Amid the teeth-gnashing and finger-pointing over Connor Watson’s announcement that he was leaving Newcastle it was disappointing but in no way surprising to see Anthony Seibold turned into a talking point.
In a discussion on NRL 360 about Watson’s departure and what it meant for the club, the fact the former Broncos coach has been made an assistant at the Knights was brought up by the panel.
“I don’t want this to be a bash-up on Seibold, but the criticism of him at Brisbane was that he created all this head noise in the players because he talked in algebraic terms, everything was formulas and science and the players got bamboozled by it all,” Kent said.
“He was brought in at Newcastle, at the time we were told it was to do video analysis for O’Brien and he wouldn’t have any contact with the players, which would’ve avoided the problem that happened to the Broncos.
“Now we know he’s doing one-on-ones with the players … What do you say?”
Probably supposed to be a rhetorical question (“Rhetorical, eh? Eight!”) but I say: good.
An Anthony Seibold is exactly what the Knights needed on their coaching staff in 2021 – it just took them half a season to work it out.
Last December the Knights announced Adam O’Brien’s support staff for 2021 would be Willie Peters, Eric Smith and Rory Kostjasyn, a trio who brought precisely zero games of experience as the head coach of an NRL club to the table. And in fact neither Smith nor Kostjasyn had even been an assistant in the top flight before.
That meant O’Brien, in just his second year as a first-grade mentor, was the sole person in the coaching set-up who understood the stress of a job that requires one to wear any number of hats, with Peters the only member of his support staff who’d even been an assistant at this level.
Compare that to the previous year, when O’Brien had a premiership-winning player and coach of more than 100 first-grade games – as well as having been an assistant to Paul Green during the Cowboys’ 2015 premiership run – in David Furner as his right-hand man. However, Furner returned to Sydney at the end of 2020 to take up a role with the Bulldogs.
While not an ironclad law, coaching in the NRL tends to be a bit like exorcising a demon – you want a young priest and an old priest.
Wayne Bennett is aided by blokes who have never been full-time first-grade coaches, ditto Trent Robinson and Ivan Cleary. As for Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart having Stephen Kearney and Andrew McFadden on their respective staffs, that’s balanced by also having Marc Brentnall at the Storm and Brett White at the Raiders.
It’s also why eyebrows were raised last September when the Dragons announced that 54-year-old Anthony Griffin would be assisted in 2021 by fellow quinquagenarians Peter Gentle and Matthew Elliott.
Much like your playing group, you want your coaching staff to have a mixture of youth and experience, and by midway through this season, the Knights’ lack of the latter in this department was being held up as part of the reason the team was struggling on the park.
Following a 40-4 flogging at the hands of Parramatta in Round 13, it was reported that club CEO Phil Gardner had decided to put a bit more support around his coach.
However, Gardner’s suggestion of getting premiership-winning coach Shane Flanagan was said to have been emphatically rejected by O’Brien.
It was also around about this time – about a fortnight earlier, according to the Newcastle Herald – that Seibold’s role had expanded from that of advisor to having “a more hands-on coaching role”.
Now, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that O’Brien was able to successfully argue that he didn’t need Flanagan holding his hand as he was already gripping Seibold’s digits – Gardner just needed to give them both a little more time.
Because what’s often lost in any discussion about Seibold is that prior to 2020 he had largely been a success as a coach.
In his only season in charge at Souths he steered the Bunnies to within one game of the grand final and was named Dally M coach of the year, while his first year at the Broncos also saw Brisbane play finals footy.
Obviously 2020 was a historically bad year in the Queensland capital and it cost Seibold his job – and justifiably so – but the rot at the Broncos went far deeper than the coach, as evidenced by their ongoing turnover of front-office staff. With the benefit of hindsight, the club giving a rookie coach a six-year deal was probably one of the first signs they were headed down a bad road.
Seibold also brings a wealth of knowledge as a second-in-command, having been an assistant at the Storm (where he first struck up a friendship with O’Brien), Manly and Souths as well as for the Queensland Origin side.
All of which is to say that when the Knights needed a dash of experience to right the ship for 2021, bringing Seibold on was far from the worst option.
While just a few years older than O’Brien, Seibold is a seasoned campaigner who may have only a few more matches of experience in the hottest of seats, but having led high-profile clubs in the Bunnies and Broncos, he understands better than most the stresses and strains of being a first-grade coach.
As for him bamboozling players with his “formulas and science” – like a nerd – Seibold got his education long before he became a coach and his academic approach didn’t seem to be a problem until that one abysmal season in Brisbane.
But while it may have caused problems at the Broncos, there’s every chance it’s an advantage at the Knights, because you don’t just want your coaching staff to be a mix of young and old, you want them to have a bit of variety in other aspects.
While I haven’t sat in on a game-day speech from O’Brien, I’ve listened to enough of his press conferences to have formed the opinion that he’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Maybe the players actually enjoy having someone bring a bit more of an academic perspective to their footy – whether that’s because it’s something different than what they usually hear or because it’s how they also think about the game.
Admittedly that’s just me spitballing – but then, that’s also what Kent was doing – so let’s analyse Seibold’s actual job in O’Brien’s setup.
According to the aforementioned Herald article, “O’Brien has given the controversial former Brisbane Broncos coach the reins to oversee the Knights’ defence with the head coach now taking a far more active role in his side’s attack.”
Now, if the Novocastrians have got a major problem, it’s that despite boasting weapons the likes of Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best, they struggle to score points.
But you’re seriously clutching at straws if you’re trying to pin that issue on the defensive coach.
So how has he done in his role?
Well, prior to Seibold taking on the task of tightening up the Knights’ D, the team had given up 256 points at an average of 25.6 points conceded per game. Compare that to a total of 266 points at an average of 22.2 points since his role expanded – an improvement of more than three points per game.
Just to put that in context, the team’s attack in that same period has actually got slightly worse, from scoring 17.9 points per game to 17.7.
So while the Knights’ injury ward has become less crowded over the months Seibold has been more involved, the only part of the team’s performance that has trended upwards – and notably so – is the aspect over which he plays a leading role.
Apparently it’s all been for naught, however, with Seibold’s season wearing a red and blue polo set to be one and done.
“We’ve been told the Knights will be putting a full stop on Seibold’s tenure at the end of this season. Seibold won’t be at Newcastle beyond this season,” James Hooper wrote last week (I swear, the man’s never met a point he couldn’t belabour).
If it’s accurate, then the Knights will need to have a proper think about their coaching structure for season 2022, because having a veteran on board just makes sense.
As for Seibold, this season shows that at the very least he’s a handy assistant, having helped the Knights go from 11th on the ladder to seventh while increasing their winning percentage from 40 to 58 per cent.
He may be a single cog in a larger machine, but Seibold’s role being expanded has seen an undeniable improvement that has Newcastle in charge of their own destiny ahead of this season’s finals.
Obviously it’s not going to extinguish the raging inferno that still seems to burn for him north of the Tweed, but the Knights making the finals should earn Anthony Seibold a bit of gratitude from the people of the Hunter and finally get certain sections of the media off his back.