Building an NRL premiership winning team in a draft-free league

A packed Leichhardt Oval cheer on the Wests Tigers. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

The mystic arts of talent identification and recruitment are essential tools in running a successful NRL club. In a professional league with no player draft system, the ability to find and secure the right talent ahead of your rivals is crucial in building that elusive premiership winning team. Adam Hartigan was part of the Sydney Roosters coaching, recruitment and management teams as they built the most successful NRL team of last decade. He hopes to bring some of that success to his new role of General Manager of Football at Wests Tigers.

Hartigan began his rugby league journey like many others, running out to play for his local team as a young boy in Sydney's Western Suburbs. At school and on weekends his passion for the game grew and like many, he allowed himself to dream of a playing career.

He attended St Patrick's College Blacktown, a traditional rugby league school which was starting to invest more heavily in the game at that time. Part of the Penrith Panthers junior catchment area, the school began recruiting young players through a scholarship scheme.

"Schools see rugby league as a bit of a vehicle for making sure there is discipline, making sure that young boys are turning up and being engaged, because they know that if they behave they have a game of football to play at the end of the week," Hartigan tells ESPN.

But things soured for a teenage Hartigan. He had his jaw badly broken in an ugly off-the-ball incident as a 17 year old, and although he managed a brief comeback after a long recovery, he had lost his confidence and decided to hang up his boots along with his dreams of playing in the NRL.

Keen to stay involved in the game, he helped out with some coaching at St Patrick's during his senior years, before an opportunity presented itself at Manly Sea Eagles. He was hired as part of the support staff for their SG Ball team, but after a couple of seasons the burden of travelling to the Northern Beaches saw him leave and take up a similar role at the Panthers.

He finished his studies and started a career as a school teacher, but continued his involvement with coaching, taking up an opportunity to travel with the Tongan national side on a tour of Papua New Guinea during the school holidays. Rohan Smith was the coach of that side, whose father Brian had just started his tenure as coach of the Sydney Roosters. It led to a coaching opportunity for Hartigan at the Roosters with their SG Ball side.

Two years in that role was followed by two years as assistant coach of the National Youth Team (NYC) under Jason Taylor and then Paul Green. Both would go on to be senior NRL coaches, leaving Hartigan to the dual roles of NYC coach and team manager.

Marriage saw him torn between the hours required at the Roosters and the desire to build a family. He decided to go back into the more family friendly career of a teacher at his old school St Patrick's Blacktown, seemingly leaving professional rugby league behind. But a call from Roosters coach Trent Robinson in 2015 changed all that. He was offered the job of Recruitment Manager, a role generally reserved for older, more experienced rugby league stalwarts. That role developed into more of a team manager position, which ultimately led to the opportunity at Wests Tigers.

"Essentially there are a lot of similarities to what I was doing at the back end of my time at the Roosters and my role at the Tigers, although the set up at the Roosters was a little bit different. It hurt leaving, but it was something I needed to do," he said.

The Tigers have had a rocky recent history when it comes to player retention and recruitment. They famously lost three of four big-name players when James Tedesco (Roosters), Mitchell Moses (Eels) and Aaron Woods (Bulldogs) all accepted contracts at other clubs during the 2017 season. They have since been criticised for paying big money for an injury-hit Josh Reynolds, as well as forwards Ben Mattaliano and Russell Packer. Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah were both let go, only to return and as with any club, recruitment that doesn't lead to success is almost always seen as a failure by fans.

Since Hartigan's appointment the club has shown strength in its dealings with Latrell Mitchell's management and has recently signed Joey Leilua from the Raiders and Adam Doueihi from the Rabbitohs.

"Recruitment falls under my job description, but we have a recruitment manager as well as a list analyst who spends a lot of time looking at statistics and players coming through and how they potentially fit our model, so there is a group of us working on it, so there is regular communication with that group," Hartigan said. "I oversee it and I present a case to the CEO and coach as to who we should sign and why."

Having coached Mitchell at the Roosters, Hartigan had the inside running when it came to negotiating with the star Rooster. But the Tigers weren't willing to lie idle in the recruitment market while waiting for an answer.

"There was definitely interest from us in Latrell, there was definitely interest from Latrell, the management split probably made it a lot harder than it needed to be," Hartigan said.

"My relationship with Latrell in the past probably gave us the opportunity to meet with him first, but obviously it didn't eventuate.

"We reached the point where we invited Latrell down for a meeting and didn't hear back, because he was out hunting and we just needed to move on. While we were waiting for him, we were potentially missing out on other recruits. It was important to move on and find players who wanted to be part of the Tigers."

When it comes to recruiting players, the role of head coach can vary. It is an interesting dynamic, because the career of a NRL coach lives or dies based on the quality of his team.

"Robbo (Trent Robinson, Roosters head coach) was really supportive... we would have regular chats on what made up a Roosters-style player - what attributes they had to have," Hartigan said.

"I think it's important that the senior coach has complete buy-in as to which players are coming in. Otherwise if they don't have that buy-in it's harder for them to believe in that player when they are coaching them.

"It's the same with Madge (Michael Maguire, Tigers head coach) I think it is important that your coach has a say, it's not necessarily the final say, but they need to be across what direction we are going with when it comes to recruitment.

"With the juniors there is a little more freedom to recruit and make some errors and that's all part of the learning process, but you can't make the same mistakes when you are trying to build an NRL team that has the aim of winning comps and going back-to-back and making sure the future is bright at the club."

Identifying junior talent is the real mystic art of recruiting. A player that looks like a future superstar at 12 years of age might never have the commitment or drive to make it to the very top. Wests Tigers have one of the larger junior catchment areas in the NRL which makes the job both easier and considerably more difficult.

If you play in the Balmain Tigers or Wests Magpies junior rugby league, then you fall under the Wests Tigers catchment area. Wests being the bigger of the two areas has over 6,000 juniors, with players selected for development programs from the age of 13, then at Under 16 they can play Harold Matthews which is a nine week NSWRL run competition. Following that they can be selected for an Under 17s development squad before going into the SG Ball which is the NSWRL run competition for Under 18s. The unique feature of the joint venture club is that to this point there are two teams representing both the Wests Magpies and Balmain Tigers and playing against each other in these competitions.

Then they have what they call the "Cubs" program, where the best kids from the Magpies and Tigers train together at Concord Oval, because from the Under 20s (Jersey Flegg) onwards, they will play for the combined Wests Tigers teams.

Across the NRL, junior players can only be signed to a contract from the year that they turn 15. The clubs determine the terms of the contract, whether it be until they reach SG Ball age or until they leave school. It gives the clubs time to see how the player develops within their systems.

Most clubs have a forecasting chart covering the next four or five years, predicting the level that a player will reach, and whether he is someone that needs to be retained, whether currently contracted or not. The clubs have a team of scouts and coaches who watch these juniors and report back on their progress. It's not an exact science and experience plays a big part in making these judgements.

There is nothing stopping a rival club from identifying a player in another club's junior system and offering them a contract the year they turn 15. There is a development fee of around $5,000, depending on the level the player has reached, that has to be paid before that player can leave his junior system, but it's not really a lot of money to deter a club which feels it has spotted a potential star of the future.

"It depends on your development budget and your strategy as to how many of those 15 year-olds you try to lock up," Hartigan explains.

"The gamble is, you really don't know how many of them are going to make it through to be first grade footballers."

On and off the field there is a lot of development to be done with a player between the ages of 14 and 18. The rugby league community has improved significantly the well-being programs for young players. As recently as 20 years ago, teenage players were being signed and effectively spat out of the system if they didn't measure up. The sport has realised that a player has to have a balanced life off the field, if he is going to have the dedication required to develop into a top line player, so more is done to make sure they are coping.

"It's not just the football coaching, it's the life coaching as well. Helping them through life, managing school work, expectations, relationships, financial situations, exposure to alcohol and potentially drugs," Hartigan said.

"The ones you identify as being potential stars at 15 or 16 have to survive a lot of water under the bridge before they realise that potential."

In moving from the Roosters to the Tigers, Hartigan has had to adjust to a completely different approach to recruitment. The Roosters have a very limited junior catchment area and were, through necessity, constantly searching elsewhere for talent.

"The mentality is different than when I was at the Roosters. We want to increase the number of local juniors who are playing at Wests Tigers," Hartigan said.

"We have Luke Brooks, Chris Lawrence and David Nofoaluma as our local juniors currently playing NRL. For a catchment area the size of ours, we need a lot more than that. It's not something we can change overnight, but it is something we are working on to make sure that happens."

For juniors to accept that there is a clear pathway to the NRL, they need to see players who have worn the same jersey that they are wearing making it to first grade. Having your juniors succeed at the highest level provides immeasurable encouragement and subsequent growth in a club's junior system.

"When I was at Penrith, there were only ever a couple of kids that were brought in from outside the catchment area each year," Hartigan said.

"Now they probably have the best pathways and development programs in the NRL. They only have locals in their Harold Matthews and SG Ball teams and they might soon reach the point where their Jersey Flegg team is local talent only.

"Our combined catchment area is not far behind theirs in terms of numbers, so we need to turn our program into something similar. It brings a completely different approach to recruiting. Sure you still go to outside your area to look at a player who has a lot of potential, but you can afford to cherry pick the best to complement your own juniors. You are not trying to build an entire team on talent from other clubs."

Seventeen-year-old Zane Camroux attended one of Wests Tigers main feeder schools, Holy Cross College Ryde, graduating last year. He, like many, started playing rugby league when he was a young boy, tackling his two older brothers in the backyard before pulling on a jersey for the Holy Cross Rhinos Junior Rugby League Football Club.

He was part of the Holy Cross College senior team and identified by the Tigers development system, playing in their Harold Matthews team. But he very nearly slipped through the Tigers net, with Raiders coach Ricky Stuart approaching his family following a representative carnival held in Canberra.

"Yeah, it was very tempting, to go to the Raiders, especially after speaking with Ricky Stuart like that," Camroux tells ESPN.

Knights Recruitment Manager Alex McKinnon also called and spoke to the family about their interest in Zane's playing future. It highlights one of the issues confronting clubs as they do their best to ensure their best remain in their colours.

"Zane's story landed on my desk during my second week in the job," Hartigan said.

"He had gained significant interest from both the Raiders and Knights. Alex McKinnon, who is a really good fella, who I get along with really well and speak to regularly, he was up front - probably a bit of a gentlemen's agreement between some clubs - he called me and said he was really interested in Zane and wanted to chat to him and was just giving me the courtesy of letting me know."

"From Zane's perspective it is nice to know that you are wanted, he was approached and had a chat to Ricky and had a chat to Alex and fortunately he decided to stay at the Tigers," Hartigan said.

Camroux's father Peter had played first grade for Balmain Tigers during the height of their powers in the late 80s, before going on to coach the Tigers Under 20s to a premiership in 1997. The family bleeds black and gold and that kind of emotional attachment often plays a big role in player retention.

"I think you will find across the board that rugby league people are passionate people, that's how we are all brought up," Hartigan continued.

"The Camrouxs are no different, dad played for the club, coached at the club. Mum and dad came in and we had a chat and their point of view was very strong - they didn't want to leave the club - but other clubs had shown interest and for whatever reason we had been slow to act.

"It was my second week on the job and it was a very important case for me to learn about how we operate and how this scenario happened. But, when a club has a big junior base these things can happen.

"Overall I am very happy with the way we are progressing at Wests Tigers, both on and off field."

Zane Camroux will lead the Balmain Tigers SG Ball team out against Manly Warringah this weekend. Two clubs which have played a part in the career of Adam Hartigan. He'll be hoping, as all in his position do, that Camroux will be a success story, and that Wests Tigers will continue to build a competitive first grade roster based on the strength of their juniors. The ultimate aim being that with the help of some carefully picked players from outside the system, the club will once again raise the premiership trophy in front of its adoring fans.