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Pressure on coaches: is it fair?

Parramatta's Ricky Stuart is one of a handful of NRL coaches whose team's poor performances in 2013 have thrown the spotlight back on their future. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos

I don’t envy the job that NRL coaches do in the modern game. Although the sacking of Neil Henry this week comes as no great surprise given the disappointing season his North Queensland side has had in 2013, it is a reminder of just how fickle the coaching game can be.

Henry took the Cowboys to the finals in 2011 and 2012 but has paid the price for missing out this season given that most of us expected them to challenge for the premiership come the business end of the year. There was so much expectation given the calibre of players he has got at his disposal and he was always the likely candidate to be stood down if they under-performed.

He isn’t the only one under pressure either. Gold Coast coach John Cartwright is rumoured to be on the precipice with the Titans battling to stay in the finals hunt, while the positions of Matthew Elliott, Mick Potter, Steve Price and even Ricky Stuart have at times been questioned despite the fact that three of those four are in their first seasons with their respective clubs, and the fact Price had his contract extended through 2014 just this past April.

It just goes to show what a cutthroat profession coaching is at this level. There is incredible expectation of performance week in, week out. You take your hat off to those coaches who have been in the game for so long – guys like Wayne Bennett who survived through thick and thin. They are certainly in the minority.

A by-product of the professional rugby league era is that coaches are expected to bring winning performances straight away and to be consistent every week. I don’t recall this being the case 20 years ago or there being so much scrutiny on coaches. Sure, players come under scrutiny too, but more often than not it is the coaches who have their heads on the chopping blocks. It is the coach who is going to get the sack if the players aren’t performing at their best.

I find it remarkable that guys like Elliott, Potter and Stuart can have their positions questioned less than a year into the job. Any coach needs at least a couple of seasons just to stamp their own brand in the playing group and for the influence of the old coach to dissipate. It definitely takes at least a season for the new coach to implement the way he wants to run the team. You would hope that by the second year he is having an impact on the group and I think we can see that happening at a club like Penrith where Ivan Cleary’s influence has started to produce some improved results in 2013.

Then there is Parramatta who could even take a bit longer than that. People have to recognise what a young group Stuart has to work with this year. There isn’t a huge roster of senior players at that club. It is a work in progress and it’s going to take some time. If Stuart had a big group of senior players and they were struggling like they are it would be a different story but this is an incredibly young and inexperienced squad and it will take time for them to establish themselves and for Stuart to assemble the squad he wants.

As for the Cowboys, the remainder of 2013 comes down to personal pride. The players owe it to Neil Henry to send him out on some sort of high after such a disappointing year, and also to their fans to give them something to cheer about after going from premiership contenders to also-rans in the space of just a few months.

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