Wild in the West: Matt Briggs on the challenge facing Penrith

Photo: SPA Images

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Two years ago, it looked as if the Shute Shield’s battle of the West was being won by Penrith. The Emus had just enjoyed their best season in some time under new head coach Matt Briggs, five wins including the scalps of Southern Districts and Northern Suburbs helping him lift the coveted Coach of the Year Award. Nepean Rugby Park was fast becoming a graveyard for any visitor, and the club was finally producing talent worthy of a glance from the Super Rugby franchises. Conversely, along the M4 at rivals Parramatta, the white flags were being raised. Loss of revenue from the closure of their leagues club, a loss of cattle on the park (some players were backing up through three grades on a Saturday), and a loss of credibility through 100pt plus defeats, left the foundation club teetering on the brink of existence.

Fast forward to Round Three of this year’s competition and the changing fortunes for both clubs in the last 48 months was palpable. While Penrith have maintained some steady progress in terms of player numbers and junior development, their financial situation and availability of top tier players has dramatically changed. The Two Blues on the other hand, have risen like a phoenix from the flames. They are on an even keel financially, having attracted sponsors and re-engaged with the local community, and their performances on the park continue to go from strength-to-strength under head coach Glen Christini. Their 44-15 victory in the local derby gave them back-to-back wins for the first time in four years.

For the Emus, it was their third loss in three starts, and despite being competitive in their first two games against Premiers Eastwood (lost by 22pts) and Eastern Suburbs (lost by 10pts), the genuine first grade playing stocks that Briggs will be able to call upon to improve matters throughout the year are decidedly threadbare. He explains the difficulties both he and the club face. “We were financially gutted over the last few years. We’ve got a new administration that’s basically had to clear over $100,000 worth of debt accumulated over the previous decade to break even, and we just don’t have the benefactors on board to write the big cheques to get better players in and help us improve. We still don’t have a major sponsor and we’re playing in the best club competition in the country. If we were able to get some money and able to get some players – who knows?”

Holding onto those players he already has is also a concern, and although he’s realistic enough to understand that clubs with better prospects will circle any promising young talent – and that he doesn’t blame the players for taking the opportunities – it still smarts. “What’s very hard is that clubs that do have money, want to take our players. We’ve got very few as it is and that’s disappointing. Unfortunately, we lost a handful of fringe and/or capped Super contracted first graders in the off season. But it’s not just those sort of players, even guys who are just coming through get offered money to go elsewhere and we can’t keep them.”

However the rest of the season pans out, and however many insurmountable odds the Emus might face, one thing’s for sure, Briggs isn’t going to walk away, and he expects the same fighting spirit from his team. “If you compete you’re a chance, if you don’t compete and don’t give your best, unfortunately, life tends to pass you by and that’s my job, to make sure that they turn it around very quickly. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few Premierships on my travels and they’re great things. But in terms of challenges, there’s no greater challenge than doing this in my opinion – there’s daylight between them. I never give up and we will never give up, we’ll continue to get better and we’ll continue to improve and I’m sure that will result in us winning games. It is difficult but if you don’t love it and you’re not passionate about it, you shouldn’t do it.”

Waratahs v Bulls Match Program_2012_Penrith

Original version published in the NSW Waratahs v Bulls Match Program from May 11th, 2012

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