After 10 years of dedication and commitment to the Sandringham program, 2021 Senior coach Jackson Kornberg will be leaving the Dragons to coach the Gold Coast Suns' VFL program in 2022. We contacted those who have worked closely with him throughout his journey to reflect on his contribution to the club.
As an 18-year-old, Jackson Kornberg waltzed into the Sandringham Dragons, full of energy and just as much confidence.
Encouraged by close friend Paul Carrigan to apply for a position, he sent an email off, got a response a couple of weeks later and has been involved with the club since.
In 2021, he leaves behind a successful culture and legacy of care and professionalism after a year in charge as senior coach of both the boys and girls programs in 2021 and ten years of involvement beforehand. This is how those up close have seen it.
Two of Sandy’s boys' more convincing victories this season came off the back of lockdowns. The Dragons beat Eastern by 48 points in round nine and then defeated Greater Western Victoria by 24 points in a top-of-the-table clash to finish the year.
Kornberg's passion for footy and individual player development permeated during the hiatuses across the last two years. For both Luke Cleary – who happens to be Kornberg’s neighbour - and Josh Sinn, the 28-year-old was often their training partner.
“When you could catch up with one bloke, he’d be the first one saying 'do you want to go for a kick?',” Sinn said.
Cleary added: “He filmed my kicking each week so we could track progress and that was all when he wasn’t the coach and not working full time so just putting the extra effort in for me.
“So I know he’s done that for (10) years, so left a real mark on 100s of boys now, most of it when he wasn’t the coach and then flourished this year when he was finally given the role.”
During the lockdowns, many people around the club shared the lengths he went to in pursuit of keeping everyone connected.
“I think his professionalism stands out the most, he makes everyone work hard and holds everyone accountable. He’s been huge in a COVID year because trying to keep everyone connected has been very hard but he’s been awesome at that,” Sinn said.
More recently, he got the combine invitees together to train, determined to give them the best opportunity to hit preseason in excellent shape.
But, just as the actions he does for the highly-touted are celebrated, is the less-noticed work he does is just as important to the program. Under Kornberg, vice-captain Cleary believes everyone feels valued.
“I know player one through 70 could say they had a relationship with him and if something was happening, he would know about it…I know having spoken to people that, Jacko left a real mark on them and these aren’t even the boys that are gonna get drafted so I feel like he had a real ability to know how people are travelling and check in on them and bring them along.
“It would be so easy for a NAB League coach to put all their effort into those guys because at the end of the day, that’s what they get marked on but he just took a real interest in the whole club and not just himself and how it would look if he had so many drafted.”
Kornberg’s relationship with now Casey Demon George Grey, who graduated from the Sandirngham program in 2019, substantiates Cleary’s belief.
Injuries curtailed Grey’s ability to push his way into draft calculations but that didn’t compromise the ongoing care.
“When he knows you want to get better as a player and respects you as a player and a person, he’s always going to keep tabs on you,” Grey said.
“If I play a good game or play a bad game outside Dragons footy even now, I wouldn’t be surprised if I came home to a text from Jacko saying ‘congratulations mate’ or ‘keep your head up’.
“He’s still acknowledging your successes despite not being your coach anymore or at the highest level, he has that appreciation for all sorts of players.”
Sinn agrees that the balance which Kornberg fosters is a point-of-difference in his arsenal and enables the club to progress, allowing a prosperous culture to permeate.
“The biggest thing that makes me happy that Jacko’s done, is he’s made an impact off-field,” Sinn said.
“We’d catch up and have walks and have coffees so that’s something I’m really grateful for, both the time that we talk shit but also asking questions and asking for help.
“His biggest thing is making you a better person which he goes on about a bit in the preseason in front of all the families and the families might think ‘what is this bloke talking about?’ but he truly does.
“It’ll be hard not to see him around the club or in the state, but he’ll find a way, he always finds a way that’s what makes him the best coach I’ve ever had.”
Reinforcing the squad mentality that Kornberg breeds, two more of Sandy’s impressive outings came when a chunk of their side was out for representative honours. Victory over Oakleigh by more than 90 points and a 10-goal annihilation of Calder demanded others step up.
At the Best-and-Fairest night, Cleary declared that the year had been one his favourite from a footy perspective, something he credits Kornberg for.
“He built a good culture of selflessness and made the club a really enjoyable place to be,” Cleary said.
“In year 11 (2019) I didn’t really see the Dragons as a place I loved, but this year it became that and I’m really sad to leave it and a lot of that is Jacko’s doing.
“He built a culture of working hard but also just getting around each other and mateship. He’s left a massive legacy on us Dragons boys by encouraging the leadership group to plan social events and chat shit as well. Obviously you’re training hard but feel free to talk your minds and don’t always feel like you’re being watched and have to impress.
“It became more of a footy club sort of vibe this year than a professional program.”
Co-captain Darby Hipwell agrees that his approachability off the track bred better results: “He’s always happy to see everyone, cracking gags no matter if they were funny or not but he was always trying to lighten up the place.”
From an on-field success point-of-view, in 2021 Kornberg guided the Dragons to an 8-1 minor premiership season, the most points scored per game and least points conceded per game. His side have the most NAB AFL Combine invites with 11 as he facilitated a game plan where his star-studded lineup could show their strengths and play exciting and offensive footy.
Kornberg served an apprenticeship under now Williamstown VFL coach Justin Plapp, Jeremy Barnard and Josh Bourke as former Sandy senior coaches and formed an excellent marriage with Mick Lovejoy in taking care of 2019’s bumper crop of midfielders.
“I don’t think he could really have had any better people to learn from and work with,” said club stalwart Ian Penn who has been involved with the Dragons since their establishment.
“He listened, he took on board what was being said to him and generally carried through, but he still had his own mind. If he wasn’t sure what was said to him, he’d look into it and come back with a response.
After coaching Sandy in 2019, Bourke endorsed Kornberg’s coaching credentials.
“I think Jackson’s strength no doubt is his tactical knowledge and I’ve been acutely aware of that even when I was at Dandenong, he had a reputation for his ability to unpack the game, analyse it technically and tactically,” Bourke said.
An underlying theme those who have played for him have affirmed is the extra time he spends going through vision and more to enhance their knowledge which Bourke has seen translate to game day.
“He understood what was trending at AFL level and what was and in place, he’d done the work to understand how to combat different methods.
“He was active at setting different things up from stoppage. His ability to support us in seeing that was terrific and probably the more poignant point was his ability to develop the individual player with their stoppage craft and what that looked like.”
Whoever went into the midfield that Kornberg has helped nurture for so long at the Dragons stepped up this season. Best-and-Fairest winner Finn Callaghan. Third-placed Lachie Benton. Even 17-year-old Ben Mansfield.
For three consecutive weeks, Sandy held their opposition to two goals as Kornberg got his side in the groove of playing for each other and the jumper, despite numerous changes week-to-week due to injury, school football and Vic Metro commitments.
Before the game against the Cannons, Kornberg reminded his players of their ten-year legacy of being hard to play against.
“Jacko has talked about ‘be where your feet are’,” assistant coach Nick Moodie said.
“Be present in the moment, make sure you’re living in that moment, don’t think about things that have gone on behind, don’t think too far ahead, just be a Dragon, enjoy being a Dragon and live by those values of being a really good kid, improving yourself and get better every day.”
Beyond his commitment to playing group, his support of all staff and contributors at the Dragons was evident throughout the year as senior coach. Conscious of the realiance on volunteers such as trainers, assistant coaches and officials behind the scenes, Kornberg never failed stressed the importance of recognising their contributions and made sure to encourage all players to thank the staff for giving up their time, particularly on away games requiring significant travel, such as trips to Ballarat and Wangaratta.
His esteem from the Dragons’ girls, too, puts paid to any suggestion that his merit as senior coach was enhanced by a bumper crop of talent.
With no players drafted this year and just one win from their eight games, the girls didn’t have the success of the boys, but Kornberg adapted his support to their needs according to vice-captain Bridie Hipwell.
“We didn’t have many [wins], but after every game…he would go straight into what we did well and really focus on the small things and then where we could improve from there into the next thing,” she said.
“He didn’t dwell on what we didn’t do well, but just what we did (do well), and then where to go from there, which I thought was really good, because it kept us in a positive mindset through the whole season.”
Sinn considers Jackson Kornberg his best junior coach. The 28-year-old also happens to be one of Sinn’s close mates.
Kornberg got the best out of Sinn as a footballer and helped mature Sinn the person.
“Jacko at training can be an absolute arsehole or he can be your best mate and it all comes down to what you’re doing on the track because he’s not there to f*ck around, he’s there to make sure the football club gets the best out of everyone,” Sinn said.
The 28-year-old makes sure every player feels valued and knew the role that he needed to play in everyone’s off-field development.
“With Jacko I felt like I was player number one – whether I was or wasn’t is irrelevant, it’s more that I felt like that,” said 2018 graduate and now Carlton Blue Liam Stocker.
“What he was able to do was formulate my talent and basically streamline my development into making the most out of my ability rather than trying to improve everything at the same time.
“He was always good at identifying that with me and whittling it down to two or three things I can concentrate on every game and when you make it that simple, particularly with the under 18s, it just made playing well relatively easy.”
More than the wins and losses, the respect he has had for the club and people has been longstanding.
“He was always jovial and greeted people with a big smile and didn’t ignore people,” Penn said.
“His enthusiasm got him through. He was very enthusiastic with what he attempted to do, very enthusiastic about the game and the players and I think that’s a thing he’s had on his side.
“The legacy that he’s left is the way that he approaches people as footballers and as human beings. He treats people the way he wants to be treated. It’s contagious.”
Development of talent:
In 2018, Kornberg visited Stocker in hospital multiple times.
The then 18-year-old broke his jaw in an ugly incident on the footy field which threatened to hamper his development, but his midfield coach was with him every step of the way.
Unable to eat solid foods and lacking in fitness, Kornberg helped increase Stocker’s training loads and initiated craft sessions. It expedited the now Blue’s recovery and propelled him to a Morrish Medal.
The specificity of Kornberg’s advice was AFL-standard and polished Stocker’s weapons.
“I think without a shadow of a doubt he would have got an extra 15% out of me on his own,” Stocker said of Kornberg.
“He put hours and hours and hours of effort into me and I have no doubt it helped me get through to the AFL pathway, it’s pretty much as realistic as it gets. It’s about the same time that AFL development would put into you that he was putting into me as an under 18s coach on a part-time basis going over weaknesses and provided a realistic insight into what the AFL world would be like.
“I was a completely different player between my last year of school and top age year in terms of football IQ and also just understanding what the game required of me from a leadership point-of-view at stoppage and a game-situation point-of-view.”
“We did heaps of work in transition patterns, inside 50 kicking, [defensive] 50 exits and a heap of stoppage work and when I got into the VFL system the year after that on an AFL list, I didn’t have to learn some of the stuff they were learning because I already knew half of it."
On the track, Kornberg’s long been a consummate professional at developing AFL-level talent.
2016 Dragons premiership player and now GWS Giant Tim Taranto recalls the work Kornberg did for him during his top-age year to prime him for a year that commanded selection with the second pick at the 2016 draft.
“He was probably the most caring coach I’ve come across and I’d always want to spend the most time with him,” Taranto said.
“I just wanted to work as hard as possible, and he was always available, so I always took that opportunity with him. We’d do groundballs, hands, kicking, he’d literally be a kelpie for me, I’d just kick the ball, he’d go chase it literally half an hour before training. He worked hard and it helped me a lot in that year.
“I wish I had someone like him right now to be honest, it’d be nice because he was willing to do so much for anyone. It wasn’t just me, he’d help a lot of other boys as well work on their deficiencies as well.”
As well as the inroads on-field he has had a hand in, he leaves behind an embarrassment of cherished relationships – with staff, coaches, ex-players.
Kornberg is still in regular dialouge with Taranto, the pair catching up for occasional training sessions when Taranto is in Melbourne, and Stocker commends the significance of their relationship: “It’s an incredible resource to have someone who understands the AFL landscape that’s not in the AFL landscape so there’s no bias intended,” said Stocker.
Kornberg was one of the first people Richmond’s Hugo Ralphsmith told when he was drafted in 2019. Kornberg nurtured the talented Richmond wingman as a junior and was a major factor in him realising his dream.
"Being a younger coach, he understood the stresses and anxiety of getting drafted and stress associated with year 11 and 12," Ralphsmith said.
"You felt like you could talk to him which took a whole lot of stress off overthinking stuff. He'd just tell you how it is and give you good feedback and bad feedback and help you grow as a player.
“I still keep in touch with him a fair bit now because he's a ripping fella. He was always in my ear telling me 'I don't want to find out about the debut over Instagram' so I had to flick him a text when I was debuting!"
Kornberg with some words of encouragement for Jack Peris
Kornberg with 2021 co-captains Josh Sinn (left) and Darby Hipwell
Kornberg celebrates the 2016 premiership
2021 co-captain Darby Hipwell
"I’ve never had a more organised coach than him. If we were playing a Sunday game, by the recovery day on Monday he had watched the full game and all the edits and analysed every single second of it. He had every single session planned. I was in the coaches’ email with ‘Sinner’ (Josh Sinn) so we saw all the effort he put in behind the scenes. The sessions were planned from the minute we rocked up to the minute we left and every single drill he had planned who was going to be there, all the main focus points. So every session you knew he had put in so much effort just for those one or two hours and on game day, you know he had done all the work in terms of analysing opposition, knowing where all their weaknesses were and where our strengths could shine so I had real confidence in his ability as coach to know what we as players needed to."
2021 vice-captain Luke Cleary
“I feel like we had something pretty special this year and it was disappointing we couldn’t play the finals but speaking from myself but probably on behalf of the group, it’s the most fun I’ve had playing footy at a high level in my life. It was a great group of boys but I feel like that was sparked off his coaching and mentorship and leadership as well so just a thankyou and all the best for your future. I’m sure with everything you’ve achieved so far, there’s big things ahead for you and I can’t wait to watch it unfold."
Carlton Blue and 2018 draftee Liam Stocker
"My respect for him went up a rung finding out he got an AFL gig because he’s really young and he’s just worked his arse off for so long. He’s worked his way through plenty of players who haven’t liked the way he’s gone about it and plenty that have but I think for him to take charge of an under 18s team that’s going to have a heap that get drafted shows how good he is. I think more than anything I respected him as a mate a lot but his work ethic to get the most out of himself and the people he was working with impressed me even more.
As much respect as I had for him, I didn’t think that was a capability for him straight away, but he really proved me wrong and obviously the respect level just increases with that. The way he’s carried himself to the point where he can be a VFL head coach at such a young age says all you really need to know."
Assistant coach Danny Byrne
"He is a ripping coach. His footy IQ is just off the charts. But he’s also got that ability to build relationships. It’s not superficial, he builds quality, long-lasting relationships which can be really difficult in a program like this, you’re not working with these guys for 10 years, sometimes you’ve got them for 12 months and that’s it. So you don’t have a massive timeframe to do it, but he genuinely cares about his players, and that shows through, and the players respond really well to that.
He’s opened my eyes up to so much more in terms of strategy, and how to implement a game plan. Taking it form paper to actually instilling it within a group, that’s been huge for me.
It’s how to take it from a theory, to putting it into practice. In terms of drills used, ways to communicate it, that sort of stuff. From my point of view, it’s easy to run a drill, it’s easy to teach someone how to kick, but being able to put all of the pieces into place is how you get the results. So that’s been the thing that he’s really helped me with. A more holistic approach to coaching.
And he’s a ripping bloke, so he’s someone that you actually really enjoy spending time with. From that point-of-view, you’re going to be disappointed that you’re not going to be able to do that anymore. But it’s such a great opportunity for him, and I’m wrapped that he’s got that opportunity. And he’s 100% deserving of it too, he’s a fantastic coach."
2021 vice-captain Charlie McKay
"Obviously heaps of coaches are good at connecting with their best players and the most enthusiastic boys, but Jacko’s been able to connect with everyone in the group, making sure that everyone’s enjoying their time and therefore everyone’s playing at their best because they’re enjoying playing under him.
Before training he’d always encourage me to kick with him. Personally, making sure that I had a big off-field presence; studying and doing everything like that.
[I'll always remember] His stupid gags everytime you walk into the changerooms. He’d just give you a cheeky smile or try to rip someone and no one would laugh, and it would be funny as."
2021 co-captain Josh Sinn
“He’s a very nice man; he goes above and beyond to make everyone happy which is pretty hard during a COVID year but I think he’s done a good job of that.
“He’s very good at reading the room and understanding the way humans work and knowing when you’re a bit down. He’s the first one to tell you that it’s really good to reach out. And during meetings he’d tell us that we aren’t the only ones going through it, he is as well. The way he’s nurtured all of us through under 16s is quite special.
“You don’t need to be liked to be a really good and successful coach, you just need to be respected by your playing group and I think that’s certainly what he’s been able to achieve this year. I know everyone respects him, it’s just whether people like him. If you speak to the players, I think more than 90% of the pkayers, even if they’re not playing, they still like him.
2021 vice-captain Bridie Hipwell
"Working with him for just the one year, I really feel like he focused on not just the team, but the individuals within the team and developing us as players to be the best of our ability. It's a team thing but he really got us to be the best that we can as individual players, which really brought together into a team sense.
'Honest efforts'. You ask any Dragons girl, I reckon they would say the same thing. He would just drill himself on that honest effort and I think that's stuck with me, that [idea of] honest efforts. He'd be onto us throughout every game, every training about our honest efforts, and making sure that we did the small things throughout every training and game."
Assistant coach Lisa Roper
"Wise beyond his years. Personable. He built a really good team network and culture with the coaches, with all the staff and players. It’s sad that he’s leaving but it’ll be great to brag to everyone else how great the Sandringham program is, and a lot of that is because of Jacko.
There’s things he does in game that I’ve certainly adopted. I love the way that he’s really open to using his whole coaching panel to make adjustments during times when we’re under the pump.
A tip for the Gold Coast assistant coaches; supply quality lollies for half time, and you’ll be on his right side!"
2021 vice-captain Liam Hayes
"I rated 'Jacko' so much as a coach because he was pretty brutally honest with me as a player. 'Jacko' sat me down just a few weeks before round one and said ‘at the moment mate, you’re on the edge. If you want a game, you’ve got to focus, hone in on a few different things’. And if 'Jacko' hadn’t have had that chat with me, I would have just been going through the motion like I had been. For me, why I rate him so much as a coach, he was able to sit me down and we had a 25 minute chat about ‘if you can get this this this and this sorted, and you can hone in on that and get that done, then you’ve got a spot in the team’. And I think just the honesty 'Jacko' had, he was able to sit me down and be pretty upfront, and obviously he knew it would be something tough to take but I took it on well and thanks to 'Jacko', I had a ripper season.
I played the whole season in the backline and I know that at times 'Jacko' would come in when we were doing a bit of backline craft and he would point some stuff out than even us playing on the field just had no idea that that was going and we’d put that into action for the next few games, and it sort of a ‘wow’ moment, when we realised, gee 'Jacko' knows what he’s talking about."
Assistant coach Nick Moodie
"I think he’s got a great way of connecting with all the players. His connection with them is outstanding. He goes way beyond his duty to make sure that they are looked-after in a sense; checks-in on them, does outside training with them outside of his hours with Dragons, just to get the best out of everybody. Even some of the 17-year-olds give him a call and say ‘hey can I have a kick with you?’, he’ll say ‘yep, no dramas, meet me down at the oval, we’ll have a kick ago through a few things’.
I’m no good on the technology side of it all. For me, he’s improved me with the editing, the (vision) cutting, the feedback side of it all, getting all the computer skills and presentations, all of that side of it all, he’s helped me out with massively, because that was the side of things that I’m really lacking, so he was really good for me with that side of it all.
When’s he’s in the coaches box, he has a tendency to lose his shit. And I mean LOSE his shit. . A couple of times, especially the game out at Tasmania, where we were kicking, I think, six goals 20 (behinds), he lost it that day. He had to get out of the box, the whole lot. And when he walked out of the box, me and Danny (Byrne) and ‘Nishy’ (Scott Nish, forwards coach) just looked at eachother and pissed ourselves laughing, because he goes off in the box.
He’s definitely got better but you’ve definitely got to put that in for sure."
GWS Giant and 2016 Dragons premiership player Tim Taranto
“He was very, very helpful for my confidence and skill work for the couple of years while I was with him and he was a good bloke that was willing to give up his time. He loved the boys, was selfless, loved the club and he’s come into his own as a senior coach the last few years as senior coach in his last year at the Dragons and now he’s got his opportunity up at the Gold Coast so I’m so happy for him.”
Former Dragons senior coach Josh Bourke
“No one has spent more time in the NAB League system than him and it’s a huge compliment. The amount of time [he’s taken] to develop himself as a coach is enormous and there’s a reason he’s as good as he is and knows as much as he does – he’s put in the time and effort.
That’s extended in his ability to teach individual players the craft of the game [which is] really strong because he’s done the work. He’s always given them time and always put time and effort into seeing these kids develop and time is the respect-winner isn’t it? The more effort and energy you put into the boys and girls, the more they understand you are there for them. He puts in a great deal of effort outside the program to ensure that those players do and I know how well that’s received by the playing group."
2019 Dragons draftee and Richmond Tiger Hugo Ralphsmith
"He was someone I could actually talk to rather than being scared to go up to a coach. He was approachable and good at his job. You've got Dad and mates, but you don't want to talk to them all day about footy, so having someone there you can talk to about everything and he wouldn't make you feel like shit, he'd take everything seriously and take care of you was actually really helpful. He helped with my consistency as a player and my inside game which was a bit of a weakness of mine in 2019. But at the same time he knew how to balance that with showing your strengths."
2021 vice-captain Charli Murphy
"The banter at footy training, especially after my ACL we just had pretty good banter, the inside jokes with him, that’s just the best times I reckon.
There were so many young, new girls as well, so it was more about us girls getting around each other, building a connection with, not only our teammates, but with the coaches and teammates together. Having that connection was really good and I think that that was one of Jacko’s biggest things, just being around the girls, win or lose, just being there for eachother, he was really good for that."
Former Dragon George Grey
"He was someone I could always go to throughout a tough time and someone I’d always reach out to improve my footy because I knew he’d help me on and off the field. He could be there for you and tell you that you don’t need to rush back into things, you don’t have to kill yourself and hurt yourself, it’s not all about footy, just get yourself right and if you get it right then you can play your footy but he’d advise you just to take your mind off and focus on school and being with your mates.
Once he devoted his time and wanted you to get better at footy, he was also good at knowing when you can’t push yourself too much and could be an escape. He was pretty helpful because it can be a pretty dark space when you’re putting that much pressure on yourself as a player. It really meant a lot and helped out so many of us players during some tough times.
I can’t wait to see the impact 'Jacko' has in Gold Coast VFL – as good a coach as he is, there’s no chance he’s beating the Casey Demons."
The Sandringham Dragons would like to thank Jackson for his unwavering dedication towards the program and wish him all the very best for his time at Gold Coast and beyond.
Story by Jonty Ralphsmith. Interviews by Jonty Ralphsmith and Marcus Uhe. Thank you to all who contributed.