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Opinion

Cleary confirms it: There are just three kinds of successful NRL coaches

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Editor
4th October, 2021
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And so, after some 15 years, nearly 400 games, three different clubs and two previous attempts at a grand final, Ivan Cleary is finally a premiership-winning coach.

It sees the 50-year-old at long last remove the gorilla from his back of being one of the longest-serving coaches in NRL history to have never won a title.

Brian Smith – who is still more than 200 games ahead of Cleary – will keep his title as the man with the lengthiest career to have never coached a team to the ultimate rugby league victory.

But then, to be fair to poor ol’ Brian, leading a team to grand final glory is no cakewalk. Of the 24 grand finals played in the NRL era, we’ve only had 14 successful coaches.

This means Ivan joins elite company as a grand final winning mentor who will still be active in the comp next season, with only five of his 2022 colleagues – Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson, Des Hasler, Ricky Stuart and Michael Maguire (Wayne Bennett doesn’t have a gig next season) – being in possession of those most important of rings.

I put together a spreadsheet a few weeks ago to try and work out what it takes to be a successful NRL coach, then waited until we had this year’s winners to publish it so as to give a more complete picture.

What follows is hard-hitting evidence that there are just three kinds of coaches who succeed in the NRL.

Year Team Coach Won premiership before? If no, seasons experience First grade coach at another NRL club?
1998 Broncos Wayne Bennett Yes No
1999 Storm Chris Anderson Yes Yes
2000 Broncos Wayne Bennett Yes No
2001 Knights Michael Hagan No 1 No
2002 Roosters Ricky Stuart No 1 No
2003 Panthers John Lang No 10 Yes
2004 Bulldogs Steve Folkes No 6 No
2005 Tigers Tim Sheens Yes Yes
2006 Broncos Wayne Bennett Yes No
2007 Storm Craig Bellamy No 5 No
2008 Manly Des Hasler No 5 No
2009 Storm Craig Bellamy Yes No
2010 Dragons Wayne Bennett Yes Yes
2011 Manly Des Hasler Yes No
2012 Storm Craig Bellamy Yes No
2013 Roosters Trent Robinson No 1 No
2014 Rabbitohs Michael Maguire No 3 No
2015 Cowboys Paul Green No 2 No
2016 Sharks Shane Flanagan No 5 No
2017 Storm Craig Bellamy Yes No
2018 Roosters Trent Robinson Yes No
2019 Roosters Trent Robinson Yes No
2020 Storm Craig Bellamy Yes No
2021 Panthers Ivan Cleary No 15 Yes

Legends
The first and most obvious kind of successful coach are the legends of the game.

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The first winner of the completely professional, unified competition was Wayne Bennett, who may not have created history on Sunday night by winning a comp with a third club, but even the most jaded Novocastrian (ahem, ahem) will concede the man has sealed his place in rugby league legend.

Then we have the two men who duked it out for the title of greatest coach of the 2010s, with three (legitimate) titles apiece, Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson.

At just 44 and leading one of the best-run clubs in the game, I’d wager Robinson has a number of titles left in him. As for Bellamy, he won the Dally M Coach of the Year award this year for the simple reason that despite seemingly being in the Autumn of his coaching years, he remains the best in the NRL.

Craig Bellamy waves to Melbourne Storm supporters

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Des Hasler isn’t in quite the same rarefied air as his Roosters and Storm counterparts, but with two titles at the Sea Eagles – as well as two grand final appearances during his time at the Bulldogs – those who dismiss Des’ legacy are crazier than his hair after a particularly tight win for Manly.

Finally, we have Tim Sheens and Chris Anderson where, I must concede, things get a little messy. Because while they are there with Bennett as one of the few greats to have won premierships at different teams, both their first premierships came with different clubs, prior to the NRL days – Sheens with Canberra and Anderson at the Dogs.

However, I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to acknowledge that Sheens’ trio of titles at the Raiders, as well as Anderson’s achievement with the Bulldogs in ’95 mean they had titles in their kitbag when they won their ‘first’ rings in the NRL era.

Plus, they are both coaches of World Cup winning teams.

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They’re legends, is my point, and legends win titles.

First-timer
This was the group who initially seemed the most intriguing to me and that is also the most instructive to clubs that are contemplating giving their coach the boot.

If you can’t land a coach who’s a legend of the game, you should go for a complete newbie.

When Michael Hagan, Ricky Stuart, Steve Folkes, Michael Maguire, Paul Green and Shane Flanagan won their titles, they had never coached at another club.

Not for nothing either, but premiership glory also came at their first club for Bellamy, Hasler and Robinson.

My grouping of ‘first-timer’ doesn’t mean they’re a rookie either, merely that it’s their first club. Because while Hagan, Stuart and Robinson reached the summit in their first season, it took Green two years, Maguire three and Folkes six – hell, both Bellamy and Halser needed five goes.

Trent Robinson

Trent Robinson – a premiership winner in his first year. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

So for teams like the Eels, Titans and Knights, don’t let the fact your coaches haven’t got you near the title yet necessarily discourage you, because – even if your coach is Brad Arthur, with more than 200 games in charge – this is their first attempt.

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I’m not entirely sure what the psychology behind this is, but a coach who’s had a crack and failed elsewhere is at long, long odds of getting your club to the peak of Everest.

What I’d also point out is that if your club has got a seasoned pro who hasn’t won a title before – looking at you St George Illawarra, Canterbury and Warriors – you’re probably in need of a new boss before you’ll taste the ultimate success.

But didn’t Ivan Cleary fall into this very category until Sunday night? I’m glad you brought that up. Because Ivan now confirms that there is a third, highly specific category of successful NRL coach.

Dads at Penrith
And it’s here where my interest in first-timers was relegated to being the second-most interesting group.

The real story is the third group of successful NRL coaches.

Dads at Penrith.

The first was the great John Lang, who had eight seasons at the helm of the Sharks, during which time he took Cronulla to the ’97 Super League grand final and had more than his fair share of finals appearances, but was recruited to the Panthers ahead of the 2002 season with no chunky, gaudy rings on his fingers.

That changed on a fateful night in October 2003, when Lang’s Penrith seized a boilover victory to stop Stuart’s Roosters from securing back-to-back titles.

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The story goes that when asked after the game how he was feeling, Lang replied, “I’m just worried the alarm clock is about to go off!”

And what surely made it the ultimate dream was that he had won the title with his son, Martin Lang, as the team’s fearless forward-leader (and, it would be remiss of me not to mention, who these days goes by the descriptor “PhD Candidate, Neuroscience” – the most terrifying prop of his era is soon set to be Dr Lang, I presume).

Now, with due respect to John Lang, I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t feature in the ‘legends’ coaching conversation. This was to be his first and only grand final win as a coach – no mean feat, but while he’s in the conversation of great coaches, his resume lacks the punch to put him in the mythical category.

What separates Lang from the others was that he had spent ten seasons at two different clubs before his win. He was neither a first-timer, nor a legend.

Just like Ivan.

This was Cleary’s third club and fourth attempt, given he had previously been sacked by the Panthers (because apparently he just kept taking naps under his desk or something). He’s no first-timer.

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Ivan Cleary

Panthers coach Ivan Cleary defended his players’ behaviour. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

And while this is less than 48 hours after his first-ever premiership win, and he’s got a young group of players under him who could yet win more titles, he’s still a way away from being put in the ‘legend’ category.

But you know what he’s got in his arsenal?

A young bloke named Nathan Cleary as his side’s halfback, co-captain and freshly minted Clive Churchill Medallist.

So some 18 years after father-and-son duo John and Martin Lang won a title with the Panthers, we see a fellow dual-generation spanning pair holding the Provan-Summons Trophy aloft.

It’s a heart-warming sight and cements this iron-clad law of what it takes to coach an NRL club to a title.

You need to be a legend.

Or you need to be a first-timer.

Or you need to be a dad at Penrith.

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