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Who'd be an NRL coach? Who is in danger in 2020

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Expert
26th February, 2020
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Season 2020 is just about to start and one thing is almost certain this year: at least one coach is going to be sacked, if not more. But who? And when?

The statistics give a pretty good guide to who is most at risk.

Who’d be a rugby league coach anyway? What sort of insanity is required to drive you towards taking the reins of one of the 16 NRL clubs?

Because here are the odds:
• Each season, eight coaches will miss the finals. That’s 50 per cent of coaches who won’t achieve their base key performance indicator
• An average of three of the previous year’s finalists will be among them
• Sides that finished in the previous year’s bottom four have a 50 per cent chance of staying there
• 14 of the possible 22 NRL premierships (63.6 per cent) have been won by just four sides
• 29 of the possible 44 NRL grand final berths (66 per cent) have been taken by just five sides (31.25 per cent)
• 17 of the possible 44 NRL grand final berths (38.6 per cent) have been taken by just two sides
• 11 of the possible 22 NRL wooden spoons (50 per cent) have been taken by just three sides

Most tellingly, each season an average of 2.3 (14.4 per cent) of the coaches will get sacked, while only one coach will be lucky enough to get doused in Gatorade in the post-grand final celebrations.

It’s a mug’s game.

In the 22 years of the National Rugby League, 51 coaches have had their tenures terminated early. At least one coach scalp has been taken every season: including five in 2002, four in 2006, 2012 and 2014, three in 1998, 2000, 2001, 2015, two in 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2019 and just the one in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2016 and 2018.

Although it statistically means nothing, if you’re superstitious, the even years have been easily the worst for the coaches.

There have been 42 different coaches sacked, with eight having the misfortune to be dumped more than once. Tim Sheens, Matthew Elliott, Daniel Anderson, Brian Smith, Nathan Brown, Anthony Griffin and Jason Taylor have all been despatched twice, with Chris Anderson getting the flick three times.

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Former Penrith coach Anthony Griffin at a press conference.

Anthony Griffin faced the axe not once but twice. (Photo: Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Every current NRL side has sacked at least one coach in the past 22 years: the Warriors have sacked six, the Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers five, Panthers, Dragons and Roosters four, Eels and Cowboys three, Broncos, Bulldogs, Storm, Knights, Titans and Sharks two, and Raiders and Sea Eagles one.

It is a no-brainer to say that when coaches get sacked, it is performance based.

That can be a longer term thing. Fifty-six per cent of the time a club that sacks their coach had a bottom-eight finish the previous season, and 26 per cent of the time they had a bottom-four finish. However, in six instances the side finished in the top four the previous season before having a marked drop in results that led to the coach’s demise.

In 45 of the 51 instances (88.2 per cent), the side that sacked their coach was in the bottom eight when the knives came out. In 13 of the instances (25.5 per cent), the team was running dead last when the coach was ousted. There are only six instances of coaches being cut when their side was in the top eight. In all but one of these instances (David Furner 2013), the coach was cut at the end of the season.

Further, only five coaches have been sacked the season after a top-four finish. In each of those cases (Eels 2006, Roosters 2009, Panthers 2011, Wests Tigers 2012 and Sea Eagles 2015) their side bombed out of those finals before their results collapsed the next season.

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When the coaches were cut has a distinct pattern to it, too.

Only four times out of the 51 (7.8 per cent) has a coach been cut before Round 8. In each instance it came on the back of poor early-season results after a very bad previous season. In each case the club had a ready replacement on hand too.

Thirty-nine of the 51 sackings (76.5 per cent) have occurred after the Origin period, with 27 of them (53 per cent) happening at the end of the season.

So sackings rarely happen at the start of the season. The average time of the season for a coach to be sacked is Round 21.

And by the way, these numbers don’t include those coaches who quit before being pushed, or the interim coaches who weren’t hired.

So who is in trouble this season?

To figure this out, let’s first start with who is safe.

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Safe as houses
Trent Robinson is the safest rugby league coach in the world. I’m not sure what super coach Robinson would have to do to get his marching orders from the Tricolours this year, but I suspect it would have to involve personally and maliciously attacking Nick Politis. I can’t see anything else that could see the first back-to-back premiership-winning coach in three decades punted from Roosters HQ.

Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson arrives to address media during a press conference in Sydney

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Craig Bellamy is also safe as houses. Only incarceration could stop him coaching the purple horde for the entire 2020 season and beyond. Their worst finish in the last five seasons has been getting knocked out in the preliminary final. Further, apart from 2010 when they had all their points stripped, the Storm have never missed the finals with Bellamy at the helm.

Pretty damn safe
Des Hasler walked back into Brookvale and took his beloved Sea Eagles from second last to semi-finalists, who were also a genuine premiership chance until injury cruelled their run. It is safe to say that Des is seen as the returning saviour and only extreme scandal and misfortune could see him given his marching orders from the Sea Eagles this season.

Wayne Bennett has managed to assemble a pretty good roster at the Rabbitohs and his preliminary-final finish will have the Burrow pretty upbeat about the job he is doing. That his succession plan has been made public is a good thing to quell any back-room discussions so only really bad results this season will see him in any danger of having his tenure cut short.

Ricky Stuart will probably be a bit uneasy that his position is not in question as it has been a very rare state of affairs in his two decades of coaching. However, his side went within a hair’s breadth of winning the premiership last season with a roster and team spirit that he built himself. The results would have to be totally diabolical in 2020 for the Raiders’ board to even consider removing Stuart.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart

(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Probably OK right now
Michael Maguire has assembled a relatively good roster at the Wests Tigers, with excellent pick-ups in Adam Doueihi and BJ Leilua. Maguire is a very tough scrapper and he has his side really contesting games. The Wests Tigers’ board will want nothing more than stability so things will have to really go pear-shaped before they hit the panic button again and punt their coach. It could happen, but I don’t reckon it will in 2020.

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Ivan Cleary last year came back to the club that dumped him at the end of 2015. The Panthers’ 2018 semi-final exit wasn’t replicated in 2019 with the Western Sydney side missing the finals. That wasn’t exactly the script anyone was expecting. However, that situation was badly affected by players missing through injury and suspension, as well as Cleary continuing his policy of releasing players who weren’t on the bus. Penrith are unlikely to suffer any continued drop in results in 2020, so it’s hard to see them punting Nathan’s dad this year unless things really go pear-shaped.

Dean Pay is a Bulldog to his core. While he may have gone over to the Eels during the Super League war, his heart was always at Belmore. Brought back to the Kennel at the start of 2018 to try and repair the mess of a roster and salary-cap situation that Des Hasler had left, he’s had plenty of excuses to fall back on for the Dogs’ struggling 2018 and 2019 seasons. However, Pay is not a bloke who makes excuses. Running dead last after Round 16 with just four wins to their name, the Bulldogs were red-hot favourites to take the wooden spoon. However, Pay rallied his beleaguered troops magnificently to win seven of their last ten games. They finished 12th, only two wins out of the eight. Don’t expect Dean Pay to get the axe in 2020.

Justin Holbrook enters the 2020 season with a few horrible things hanging over his head. He takes over a club that have just won their second wooden spoon in nine seasons, while only having made the finals once in that time. The side has sacked two coaches in the last five seasons. And he has the publicly stated unconditional backing of Titans CEO Steve Mitchell. Further, he has lost top player Ryan James for the season and has his star player – Jai Arrow – in the departure lounge. While it is hard to see the Titans making the finals in 2020, I’m backing Holbrook to still be at the helm at the start of 2021.

Justin Holbrook

(Photo by Dave Howarth/PA Images via Getty Images)

Adam O’Brien takes over the reins of the Knights with a lot of work to do. O’Brien has served a very good apprenticeship under both Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy. I don’t think there are two better coaches to learn from than them. However, the Knights’ roster – while having gems like David Klemmer and Kalyn Ponga – has some challenges. O’Brien will need to show that he’s learned well from Craig Bellamy in regards to getting the very best out of meat-and-potatoes players if the Knights are to make the finals for the first time in seven seasons. I’m not sure how he’ll go, but the Knights don’t sack coaches quickly. They never have. O’Brien is in no danger of the axe.

Under the pump
Brad Arthur is starting his seventh season at the helm of the Eels in 2020. In that time he has only made the finals twice. There have been lots of good reasons for that. However, they enter 2020 with high hopes. If results are poor and the Eels find themselves outside the eight after the Origin series, then Brad Arthur’s tenure will be shaky indeed. If they make the eight he’ll be fine though.

Paul Green is also starting his seventh season as coach of the Cowboys. In his first four years at the helm he must have thought that the coaching caper was an easy one, with four finals appearances, being runners-up and winning the premiership in 2015. However, results have really fallen away in the last two years, with their 14th-place finish in 2019 the Cowboys’ first bottom-four finish since 2010. With a list that includes Michael Morgan, Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes, far better results will be expected than that at Cowboys HQ this year. If there isn’t a marked improvement by the midway point of the season, expect the dogs to start barking loudly for his removal.

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John Morris got the gig at Shark Park when his predecessor Shane Flanagan got kicked out by the NRL. While the Sharks made the 2019 finals, their dismal showing in the qualifying final against the Sea Eagles highlighted just how far off the pace the Sharks are falling. With Josh Morris pressing for a release and Shaun Johnson, Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan underwhelming, things aren’t great with the team from the Shire. If results are poor in the first half of the season, expect Morris to be under the pump to keep his job.

In dire danger
Anthony Seibold needs 2020 to go well. He needs Brodie Croft to work out well. He needs Andrew McCullough to get back to top form and he needs Anthony Milford to provide some return on investment. Scraping into the 2019 finals before getting humiliated 58-0 by the Eels has Seibold living in borrowed boots. There are a plethora of candidates who’d love to run the Broncos and there will already be strategies in play to take Seibold’s role. If the Broncos aren’t in the top eight after the Origin period, then Seibold’s chances of keeping his job are tiny.

Anthony Seibold

(Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Stephen Kearney will know all too well that the Warriors have sacked more coaches during the NRL era (six) than any other club. The Warriors have only made the finals once in the last eight seasons. Kearney has now had three years at the helm, with last year’s 13th placing being dismal. While he is a Kiwi rugby league legend, three years is the average tenure at the Warriors. Unless his team surprises and the results are good, expect Kearney to be replaced this year.

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Paul McGregor took over from Steve Price in Round 12, 2014 when the latter was sacked. The second-last placing in 2019 was the worst in the history of the joint-venture club. While there were plenty of mitigating injuries and suspensions that contributed to the Dragons’ woeful results, McGregor has had five full seasons to prove he is the man to take the Red V somewhere and has only managed an elimination-finals spot twice. Names are already being bandied around for his replacement and only very good results will see him fronting up as the Dragons’ coach again in 2021.