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Griffiths up for the next Knights battle in a league of his own

Andrew Mathieson -

When Ronald Griffiths announced his intention to quit Newcastle's NRLW side after just the two years in charge, he more than had the club's blessing.

The defection from a campaign that read 16 wins, just two losses – one for each year – and ultimately two women's premierships, the Indigenous coach was well within his right to test the market for a big money offer and importantly, a bigger challenge.

The warning transpired at the official press conference moments after the 2023 grand final that a move away from his current role, and possibly the NRLW, was imminent.

But rather than coldly farewell the Knights team that Griffiths, in part, inherited from a 2021 winless wooden spoon debut year, the Maitland local stayed true to his roots.

"I was actually approached at the club prior to the women's grand final to tell me that there was another opportunity there," he told National Indigenous Times.

"So I had been mulling it over for a long period of time."

The club confirmed weeks later once the hoopla finally settled down behind the back-to-back title celebrations that Griffiths was appointed the Newcastle NSW Cup coach.

Not for a second did the 46-year-old consider switching clubs nothing short of an offer to stand at the top of a NRL club's program.

So loyal is the most recent NRL Indigenous All-Stars coach to his place of birth that in a brief stint on the coaching panel of Wests Tigers, Griffiths would endure the lengthy drive from Newcastle to Leichhardt, and back, for every single training session.

"I am definitely a strong Newcastle man," he said.

"The time was not right for me to leave; the time is right for me to coach at Newcastle, and that's all I have been focused on."

The challenge has already started just six weeks into the Knights preseason.

From mentoring the Tamika Uptons, the Southwell sisters and the Millie Boyles in his first year, Griffiths is now shaping the unknowns fronting up to every heated session.

It is like starting from scratch all over again after arriving two years earlier to teach a women's roster down on confidence how to win at all, let alone premierships.

"The big thing with the NSW Cup at the moment is I am still dealing with players from the local Newcastle competition that aspire to play in the NRL," he said.

"For the time-being, that's what our squad is made up of until the trial games, then the games roll around for the NRL, and then you get a few contracted players back then."

A further challenge will be to maintain his outstanding coaching record and impact it on a dreadfully awful past.

The Knights reserve grade have traditionally struggled despite the club is plonk in the middle of rugby league heartland.

Outside of the shortened COVID-seasons, they have finished second-last (8 wins and 14 losses) in 2023, third-last (7-15) in 2022, second-last (7-15) way back in 2019, and dead-last (5-15 and 2 draws) in 2018.

While ensuring a greatly improved NSW Cup season is paramount, Griffiths is eyeing off the bigger picture of serving NRL coach Adam O'Brien's frank needs.

"My main goal is always to prepare the players to play first grade," he said.

"That has to be the end goal as the reserve-grade coach.

"But I still have, at the end of the day, an innate understanding of what it does mean to play in Newcastle, for your community, and what it means to have a strong reserve grade team.

"From that perspective, those results are something we will be working on.

"But we want to develop the guys to play first grade and for them to understand what it really means to honour the values that we do have, and that tradition that has gone before us."

But the Gomeroi man is most true to his word, his blood, and his people to be loyal to the Aboriginal rugby league community.

That is a given, and a legacy that he carries on from his dad, legendary Newcastle All Blacks coach Rick Griffiths, the same name that is uttered in all acceptance speeches.

He wasn't afforded the opportunity to coach at the top echelon, but fortunately for the family name, his son is changemaker in every sense, working from inside the system as one of very few Indigenous head coaches going around.

There is a disclosed intent for Griffiths to scale the bush and find a hidden Indigenous gem of the talent still unsigned.

"I am sure plenty of others are aware of them too, but it's whether they also have the wherewithal to foster a connection," Griffiths said.

"From my perspective, it's something that I am personally passionate about.

"It would be a statewide search where I have connections where people reach out.

"I certainly get tipped off and they refer players back to me."

Griffiths has at least three seasons, according to his contract, to build up a list of gifted First Nations players from the bush to add further depth to the club's playing roster.

For a coach that also plays the recruiting scout, there is no bounds that won't escape his eye for detail and undivided attention down to Aboriginal knockout tournaments.

"I'll certainly be eager at where you can get to see those talented athletes that are not quite playing at the elite level, but out playing bush football," he said.

"You get to see them in person on those days and it's a great way to find some talent."

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