Former NRL and Origin coach Graham Murray joins the NRL.com team this season with a weekly column called Coach's Box to give fans an insight into how coaches think.
Murray, now CEO of Wynnum-Manly in Brisbane and coach of the Jillaroos, the Australian women's rugby league team, began his first grade coaching 20 years ago and has coached two teams into NRL grand finals, the Roosters and Cowboys.
His coaching career began with the Illawarra Steelers (1991-95) and was followed by stints with Hunter Mariners (1997), Leeds Rhinos UK (1998-99), Sydney Roosters (2000-01) and North Queensland Cowboys (2002-08). He has also coached Fiji (1995), City Origin (2001-05) and NSW Origin (2006-07) and is a former first grade halfback with Parramatta and Souths.
Coach’s Box: Round 1
Preparing for the first round of the season is very different to preparing for the other rounds once the season is underway.
There is a fair bit of tension - everyone has had a weekend off with no trials games for at least two weeks; there have been season launches and fan days; lots of build-up and lots of hype.
For some teams, the first game is also a local derby … like the Broncos and Cowboys, who find themselves playing on a Friday night in front of 45,000 fans. It’s a pretty big night.
Therein lies the problem for the coach … TENSION.
The coach needs to be the calming influence. You can see that in some of the coaches like Wayne Bennett and the likes of Tim Sheens, Brian Smith and John Lang.
A team as a unit can lose focus early because of one individual or an incident - again it comes back to the coach to get the team focused.
It’s not that a younger coach couldn’t handle it, but the experienced coaches have been there before and each time you deal with a situation you are better equipped to handle it next time.
Wayne Bennett does it better than anyone. He doesn’t worry about the outside influences; he doesn’t get in to slanging matches with the media. He just gets on with what he has to do, and that flows on to his players.
I heard Jamie Soward saying one day that Wayne Bennett is happy for him not to think about football on his day off, but when he comes to training he is completely focused.
Heading into round one both coaches and players could not be more prepared, having at least two weeks to focus specifically on their season-opener. That would be a luxury in-season where you can get anywhere between five and 10 days between games to prepare.
I would generally make my team work very hard two weeks out from the season starting, then the week leading into round one I would shorten the sessions and always pull up a little early on the last session. You want them to have a little still in the tank … to feel like they could have given a bit more.
You want everyone available for the first game. Even in round one you want to win the match. You want to start well - BUT you shouldn’t worry if you don’t. It is not really a test of your season in that one game. In 2006 when I was coaching the Cowboys we beat the Broncos 34-6 in round one. They went on to win the competition and we finished 9th.
But if you don’t win you at least want the performance to be good, because you have had a lot of time to prepare for it.
I used to always like going into the season with at least one morale-boosting win in the trial games. Again it’s not the end of the world if you don’t - but it can leave you second guessing.
I would think that of all the coaches, John Lang would be panicking a little heading into round one. The Rabbitohs had only a win over Newtown in the trials and four of their stars are set to play for the first time after missing the trials because of injury.
Langy would never show it, because he is a pretty calm character, but he would be a little concerned. There would certainly be expectation on them to make the eight this year - especially with Greg Inglis on board. I thought they would make the eight last year and I’m back in their corner again.
While round one is a nightmare for tippers, it is not because some teams and/or players don’t “turn up ready to play”. I don’t buy into that … and definitely not in the first round. But I have heard it said.
It’s an easy cop-out and I’ve never been party to it. I believe players always turn up and have a go and want to win. It’s a tough game. If you don’t turn up to play you will probably get hurt. I would question their enthusiasm and whether there was a distraction.
That just comes back to the coach getting the team to focus. I have never felt that a team didn’t turn up to play - particularly in round one.
There is so much build-up and hype. It gets you bubbling. You can’t NOT be ready …but you may not be focused.
My tips for round 1 are: Cowboys, Roosters, Panthers, Raiders, Storm, Dragons, Warriors, Bulldogs.