NRL Roundtable: Biggest coach calls
It was a good year for a lot of NRL coaches. When we asked seven NRL.com writers who they rated as the best coach of the 2016 NRL season, we got five different answers: Ricky Stuart, Brad Arthur, Anthony Griffin, Craig Bellamy and Neil Henry.
What makes a good year for an NRL coach? That's up for discussion in this week's NRL Roundtable.
Dominic Brock (Production Editor): Let's kick things off by talking about the best individual coaching decisions of the year. As an example, last season Wayne Bennett persisted with playing Anthony Milford in the halves for Brisbane despite a lot of critics early in the season calling for Milford to be moved to fullback where he had starred for Canberra. Bennett was proved right in the end, with Milford at five-eighth arguably the best player on the field in the 2015 NRL Grand Final. Which crucial coach decisions spring to mind from 2016?
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): The biggest and most obvious coaching overhaul was surely Anthony Griffin. If you'd told me in Round 1 that Penrith would be hosting an elimination final in September with Peter Wallace at hooker and Bryce Cartwright partnering Nathan Cleary in the halves I'd have called you mad. Given this also involved decisions to move on Jamie Soward and James Segeyaro – who I'd have called two of Penrith's most important players at the start of the year – the whole reshuffle has to be called a bold and gutsy success.
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): Agreed, I think Anthony Griffin moving Peter Wallace to hooker was a remarkable decision. Prior to the 2016 season, Wallace had played just four NRL games at hooker, three in 2007 and one for the Broncos in 2013. The rest of his 164 matches had been played at halfback, five-eighth or the bench. But wasn't the permanent move a masterstroke by Griffin. The pair had an uneasy past at the Broncos, but they certainly revitalised Wallace's career using the No.9 jersey, allowing rookie sensation Nathan Cleary to take the reins in the No.7 – a jersey he looks to have cemented for a long time.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): If you look back at Round 1, Will Smith was fullback, Soward and Wallace were in the halves and Segeyaro had the 9 on his back. Fast forward to week two of the finals and the Panthers had a completely different spine, but one which was a lot more effective. While the Wallace move was in my opinion the biggest of the year, the decision to thrust 18-year-old Nathan Cleary into the halves against none other than the Melbourne Storm was almost as big. It took just one game for him to take control of the side, and by season's end was a whisker away from being named Rookie of the Year.
AB: Unbelievable considering Segeyaro was a Dally M Hooker of the Year and considered one of their superstars. Who saw it coming?
CK: Another that's probably been a little overlooked but was controversial at the time was Shane Flanagan's decision to opt for Ben Barba at fullback over Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes. Plenty were clamouring for Holmes to be given a shot after Barba's struggles last year but Flanno found the best way to not only fit all three important players into the starting 13, but also to get something like the best footy out of each of them. Obviously winning a premiership at the end of it all is the ultimate vindication but Barba's resurgence alone meant this call was a success well before the halfway point of the year.
AB: That's a great call CK, I remember at the time people thought it was a dud decision. Barba certainly repaid the faith.
MG: Bird started the pre-season at fullback against the Wests Tigers, and while Barba was starved of opportunities in the second 40, Flanagan said after the game that he had seen enough from the 2012 Dally M winner to suggest he could handle a permanent move back to the No.1 jersey. Safe to say that it worked out pretty well in the end.
CK: I actually thought he made the right call at the time. Can I get some kind of prize?
DB: You get to tell everyone you were right, that's a prize in itself.
CK: Ah yes.
DB: We're all big Shaun Fensom fans in the NRL.com office. How about Ricky Stuart's decision to drop Fensom from Canberra's 17 altogether, and also bump Paul Vaughan down the pecking order? The Raiders had some very handy mid-season recruits but the Fensom axing was a surprise when it happened. Again, a call that paid off you have to say?
AB: I'm an unabashed Fensom fan. I was in the sheds when he led the Raiders under-20s side to the first NYC championship. Still think he has plenty to offer.
DB: Of course, and a lot of teams would take him in a second. But this Raiders side didn't really need a tackle machine of his calibre this season, it turns out.
MG: He was my first pick in NRL Fantasy Draft, so I wasn't pleased about it at the time, but it would be impossible to argue against it considering they got within a kick of making the grand final.
AB: But yes, you can't argue with their results.
CK: Everyone knows I'm a massive Fenno fan. Given they finished second and one win away from a GF appearance it's tough to be too critical. But part of me also wonders if having Fensom there instead of Luke Bateman would have stopped them achieving the same results. Nothing against Bateman mind you, just he's the guy who plays the same position.
MG: Vaughan is an interesting one because I can't remember him ever having a bad game. But similar to Fensom, who do you swap out to bring him in?
CK: Vaughan over Priest I guess. And similar to Fenno/Bateman – would having Vaughan there instead of Priest have stopped them winning the games they won?
DB: OK, one axing that did seem to have an effect on the way a team played is Jason Taylor's decision to drop Robbie Farah. It hardly came out of the blue, but it was a bold call considering the amount of pressure involved in dropping a club legend.
AB: Hard to know if it was the right call or not to be honest. We'll probably never really know, but there is no doubting it was ugly.
CK: This is a tough one to call. The fact no-one really gave them a chance of making the eight and yet they entered Round 26 needing a win to secure a finals berth. The fact they looked a bit nervous and got pumped by 50 may be an argument they could have benefited from Farah's experience in that game but who knows if they'd have been in that position given the way Mitch Moses flourished over the back end of the year in Farah's absence. But like you say, the ugly fallout and unwarranted attention suggests it all could have been handled better either way.
MG: The one positive to come out of Farah's axing was Moses's rise to chief playmaker at the club. He took control of the Tigers in the second half of the season and was a worthy winner of their Player of the Year award. I'm excited to see how he goes next year with Jacob Liddle/Matt Ballin at dummy half.
AB: Perhaps this season alone isn't going to be a fair gauge. We'll know a lot more next season and the coming seasons. And not just on the field either. It will be interesting to see what it means for the Wests Tigers as a club in the next few years. History will tell the story of the whole saga, one feels.
DB: True. I both feel like it was the right decision for the Tigers, but that I wouldn't begrudge Farah keeping the NSW No.9 jersey next season. He's a quality player, just maybe not a fit with Jason Taylor's Tigers team for whatever reason.
CK: Is it worth covering off on any coaching calls that didn't quite come off? The short-lived experiment of Kurt Mann at fullback for the Dragons? The slightly longer-lived but also-failed experiment of Dylan Walker at five-eighth for Manly? The season-long confusion over who was best suited to start at hooker for Souths between Cam McInnes and Damien Cook?
MG: The Lolohea mystery?
CK: Ah, the Tui conundrum. I'm still mystified by all that.
DB: The less said about some of those decisions the better. There were some head-scratchers in there.
AB: There are a lot of examples. But it must be remembered, the Darren Lockyer move to five-eighth was also viewed as somewhat of an unmitigated disaster for a while...
DB: To be fair to the Warriors, I'm still not sure what position is Lolohea's best. He's definitely a first-team NRL player though.
CK: Far be it from me to tell an NRL coach how to do his job but if I had Tui Lolohea in my squad I don't think I'd play him off the bench and bring him on after... what was it, 82 minutes?
AB: He's an impact player after all...
DB: Maybe they were worried about his defence?
AB: What this conversation does show is just how tough a gig coaching in the NRL is.
CK: What about Brad Arthur? I don't think any coach had as much thrown at him this year. It may have been done out of necessity if not desperation but Clint Gutherson to 5/8 was certainly a winner.
MG: It seemed anyone he moved to 5/8 was a masterstroke. Takaraingi and Ken Edwards filled in admirably, but Gutho made it his own by the end of the year.
CK: True. Takas has played there before but Edwards made a solid fist of it during an injury crisis.
DB: Who needs Kieran Foran?
CK: Even the improvement he got out of Corey Norman this year has to be a testament to Arthur's coaching ability.
MG: I think in general coaches made some great calls when it came to rookies in 2016. Bevan French, Nathan Cleary, the Saifiti brothers etc. Their experience in 2016 will be invaluable going forward.
DB: Definitely. It really was the year of the rookie – and of course a lot of credit has to go to the coaches who gave them a chance.
Before we finish up, let's throw forward to next season. Are there any big coaching decisions we're anticipating for 2017, assuming the playing squads stay roughly as they currently are?
AB: Manly have a lot to consider. We've seen what happened with Farah at the Wests Tigers. The Sea Eagles have just re-signed the Trbojevic brothers. How will Manly handle the transition with their club legends Brett Stewart and Steve Matai? They've been the mainstays in a team that has won multiple premierships and been successful for so long. The Stewart/Trbojevic fullback conundrum will be the big talking point to start the season on the Northern Beaches.
DB: Tom Trbojevic has to be very, very close to a permanent fullback role.
AB: It is a very delicate situation, both Brett and Tom have Manly in their blood. Tom can't play on the wing forever. It just highlights the difficulty of being a coach at this level. So much to consider.
MG: Cronulla's biggest headache will be who replaces Michael Ennis. They already have Manaia Cherrington and Jayden Brailey on the books, but they've also been linked with Damien Cook. I don't know what will happen there, but I'd love to see Brailey given a chance somewhere in their 17.
CK: Brailey could be like Te Maire and Cleary this year – not in the frame Round 1 but blooded through the year. The Knights also look to be fairly up in the air. The Roberts-Taylor-Elgey conundrum is a welcome headache for Neil Henry. Who partners Corey Norman in the Eels halves, and who plays fullback – and how does Josh Hoffman fit in? And who will be Mitch Pearce's halves partner at Roosters? (Watson, Matterson, other...)
MG: Don't forget Luke Keary.
MG: Watson did more than enough to cement his spot in the 17 for next season, but given they splashed some coach to bring him over from Souths, I'd be shocked if Keary didn't start at 6 in Round 1.
AB: We haven't even begun to look at the Warriors and their new coach. There are massive expectations on that squad in New Zealand from both the organisation and the fans. Jim Doyle was very strong on that point just a few weeks ago, they expect more and demand it too.
CK: How do Souths use Farah? Is he an 80-minute man again or do they go with a bench utility? And is he allowed to play his natural game? Souths are very structured after all.
AB: There will obviously be big pressure on rivals Rabbitohs and Roosters to bounce back after horrible seasons.
My closing thought: Who'd be a coach? They all look so happy.
DB: It's certainly a tough gig. At least they can get some credit when their gambles pay off. Thanks for your time guys.