By STEVE MASCORD
IT’S like the plot for a thriller: to get off the bottom of the NRL table, Parramatta need to crack a code, blow a safe – or they need someone to give them the combination.
New to the club, coach Ricky Stuart, CEO Ken Edwards and psychologist Jonah Oliver believe they have handed the Eels the combination – of a man hellbent on repairing his legacy and someone seeking to do more for a club that’s done so much for him.
And it’s a combination that’s come from a mixture of another sort – of a scientific test so new and secret its creator won’t talk about it and ‘old school footy values’ that are dying out in most clubs’ interactions with their stars.
Most NRL fans know the bare bones of why Reni Maitua, not so long ago banned for two years over a recreational drugs positive, and Jarryd Hayne – famous for being shot at in Kings Cross – have been named co-captains of incumbent wooden spooners Parramattta.
Tim Mannah is club captain, as outlined in RLW’s Eels season preview a fortnight ago.
But despite the assurances that Maitua, 30, had turned his life around and that Hayne, 25, was ready to have more of an input into Parramatta’s fortunes away from the field, there will be those who will always see one of them as too wild and the other too aloof to ever have the © next to their names.
So Rugby League Week has sought to get to the bottom of exactly how this decision was made and give the club the chance to refute even the most cynical of their supporters.
To that end, we tracked down the agents of both men, plus Edwards and Oliver who devised the leadership test used to identify qualities in Maitua and Hayne which may not have hitherto been apparent.
“To think that Ricky appointed a captain based on a questionnaire is wrong and to even put that out there would probably annoy me,” says the otherwise quite friendly and helpful Oliver, who describes himself as a “performance psychologist”.
“I’ve got a list of about 10 attributes that I think make a good leader. I look at the profile of the group as a whole. Then Ricky looked at the group for a few months. There’s a difference between wanting to be a leader and being a leader.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Former Australia coach Stuart at first wanted one skipper to replace the retired Nathan Hindmarsh in 2013. He then appointed a leadership posse called the Cumberland Group. And the appointment of three leaders with distinct responsibilities came sprung from there.
The journeys Maitua and Hayne have taken to this point could be optioned for movie scripts. For Hayne, being shot at in Kings Cross in 2008 is a cross of a different sort he has borne ever since.
“I don’t think he’s ever been aloof,” his agent, Wayne Beavis, argues (Beavis says contract talks regarding Hayne are progressing well).
“Even way back in 2009, people seemed to follow him.
“He’s like most young blokes – although with him it all came so quick and that was off the back of his raw talent. He’s grown into himself, he’s a better person.
“He’s going to develop further as a player, he’s going to be one of the all-time greats.”
According to Edwards, Hayne “genuinely wants to go to the next step, genuinely wants a role in the leadership of this football club.
“But he’s someone who accepts he still has things to learn and that he needs help in realising his full potential. He pretty much used those words in his discussions with us.”
Maitua’s narrative is even more melodramatic and rocky. Since making his first grade debut with Canterbury in 2004, he’s been an Australian international, a bra boy, a party boy and – from mid 2009 to mid 2011 – an outcast after testing positive to Clenbuterol.
He prepared for his NRL return in a Thai jungle. Maitua’s manager, Sam Ayoub, says captaining Parramatta “wasn’t an aim of his but once it was brought up, it became an ambition.
“He was young and a bit reckless and all that sort of thing … everybody looked up to him for one reason or another, whether it was footy or not.
“I can’t speak highly enough of him (now). He’s an outstanding human being who stuffed up, put his hand up. He didn’t want to be labelled a cheat because it was a social drug, not a performance-enhancer.
“The young players gravitate to him and want to talk to him and he gives every one of them the time of day – he’s not like some of those senior players who fob off the younger players. There’s 100 of them I could rattle off to you.
“He takes an interest in being a genuine role model. The term “role model” is bandied around far too often, for people who 1) don’t deserve it or 2) is only associated with them because of their ability.”
Maitua’s hasn’t just impressed Eels officials. He’s staggered them.
Edwards: “He’s coming into the last few years of his career and I think he has said that some of the things he’s done in the past and the perceptions people have of him, that’s not who his parents wanted him to be and that’s not who he wants to be.
“(He said) ‘what I’m now doing is who I am’. It’s pretty powerful stuff – especially knowing he’s backed it up with actions.”
OK, so we’re up to the decision itself to appoint this odd couple as onfield leaders, with Mannah the off-field man. Oliver is deliberately vague about the details of the increasingly famous test.
“It’s a profile on personality and leadership that’s psychometrically valid and reliable test – it’s been scientifically verified and then customised for use in the sporting population,” he insists.
Key areas are decisiveness, ability to handle pressure, stress tolerance and perseverance. But results have to be balanced against the ability of the subjects to … play rugby league.
“The captain has to be a good player – men follow others who are good at what they do,” says Oliver.
“We want someone who is a game changer. Who are going to be the instigators of change, when we’re fatigued, when we’re under pressure?
“Most athletes are at capacity just taking care of their own performance in front of a big crowd, in a tight game. Very few have the capacity to play well themselves and still help those around them.
“That’s what separates a great player from a great leader.”
A test on a computer playing any role in selecting a captain would be an anathema only a few years ago . But Ayoub says something as old as the game itself – rewarding hard work – is largely responsible for the rebirth of his client.
And in these days of tight salary caps and players sometimes being paid by many clubs at once as they move around the comp, offering players more money because they deserve it is going the way of the dinosaurs. Eels football manager Pete Nolan is still an adherent, though.
“When he first went out there, we did a reasonably small contract,” Ayoub says of Maitua.
“When the club came to us when he still had a year to run and said ‘look, we’d like to talk about upgrading and extending Reni’s contract, it really struck home with him and I could tell that he was genuinely appreciative.
“The fact they would come to him and do that … and when the level of dollars was bigger than he’d ever got before, even in his heyday….
“They were amazed at his leadership qualities and his mentoring qualities and the person he’d become.”
Ayoub observes: “A lot of clubs, if they see a player going well and they want to extend him, the sort of talk him down.
“You get clubs who don’t give a player any more for going good, they think ‘we’ve pinched him, we got him cheap’. Next year he’s going to tell them to (we can’t repeat this in a family magazine).
“There’s only a few clubs left that have that old school mentality. Pete Nolan’s old school from the Broncos; the Broncos still do that.
“It was someone showing faith in him after a really poor period in his life, the previous two or three years, and to me, that was the making of Reni Maitua.”
A quiet superstar, a reborn ruffian and a christian soldier – the perfect cast for a flick that could tunr out to be be the smash hit of the winter.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK