On the way back north: Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett. Photo: Ryan Osland
Newcastle’s search for a coach to replace Wayne Bennett will explore both ends of the age spectrum, with veteran Tim Sheens and Penrith assistant Garth Brennan considered.
No one can be certain which is the best steed to carry the Knights – an old neddy, or a young colt.
The only certainty is the club would prefer a local and a cheapie, someone whose asking price is about a third of what Bennett will receive in Brisbane.
Keen to stay aboard the NRL coaching carousel: Anthony Griffin.
The $10million inheritance the Knights received from former owner Nathan Tinkler has already been eroded to $5million and further debts will probably wipe that out by season’s end.
The NRL coaching carousel is already crowded, with the Broncos Anthony Griffin keen to stay aboard, but the admission price will surely fall.
Griffin joins six former head coaches working as assistants at NRL clubs – Neil Henry, David Furner, Steve Kearney, Jason Taylor, Rick Stone and Terry Matterson – with Steve Price open to offers.
Four coaches, after long careers as assistants, are in their first season in the top job – Parramatta’s Brad Arthur, the Cowboys' Paul Green, the Warriors' Andrew McFadden and the Dragons' Paul McGregor. Cronulla’s James Shepherd is filling in for the suspended Shane Flanagan.
These callow coaches could turn out to be successful but the lustre of youth may also be fool's gold.
Some of the veteran coaches – Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy, Canterbury’s Des Hasler, Penrith’s Ivan Cleary and Bennett – have the most secure seats on the carousel, while the Titans’ John Cartwright is slipping in the saddle.
Bennett’s results at Newcastle have dented the reputation of “Old Man Winner” and thrown open the debate on what makes a great coach. Answer: good players.
When a young Phil Gould won premierships with Canterbury (1988) and Penrith (1991), the conventional wisdom was that coaches close in age to the players were preferable.
Then, when the grey-beards won in 2005 (Sheens, Wests Tigers) and 2006 (Bennett), the veterans were in vogue.
The only certainty is that two oldies – Bellamy and Hasler – are the only ones who can command $4million over three years, which Bennett has secured in Brisbane.
For the rest, given the multitude of riders on the merry-go-round, including assistants such as Kevin Walters and Brett Kimmorley who want to climb aboard, the salaries are likely to come down.
If club boards recognise appointing a coach is an inexact science, and there are many from whom to choose, they won’t pay big salaries.
However, the retention of a top coach is invariably an economic decision.
It’s not so much the sponsorship money a big-name coach like Bennett attracts.
Nor even the additional people through the gate, although I recall sitting with St George Illawarra supporters at the Reg Gasnier memorial day at Kogarah and them pointing to the northern end, saying: “That was full in Bennett’s day."
The real economic benefit of a popular and successful coach is the money the club saves on player contracts.
If the players have a close relationship with the coach, they will discount their asking price, saving the club a considerable amount.
With salary cap space becoming a club’s greatest asset – apart from the six inches between the halfback’s ears – a coach who secures players for below market price is, well, priceless.
If Bellamy earns in Melbourne what he has saved the Storm in discounted player salaries, it is a good deal for coach and club.
Despite the deserved reputation coaches have for their love of a few quid, money can never be a main long-term motivator.
For the lifers, there's something addictive about the job. It's matching wits against a respected rival. It's watching the marginal player improve his tackling technique, or the reward for the one who rehearses that banana kick for hours after training. It's taking disparate parts and melding them into a symphonic whole. It’s the collective joy when that move is finally and fluently performed, producing the match-winning try.
The cold beer in the dressing room has been replaced by ice baths.
Coaches embrace the comfort of the routine, which explains why so many are willing to be assistants.
The Knights, closely watching an NRL carousel filled with former first-grade coaches happy to be assistants, should choose a risk taker, someone whose reward comes from the job itself, rather than the pay cheque.