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2014 one of the toughest for NRL coaches

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Part pedagogue, part demagogue is an apt description of the coach in the old Sydney first grade rugby league competition. A teacher and vocal leader. 

Today's NRL coach cuts a vastly different figure. He is still a teacher, although he has a number of assistants to fine tune skills and "shapes".

He is less an authority figure, both in public comment and clubhouse power.  Beset by pressure to win immediately from nervous boards, bedevilled by unrealistic expectations of sponsors, fans and the media, betrayed by underachieving players with fat sign-on fees and promises of third party deals,  the standard contemporary coach resembles a well-paid relief teacher, aware he must clean out his desk when his boss’ name flashes up on his mobile phone.

The 2014 season has, by any measure and the admission of some coaches, been their toughest ever.

Six NRL coaches have already been sacked or resigned  – the Warriors' Matt Elliott, the Dragons' Steve Price and the Broncos' Anthony Griffin have all been paid out, while the Sharks' Peter Sharp and the Titans' John Cartwright retired during the season and Wayne Bennett announced he was leaving Newcastle, effectively surrendering the coaching duties to his assistant.


"This has been the toughest year for coaches,'' says Craig Bellamy, the Storm's 12-year veteran, speaking collectively, although his 2010 season when the Melbourne club played for no points would have been personally the most challenging.

"There has never been a season where so many coaches have lost their jobs.

"Six out of 16 is a big turnaround.

"The rule changes and their interpretation have been frustrating for everyone, including the fans.

“The judiciary has produced some surprising, frustrating and inconsistent decisions.''

Cartwright agrees. The Titans foundation coach said that while 2014 was the fourth consecutive season his club failed to make the semi-finals, a new board and a review made this year particularly difficult.

"This is the first year the club formed a board,'' he said. ''(Owner) Michael Searle sold off a lot of his shares. All of a sudden I wasn't working for one guy. It made us a lot more accountable. Then they announced a review. I got an inkling they were looking at change. More pressure came from the board, mainly because of our results."  

Canberra's Ricky Stuart who won a premiership in his first season as a top grade coach (Roosters 2002), made the next two grand finals and then watched miserable loss pile upon agonising defeat at Cronulla, Parramatta and Canberra, says 2014 has been no more challenging than every year since he left Bondi Junction.

"In the last eight years, where I've had two with the NSW Origin team and six in the NRL, every year has been as hard as this year," he says.  

 "When you are rebuilding clubs, as I have, and there is no benefit anywhere, no incentive from the NRL to improve, no draft, no salary cap concessions for producing local players, it is tough.

"The league seems happy to have a top six of clubs, the ones with the big followings which attract the TV dollars."

Accusations of favouritism towards the top clubs are not new. Parramatta and Wests coaches complained bitterly 35 years ago over the rule of a Phillip Street cartel of Manly's Ken Arthurson and Canterbury's Peter Moore. However, today's revenue-driven ARL Commission would surely want the Eels and Wests Tigers, with strong followings, to fill stadiums and stifle the AFL's Greater Western Sydney Giants.

 But the code's broadcasters also want a competition where no game is a given.

NRL chief executive Dave Smith revealed at a recent presentation that the margin of winning in 2014 is the lowest since 1998.

While a strictly enforced salary cap distributes talent, it also means more games are decided by the one factor coaches can't control, referees.

While Stuart argues it has been status quo for eight seasons, 2014 has thrown up fresh challenges.

Late rule changes

These were not ratified until a Commission meeting in January. Players needed a full off-season to change their ingrained habits – a tactical kick into the in-goal could reward the opposition with seven tackles. Some coaches are convinced the three active coaches on the rules committee (Roosters' Trent Robinson, Penrith's Ivan Cleary and Bennett) knew the cannon ball tackle would be banned and conducted training sessions in early January to accommodate this.

The Alex McKinnon injury

This had a devastating effect on Newcastle and the Storm where Jordan McLean was suspended for seven weeks. The memory of McKinnon crying out, "I can’t feel my legs" endured. Both coaches, Bennett and Bellamy, stayed awake at night trying to imagine what the kid was going through. Both were close to leaving the game. Bennett wrote a long emotional column in support of McKinnon but did not make any reference to McLean who many believed should never have been forced to appear at the judiciary. The devastation was compounded when Newcastle issued a press release saying the other two players in the tackle should have been charged.

Player power

Senior Manly players publicly criticised club management for not re-signing second rower Glenn Stewart  and Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah has shown little respect to chief executive Grant Mayer and been accused of undermining coach Mick Potter. The NRL does not have the AFL's rules which tie a player to a club, meaning that if a star threatens to walk and is in dispute with the coach, a nervous board will favour the $800,000-a-year player. One rookie NRL coach is powerless to stop a leading player scheduling his weight training to fit in with his paid promotions, rather than the team activity. With the average age of players rising, as more stay on for the increasing payments, the power base of coaches will wane.

A plethora of young coaches

With five coaches in their inaugural season, many do not have the experience to confront non-football problems, such as the ASADA inquiry and revelations on social media. Most are former assistants where they have been delegated to watch videos, correct skill errors and conduct debriefs, meaning they have no problem with game day and training. However, many are not prepared for the challenges of an increasingly vigilant media, both in terms of time and correct response. Cartwright says, "The scrutiny of social media sometimes causes people to jump at shadows."  

The 2014 coaching carousel

Bennett has forced the merry-go-round to spin faster than in any previous year. His decision to exit Newcastle de-stabilised four clubs and their coaches – the Dragons were convinced they had his agreement to return, only to be jilted at the altar; the Titans were rumoured to be in negotiations with him, although Cartwright says it would never have happened because "the club hasn't got the funds to pay him"; and the Broncos had to pay out their coach and the Knights returned to Rick Stone. With so many former first grade bosses now working as assistants, together with ambitious lower grade coaches coveting their job, NRL coaching is a job for someone with an appetite  for the kind of self-inflicted, third act tragedy not much played out in public since the early works of Sophocles.