When Cameron George took over from Jim Doyle as Warriors CEO in August last year, the role – at least from the outside – may have seemed a poisoned chalice.
The club was at one of its lowest ebbs after winning just seven games in Stephen Kearney’s first season in charge, consigning the Warriors to six straight campaigns without finals football. Fans’ patience and morale were at all-time lows, resulting in members deserting the Warriors in disturbing numbers.
But now just seven months later, George is sitting pretty in the big chair after the resurgent Warriors’ stunning 3-0 start to 2018. The supporters are flocking back and optimism around the club has skyrocketed.
I spoke to George this week and he is rapt with the team’s remarkable turnaround, as well as taking the first steps towards achieving the Warriors’ primary goal – winning back the fans’ trust.
“Our fanbase has always been loyal and we wanted to prove to them this season that we were going to have a crack every time we pull on that jumper on their behalf,” George said.
“To date it’s been really positive.
“It’s building, but also building are the expectations and we’ve got a big game this weekend against the Roosters.”
Hailing from Lismore in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, George was under no illusions at the enormity of the task at hand when he accepted the job at the Warriors.
As well as keeping a keen eye on the club’s progress during five years as CEO of Auckland Racing Club, he served on the Warriors’ Board.
“I had a pretty good insight through my role on the Board as to where the club had got to. To be fair, when I took over in September we were pretty well at rock-bottom,” George admitted.
“For me it was about pulling together the staff, giving them the confidence that we could move forward to a better place.
“It was important that we signed good people, both on and off the field. Good footy players, naturally, and good leaders.”
— Stuff.co.nz Sport (@NZStuffSport) February 10, 2018
Subscribing to Jack Gibson’s well-worn adage that winning starts in the front office, George has ensured every person on the Warriors payroll is pulling in the same direction.
“Once we got together a really good group of people throughout the organisation, it was then about planning the future and, for me, it was about getting back to basics – getting them right and winning back our fans in 2018.
“The only way to (do that was to) work hard and to be honest with ourselves.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at. I’m satisfied that the people in the organisation are doing their job, and most importantly we’re starting to see interest off the field in our crowd numbers.
“Whilst it’s a big job, it’s one I’m absolutely loving.”
The affable George has generally been happy to stay in the background so far – a luxury that was never afforded high-profile predecessor Doyle – but he showed the public his playful side earlier this week in a brilliant video with star recruit Blake Green’s son, Boston.
And if George hasn’t often been in the spotlight, his achievements as CEO certainly have been.
On top of locking up key signings Blake Green and Adam Blair, among others, during the off-season, he oversaw a massive coup in the retention of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on a four-year contract extension after the captain was widely tipped to join a rival club or switch to rugby union.
— Newshub Sport (@NewshubSport) January 31, 2018
George has also been flat out organising one of the biggest events in Warriors history: hosting next week’s historic double-header, which sees the Warriors, Cowboys, Tigers and Storm all playing at Mount Smart Stadium.
“Take away the Nines, Test matches and most recently the World Cup, this would be one of rugby league in New Zealand’s greatest events,” he said.
“It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of time to pull it all together.
“(The planning) started well last year, Jim Doyle was instrumental in it. The club continued on the pathway of pulling it together. The teams have been great in accepting what this event is all about.
“Our partners, SkyCity, who are the main partners of the event, have really stepped up in making it a must-attend event. It’s going to be great not only for Auckland, but for New Zealand rugby league.
“We’re expecting a full house and the sooner people get online and buy tickets, the better it will be and they’ll be assured of a seat.”
Simply can't wait for this. Both 2017 grand finalists, two of this year's pacesetters plus JT, Smith, Slater, Benji, RTS and more. Buy tickets now.#LetsGoneWarriors
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) March 25, 2018
— Vodafone Warriors (@NZWarriors) March 28, 2018
It hasn’t all been beer and skittles during George’s brief stint in charge of the Warriors, however.
The club’s ongoing ownership saga has dominated news cycles and still hovers as a distraction. George is hell-bent on keeping the issue as separate from the Warriors’ on-field endeavours as possible – especially in the wake of their watershed start to the season.
“I started in September and (the ownership negotiations have) been in the paper every week since,” George said matter-of-factly.
“It’s been a challenge personally to keep that away from the operational side of the business. Jim Doyle, our chairman, is managing that.
— Stuff (@NZStuff) March 21, 2018
“I’m personally just trying to keep the staff together and focussed, and working hard towards what we’re trying to achieve this year.
“Full credit to our staff and playing group for being able to achieve what they have so far despite that ownership stuff being played out in a very public arena – not through us, but through other people.”