Saturday night saw the Newcastle Knights travel down to the infamous Sydney Cricket Ground ready to take on the Sydney Roosters. A massive thrashing at the hands of the current reigning premiers shows that we’ve got a lot of work left to do.
Within minutes of Nathan Brown announcing he was leaving the Knights, the conversation shifted to who his replacement would be.
The usual suspects were tossed up – Geoff Toovey, Tim Sheens, Trent Barrett – as well as some slightly more left-of-field candidates, such as Mark Geyer’s suggestion that Phil Gould was the man to lead Newcastle to their next premiership.
However, the most persistent reports were that it was a two-horse race, between Roosters assistants Adam O’Brien and Craig Fitzgibbon.
Then Fitzgibbon’s agent, David Riolo, said his pony was an early scratching and we’re now apparently watching one thoroughbred canter to the finish line at beautiful Broadmeadow, ready to claim the Newcastle Knights Coach Cup.
I’ve been wrong about this stuff before – getting all hot under the collar about Kevin Walters being named the Titans coach, only for Justin Holbrook to get the gig (and for me to get all hot under the collar again) – but the major media outlets have O’Brien as the unbackable favourite to succeed Brown.
And the reason O’Brien’s apparent succession is such a juicy story is because a faction of the board at Bondi were none too happy with the situation.
In fact, Trent Robinson was forced to hold a press conference on Friday afternoon, denying that there was any animosity towards his assistant and putting the kibosh on suggestions O’Brien would be sacked before the season was out if he took the helm in the Hunter.
“I think he’s obviously ambitious and wants the role and I will support him in that,” Robinson said.
“That’s what head coaches are there for. We are there to develop and progress, and he is good enough for the job. I’m sure they’ll be positive about it.”
It was an eminently sensible response to the situation from the unflappable head Rooster. Because of course they should back their second in charge if he wants to throw his hat in the ring for a No.1 position.
That he had come to the Tricolours after a decade at the Melbourne Storm, the most professional system in rugby league, was a pretty fair indicator that O’Brien had designs on becoming a first-grade coach – he wanted to see how someone other than Craig Bellamy ran things.
If that wasn’t enough of a clue that maybe O’Brien might one day ask to leave in pursuit of a bigger, better job, perhaps the fact he had a clause inserted into his contract stipulating he could leave if a first-grade job was on offer was an indicator.
The guy left his previous club to learn more about being a head coach, had an article in his deal permitting him to leave if he was offered a role as a head coach, and has his tyres pumped up in the media on a pretty consistent basis that he’s a head coach in waiting.
Was it really such a surprise that when a sweet position became available – and given the Knights’ facilities, financial strength, community support and roster, they don’t get much sweeter for a rookie – O’Brien expressed interest?
And yes, he’s only been in the eastern suburbs for nine of the 36 months he’s contracted for but it’s hardly a backflip or abandoning a team when you’ve got a contract that states you can do what O’Brien is aiming to do.
Ultimately, while it may be a bit of a bump on the Roosters’ seemingly inevitable road to another grand final, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them.
Just as losing players is the price of success, so too is seeing some of your brains trust depart – just look at Melbourne.
Over the years, the Storm have said goodbye to understudy coaches the ilk of Michael Maguire, Stephen Kearney, Brad Arthur, Dean Pay, Anthony Seibold, Nathan Brown and Kevin Walters.
Yet Craig Bellamy continues to find replacements who keep his side at the top of the standings year after year.
To be fair, Robinson has had some decent assistants leave as well, with Paul Green departing after the Chooks’ 2013 grand final victory to take up the top job in North Queensland, Jason Taylor becoming coach at Wests Tigers shortly after, and Steve McNamara now in charge at Catalans.
A bit of upheaval in the ranks is inevitable in professional sport – the great coaches and clubs simply get on with things.
So perhaps the talk of noses being out of joint at the Roosters was just that, talk.
But if Adam O’Brien does get the job in Newcastle and the 2018 premiers don’t go back-to-back, what’s the bet fingers will be pointed at the bloke who exercised his right to take up a better job?