LOYALTY is a word bandied around a lot in sport these days.
When it comes to rugby league clubs, some show it and some don’t.
In the case of the Ipswich Jets, loyalty to the current squad of players is the bedrock on which their season will be founded.
When Phil Gould spoke at the Jets sportsman’s dinner recently, he contrasted the loyalty shown by Queensland selectors with the disloyalty shown by those in NSW.
Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and other Maroons played in losing campaigns before Queensland’s run of six straight series wins. But the Queensland selectors stuck with them through those losses.
Jets co-coach Shane Walker was a fascinated member of the audience on that night.
After Walker smacked a drive 280m down the first hole at Brookwater Golf Club, he turned his attention to that word loyalty.
“Phil Gould gets it,” Walker says.
“You’ve got to show loyalty to your players because they can’t always be up every week. They might have a number of bad days but if you show them you have faith in their ability, then at some stage their form will turn and they will start playing well.
“I saw when I played at South Sydney – how players would be going well and then they’d have one bad day where the team would get beaten and then they’d get dropped. By the end of the year you’ve used 50 players and you’ve got a team full of blokes who are disgruntled with the way they have been treated throughout the year . . . and no-one is playing for each other.”
When Shane and Ben Walker took over as co-coaches at the start of last year, they showed similar loyalty to a squad that failed dismally in 2010.
“When we took over, we re-signed the wooden spoon team because we could see something in them. We knew they had the ability but had just lost their confidence,” Walker says.
“We knew that if we showed some confidence in them, their form would turn around.
“It is not a difficult thing to do.
“As a coach you just have to back yourself. You may cop some flak if they don’t perform, but they started off last year really well so we didn’t have to cop a rap for sticking with them. Sometimes that will happen, but you’ve just got to show confidence in yourself as a coach too.”
The Jets haven’t been overactive in the recruitment market. They have welcomed the return of former Jet Kurtis Lingwoodock from Wynnum and bought Javarn White (Norths), Mark Appleton (Souths Logan) and Ethan Tafili (Wests Tigers).
The main focus was on retention.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t think we needed more players. We wanted to get the guys we had here signed so they knew they were wanted at the club,” Walker says.
“We didn’t want to sign guys from outside the club prior to signing our own guys. We wanted to show respect and show them that they are wanted and an important part of the organisation.
“Invariably when you sign someone from outside the group, if someone in their position at the club is already not signed, then it stands to reason that bloke could get disillusioned.”
Walker is in form during our interview. His form on the golf course holds up too as he putts the ball in from off the green. But form can be temporary and Walker knows last year’s improvement at the Jets must be built upon.
The Jets jumped from the wooden spoon to semi-finalists and everyone in the game gave them a tick. This season is going to be harder.
“We were going into games as last year’s wooden spooners and for the first half of the year teams were underestimating us,” Walker says. “But now they know that every time they play the Jets, they are going to get a hard game.
“They are going to come into games mentally prepared for the grind. Another challenge we have this year is the fact that we don’t have as many players coming back from the Titans. That is going to thin out our playing ranks a little bit.
“In one respect it is an exciting time for Ipswich and the young players in the Ipswich area. It is an opportunity for the club to stand on our own two feet and make a statement that we can get by without any help. And for the young guys coming through and who have come through – like Jarrod McInally, Sam Martin, Luke Page and Matt Srama – they can see they can come to Ipswich and find a pathway.”
The Jets will miss inspirational captain Keiron Lander with a back injury at least for the start of the season.
“It would be good to have 17 blokes made of the same stuff,” Walker says.
“He is a really tough country kid who has absolutely no concern for self preservation at all. So in the early part of the year, a number of boys are going to have to step up and fill the void.
“Initially we would be thinking guys like Sam Martin, Lorenzo Maafu and Nathaniel Neale can do the job. We aren’t going to ask them to do what Keiron did but they can slot into the processes we use and fit in.”
At this point, Walker has one of Mr Gambaro’s scallops off a mobile grill on the 17th hole. A promotional girl, professional wrestler Sarah Jay as it turns out, hands him a margarita slushie.
Walker steps up to the tee and launches a tee shot straight and true – the ideal Ambrose partner.
But who will launch the Jets into a stellar 2012 season?
“It is a given that Lorenzo (Maafu) will have a big year. He always does,” Walker says.
“Jarrod McInally has trained extremely well and competes extremely hard for the ball. He reminds me of (former Bronco) Chris Johns. Chris always had that dogged determination to be in there competing and working his backside off and Macca is exactly the same.
“Matt Parcell could be a bolter for sure – another one who competes really well. He’ll start in the colts but he will be pushing for positions.
“He’s along the lines of a Shaun Berrigan. You could play him at five-eighth, you could play him in the centres or at hooker or throw him in at lock. He’s a coach’s dream.”
The 19th beckons . . . and refreshes as usual. But it is the 23rd that Walker is hanging out for – the 23rd of September. That’s grand final day.