Why Neil Henry should be Coach of the Year
It was a cheeky late-night tweet to Panthers supremo Phil Gould that confirmed my own belief regarding the contenders for the 2016 Dally M Coach of the Year gong.
As we both struggled to wind down after another enthralling Super Saturday I asked Gould– a guy who knows a thing or two about coaching – via cyberspace whether Titans coach Neil Henry was among the top four contenders for the Coach of the Year honour.
Gould's Twitter reply was simply: "Yep, definitely."
I'm prepared to go one step further and say that six weeks from the end of the regular season Neil Henry deserves to be considered the front-runner for coaching's top individual nod.
Without question the most subjective award at rugby league's night of nights, the year's top coach is not necessarily always the man who wins the most number of games or for that matter the one who guides his team to a premiership.
Over the past 10 years only Craig Bellamy (2006) and Trent Robinson (2013) have completed the Coach of the Year-Premiership double and Bellamy's Storm had to endure the pain of having that particular title stripped from them in the wake of subsequent salary cap revelations.
So if we are measuring the contribution of a coach not by the number of games won but rather the elevation of a team beyond the broader population's expectation, I don't see how we can go past Henry, the 2008 Coach of the Year at Canberra.
The record Shane Flanagan's Cronulla team is amassing in the Shire could possibly be one that breaks all records but save for a last start stumble against Manly last season the Sharks were a top four team 12 months ago.
Given their own turmoil due to the supplements scandal no one would begrudge Flanagan the honour after the way he has brought Cronulla back from the brink to the precipice of a premiership push but he did have nine players with representative experience in his starting team last Sunday against the Knights.
The other minor premiership contenders, the Storm, were my pick to be premiers at the start of the year although that admittedly was before Billy Slater's bung shoulder gave way once again.
Many predicted Bellamy's men wouldn't even make the finals which, with a forward pack bristling with internationals and Cooper Cronk in charge of the backline, seemed extraordinary to me.
It would seem outrageous if Paul Green's Cowboys were to go back-to-back and the coach not get a mention, Ricky Stuart's Raiders are tracking slightly above expectations and Brad Arthur has performed miracles in sending out a competitive Parramatta team each week but Henry still trumps them all.
A roster that witnessed 10 new players join the club prior to pre-season starting – and four more new players join since – was so derided by bookmakers that they made them the shortest-priced favourites for the wooden spoon in NRL history.
He saw value in the likes of Ashley Taylor (Broncos), Tyrone Roberts (Knights), Chris McQueen (Rabbitohs), Nathan Peats (Eels) and Konrad Hurrell (Warriors) who were all deemed excess to requirements by their previous clubs and now only Taylor's Broncos sit higher than the Titans six weeks out from the finals.
Henry also overhauled the coaching and performance staff with Matt Ford and Sean Edwards joining the team and then lost assistant coach Rohan Smith mid-season to English club Bradford.
Dally M Centre of the Year James Roberts walked out on the club in December, halfback Kane Elgey snapped the ACL in his knee in January yet still he refused to throw cash at players other clubs simply didn't want in order to fill his quota.
Henry's patience was rewarded when Nathan Peats came onto the market in the wake of Parramatta's salary cap crisis in May and when he prised Konrad Hurrell from the Warriors he had a pair of proven performers that shape as crucial cogs just two months after their arrival.
He brought in players from France, New Zealand and Canberra and rather than stifling their creativity with an overly formulaic game-plan gave them the framework in which to not only be competitive but showcase their skills at the same time.
The Titans' completion rate is among the top two or three teams in the competition yet they also rank third in offloads.
They rank third for most missed tackles and ninth for errors yet Henry has engendered such a spirit within the squad that even when they are exposed in defence they often find a way to recover.
Twenty-six-year-old rookie Leivaha Pulu hasn't missed a game, Nene Macdonald has blossomed into one of the most devastating wingers in the competition, Zeb Taia is playing the best football of his NRL career and Agnatius Paasi has developed into a cult hero after being told he didn't figure in the Warriors' first grade plans less than two years ago.
And Henry has done all this whilst working out of the most rudimentary training facilities of any team in the NRL.
If they fail to make the finals from here their season will be viewed as somewhat of a failure but Henry's ability to get them to this point in such good shape is a coaching feat of the highest order.