“You take bits and pieces from all of them, how they do things. [Storm general manager of football] Frank Ponissi is a good mate of mine, you look at how they do things in Melbourne. I’m lucky I can lean on those blokes.”
Coaching players he had only recently played with and against was another challenge Barrett found “more difficult than I thought”.
“I was feeling my way a little bit on how it was going to evolve, whereas coming into this job I knew exactly what I want, how I want to run it and a clear idea of how I am going to do it,” Barrett said.
This job is as coach of Canterbury, a club Barrett has always had a strong connection with. The 43-year-old grew up supporting the “family club”, his older brother Scott made his only first-grade appearance for it in 1990 and Barrett himself almost joined during his playing days.
Now that he has finally arrived, the new gig comes with its own challenges; the club narrowly avoided the wooden spoon last year, is only just emerging from a salary cap mess and has been plagued by factional infighting.
Barrett, however, begins with a clean slate. The Bulldogs began their 2021 campaign with a new chief executive, new chairman, new recruiter, new players and renewed hope.
Barrett is also a new man, one who has matured and evolved following his time on the northern beaches.
“I’m probably completely different, to be honest,” he said. “I’m a hell of a lot calmer. I’m very clear on the type of coach I want to be, the type of club that I want to be a part of.
“There’s real clarity around how I want the club and the team to be perceived. And how we are going to put it together.”
Club season launches are often staid affairs. Sponsors are acknowledged, a box is ticked and attendees depart without any genuine insight into the club and its machinations.
The same cannot be said when Barrett took the microphone at Canterbury’s launch at Doltone House last month. This was Barrett unplugged, speaking openly about the experiences that have shaped him, his vision for the future and just how much it would mean to him personally to beat Penrith on Saturday afternoon. Chatham House rules prevent us from divulging all the details, but it’s fair to say that taking on the club he helped steer to a grand final last year isn’t “just another game”.
That was evident when he uttered words to the effect of: “This is the one game I’d like to win, for shit sure”.
When the Herald sat down with Barrett in his Belmore office just days before said Panthers clash, the former representative playmaker was more circumspect.
“I think it would mean a lot to the club, not just me personally,” Barrett said. “I’ve got a lot of friends there and had a hell of a lot to do with a lot of people in that club on two occasions.
“We’re all competitive. Ultimately, it’s not about me, it never can be. It’s about the process and not the outcome. I know that sounds like a cliche but I won’t be falling into the trap of giving you a headline and saying it’s all about me.”
When Barrett signed on with Canterbury last year, while still an assistant to Ivan Cleary at Penrith, the situation had the potential to go pear-shaped. If not handled delicately by all parties, the Panthers’ storied run to the grand final would not have eventuated. It worked because Barrett was able to compartmentalise the two jobs, conducting his Bulldogs business on the commute home to Shellharbour.
“There was a lot done in the car,” he said. “I was pretty disciplined, I would leave the phone in the drawer when I got to Penrith and concentrated on the work there. I think we handled it well.
“It didn’t affect my work, it certainly didn’t affect the team. I’m disappointed they couldn’t win the grand final out at Penrith.
“It was a good experience. I wish them all the best.”
That sentiment won’t extend to this weekend. The relationship with Penrith has been tested further following Barrett’s efforts to bring several key Panthers with him. Canterbury’s attempt to prise Matt Burton from the foot of the mountains early has dominated the build up to the battle at Bankwest Stadium.
As he seeks to earn a first victory for his new side, Barrett has provided unique insights into his former one. As the attack coach at the Panthers, you would think he would single out the likes of Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Apisai Koroisau or Stephen Crichton for last year’s successes. Instead, the first man he mentions is an unheralded forward.
“The big thing that was tipped into Penrith’s favour last year was the acquisition of Zane Tetevano,” he said.
“I thought he did a really good job in teaching and educating the young forwards about how to train hard and how to prepare properly. The middles out there are unheralded. Everyone talks about the spine and the OBs [outside backs] and the X-factor, but the middles they’ve got, off the back of Zane, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Isaah Yeo, they are the cornerstone of the team. That won’t change.
“It was enjoyable [working there]. It was a funny one because we just kept winning. It just rolled on and on and on. It made reviews pretty simple when you just keep winning.”
It speaks to the type of player Barrett is attempting to bring to Canterbury. Seven of the eight recruits he chased have signed on. The only one who got away was Panthers forward Spencer Leniu.
The Panthers’ rebuild was the result of prioritising local talent, a blueprint Barrett believes can be replicated by playing the long game at Belmore.
“When I leave the joint – whether that be in three years, five years or 10 years – I want to leave it in a better place than when I got here,” he said. “We’ll put all the things in place that can be sustainable. At the same time, being responsible with what we do on our watch here. Ultimately we’re just passing through. The club will be here a lot longer than any of us. We want to make sure our time here is remembered in a good light.”
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Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.