A brilliant football mind: Inside the rise of Justin Holbrook

Opportunity didn’t knock often for Justin Holbrook as a player, yet when it did he was always waiting at the door ready to answer.

When Immortal Andrew Johns was unavailable due to selection in the 1999 NSW Origin team, Newcastle coach Warren Ryan twice turned to Holbrook to fill the No.7 jersey.

After a disastrous 1-4 start to begin the 2002 season, Roosters coach Ricky Stuart partnered Holbrook with Brad Fittler in the halves.

Starting with a 58-12 thumping of the Cowboys, the team won four straight with Holbrook in the line-up – the only four games he played that season – before going on to win the grand final, losing just four more games in the process.

When Panthers teammates lamented in 2001 that there wasn’t a decent steak restaurant anywhere in their area, he went and opened one despite having zero experience in the hospitality industry, a venture that profited thanks in part to the patronage of fellow Penrith players.

Whether by luck or good management, Holbrook has enjoyed success wherever he has gone but the 43-year-old may be facing his greatest test yet as the next coach of the Gold Coast Titans.

Holbrook was formally announced as the fourth coach of the Titans on Wednesday night on a two-year deal, executive chairman Dennis Watt pointing to the success of Trent Robinson and Michael Maguire following apprenticeships in Super League that led to NRL premierships with the Roosters and Rabbitohs respectively.

Justin Holbrook scores a try for the Roosters against St George Illawarra on Anzac Day in 2002.
Justin Holbrook scores a try for the Roosters against St George Illawarra on Anzac Day in 2002. ©NRL Photos

"We would love to see Justin continue that tradition," Watt said.

For those who played alongside Holbrook in his sporadic 17-game playing career at the Knights, Panthers and Roosters from 1999-2002, a move into coaching seemed almost inevitable.

"He was smart. The one thing that I realised pretty quickly was that he was highly intelligent and understood the game at a high level," said Justin Hodges, a teammate of Holbrook’s at the Roosters in 2002.

"Being a halfback, he’s got a very good footy brain so that’s probably his best quality.

"He had this ability to get around the lads and become friends with everyone. He’s quite approachable."

As he did playing second fiddle behind Johns at the Knights, Holbrook had to bide his time behind Craig Gower at the Panthers yet made an immediate impression on his teammates on and off the field.

"He was a really smart player," says former Penrith teammate Scott Sattler.

"We’d do some sessions before and after training and you could see what he was trying to do.

"He had a really good analytical brain when it came to rugby league. He just didn’t have the leg speed to get to where he needed to get to like a lot of other halfbacks but he was really quick between the ears.

Justin Holbrook celebrates a Roosters try with Bryan Fletcher.
Justin Holbrook celebrates a Roosters try with Bryan Fletcher. ©NRL Photos

"You could tell what he wanted to try and do. I loved playing with him because he was always so smart and he would always put you in a better position than what you were previously as a player. He was very good at doing that as a half.

"Never once did I ever question his intellect around rugby league. 

"Most importantly it was the way he interacted with his other players. He was just such a popular guy from the first time you met him. You would have to walk the Sahara to find someone who has anything bad to say about him as a human being."

In his first year coaching at NSW Cup level he took Canterbury to a grand final win over Windsor and enjoyed success with the Dragons and Eels under-20 teams.

Holbrook led the Junior Kangaroos from 2015-2017 in a role that brought him into contact with current Titans players Ash Taylor, Brian Kelly, Jai Arrow, Brenko Lee and Sam Stone.

Justin Holbrook passes for the Panthers in 2001.
Justin Holbrook passes for the Panthers in 2001. ©NRL Photos

Former Knights teammate Danny Buderus worked with Holbrook on the Junior Kangaroos coaching staff and spoke of the rapport he quickly established with the elite of Australia’s rugby league nursery.

"Every time I’ve seen him in a coaching environment he’s been highly impressive," Buderus told NRL.com.

"He was straight to the point and you could see over a period of time the relationships he could build with a player.

"He’s honest, organised and his message is to the point and his players don’t get confused. Without that confusion they respect what he’s doing because what he tells them works."

Prior to succeeding club legend Keiron Cunningham at St Helens midway through the 2017 season, Holbrook also proved popular with Roosters players in his time as an assistant to Robinson.

"I've got a real high opinion of Justin from when he was here," said Roosters veteran Mitch Aubusson.

"I saw him over at St Helens when we did training for the World Club Challenge and he's such a good guy and is doing really well.

"I think he'll suit the Titans right down to the ground. Just going off when he was here, he really cared about the players. It was ‘players first’ a lot of the time with him and his knowledge of the game was second to none."

It’s a massive risk but he’s halfway there because he’s got a fantastic personality.

Scott Sattler

St Helens players have told NRL.com they were devastated to see Holbrook leave but Sattler and Hodges believe a hefty challenge awaits on the Gold Coast.

"It’s a massive risk but he’s halfway there because he’s got a fantastic personality that connects really well with players but he’s also really brutally honest," said Sattler, one of the key figures in the establishment of the Titans’ initial roster in 2007.

"It’s not what he says but how he says it. He doesn’t have to strip paint off the walls to get a point across but he’s very strict and disciplined in the way that he gets a message across.

"He won’t be walked over by a playing group. There’s no way in the world he’ll be walked over by a playing group."

Hodges added: "He’s obviously done a wonderful job over in England but he’s walking into something a lot tougher and with a lot more pressure.

Justin Holbrook during his stint as a Parramatta in 2014.
Justin Holbrook during his stint as a Parramatta in 2014. ©NRL Photos

"They’ve got a pretty good roster so he’s got to find a way to change their mindset and their culture and make them understand that it’s a privilege to play for that club.

"They need stability and they need to give the next coach a lot of time because it’s going to take a good couple of years to clean the joint out and get players that he wants in there.

"That’s going to take at least two or three years so they’ve just got to be patient, which is easy to say because it’s a cutthroat industry but they’ve got to be real patient and try and rebuild that club again."