Pre-season pain behind Burleigh's gain

With more than a decade passing since the club’s last premiership; and finals appearances also in the distant past, Burleigh Bears coach Jim Lenihan knew it was time to institute change.

Like the definition of insanity (repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting a different result), Lenihan recognised the comfortable existence Burleigh had fallen into was preventing them from achieving anything of significance.

The playing roster and the coaching staff both received an overhaul and veteran forward Darren Griffiths was supplanted as skipper by a pair of young former Titans in Jamal Fogarty and Jamie Dowling.

Luke Page returned to the club after stints with Canberra and St George Illawarra, Cameron Cullen returned to the Gold Coast after a stint with Mackay and the Bears picked up former NRL players Pat Politoni and Sami Sauiluma.

But perhaps the most significant change came in the coaching staff with the appointment of Simon Buxton as the club’s strength and conditioning coach.

We can't reveal exactly what Buxton does for a living, but in the training he conducts – mistakes aren't a matter of conceding six points, but a matter of life and death.

Lenihan has credited Buxton with instilling a greater sense of discipline within the club and helping to cultivate a more honest playing group who are now not afraid to put their hands up when certain standards are not being met.

The Bears have not won more than 11 games in a season since they were runners up to the North Queensland Young Guns back in 2005, but at the halfway point have already chalked up nine wins this year.

Lenihan knows that counts for nothing unless they continue to improve over the second half of the season, but admits that there is a greater resilience within the team than has been in other Burleigh teams of recent years.

“We probably didn't have strength of character within the group to tell people within the group that they need to be better," Lenihan said.

“It's easy to tell people that they're doing a good job, but it's sometimes hard to tell players within the group and have that seniority to say that they aren't doing good enough and that we need to do better.

“We've got better senior players this year that are not only telling us when we're doing good stuff on the field, but when we're not doing good stuff on the field.

“Peer ownership of what we're doing as a group is really important.”

With such a dramatically remodelled playing roster Buxton's first duty when was appointed late last year was to not only get the players into the best physical shape possible but also bring them together as a unit.

Buxton's association with rugby league stretches all the way back to the days of the Gold Coast Chargers and has since included appointments with the Mackay Cutters along with team building workshops with the Gold Coast Titans in 2010 and 2011.

When the players were subjected to a gruelling army camp at Canungra west of the Gold Coast and put through the hardest pre-season of their footballing careers, Buxton was the disciplinarian who drew their ire, but was happy to play the bad guy to see the results that have manifested on the field.

“This is only my first year and I hadn't seen them play before, but a few of the things that I was told was that they didn't have that resilience, a lot of those key attributes that we were looking for and which we have displayed this year,” Buxton said.

“We wanted to have one of the hardest pre-seasons that they had ever experienced. That was my task from the coaches and I think we achieved it.

“We got some really, really good results in terms of their fitness levels in comparison to other clubs at NRL level so that was another foundation that we set.

“Because they have bonded so well they are not only playing for each other, but they're playing for their coach and that's evident in how they prepare and their whole attitude.”

After a gritty win against Easts last Sunday, the next assignment for Burleigh is against a resurgent Wynnum Manly outfit at Pizzey Park this Sunday which also doubles as the Channel Nine match of the round.

Currently in second place on the ladder behind the Blackhawks, another win will take them one step closer to that finals appearance that has eluded them for so long.

A former editor of Big League, Tony Webeck is the Chief Queensland Correspondent for NRL.com.