This game has seen many great minds come through its ranks. Rugby League might not have a reputation as a thinking man’s game, but it is the thinkers that have always done the best. Some of them were also gifted athletes that went to the heights of the game in their playing career using both their brains as well as their instincts, speed etc that came naturally to them. The likes of Peter Sterling and Andrew Johns come to mind.
Others were not as gifted physically. These player were forced to work hard and use their smarts to carve out modest careers on the field, but then used that experience to create great coaching careers. The likes of Phil Gould or Wayne Bennett are perfect examples of players with limited natural ability but the brain to make the most of what they had.
It is not an easy task to be both a top level player, and then a top level coach once the playing career is finished. Very few people have been able to scale the heights that this game has to offer on both of these paths. Which begs the question, why do former international players continue to get first grade coaching jobs on the back of little experience?
This season’s NRL has 16 coaches (so far – we’re watching you Andrew McFadden). Of those 16 – 5 of them are former internationals.
Now, you might be thinking that is a fairly decent rate. Over 30% of the coaches in the league are former internationals, and the percentage of players that reach that height at any point in their careers is much smaller. But if you look a little bit deeper, you will see that 2 of those 5 include Paul McGregor (3 matches for Australia) and Paul Green (2 matches for Australia) and they are inflating the numbers a little. They were fine players, sure, but they didn’t exactly have glittering careers in the Green and Gold. I certainly can’t put them into the category of being a Genuine Former International (GFI).
To filter out the flash in the pan players, or ones that got the caps through injuries etc I am setting the benchmark for being a GFI at more than 8 matches played for your country. This means that (would they have ever coached) Michael Vella would not qualify, but Steve Mortimer would. That is enough for me.*
That brings us to a more modest place of 19% of NRL coaches being GFI’s. 3 out of 16. That seems like a level that makes a bit more sense to me. But for the uninitiated, it would be easy to say “hang on, why WOULDN’T you be hiring a GFI to coach your side? Who knows the game better than a GFI?” and in a vacuum, that is a perfectly logical question. The NRL is not a vacuum.
It is easy to understand the allure of getting a GFI in to coach your team.
- They bring with them automatic prestige that should help them win over the dressing room.
- You know that they have experience at the highest level of the game, which can only help.
- You generally will have an insight into what type of coach they might be, judging by the way they played the game.
You might even say that the playing career is kind of the ultimate resume. If you did say that however, you would need a bucket of cold water poured all over you, because there are a plethora of GFIs littering the highway of coaching failure.
There are a few different things that we can use to determine the success or failure of a coach. There are readily available “win percentage” stats that can be looked at, and they are certainly a factor, but if you just use those, Howard Hallett (Souths coach for 2 years in the mid 20’s) will never be overtaken given his 93.3% win rate. So it clearly needs to be looked at in combination with tenure.
Possibly the hardest part of being an NRL coach is keeping your job. In the event that you can’t keep your job, the next hardest thing is convincing someone else to give you another shot.** So it would stand that the amount of games that you coach in your career is a fair measure of your ability in some ways.
At the very top level, tenure and winning percentage go hand in hand. I mean, you don’t get to coach 300 First Grade games if you aren’t winning at least half of them!***
Every club is (or should be) looking for a coach that you could describe as a “career coach”. I can’t think of any circumstance where you would not be looking to employ someone that you think can (and wants to) do the job long term. A successful coaching career has to have some length to it to really be considered both successful and a career.
So the 2 parameters that I am looking at to consider someone as a truly successful coach are as follows –
1. You have to have coached 200 games. That is around 8 seasons. That is a genuine coaching career.
2. You have to win at least half of your games. You just have to. If you lose more than you win, that can’t be considered successful
They might seem like high standards, but if you are a club, you should be looking for a coach that you believe can do both of the above things. Clubs that don’t and aren’t looking for that can be found at the bottom of the table each season. Even if you don’t expect that all 200 games will be at your club (possibly even because they have already coached in the league!) you should ALWAYS be looking for someone that is a career coach that can win more than they lose.
So with that, we have to come to the sad realisation that there have only been 24 coaches in this league that have fulfilled the requirements to be a truly successful coach. Only 24. Of the 285 coaches that have had a crack, less than 9% of them have had a successful career by this definition.
The question of course is, how many of these 24 successful coaches were GFI’s?
The answer is 5. That’s all.
Bob Fulton, Chris Anderson, Des Hasler, Clive Churchill and Harry Bath.
Bath and Churchill both haven’t coached in over 50 years.
Fulton hasn’t coached this millennium.
Anderson flamed out in spectacular fashion.
That leaves Hasler who is currently running the Bulldogs.
8 of the top 10 coaches (including the top 4) in terms of total matches coached all have modest playing careers.
GFIs being successful coaches is the exception, not the rule.
There are also many examples of GFIs just bombing out in what could almost be described as impressive fashion.
Wally Lewis – The best of his generation. Won 9 of his 50 career matches coached (including State of Origin)
Mick Cronin – A Parramatta great with a long and fruitful representative career. A record of 33 wins from 88 coaching appearances.
Bob McCarthy – One of the all time greats and a hero to Souths fans. Coached 74 games. Won 16 of them.
Wayne Pearce, Terry Lamb, Tommy Raudonikis, Royce Simmons, the list goes on.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the best players that turn into coaches are the ones that had little natural talent and just had to work hard and use their brains to make their career.
I have already mentioned the obvious candidates of Wayne Bennett and Phil Gould, but there are plenty more.
Brian Smith is the most divisive coach I have ever come across, but there are three things you cannot deny. He wasn’t a particularly good player. He has coached 600 first grade games. He has won over 50% of them (though never a grand final)
Tim Sheens is nearly as divisive as Brian Smith these days, but 669 first grade games coached with more wins than losses speaks for itself. 4 Premierships help too. The 10 year career as a forward at Penrith doesn’t often get a mention though.
There was a time when getting Warren Ryan to coach your side guaranteed you a spot in the Grand Final. He took 3 consecutive clubs to grand finals (Newtown, Canterbury and Balmain) in the 80s coaching in 6 of the 10 deciders that decade. His career coaching record is 415 matches for a 56% win rate. You probably don’t even realise he played a few seasons with St George and Cronulla.
Which brings me to the point.
This season a new coach was given the reigns to a team that had already been underachieving while playing for a GFI. It was the new coach’s first full time job as a head coach. He is also a GFI. Why did Manly think that hiring the highly inexperienced Trent Barrett with his 2 match NSW Country coaching experience would improve them from where they were last season?
Because it has worked for them before.
They appointed local hero and GFI Des Hasler to the job in 2004 when the club was in absolute turmoil. Slowly but surely, Des managed to turn them into perennial contenders. When he had a falling out with the board they handed the team over to Geoff Toovey. Another local hero and GFI. He managed to maintain the status quo for a little while riding on the back of what Hasler built, but it didn’t last. The subtlety in difference of how those two guys played is a telling reason. Hasler had great instincts, but his success came from how hard he worked and how smartly he played. Toovey had great instincts, but his success came from how tough he was (and how much he complained to the referees). That was essentially the difference in their coaching too.
So when you think of Trent Barrett as a player what are the most common things that come to your mind? For me it is things like natural talent. Or if I’m being critical “never quite lived up to the potential” might spring to mind. You know what type of players don’t live up to their potential? Not players that work hard. Not players that use their smarts. Players that have been a bit bigger, or a bit quicker as they’ve grown up playing the game. Players who rely on their natural abilities. In short, the type of players that do NOT make great coaches.
I am a part time writer with a passion for plenty of different sports and not that much spare time to follow them all. I was concerned that Barrett was not a great choice. For all of the above reasons. I have done the research for this article in my spare time and in total it amounted to about a single work days’ worth of effort. You would think that someone at Manly could have spent a day on the internet to see that history tells us this was risky at the absolute best.
*It may seem like an odd number to stop at, but when you think about the fact that this goes back to cover the entire history of the game, and you could play 6 or 7 matches for Australia on a single tour of the UK, this puts that bar a bit higher. This also doesn’t disadvantage modern players with the easy caps available in World Cup matches.
**The best recent example of this is probably Jason Taylor. He took the rabble that was South Sydney to their first finals series in almost 20 years in 2007. He lost his job after a couple of poor seasons in a club that was falling apart around him and a single incident with a player in the off season. It took him 6 years to get another first grade job and he only got that by being very successful again as an assistant.
***Ricky Stuart just became the first person in history to break this rule. Somehow still dining out on his playing reputation combined with having some success in his first coaching stint with an absolutely loaded Roosters team.
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