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The church of Wazzaball: Warren Ryan’s rugby league legacy

Roar Guru
27th January, 2022
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Roar Guru
27th January, 2022
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When I was at school in northern New South Wales in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Warren Ryan had a god-like status.

He’d coached three different teams to a total of six grand final appearances in the ‘80s, winning two of them with Canterbury in 1984 and ’85.

As the ‘90s wore on, Ryan’s halo faded. Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens, Chris Anderson, Phil Gould and Brian Smith became the game’s pre-eminent tacticians.

Ryan never stayed at any one club longer than four seasons and it usually ended in acrimony. While he coached Country Origin for five seasons, he was never trusted with a big representative job. Perhaps he was deemed too awkward and confrontational to handle the media circus that accompanies State of Origin, or the diplomacy required in the international arena.

But for all that, Warren Ryan is arguably the most influential coach in rugby league history. He and Jack Gibson are the progenitors of the analyst, tactician, mentor and media polemicist that is the modern coach.

Gibson hastened the move away from clubs handing the coaching job to the current or former player with the best officer qualities. Ryan made coaching a discipline and spawned numerous imitators.

He was born and grew up at Newcastle in the 1940s and ‘50s and developed into an outstanding athlete. He represented Australia in shot put at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth where he finished seventh overall.

Ryan’s athletics career came to an end when he successfully trialled for a contract at St George. He made his one and only appearance for the Dragons against Souths in Round 8 of 1965 when the club’s future immortals and sundry other stars were touring New Zealand.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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Opportunities at St George were understandably limited, though he did make an appearance on grand final day 1965 when an estimated 78,000 people packed the SCG to see St George win their tenth straight premiership and Ryan play in the Dragons’ reserve grade grand final defeat to Balmain.

After a brief stint at Cronulla between 1967 and ’68, he moved to Wests Wollongong where he won four premierships and became coach after retiring in 1972.

The genesis of Ryan’s coaching appears to have been at St George. He expected the all-conquering Dragons to have a scientific method, but observed that it was more of an art form, based on the talents of Johnny Raper, Norm Provan, Graeme Langlands, Reg Gasnier and company.

When he inquired about the finer points of the Dragons’ game, it was suggested that Ryan ‘go ask Poppa Clay – he might know’.

In 1978, John Dorahy and Shane Day, former charges of Ryan at Wests Wollongong and then playing for Wests in Sydney, suggested bringing Ryan to the Magpies.

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He was appointed coach of Wests’ under-23s and took them from fifth place to a grand final against a Penrith side featuring the likes of Ken Wilson and Henry Foster. He also contributed as a defensive coach to Roy Masters’ first-grade team winning the minor premiership.

His contributions were quickly noticed. Newtown secretary Frank Farrington coaxed Ryan to the Jets in 1979 and their improvement over the following three seasons was remarkable.

Newtown had finished a distant last in 1978, winning just two games and conceding, on average, more than 26 points per game. Newtown finished second last in 1979, but their attacking and defensive numbers improved significantly, and by 1980 they were on the fringe of the finals.

Ryan’s achievement in getting Newtown to the 1981 grand final, a narrow defeat to Parramatta at the SCG, is still regarded by some as miraculous. But Newtown finished ahead of Parramatta that season and had a very good team, featuring Phil Sigsworth, John Ferguson, Ray Blacklock, Ken Wilson, Graeme O’Grady, Phil Gould and Geoff Bugden.

Phil 'Gus' Gould

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

None of that is meant to detract from his achievement at Newtown. Quite the opposite; the Warren Ryan effect wasn’t miraculous, it was method.

In 1984, Ryan inherited a Canterbury team that’d finished second the previous season but with a remarkably poor defensive record. The improvement was immediate. Canterbury finished with the best defensive record in 1984, won the minor premiership and beat the defending premiers Parramatta in the grand final.

They weren’t as dominant in 1985 or ’86 but were again parsimonious and reached grand finals both seasons, beating St George in 1985 and losing narrowly to Parramatta in the try-less decider of ’86.

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It wasn’t always pretty, especially the aggressive and occasionally cynical umbrella defence, but it was very effective. Canterbury’s relentless bombing of fullbacks, most notably Glenn Burgess in the ’85 grand final, eventually forced a change to the rules about restarts from the in-goal.

Ryan took Balmain to consecutive grand finals in 1988 and ’89, but in neither season were they an outstanding team. According to Ryan, Balmain’s star-studded forward pack was often let down by a mediocre set of outside backs.

This was the problem Ellery Hanley was brought in to solve in ’88 and the problem that may have cost them in the ’89 decider against Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley and John Ferguson of Canberra.

Accounts of Ryan at this point in his career begin to paint a picture of an increasingly inflexible figure. There’d been tension and fallouts before: Tom Raudonikis at Newtown, Steve Mortimer at Canterbury, and media generally.

Tommy Raudonikis

(Photo by Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

In 1991, Ryan left a declining Balmain for Wests. According to Steve Roach, Ryan’s departing words to his Balmain players were “the lemon’s been squeezed”.

Wests, who were already struggling financially, backed their new coach with veterans from his Canterbury days, Andrew Farrar, David Gillespie, Joe Thomas and Paul Langmack, along with representative forwards Graeme Wynn and Tony Rampling. There were also promising youngsters like Jim Dymock, Darren Britt, Jason Taylor and Jamie Ainscough.

Not surprisingly, Wests improved, going from 13th in 1990 to the finals in 1991 and 1992. But the improvement was short-lived, with a decline in 1993 followed by Ryan’s sacking in 1994 after another fallout with senior players and officials, primarily about the club’s inability to re-sign young players like Dymock and Taylor.

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Ryan had a few choice and subsequent words in Tony Adams’ book, Masters of the Game, about administrators he’d dealt with: “There’s no future in coaching [under] chook raffle administrators who are a combination of geriatrics and hillbillies. I’ve been there, done that and am not interested in going though that aggravation anymore”.

Except he was. Ryan returned for two valedictory seasons at his hometown Newcastle Knights in 1999 and 2000, providing a bridge between premiership-winning coaches Malcolm Reilly and Michael Hagan.

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Ryan’s legacy is not like that of Brian Smith, a residual influence in the practice and custom of his former clubs.

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Many players found Ryan difficult to understand, difficult to get along with, or both. They loved his technical and tactical acuity but could find it hard deal with his abruptness.

Ryan was a coach’s coach. Brian Smith admitted to obsessing about Ryan’s defensive structures. Wayne Bennett was rumoured to have sought outside help to crack the code.

Ryan’s legacy is five premiership-winning coaches he influenced directly or indirectly. As Phil Gould remarked, “There’s so much in our game today where the embryo dates back to his teachings from the early 1980s. And from that he created people with the ability to coach.”

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