the ‘Adopt-a-School’ program’ which is also aimed at creating a greater connection with the schools and clubs in the Penrith District.

Panthers players visit local schools and take an active role in assisting in sporting events and a variety of other school activities.

The Adopt-a-School program further expands relationships with schools receiving posters, stationery kits, sticker sheets and other items.

Developing a pathway for girls is a new challenge for the club. Girls’ junior teams already exist, but developing ties with girls’ schools similar to what already exist with boys’ schools is the next stage.

What the experts say

League pundits have attributed much of the club’s recent success to its ability to nurture and retain young talent. But Matt said there’s more to it than that.

“There’s been a lot of people put a lot of effort into developing this club. If you listen to the coach [Ivan Clearly] talking, he says he always wants the team to be a source of community pride, and I feel like we’re in that spot now.

“The current cohort of players are not just good, they are connected. They’ve all gone to school together, played junior league together. They’ve grown up together essentially.

“I think at one stage 22 of our 28 top players had debuted at the club. We connect back to the community and the club is a focal point.”

The Panthers League Cub itself is the biggest in the southern hemisphere and offers a range of restaurants and entertainment activities, such as cable skiing, as well as the obligatory poker machines.

After each home game, the players stay on the field for at least half an hour, interacting with the fans, taking selfies, signing autographs, giving away their gear at times.

Cameron runs a transition course at St Pat’s for boys moving into Year 11, talking to them about responsibility and expectations.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to get out and talk to schools. We’ve got a positive message from the football point of view.”

Panthers Academy

The Penrith Panthers Academy, a $22 million purpose-built facility completed in 2016, has the usual gym, spa pool and changing room, but also a large lecture theatre, video room, wellbeing centre and education room.

In the education department they can find support to obtain skills for life after rugby league. Qualifications acquired by current players range from carpentry to sports science, business and entrepreneurship degrees.

In the wellbeing room current players can talk to former players about anything that’s worrying them.

“There are only 80 minutes a week on the field, but 1000 minutes of other time and we have a responsibility to teach young men and women about how to conduct themselves off the field,” Matt said.

In the daily grind of teaching, you can lose sight sometimes of how much impact you have on a student. 

Community outreach

Panthers on the Prowl, the dedicated community arm of the Panthers Group, oversees a wide variety of community initiatives, including Building Young Men, a mentoring program focused on providing positive role models and making a lasting impression on local teenage boys.

“Football can be the smallest part of what we’re doing. It’s the community that’s the biggest part of it.

“The X and Ys of football is one thing, but the sustained period of success we’re having now, it’s around the player’s mental health, recovery levels, what he’s doing away from football in terms of training and education, allof that.”

The players are also exposed to several presentations from the National Rugby League (NRL) on respectful relationships, gambling, and other issues which builds on the club’s own work, Matt said.

“Whenever I show visitors around the Academy, they all say the same thing, ‘I had no idea so much other stuff went on the background, away from what you see on the news for 15 seconds every night.”

Matt said the changes he observes in players from just a little guidance reminds him how influential teachers can be on students’ lives.

“In the daily grind of teaching, you can lose sight sometimes of how much impact you can have on a student. I’ve seen how small things like signing an autograph for a child can change their outlook. It’s the same with teachers.

Influence on future

“Teaching TAS, an elective subject, you realise that you could have a big influence on a student’s future. I bumped into a guy recently that I taught 20 years ago. He’s running his own bricklaying business now, and I wondered if I had something to do with that. It was a nice moment.

“When I look back now at the Brothers that coached sport when I was at school, I realise the sacrifices they made. When I was in Year 11 and 12, I had no ambition to be a teacher at all, but my TAS teacher was the coolest guy I’d ever come across and I thought, ‘maybe I could be like him one day’.

“He was a big influence on my life, so I make a conscious effort to remember that you can change a person’s life in the blink of an eye.

“All teachers should take the time to stop and talk to a kid and find out how his day is going. It’s a challenge in the busy day to do that sometimes, but it’s worth it.

“I’m lucky here, I’ve only got 35 players to worry about, not 180 in different classes.”

Matt said he has regular catch-ups with his teacher connections to bounce ideas off them about his role at Panthers.

“I like to have dinner with those guys and see what’s going on in schools, see if someone’s doing something a little bit different. I’m still learning from teachers after all this time.”