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Why the seven new coaches will struggle and why three new teams are finals bound in 2012...

How awesome is it to have rugby league back! The optimism shared by all is infectious. Look around the rugby league landscape: everyone is happy, everyone is excited… and everyone is undefeated!

As we gear up for another NRL season, sadly it is already time for the stats to put a dampener on some teams’ fortunes.

Season 2012 will kick off with seven clubs sporting new coaches. This means new structures, new ideals and new ways of doing things.

For the Bulldogs (Des Hasler), Knights (Wayne Bennett) and Panthers (Ivan Cleary) their new mentor has been around the NRL block before – but the Warriors (Brian McClennan), Rabbitohs (Michael Maguire), Dragons (Steve Price) and Sea Eagles (Geoff Toovey) have rookies holding the clipboard.

Sure, McClennan and Maguire have had successful stints in the English Super League and Price and Toovey have been understudies to premiership winners, but they are rookies nonetheless.

Since the NRL formed in 1998 not one established coach has departed an NRL side and had immediate premiership success with another, leaving Bulldogs, Knights and Panthers fans likely to be waiting at least one more year before breaking out the champagne.

Bennett is the master coach but despite winning the minor premiership in season one with the Dragons, it took two seasons for him to grab the major prize.

Hasler and Cleary were grand final opponents last year but chances of a repeat are slim.

There have been 23 coaches in this position since the 1998 season; while four have made it to the grand final, none prevailed. David Waite (1999 Dragons), Graham Murray (2000 Roosters), Daniel Anderson (2009 Eels) and Brian Smith (2010 Roosters) are the only guys to get to the ‘big show’ in their first year at a new club.

In fact, when you combine all 23 coaches in their first seasons at a new club over the past 14 seasons, their win percentage tallies just 49 per cent.

Matt Elliott has the inglorious record as the only established coach in the past 14 seasons to move from one club to another and collect the wooden spoon, doing so with Penrith in 2007.

Teams with an established new coach have made the finals on 10 of 23 occasions – in other words, almost 57 per cent of the time these sides have not been around in September.

The news is potentially a little rosier for the fans of the Warriors, Dragons, Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs. (Since 1998 there have been 33 rookie coaches with at least 10 games to their name in their first coaching stint.) While the win percentage for these rookie coaches is lower at just 45 per cent, they can at least lay claim to two premierships. In 2001 Michael Hagan took the Knights to glory in his first year in charge of an NRL side and the very next season Ricky Stuart did the same with the Roosters.

Also, Steve Folkes managed to be runner-up in his first year coaching the Bulldogs in 1998… but on the other end of the scale, 22 of these 33 occasions have resulted in a season without finals football.

Twice rookie coaches have collected wooden spoons in this time frame. Ouch!

One of the beautiful things about the NRL in recent times has been the movement of sides from one year to the next. In the past three seasons only two clubs, the Sea Eagles and the Dragons, have advanced to finals football each year. (That’s counting the Storm’s salary cap drama year in 2010.)

Only two sides during this period – the Sharks and Rabbitohs – failed to be involved in the semis.

At least three new sides will contest the 2012 finals series if recent history is anything to go by. Since 1998, an average of three of the teams that played in September or October have failed to re-qualify the following season, giving all fans plenty of hope before a ball is kicked.

Of course these figures also mean perhaps five of last year’s finalists will find themselves fighting for the premiership once more.

During the past 13 seasons at least three sides have backed up a finals appearance with another and, in one benchmark year, seven of eight returned to the finals. In fact in that season (2002) it would have been all eight sides had the Bulldogs not been caught rorting the salary cap!

But in the past four years, four or even five sides haven’t maintained the rage.

Last year’s top eight sides were Melbourne, Manly, Brisbane, Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra, Warriors, North Queensland and Newcastle. As a fan of these sides are you confident they will stay, or will they be one of the three (or more) likely to drop back out of the running?

Here is a look at the teams that failed to back up:
1998-99: 3 teams (Sea Eagles, Raiders, Bears)
1999-00: 2 teams (Dragons, Bulldogs)
2000-01: 3 teams (Storm, Panthers, Raiders)
2001-02: 1 team (Bulldogs)
2002-03: 3 teams (Dragons, Eels, Sharks)
2003-04: 2 teams (Knights, Warriors)
2004-05: 4 teams (Raiders, Panthers, Bulldogs, Roosters)
2005-06: 3 teams (Wests Tigers, Cowboys, Sharks)
2006-07: 3 teams (Raiders, Dragons, Knights)
2007-08: 4 teams (Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Eels, Cowboys)
2008-09: 4 teams (Warriors, Raiders, Roosters, Sharks)
2009-10: 5 teams (Bulldogs, Storm, Broncos, Knights, Eels)
2010-11: 4 teams (Panthers, Titans, Roosters, Raiders)

Of course, all rules – and stats for that matter – are there to be broken. Can Bennett, Hasler or Cleary break the mould? Bennett has smashed records before, so he could obviously do so again. Can McClennan help take what appears to be a Warriors dynasty-in-the-making to ultimate glory right out of the gate? Can Toovey not only become the latest rookie to taste immediate success but also guide the Sea Eagles to the first back-to-back premierships (in full competitions) in 19 years?

Can Price stave off a post-Bennett hangover at the Dragons and assert his own dominance? Can Cleary get the sleeping giant of Western Sydney to awake? Can Maguire bring the South Sydney faithful their holy grail?

Ah, the beauty of NRL Round 1. So may questions just waiting to be answered… bring it on!

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