Damien Hardwick’s job as an AFL senior coach looks to be on the line this season after Richmond CEO Brendon Gale yesterday said the Tigers wouldn’t necessarily look to offer him a contract extension before the season begins – and he’s not the only coach facing the chop in 2016.
Despite rumblings late last year that Hardwick was likely to soon sign an extension to his contract – which expires at the end of this season – it now appears probable that he will enter 2016 without a guarantee beyond the end of the year.
Gale had plenty of praise for Hardwick in his interview with SEN but actions speak louder than words. If Hardwick enters season 2016 without a contract extension sewn up it will be a pretty significant indication that the Tigers are seriously considering replacing him at the end of the year.
And why wouldn’t they? Hardwick has been arguably the most successful Richmond coach of the new millenium, but that’s only because the bar has been set so low by his predecessors.
While he returned the club to finals in 2013 after an absence of more than a decade, and has kept them there in the years since, his inability to guide the team past the first week of finals three years in a row has given Tigers fans plenty of headaches.
Had Hardwick led the Tigers to a finals win over North Melbourne in September last year he would probably have an extension by now – but he didn’t, and he doesn’t.
The Tigers have been patient with Hardwick despite only mild success in his six-year tenure as senior coach of the club – making him the equal-second longest tenured coach in the league, alongside Brad Scott and behind Alastair Clarkson – as the club focuses on maintaining a stable environment.
It wasn’t always so at Punt Road – there was a time in the 80s when the club was known for going through coaches faster than Chad Wingard goes through hair gel, and the constant change had such a noticeably detrimental effect on the club’s performance that Mike Sheehan went to the trouble of making a TV special about it.
The modern focus on stability is no doubt a response to that unfondly remembered era. It has made Hardwick the longest serving Richmond coach since the legendary Tom Hafey finished up in 1976. But if the Tigers get off to a bad start in 2016 – as they did in 2014 (3-10 after Round 14) and 2015 (2-4 after Round 6) – they may finally decide to let the axe fall.
Hardwick’s not the only coach under pressure in 2016 either, with four of his contemporaries also coming out of contract at the end of the season.
The fate of one of them, Paul Roos, is already certain – he will make way for his successor-in-waiting Simon Goodwin ahead of 2017, though what role if any Roos might have at Melbourne going forward isn’t clear yet.
Alastair Clarkson also comes out of contract this year but for obvious reasons would have no concerns about losing his job. Although he has been responsible for the occasional off-field controversy over the past few years, the Hawks are bound to make him an offer, and he hasn’t given any indication that he’s considering retirement.
That leaves two, Justin Leppitsch and Nathan Buckley, who could be in a bit of trouble this year if they can’t get their sides to perform to the level expected.
There were a handful of news reports for both suggesting they were close to signing new contracts over the off-season, but so far that hasn’t materialised for either – and that’s not a good sign.
Leppitsch has only been in charge of the Brisbane Lions for two years and his tenure so far has been wildly unsuccessful with seven wins in 2014 and just four in 2015. Injuries have been partly to blame, but a coach can only make excuses for so long.
The real failure of Leppitsch has been his failure to stem the flow of talented players asking to leave the club, the same problem that ultimately ended the tenure of his pre-decessor and premiership teammate Michael Voss.
I said last season when Jack Redden walked out on the Lions that Leppitsch had to follow him, and I stand by that. The Lions need a complete outsider who can come in and transform their club, not another throwback from their long-passed premiership era content to do more of the same.
Buckley is a wholly different kettle of fish. He controversially replaced Mick Malthouse at Collingwood in 2012 despite the fact that Malthouse had just coached the Magpies to two consecutive grand finals including a premiership in 2010.
In his four years at the helm Buckley has seen the Magpies slowly slip down the ladder. They lost a preliminary final to Sydney in 2012, lost an elimination final to Port Adelaide in 2013, and have missed finals completely in the last two years.
In both 2014 and 2015 the Magpies had excellent starts to the year that had them looking like probable finalists at the halfway point of the season, only to collapse in the second half of the year.
In 2014 they were 8-3 after Round 12 but won just three more games for the year to finish eleventh and in 2015 they were in the same position after Round 11 but had just two wins in the latter half of the season and finished twelfth.
Coming into the new season fans are going to be expecting the club’s investment in youth over the past few years to start paying off.
Collingwood were also very successful in last year’s trade period acquiring Adam Treloar, James Aish and Jeremy Howe, but impressive as that haul was, it also heaps pressure on the Magpies to perform in the 2016.
For mine, I’ll back Buckley in to coach Collingwood to finals this year, and earn a contract extension while he’s at it.
What’s often forgotten in looking at the Magpies’ poor record in the second half of the year is that it began with some very competitive efforts against top teams Fremantle (lost by 7) and Hawthorn (lost by 10), and another against Sydney (lost by 9) late in the year.
I expect Collingwood to improve in 2016 and justify a contract extension for Buckley. But if things go poorly, his head might be the first to roll.