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Who'd be an NRL coach?

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Roar Guru
12th March, 2019
20

As we near Round 1 of season 2019 it’s timely to have a look at the job security of the people with their necks most often on the block in rugby league: the coaches.

Safe: Trent Robinson, Sydney Roosters
While Nick Politis is infamously intolerant of poor results, you’d have to think that with four minor premierships, two premierships, two World Club Challenge titles, five semi-final campaigns and a Dally M coach of the year award in six seasons in charge, that short of giving Politis a nipple cripple or stealing his car spot that Robinson is safe.

Safe: Craig Bellamy, Melbourne Storm
Craig Bellamy has said a few times that he’d retire once his ‘big three’ had all left the game. He’s two-thirds of the way there now and has maybe two years left if he sticks to that. Bellamy is already a great coach, and if he can grab another title – and, let’s be honest, despite getting towelled in the grand final, he wasn’t a million miles away last year – he will go down as one of the all-time best.

Safe: Wayne Bennett, South Sydney Rabbitohs
The game’s biggest coach and biggest club come together. There’s no way Bennett’s job is at risk, but there are plenty of queries about whether the game has moved past old Clint Eastwood. Bennett has claimed six premierships with the Broncos, one with the Dragons and one, perhaps portentously, with Souths in Brisbane. He also guided the Raiders to their first grand final andgot an over-achieving Knights side to within one game of the decider in 2013 and the Broncos to within a game of the big one in 2015.

His roster and his ability are too good to have a poor season unless cursed by injuries.

Safe: Anthony Seibold, Brisbane Broncos
The Broncos are another club that doesn’t tolerate a lack of success for long, although maybe they should be getting used to it by now. This is an interesting challenge for Seibold. He’s coming into a Broncos team with an attacking but slightly confused style and a definite changing of the guard, particularly in the forwards. It will be interesting to see how he handles it. Souths had a great attacking style throughout 2018 but the coach seemed to run out of ideas in the big games.

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Safe: Michael Maguire, Wests Tigers
While the Tigers board love nothing more than sacking a coach and paying two or three of them simultaneously, you have to think Maguire is safe for a couple of seasons. His preferred style of play seems to fit the Tigers roster pretty well. A lack of depth as the casualties mount under ‘roadkill could hold them back.

Safe: Des Hasler, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
The nutty professor is home again. With 14 years in charge, 12 semi-final campaigns, five grand finals and two premierships, there shouldn’t be the queries about Hasler currently doing the rounds. He’s also left Manly and the Bulldogs in crisis mode by widening the premiership window at both clubs through heavily back-ended contracts.

His style of play at Manly suited their team perfectly and he showed he wasn’t a one-trick pony by adopting a completely different style successful at the Dogs. But by the end of his tenure Canterbury were playing a turgid style of block and second-man plays executed in slow motion and way too far from the line.

Safe: Dean Pay, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
He’s definitely in charge of a rebuilding phase, and the clock won’t start ticking for Pay until 2020 at the earliest. The Dogs are widely tipped for the spoon this year despite a 12th-place finish last season. There were some encouraging signs for the Dogs late last year, but they were there in 2017 as well. As long as the players are having a go, Pay won’t be judged too harshly on results – yet!

Dean Pay

Bulldogs coach Dean Pay. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Safe?: Ivan Cleary, Penrith Panthers
He’s the hardest one of all to gauge. How do you predict his job security when he was poached by the Panthers from the Warriors, sacked by the Panthers and then poached from the Tigers by the Panthers?

As well as his tumultuous relationship with Phil Gould, he’s also shown he’s not afraid to get off the bus and walk away from a club. The Panthers premiership window is open right now and they can’t afford to get the coaching appointment wrong, even if it does lead to the signing of the best young halfback in the game.

Safeish: John Morris, Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
New coaches normally get a stay of execution for a season or two, but new coaches are normally walking into teams with poor on-field results. While the Sharks are in constant crisis off the field, they still have one of the best rosters in the competition and have few on-field excuses for the rookie coach to not be challenging for a top-four spot.

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Safeish: Garth Brennan, Gold Coast Titans
It feels like Brennan’s been in charge of the Titans for longer than one season. He’s done a pretty good job at refreshing the roster. Despite the positive signs last year, the Titans still finished only 14th, had the third-worst defence in the competition and a points differential of -110. They managed to win only two games on the trot and only eight all season. They beat only one top-eight team.

A lot of pundits and punters are tipping a Titans top-eight finish, but there’s a lot that Brennan needs to get right after last year. Tyrone Peachey is a quality signing but Ryley Jacks, Shannon Boyd, Brian Kelly and Tyrone Roberts come with plenty of queries and don’t seem the type of players you build a club around.

Vulnerable: Nathan Brown, Newcastle Knights
This feels harsh after Brownie has overseen the toughest period in Knights history and rebuilt a club that looked like they’d never find a way off the foot of the table, but the Knights now have a roster that should be challenging for the top four and grand final spots. Brown needs to prove he’s the man for that job.

This season is not just a matter of winding up David Klemmer and getting the ball to Kalyn Ponga.

In 2018 the Knights had the second-worst attack, second worst defence and the worst points differential. By comparison they finished two competition points ahead of the dire Dogs but scored 14 fewer points and conceded 133 more. Brown still has a lot to turn around from last year.

It’s interesting when you think of what a pass mark is for Brown. Top four definitely, but what about a seventh or eighth-place finish and a week-one exit? He’s vulnerable.

Nathan Brown Newcastle Knights

Knights coach Nathan Brown. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Vulnerable: Ricky Stuart, Canberra Raiders
Whispers rarely seem to come up about Stuart’s future. The Raiders are consistently a top-four side in terms of points scored but can’t seem to get the defence right, which is surprising when you think of Stuart’s early career coaching gigs with the Roosters and Sharks. They also struggle to get over the line in close games, so given there are far more cliffhangers than blowouts, it’s a significant Achilles heel.

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Stuart’s done a great job of assembling a roster on a budget and has made some very astute signings. One semi-final appearance in five campaigns is a poor return, though, particularly two tenth-place finishes after coming second in 2016.

Vulnerable: Paul Green, North Queensland Cowboys
In the 2018 preseason a lot of people thought the Cowboys just needed to show up with Johnathan Thurston, Scott Bolton and Jordan McLean coming into their 2017 side. It all went pear-shaped pretty quickly for the Cows. Green has had a lot of success in a short period in North Queensland and will always be held in high regard as the man who guided them to their first premiership, but his teams have looked one-dimensional lately and it seems he could be utilising his players more effectively to get the best out of them. His roster management leaves a bit to be desired too.

The Cowboys were an unexpected Bulldogs win away from missing the semis in 2017 and in some ways that may have been better for them in the long run. That semi-final run against three flat-looking sides maybe papered over some widening cracks. Another bottom-eight finish could put Green in the crosshairs.

Vulnerable: Paul McGregor, St George Illawarra Dragons
McGregor should be knowm as Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who created Jekyll and Hyde. In his first couple of seasons in charge the Dragons attack was absolutely dire. Despite that, he managed to guide them to an eighth-place finish in 2015. The 2016 season was horrid again, and while they were able to grind out enough wins to finish 11th, the Dragons scored only 341 points, narrowly more than the hapless Knights and the Eels, who had 12 rounds of points deducted from their tally.

Then came 2017, when they exploded out of the blocks with a 42-10 win over the Panthers on their way to winning six of their first seven and sitting on top of the table. But then the wheels fell off and the Dragons ended up missing the semis on the back of a Round 26 loss to the Bulldogs.

The 2018 season was the same, only more so. The Dragons won 12 of their first 15 to be dominating the competition, but despite that start they could manage only 15 wins for the season and a seventh-place finish. Then flogged the Broncos in Week 1 and played out a tough semi-final classic against the Rabbitohs. Whoa re the real Dragons? Jekyll and Hyde.

As well as addressing that, McGregor also needs to keep the players’ minds on the job with everything happening around the club.

Paul McGregor

Dragons coach Paul McGregor (Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

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On the line: Brad Arthur, Parramatta Eels
Arthur came into first-grade coaching with huge hype, notably as a great man manager. In some ways it feels harsh to judge him while coaching the basket case Parramatta at arguably their worst. He took over as the club came off back-to-back wooden spoons and in his first year in charge got them to within a game of the eight. They finished 12th in 2015 before the 2016 salary cap scandal broke and scuppered that season.

In 2017 they finished in the top four, were unlucky against the Storm in their first semi-final and were flat against the Cowboys. They played an uptempo brand of footy built on the brutal power of Semi Radradra, a small but mobile forward pack and Corey Norman and Mitchell Moses in career-best form combining electrically in both sides of the field.

That fell apart in 2018 with Radradra leaving the club, Norman and Moses proving incapable of working together and their pack getting regularly monstered.

Arthur has addressed this by cutting Norman, signing Blake Ferguson and getting some big bodies in the middle in Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane. Huge question marks are over their spine, though. If the Eels aren’t more successful, they and Arthur may split company, and that may be best for both of them.

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On the line: Stephen Kearney, New Zealand Warriors
Kearney is another coach who came into the first grade with massive hype, having come through the Storm system under Bellamy. At international level he’s won a World Cup and two Four Nations titles, so he must have some idea what he’s doing. That success hasn’t translated to club level, where he’s had just 32 wins from 91 games in charge, and 15 of those wins came last season.

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Kearney is heading into his third season in charge at the Warriors and that usually seems to be the magic number at which point clubs think the coach has had enough time to get the roster they want and find their own style.

Kearney has taken a massive punt by getting rid of the Warriors’ best player over the last eight years.

For all the talk of Shaun Johnson’s inconsistency, he regularly led the competition in attacking stats for halves. Of course there’s more to the game than stats, but the Warriors need to find another way to recreate the points that Johnson creates or scores just to break even. Given that he’s one of the leading attacking players in the competition, that won’t be easy to do.

It’s a huge challenge for Kearney and it’s a massive gamble – one that he may have ended up staking his entire career on.