In recent seasons, much has been made about the importance of coaches, seemingly being considered more so than the players they work with.
Terms like ‘supercoach’ are commonly used to describe a select few, while camera operators are instructed to show images of the coaches’ reactions during games – as though there’s some special importance attached to the way they respond to what’s happening on the field.
In coaching, there are always going to some who excel at the job, some who try but don’t quite have it, and the middling lot who have moments of greatness but generally aren’t going to set the world on fire.
Coaches will be the first to admit they will not be successful unless a number of factors align.
The first and most obvious issue is the players the coach has to work with. In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg situation.
Wayne Bennett is often called a supercoach but if you look at his record, he was super when he had outstanding players. The squads that the Brisbane Broncos fielded in the era when they won their premierships contained so many quality players – ditto with the St George Illawarra team that won a premiership in 2010.
Could they have won their respective titles without Bennett, but with a good coach? Probably but not definitely. Could Bennett have won these titles without these quality players? Maybe, but his record when given a less-talented roster suggests he’d have struggled.
The glaring deficiency in an otherwise outstanding coaching record is Bennett’s time at the Newcastle Knights. Yes, he was coach in 2014 when the Knights made the finals, but he was also coach in the bookend seasons where they finished 12th. That suggests he didn’t have players good enough to either challenge for a finals spot or win a premiership.
The other two men touted as great coaches in the modern era are Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson but, again, it’s difficult to know whether they are that good, given they’ve been blessed with outstanding players.
There’s no doubt their talent as a coach has enhanced the abilities of many who have played under their guidance, but neither has yet coached a team of middling talent.
Regardless, both have had setbacks.
The 2016 season was forgettable for the Roosters, finishing second last, while I doubt Bellamy has a highlights reel of the 2008 grand final, which was won in record fashion by the Sea Eagles.
Other than players, coaches need a strong and stable club and board. It’s no surprise both Robinson and Bellamy are doing well, given the people in the background providing a stable base from which to operate, including policies around player retention, as well as the right people making calls on recruitment and injury management.
Contrast that with the situation at the Dragons or Broncos, for example. Both clubs have struggled at board level, both have made poor recruitment decisions and the results can be seen on the ladder.
While it hasn’t helped that both clubs have had coaches that are (generously) no better than middle-of-the-road, it would have made no difference if a Bellamy, Robinson or Bennett had been there – they’d have struggled to make headway.
Ivan Cleary and Brad Arthur are having good seasons, with their respective sides well placed to make a good run at the finals. But only a season or two ago, both were struggling and there were huge question marks about their ability to coach. What changed?
Paul Green was touted as a terrific coach when he helped the Cowboys win their inaugural premiership in 2015, yet a few seasons later, he’s out. What changed?
These guys didn’t suddenly become better or, in Green’s case, lose the ability to successfully coach. They were the ‘victims’ of either their roster, club stability, recruitment and retention, or a combination of these factors.
The strength of good clubs is their ability to put all of the pieces together, which includes finding and keeping a good coach. The strength of the really good clubs is to maintain that formula for extended periods, allowing squads to evolve, develop together and regularly challenge for titles.
Coaches are a key element in a club’s success, but they are only one piece of the puzzle.