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Has the role of a rugby league coach ever been more important?

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Expert
25th April, 2019
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Depending on who you listen to, up to six coaches entered the 2019 season under significant pressure to keep their jobs.

For an industry with only 16 available positions, that translates into an outrageous and positively Trumpian turnover rate of almost 38 per cent.

Three clubs that were under the most scrutiny heading into this year were Newcastle, Parramatta and St George Illawarra, each for very different reasons.

The long-suffering Knights were desperate to see further improvement after several lean seasons, the Eels needed to know whether their most recent wooden spoon was an aberration, while the Dragons had to find out whether their current coach was able to take the next step with a very talented roster.

Plenty has been written about the plights of Nathan Brown, Paul McGregor and Brad Arthur in recent times.

There has been speculation that Arthur was given until mid-season to prove himself worthy of keeping his job. Brown on the other hand, was apparently told he had to make the finals if he wanted to avoid the Centrelink queue.

Such constant and intense focus on a member of a team who has no tangible impact on the outcome of a game seems ludicrous, especially as most sides play an almost identical brand of football.

However, I would counter that the role of the head coach has never been more critical to a team’s success.

Consider this. Since 2006, ten of the last 13 grand finals have been won by teams coached by just four men – Craig Bellamy (four times, before two titles were taken away for salary-cap breaches), Wayne Bennett, Des Hasler and Trent Robinson (twice each).

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Craig Bellamy Melbourne Storm

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

On those three rare occasions when one of those coaches wasn’t bathing in Gatorade after the final whistle, guess who was coaching the losing side?

That’s right, Des Hasler (2014), Wayne Bennett (2015) and Craig Bellamy (2016).

Such incredible success hasn’t been experienced by a quartet of Aussie blokes outside of a coxless rowing crew.

So what makes these coaches so successful? And with several teams facing tough decisions on the future of their coaches, is there anything that rival clubs can learn from their success?

Sadly, there is no simple recipe for winning premierships. Each and every year is unique, and as the Eels have recently shown, success doesn’t magically transition from one season to the next.

But there are certain drivers of success that are common among the modern-day super coaches.

First, these men drive the culture of their entire organisation. From the training paddock to the gym and onto the field, they set clear standards and demand buy-in from their entire roster.

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And while not every player willingly endures Craig Bellamy’s sadistic off-season army camps – George Rose anyone? – those who do understand the value of such torture and believe it will benefit them in the long run.

Secondly, each of these coaches has a clear vision for the brand of football they want to play.

That’s exactly what Trent Robinson is talking about in press conferences when he references playing “Roosters football”.

While many attribute his success to brown paper bags and the salary sombrero, it would be foolish to underestimate the laser-focused vision he has for his football side.

And finally, it’s their ability to attract talent.

Players want to know what it’s like to be coached by a Bellamy or a Bennett. They watch on as clubs coached by these masterminds rack up premiership after premiership, and they want a piece of the action. Often, they’ll even accept less money in order to do so.

So with these drivers of success in mind, what should the Newcastle Knights do with coach Nathan Brown? Is he the right coach to lead the club moving forward?

Newcastle coach Nathan Brown

(AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

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As with any conversation around Brown’s coaching future, it must first be acknowledged that he inherited a roster that was more barren than a vegan’s meat locker.

And while he’s done a stellar job of replenishing talent, he still owns one of the worst winning percentages – a miserable 21 per cent at the Knights – of any modern-day rugby league coach.

What’s more, there have been several concerning signs around his decision-making over the last couple of seasons.

The first red flag has been Brown’s lack of vision. Early in his tenure and mostly out of necessity, Brown relied heavily on local juniors and cut-price journeymen to fill out his roster.

He put 50 games of experience into the likes of Brock Lamb, Danny Levi and the Saifiti twins, and asked for fans to be patient while he nursed the next generation of Knights into first grade.

But as their salary cap became healthier, so did Brown’s appetite for spending.

Within the space of two years, he’d splurged on big money signings like Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and David Klemmer, while also bringing in high-profile veterans such as Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Aidan Guerra.

As a result of this constant roster reconstruction, only six of the 17 players to suit up for the Knights in Round 1 of the 2017 season were in Brown’s squad for Round 1 of this season, with Sione Mata’utia the only player to be retained in the starting side.

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Such rapid and recurring change doesn’t feel like the actions of a man with a clear vision of what he wants his football side to look like.

Another concerning sign was Brown’s decision to move his star fullback into the halves in only his second full year of first grade.

Putting aside this clear lack of judgment from a football perspective, what should worry Newcastle fans is that this decision is believed to have been driven by Ponga and several other players.

For a first grade coach to be making decisions based on input from a player who at that stage hadn’t even celebrated his 21st birthday is troubling.

It speaks to a culture where the players have far too much power, and where the coach is worried about keeping his star player happy.

Just picture how Craig Bellamy would have reacted had Billy Slater marched into his office and announced: “Coach, this year I’m playing halfback”.

So during his four-year stint in the Hunter, has Nathan Brown developed a clear vision for how the Knights should play their football?

Has he created a strong team culture?

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And are players from rival clubs coming to Newcastle because they want to play under him as the coach?

The answer, in all three cases, is a resounding no.

The situations at Parramatta and St George Illawarra are far less dire, but the decisions around the future of their head coaches are just as critical.

Both clubs entered this season on the back of disappointing 2018 campaigns and with coaches on expiring deals. Paul McGregor and Brad Arthur were essentially coaching for their jobs, and needed a strong start to the season.

Paul McGregor

(Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images)

The Dragons were the first to blink. Despite losing skipper Gareth Widdop to injury, Mary’s men went on a three-game winning streak, including an impressive golden-point thriller against the Broncos at Suncorp.

Feeling they’d seen enough, the Red V powers-that-be signed McGregor to a two-year contract extension.

Personally, I don’t get it.

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Why not keep your powder dry until after the Origin period at least, which has historically been the time of year when the Dragons begin to struggle? Particularly after the way the team started the season, with McGregor manipulating the team’s spine with the frequency of a chiropractor paid by the pop.

While Mary has a formed tight bond with his players and has established a strong team culture, I’m still not convinced he has a clear vision moving forward.

I just can’t make the leap from that rotation debacle, which was only shelved due to Widdop’s injury, to a belief in McGregor as the long-term coach of the side.

St George Illawarra rushed this decision, and they will inevitably suffer the consequences.

Over at Parramatta, and for the first time in my living memory, the Eels’ front office is moving at a more cautious and measured pace.

Much like the Dragons, Brad Arthur’s side has shown plenty of promise in the early rounds of 2019, but Parramatta seem in no hurry to negotiate. They allegedly gave Arthur until June to plead his case, and they appear to be sticking to that deadline.

And it’s the correct decision.

Arthur is a difficult coach to evaluate. There is no denying that he has created one of the strongest team cultures in the NRL, and the fact that his star players are waiting for him to re-sign before pledging their future to the Eels is a positive sign.

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But in a similar vein to McGregor, I struggle to get a good feel for the brand of football he wants to play.

Brad Arthur Eels

(AAP Image/Brendan Esposito)

Now in his sixth year at the helm of the Eels, I can’t identify any level of consistency in Parramatta’s style of play from season to season. And although this might not seem like an important point, I believe it’s critical to a team’s success.

When I think of a Wayne Bennett-coached side, I immediately imagine an impenetrable goal-line defence and a penchant for taking the two points.

Similarly, when I look back on Des Hasler’s tenure with the Bulldogs, I picture prop forwards at first receiver and innovative attacking structures.

What do I see when I think of Brad Arthur’s stint at Parramatta?

If I’m honest, not a whole lot.

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They’ve been a side who’ve struggled defensively and who have shown glimpses of brilliance in attack, but have been unable to reproduce that brilliance on a consistent basis.

It’s almost as though Arthur has moulded his style based on the players at his disposal, rather than moulded the players to fit his style.

If Parramatta believe in Arthur’s vision for the future of the Eels – and if he continues to back that up with solid results – then they should extend his contract in June.

However if they remain unconvinced that Arthur will ever develop into the kind of coach who is able to mould a club in his image, then they should cut him adrift and enter the market.

As the success of Bellamy, Bennett, Robinson and Hasler has shown, signing the right coach is critical to the success of a football team.

Are Nathan Brown, Paul McGregor or Brad Arthur destined to join this elite club of super coaches?

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No? Then history suggests that their clubs are just treading water.