THE first time I encountered Adam O'Brien, it's fair to say neither of us knew the other from a bar of soap.
I was just a journalist from out of town in the AAMI Park press-conference room, awaiting the traditional post-match briefing after the Melbourne Storm had yet again put the cleaners through the Newcastle Knights.
O'Brien was a late substitute for Craig Bellamy, who had a pressing family commitment.
Little was I to know - or O'Brien either, for that matter - that in a few years' time we would be crossing paths again, in all likelihood on a regular basis, after his appointment as the Knights' new head coach for at least the next three seasons.
On Wednesday this week we shook hands and introduced ourselves, and it was hard not to be impressed with how O'Brien handled the media throng on his first official day in the hot seat.
There were no bold predictions or outlandish statements, just an understated combination of self-assuredness and common sense.
O'Brien might not be a household name, but having worked as an assistant under both Bellamy and then Trent Robinson at Sydney Roosters, he could hardly have served a more comprehensive apprenticeship. Bellamy and Robinson are surely the most astute tacticians in the NRL, and nobody has had a better opportunity to pick their brains than the man who has succeeded Nathan Brown at the helm of the Knights.
Presumably he knows what a successful club should look like.
Whereas Wayne Bennett arrived in Newcastle and immediately started telling the powers-that-be what was wrong, and what needed to be fixed, O'Brien has instead focused on the positives.
The facilities at Wests Mayfield, he believes, are as good as any in the competition. His roster includes a nice blend of quality senior players and promising young prospects, whom he intends to give every opportunity.
While Newcastle's 2019 season ended as a write-off, leaving long-suffering fans at the point of despair, he preferred to reflect on the six-game winning streak mid-season, which included a 38-12 spanking of the Roosters in round 11.
Whatever issues arose between Brown and the players to derail their campaign, he said, was "none of my business".
Nonetheless, he acknowledged some "uncomfortable conversations" would be required to identify and address shortcomings, after which such talk would be "parked" and a conscious effort made to move forward.
O'Brien said he realised that a number of Newcastle's players had become regular first-graders in a team who have won only a small percentage of their games.
But who's to say that can't be an advantage by providing a reservoir of motivation and a safeguard against complacency?
Of all the thoughts O'Brien shared with the media, perhaps what impressed me most was his belief that players who have signed a contract with the club should be entitled to honour it. In this day and age of rugby league, what a refreshing outlook.
Increasingly in the modern era, when a new coach takes over an NRL club the first thing he does is pinpoint players he wants to discard, regardless of how many seasons their deals have to run.
At Newcastle, in particular, this has been a recurring trend that dates back to Bennett's arrival at the end of 2011. Bennett promptly directed contracted players such as Cory Paterson, Junior Sa'u, Wes Naiqama, Richie Fa'aoso, Antonio Kaufusi, Con Mika and Beau Henry to the back door.
Long after Bennett's departure, contracts with Newcastle have too often seemed worth less than the paper on which they were printed.
Tyrone Roberts, Chris Houston, Adam Clydsdale, Akuila Uate, Jake Mamo and Trent Hodkinson were all moved on by the Knights after receiving payouts which, collectively, would have amounted to more than $1 million.
In some cases, hard-ball tactics were required. Uate, for instance, was not only dropped to NSW Cup by Brown after scoring just one try in the first 10 games of 2016, he was effectively banished from the NRL squad.
Newcastle's greatest-ever tryscorer, with 110 from 161 appearances, eventually copped a $250,000 golden handshake to go and ply his trade with Manly.
I realise this has become the nature of the professional game, and that sometimes the outcome suits both the player and the club.
But there has to come a point where it is counter-productive, both financially for the club and emotionally for the players.
With the benefit of hindsight, what psychological impact did it have on Newcastle's troops last season when Brown basically told Jesse Ramien to clean out his locker and hit the road? Or when Danny Levi was feeling pressure to follow him?
As O'Brien noted on Wednesday, players have wives and families to support, mortgages and bills to pay. They shouldn't be treated as expendable objects.
My guess is that a coach who recognises this is one who will ultimately reap long-term rewards.
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