Don’t let the smile deceive you.
New Knights assistant coach Kristian Woolf’s brief to turn the club’s woeful defensive record around in 2019 is no laughing matter.
It’s the one area where the Knights need to make a vast improvement if the club is to challenge the premiership heavyweights next season after conceding an average of more than 28 points a game over the past three years.
And the inside word from senior players is the “hard-nosed” Tongan coach knows his stuff and in the space of a few weeks, has already made a big impression on the squad at training.
Mitchell Pearce, who for 11 seasons plied his trade behind one of the NRL’s best defensive systems at the Roosters, said Woolf’s influence is already being felt.
“He’s got a staunch type of personality and you can see why he is respected and done so well with the Tongan side,” Pearce said.
“It’s early days but just with the drills and some of the difference stuff we have been focusing on, you can tell the boys are getting the right messages.
“There is just a lot more attention to detail with some of the stuff we are doing defensively this off-season and he [Woolf] and Rory [Kostjasyn] are really driving that.”
While he has spent the past four seasons at the helm of the Townsville Blackhawks in the Queensland Cup competition, Woolf is no stranger to the NRL having been assistant coach at both the Cowboys and Broncos.
He “fell into” the Tongan head coach job in 2014 but since then, has helped turn them from a second tier team into an international force although modestly, Woolf says the majority of the credit belongs to the players.
“They were always a sleeping giant because there was always the desire from the players to want to represent Tonga,” he said.
“We just had to work hard to give them an environment that allowed them to do that. The players deserve all the credit.”
As for his own desire to uproot his family and move to Newcastle, Woolf said the attraction of being involved with the Knights was too good to pass up.
“It’s a club on the up but also a club I believed I could come to and possibly offer something and try and make a difference,” he said.
“That was attractive and I guess the real positive for me now I’m here is the quality of the people here, both staff and players. It makes it a great place to work.”
With plenty of hard work, Woolf says Knights fans can expect a big defensive turnaround next season.
“We are changing a few things system-wise but the one thing I would say about the playing group is that we have a young group that wants to improve and wants to learn and work hard,” he said.
“I’ve got no doubt with that type of work ethic, there will be a real big improvement because they are the ones who will drive that and are driving that.”
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.