Sticky subject: Should Stuart coach the Blues in 2013?
New South Wales Blues rugby league coach, Ricky Stuart, announces his side for State of Origin Game 2 2012 (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
When your sole coaching responsibility is State of Origin, it’s a very, very, very long off season. Especially if you lose.
However, that’s exactly where Ricky Stuart finds himself after his second year back as New South Wales head coach.
His predecessor, Craig Bellamy, also tasted the sourness of defeat, but at least he was able to immediately throw himself back into coaching club football’s most consistent side in recent times, the Melbourne Storm.
Stuart has no such luck, and after coming so close to victory, one feels this loss may burn even more than every other before it.
For all the progress that many feel the Blues have made, at the end of the day, Stuart has still presided over two series losses, and questions will be asked about his position, either by NSW hierachy or by the media. It’s the nature of the job, unfortunately.
So, should Stuart remain at the helm?
In Sydney’s Sun Herald, Phil Gould, New South Wales’ most successful coach, called for Ricky Stuart to be retained by the Blues for the next ten years.
Upon reading the headline, I was absolutely shocked. No coach, regardless of how successful they’ve been, should be given a guarantee of ten years, let alone one whose record is far from perfect.
However, further reading of the article highlighted that Gould was only suggesting that Stuart should be involved in the Blues set-up, rather than necessarily the head coach. Such has been Stuart’s importance in building the culture of the Blues, that Gould feels he needs to stay close to the set-up of the Blues camp for the next decade.
Even Wayne Bennett has recognised the impact Stuart has had upon the Blues, and has stated that it’s imperative he keeps the coaching role.
Gus Gould and Wayne Bennett have forgotten more about rugby league than I know, and if two of the most astute minds in the game believe Ricky Stuart is the right man for the job, I would be arrogant and foolish to disagree with them.
However, some issues with NSW’s performance do need to be addressed.
Poor kicking and terrible spacing/bunching, along with no shape, in attack. Consistent early kicking in the tackle count. A lack of creativity and options on the fifth tackle.
All these problems were not necessarily Stuart’s fault. However, the buck needs to stop somewhere.
Were these issues a result of poor coaching by Stuart? Or was he simply let down by his players, who failed to execute his plans?
Having done a little coaching in my life, albeit in a different sport, I know all too well that you are at the mercy of your players, in terms of being judged a good coach or not. The best tactics in the world are useless if your players don’t execute them.
It’s therefore difficult to say that Stuart should take a lot of blame for the poor performance of the Blues last Wednesday night, without knowing exactly what the game plans were.
The issue is that, at times, the Blues looked like they didn’t have much strategy in their plans.
Take the early kicking as an example. Numerous times, the Blues kicked early in the tackle count, yet it appeared to be without much thought. On a few occasions, the Queensland wingers were already in good position to receive the kick, so any notion of attempting to surprise them can be ruled out.
Likewise, on one attacking raid in the first half, the Blues had the ball on halfway on tackle three, but kicked the ball. Another two hit ups could have easily seen them in great attacking position well inside Queensland’s half, but instead the Maroons ran the ball back to near halfway.
The amount of early kicking indicates it must have definitely been a tactic, but what purpose it served, or what was the desired outcome, remains a mystery.
There is no doubt that the passion and spirit of the Blues has improved, and that Stuart deserves a large proportion of the credit for it. The players love him, and want to play for him. Even Queensland fans have been effusive in their praise of this NSW team, and the toughness, commitment and the pride in their jersey that they’ve displayed.
Yet as Blues skipper Paul Gallen stated after the third game: “It doesn’t say ‘pride and effort’ on the trophy. It says 2-1.”
An optimist will say passion is a big part of Origin, and the Blues have regained that, and only lost by one point to an all-time great Queensland team.
A pessimist will say that tactics are an equally big part of Origin, and NSW were severely lacking in that department, and that the Blues have lost seven series in a row.
As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between those two polarising opinions.
I think Stuart should be retained, regardless of whether he has an NRL coaching commitment or not. Having failed to win the Origin trophy back, he has unfinished business. I also don’t think the Blues have the luxury of adjusting to a new coach and new coaching philosophy.
However, if Stuart is retained, the Blues tactics and execution in attack need to be analysed.
Personally, I think you’ll find that Stuart’s tactics are sound, but the players need to execute them much better, especially from the all important position of halfback.
Having said that, it’s important to remember that selecting the right players, and then preparing them to execute under pressure, remains one of the key responsibilities of the coach.
Which suggests Stuart really does have unfinished business.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.