Former Wallaby Julian Huxley has been appointed head coach at Penrith ahead of the 2017 Shute Shield season.
Huxley played 9 Tests for the Wallabies but had his career tragically interrupted when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008. By 2011, he had overcome his illness and returned to play a further 22 Super Rugby matches for the Melbourne Rebels before finishing his career in France.
After returning to Australia, Huxley was an assistant coach at Warringah and the Sydney Rays before agreeing to terms with Penrith last week. We caught up with the 37-year old to discuss the role and hear his plans for Penrith and rugby in western Sydney.
You’ve taken on quite a challenge at Penrith, you must be excited?
I am, everyone knows how big a challenge it is, but it is a double edge sword. I think it could be extremely rewarding and a great opportunity to make a difference and you don’t get the chance to take on that type of role every day so it’s really exciting.
After working at Warringah and the Sydney Rays, are you looking forward to becoming a head coach for the first time?
Yeah definitely, most coaches have their own ideas and while its been great assisting up until this point and I’ve learnt a lot from the coaches I’ve worked with, I’m excited to take on a head coaching role and really test myself to see how I go.
A lot of coaches have come in and out of Penrith. Why will you be different?
I don’t know if I can to be perfectly honest. Nothing is guaranteed in life, I learnt that through my brain tumour experience, but I’ll just be giving it all I’ve got. I think I’ve got a skill set that will help me but there are no guarantees.
There is plenty to be done at Penrith, where will you start?
At the base level, I think you just have to make players better individually, and then if you are doing a good job as a coach, they’ll perform as a team. I learnt a lot of my rugby at the Brumbies in the early 2000’s and down there, they just stripped everything back and focussed on making players better and if you can do that, then you’re a chance.
To start, we need to focus on every single player that played at Penrith this year and try and get them back. Every player is really important. It’s no secret that Penrith have had a numbers issue in the past and I think most of the wider rugby community respects them because of it. A lot of guys turned up and played three games each week and they just kept turning up week after week. It’s incredible that they have stuck with it for so long and we need to keep them.
The best way to get more players to the club is to make it enjoyable, build a strong culture throughout the whole club and make it a place where each player is getting better. You can’t just go and buy players, it’s the cart before the horse and it just won’t work.
There are already some great people at the club and it is really community driven, so we need to build on that and create a culture where everyone is enjoying their rugby and getting better. We want to rip in and work hard, but we need to enjoy ourselves and support each other as a community. It’s a slow burner because there is no quick fix.
As head coach, are you focussed on the first grade side or the entire club?
The focus has to be on the entire club. Yes we want to win games in first grade, but we need strong colts and lower grade sides beneath that to build depth and to build a strong club culture.
The Penrith Juniors have done a great job in the last five years and we are starting to see some of those guys come through now but we need to keep them playing at Penrith. We need players to look at the club as an opportunity to further their rugby careers. These kids should be able to stay living in their community and still be able to chase their dreams and play rugby at a high level.
At the moment, there is great talent in the schools and in the juniors systems out here but the established rugby areas poach them as soon as they play in a representative side. That’s a challenge, but we need to make it possible for players to chase their footy dreams while playing for Penrith.
When you talk about the health of the game in Australia, it just does not help to have the Penrith juniors moving to play in already established rugby areas. We need players to think, if we can win some games out here then we will get noticed and then the sky is the limit.
How will you keep local juniors and current players playing in the area?
I think we’ll need to reach a tipping point where we are genuinely competitive in both colts and grade and that will take some time and a lot of hard work. But then the club will become a lot more attractive.
If you look at Sydney Uni and Randwick, once they were successful, people were knocking down the door to play there whereas when you haven’t been so successful, it can be hard to get guys in.
If we can work hard to get past that tipping point and players genuinely want to come and play here, then who knows how good Penrith could be.
Should the governing bodies be doing more to support and fund rugby in Penrith and western Sydney?
I only started last week, so I still need to get across it all but I think support can come in a lot of different ways, it doesn’t just have to be about funding. It could be running youth camps and things like that in Penrith with the help of ARU or NSW Rugby development officers. I’m not across it enough yet to say that we need more monetary support, but we will need help in some way or another.
I’ve got some good contacts throughout Australian rugby from my time playing so hopefully when the time comes, I’ll be able to have those conversations. But first, we need to set up some good programs and help players get better and then hopefully that gives the governing bodies more confidence to invest in Penrith.
How will you gauge success during your time at Penrith?
I haven’t really thought too much about how to gauge it, but we need to win games to become competitive and push for the finals. If we can reach that tipping point that we spoke of earlier, then there is no reason why the team can’t make finals and win them.
There is so much potential out in Western Sydney, it’s hard to determine just how successful Penrith could be. I think there is a genuine chance that if we get things right and get a bit of luck, we can win half a dozen games next year. If we don’t, then maybe we won’t.
I think when you are trying to gauge success, it’s more about giving everything you can, rather than the results. When I got through my brain tumour and wanted to play rugby again, the reason I did it was because I realised it wasn’t about whether or not I played rugby again, it was about giving everything I could to make that happen.
It’s hard to measure that, but if we can go out next year and everyone is giving their all and enjoying themselves, then I think we’ll be successful. You can’t measure that on a spreadsheet but that needs to be the goal.
This article was re-produced with the permission of RugbyNews, where it was originally published; you can see that version here.