THE BIG ISSUE: #54

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN most areas, the NRL follows the trends of other professional sporting competitions that are more advanced in terms of commercial success.

But we should pause for deep thought before we follow their leads when it comes to sacking coaches.

“We don’t want to get to the point where the EPL is, where if you lose three games in a row, you’re gone,” sacked North Queensland coach Neil Henry said on the ABC on Sunday.

“That’s just a bad environment for everybody.”

On the surface, sacking the coach of an under-performing team is justifiable. The coach usually plays a big role in recruitment. He devises tactics. He picks the team each week. He determines the public image of the club more than anyone else with his (at least) weekly media conferences.

There’s just one problem though. Recent evidence indicates sacking the coach makes very little difference to results.

Under Stephen Kearney and Brad Arthur in 2012, Parramatta won six games and lost 18. Under Ricky Stuart in 2013, they’ve won three and lost 15.

Under Tim Sheens in 2012, Wests Tigers won 11 games and lost 13. This year under Michael Potter, they’ve won six and lost 12.

People on both sides of the decision to sack a coach – and those in the middle, the players – will tell you rugby league is a “results-driven business”. But recent evidence suggests results don’t benefit from sacking a coach.

phonto (1)And if it really is a results-driven business, then it shouldn’t matter if the coach “loses the dressing room” or isn’t talking to the chief executive or doesn’t get on with sponsors. If you’re sacking a coach to improve results, then the figures above indicate you just shouldn’t sack him.

Perhaps the answer is what has happened at Parramatta and Penrith this year – significant and painful cleanouts of playing staff; paring things back to a best-case scenario even if you end up like the Eels and can only afford a fulltime squad of 21 players the following season.

Even if you’re paying multiple ex-players to play against you for rival clubs.

Or maybe it’s what Mal Meninga suggested at the weekend; giving the man who has a contract some more help.

If Neil Henry is willing to accept an assistant coach’s job at another club – as he said he would in that ABC interview we did on Sunday – then who’s to say Trent Barrett, Paul Green, Nathan Brown, Justin Morgan and the rest wouldn’t be willing to assist HIM?

Or who is to say Henry wouldn’t accept a demotion at his own club to assist one of THEM? It would certainly save him the hassle of picking up his family and moving interstate. Has anyone asked him?

Perhaps what we really need to do in order to get results is take the ego out of coaching and of coaching appointments. It’s an old saying – put to good use by Meninga for the last eight years – that performances improve when no-one cares who gets the credit.

Instead of hiring one of the many on their long list of candidates, the Cowboys could effectively offer them all a job and then work out who is in charge. Won’t work, you say? It works for Meninga.

How is it good business to pay someone to do nothing? The money you are paying someone to sit on their backside could be much more constructively spent paying someone to help them while they continue to come to work.

The thing you are paying for when you sack a coach today is his replacement’s vision; the football nous to come in and make changes and employ a program that will eventually bring you success.

And that’s OK if the man in question has been around long enough to HAVE a program, have a system, have a philosophy. But many of the people being discussed as replacements for Neil Henry are ex-players with limited coaching experience.

Having the previous coach on staff, it would appear, would only help them.

Everyone says South Sydney’s success is largely down to Michael Maguire but what is overlooked is that John Lang did not want the job last year. He was always leaving at the end of 2011. Similarly, Trent Robinson had done an apprenticeship under the man he replaced, Brian Smith.

This sort of professional, dispassionate succession plan soothes players, allows recruiters and agents to plan and takes the drama and pain out of coaching upheavals.

Yet there are rumblings Wests Tigers have at least discussed making the same mistake again – paying out another coach without even knowing who is going replace him.

Why is it that coaches and players are expected to learn from their mistakes but clubs are expected not to? Sacking a coach is not “doing something”, it’s just being seen to do something

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

1 Comment

  1. Given today’s formulaic repetitive and innovation free game structure brought on by the entertainment tail wagging the football game dog, the role of Coach has changed from the traditional tactician who sought to maximise the talents of his playing staff through imaginative backline moves often resulting in daring moves from set plays using the speed and ability of his backs to evade the grasp of the defence, to ‘coaches’ becoming basic organisers of mindless Left and Right in both attack and defence. Any innovation these days, and its rare, usually comes from Craig Bellamy and then every club in the comp is doing the same thing within 3 weeks. These days, as was the case to a lesser degree in the earlier days of the game (60’s-70’s), its the cattle…not the coach..that makes for a successful team. The ‘professionalisation’ of the players (not the administration) has seen the emergence of the modern player as the transient mercenary whose future season earnings, potential sales value and inflated ego requires the services of a consellor cum psychologist rather than an actual football coach. And so it is that ‘coaches’ today are required to be more HR and PR conscious than football savvy. So the better ‘man manager’ these days appears to do well relative to his competing coaches. The real problem in modern football clubs is talent identification, where a blinkered focus on big and fast with ‘metres gained’ being the only imperative has seen club’s recruiting dominated by Polynesian players(who develop quicker as youngsters and tend to dominate Junior football) as they are fostered through the Juniors (theirs or someone else’s) at the expense of the smaller more creative player…hence the dearth of half-5/8’s throughout the competition. Even the wingers are now being chosen on height rather than speed or evasion skills as they are being groomed to take the inevitable high ball or cross kick resulting from the mind numbing 5th tackle play. Again its here that Bellamy stands out (and no I don’t barrack for Melbourne) where he has nurtured and encouraged the creative and skill talents of his running players Slater and Cronk to play an expansive game which leaves the lock step tactics of his ‘coaching’ opponents in his wake. Until fundamental changes are made to the game then it will be always so that these days ‘the Drover’s Dog’ could coach an NRL team and that a short sighted and or inept Board can use him as the scape goat (or dog) to divert the attention away from their poor vision of what a coach should be.

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