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Four coaches who should be in the mix to replace Arthur - and the absolutely worst candidate who already is

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Expert
21st May, 2024
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Coaching tenures rarely end well in rugby league – or any sport for that matter – and it was no different for Brad Arthur at Parramatta when the Eels sacked their longest-serving coach just 24 hours after a 48-16 pummeling at the hands of a Melbourne team that was without Ryan Papenhuyzen and Jahrome Hughes and lost Cameron Munster early.

It is a disappointing but not entirely unexpected end for a coach that has done an admirable job at a club that cannot get out of its own way and leaves with more games at the helm than the likes of more revered mentors Jack Gibson, John Monie, Brian Smith, Terry Fearnley and Vic Hey.

Arthur’s position in the Parramatta pantheon will long be discussed and there is little doubt that his time at the Eels had probably run its course, a good coach who was well-liked and well-respected whose ideas had probably become a little tired and whose tactics hadn’t evolved enough and whose voice had started losing its punch. He was no Jack and no Monie and no Brian Smith but he was also no Stephen Kearney or Ricky Stuart or Ron Hilditch either.

The first word that comes to mind when remembering the Arthur years is solid. He coached 264 games over the better part of 11 seasons – 10 full and two parts – winning 51.89% of games. He never won a premiership but did coach the Eels to just their third Grand Final since 1986 and led the Eels to the finals in five of his 10 full seasons.

At no stage was he ever mentioned in the coaching elite but he was never in the laughing stock of coaches either – that special strata reserved for the likes of Nathan Brown, Dean Pay, Stephen Kearney, Garth Brennan, Brad Fittler, Jason Taylor, Paul Langmack and, of course, Trent Barrett (more on him later).

When looking at how a coach has done, analysing these six key areas is typically a pretty good starting points:

  • Results
  • Recruitment/Retention
  • Tactics/Innovation/Adaptability
  • Assistants
  • Player Development
  • Intangibles – respect, likability, politics, big picture
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By any measure his results were good without being great. He had some of his predecessors well covered, and five finals in six years is nothing to sneeze at, but his inability to get over the hump in September was a knock he did not overcome until the Grand Final run in 2022.

Recruitment was not an area he thrived in. He was not a destination coach but he was not a coach that scared players off either. Over his decade at the helm he had wins with Mitchell Moses, Junior Paulo, Nathan Peats, Beau Scott, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Ryan Matterson, Isaiah Papalii and J’maine Hopgood and pushes with the likes of Will Hopoate and Blake Ferguson to go with misses like Jarryd Hayne, Corey Norman, Lee Mossop, Anthony Watmough, Kieran Foran, Tony Williams, Josh Hodgson and Joe Ofahengaue.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Retention calls are a little more complex and reflect a little more poorly on Arthur. He was loyal to a fault with the players he likes, keeping not only players who didn’t deserve it around but players who were becoming obsolete, particularly in the latter part of his stay.

He also had a saviour complex that rarely worked, believing his pure work ethic could reform the likes of Hayne, Norman and Ferguson, something that rarely, if ever, worked.

The one player that does come to mind though when it comes to pure retention was the decision to let Bevan French leave after only three seasons in the top grade. French scored 35 tries in 47 games in the blue-and-gold, possessed speed to burn and great football instincts but was rarely secure in first grade and was let go because, primarily, of his size.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 13: Eels coach Brad Arthur looks on before the round one NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Gold Coast Titans at CommBank Stadium, on March 13, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)[/caption]

Where Arthur does score best is the intangibles. He has been throughout his entire tenure at the Eels a highly respected figure. He has led the club through numerous scandals including a horrid salary cap breach. He has dealt with the fractious politics and the unworkable power structures within the Eels with dignity and humility. He was well liked by the playing group and very little emanated from a decade at the club of him being off with the players.

Overall, Arthur did a sound if unspectacular job at the Eels. He is a good coach and one who will likely be better from the lessons learned at Parramatta. He will be a head coach again in the next few years with North Queensland, Manly, Newcastle and potentially Canterbury having head coach openings in the next two years.

The biggest question around Arthur’s dismissal was not the if but the when. The Eels made a complete hash of it and despite publicly pushing the narrative that the club had a plan in place to lure Wayne Bennett to the club but like a backmarker who charges home when the race is all over, the Eels were sectional specialists without a chance of winning.

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It has been known for three years that Bennett was off contract at the end of this season. It was well known that he wanted to coach again. Parramatta would have had the whip hand had they moved on from Arthur at the end of last year. They would have if they moved in the first month when it became obvious that Souths were going to need to sack Jason Demetriou. The club’s failure to recognise any of this shows how badly the club is run and how the powerbrokers have absolutely no plan. Chasing Wayne Bennett after the race has been run and won elsewhere is nothing but a foul mix of PR and anus bleaching.

Typically when a coach is moved on, the club has in mind a better candidate. That clearly is not the case at the Eels, who have tapped Trent Barrett to take over for the remainder of the season and have rumoured to have told the former Sea Eagles and Bulldogs failure that he can win the job permanently.

There is probably no worse candidate Parramatta could look towards than Barrett and giving him an opportunity to win the job permanently is a complete indictment on the club. Barrett has a 34-73 record in the NRL across five seasons.

Trent Barrett

Trent Barrett. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Three of his four competed seasons finished with records of 8-16, 7-17 and 3-21, the first with a Manly team that included the Trbojevic brothers and Daly Cherry-Evans, among others. Not one of his defences was better than 21ppg with his final full season at the Bulldogs nearly 30ppg. Pushed in the media as an “attacking genius”, Barrett’s teams have scored 18.91, 23, 20.83, 14.17 and 9.6 points per game. The Eels have the fifth worst attack in the NRL this season, scoring just 18.7 points a match. Parramatta would be a laughing stock if they hired Barrett.

The club must now decide if they are going to try to find an experienced recycled coach, an up-and-coming assistant, a coach with ties to the club or a left-field option.

There only choice among recycled coaches should be Justin Holbrook, probably the best available option. He is smart and measured and was very harshly treated at the Titans. He has done tremendous things with the Roosters this season. He can attract playing talent. He is tactically astute and is likely better after serving an apprenticeship under Trent Robinson.

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Michael Maguire’s name has been thrown about but he is far too similar in philosophy and style to Arthur and clubs never follow with the same style. Heaven help the club if they start taking calls from Nathan Brown or Jason Taylor or Anthony Griffin or Jason Demetriou.

There is always a temptation to push for a hot assistant. Unfortunately, there are not many around and they are highly unlikely to succeed at a club as messily run as Parramatta.

Jason Ryles knocked back the Dragons last season and the Eels are in no better state. Josh Hannay and Dean Young are not inspiring choices. Sam Burgess has done a great job at Warrington getting them to the Challenge Cup final but has committed to not returning to the NRL and likely will try to position himself to succeed Bennett at Souths. The most laughable candidates thrown into the mix are former Eels players Luke Burt and Blake Green. Green, in particular, is not being chased at all yet is being pushed by powerful player-manager Isaac Moses.

Where the Eels need to look is left-field and that field is England. Four candidates who should be right in the mix are Catalans coach Steve McNamara, former Leeds coach and current Newcastle assistant Brian McDermott, Broncos assistant Lee Briers and Hull KR coach Willie Peters. The experience of McNamara and McDermott, combined with the success they have both had, should have them at the top of the pops. Briers has worked wonders with the Broncos attack and is arguably the best assistant in the NRL. Peters has done magnificently at Hull KR and is an NRL coach in waiting.

Parramatta moved on from Brad Arthur. Fair enough. But they messed the timing up to get Bennett, they’ve put Barrett in the one-one and now have no idea who they are replacing their longest-serving coach with. That decision will shape the club for years to come. Given how they have handled Arthur, they are unlikely to make the right decision.

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