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NRL coaching carousel shows no signs of slowing

The real estate mantra commonly employed by coaches of "rent, don't buy" has never been more appropriate after Anthony Griffin this week became the 27th coach to be "officially" sacked while under contract since 2006.

Add to that total the nine coaches who walked away from contracts early and others who jumped before being pushed. That's an average of three coaches a year not going the full term of their deals – nearly one in five.

Melbourne are the only club that hasn't been part of a coaching contract not reaching its original expiry date during that period – with the Warriors the worst offenders, having parted ways early with five coaches in 14 years: Daniel Anderson (2003), Tony Kemp (2005), Brian McLennan (2012), Matthew Elliott (2014) and Andrew McFadden (2016).

A man twice on the receiving end of the knife, Elliott says the dreaded tap on the shoulder should be an accepted reality of professional sport.

Elliott cut ties with Penrith a matter of weeks after Phil Gould arrived in 2011, given a "working holiday" for the remainder of the year after the board had previously advised him his contract would not be reviewed at season's end.

He'd had six seasons at Canberra before knocking back a contract extension to join the Panthers, then had less than two seasons in Auckland before parting ways with the Auckland-based club.

He says coaches have to accept that such a life is part of professional sport. He agreed that success is not always an antidote.

Of the 27 who have been sacked, 13 had their teams in the finals the season before or even in the same season they were dumped.

"As scrutiny and expectations increase, so does the pressure on coaches, that's indicative of professional sport worldwide," Elliott said.

"When you sign up for the job, you have to have some awareness that's going to be a possibility [not seeing out a contract].

"The greatest coach in our game [Wayne Bennett] is going through that process now [uncertainty if he will see out his contract] and has been on both sides of the equation. If you choose not to accept it, you're not dealing with reality."

Many of the sackings have been accompanied with the phrase "the coach lost the dressing room", an indication of how much player-power has grown in the game.

And it comes while we have a generation of players who need more "positive reinforcement", and don’t respond to tough-love that previous generations were accustomed to.

The landscape has changed.

More clubs are privately owned and all are run by boards of directors with better understanding of the business world than the sporting one.

They want instant gratification and continually improving results. And often, their conduit to the football department is the CEO or football department boss.

Elliott says the increased communication access between players and officialdom has certainly had an effect on coaches' reigns.

"The access of players to boards and owners has certainly had an impact [on a coach's survival prospects]," says Elliott.

"I'm not saying that is right or wrong because there is a degree of that which is useful.

"However, the best decision makers in the world aren't necessarily in their 20s or 30s, although it is important they have access to the decision makers.

"Particularly for coaches that are looking to transition organisations or change stuff, some players are going to become uncomfortable. When players are uncomfortable, nowadays there is a whole myriad of access to make sure that displeasure is noticed.

"Sometimes that is not a good thing, sometimes it is exactly what is needed. So, not always does one size fit all."

At the Warriors, Elliott felt the roster needed an upheaval and the culture needed to change for the club to gain success. It wasn’t what the power brokers wanted to hear, he says.

The access of players to boards and owners has certainly had an impact.

Matthew Elliott

He became the first of three coaches to be marched in five years. Now, under Stephen Kearney and boasting a drastically improved roster, they are on the road to the finals.

It's costly, but easy, to move coaches on. It's become an accepted contingency for a board.

The coach gets paid out, he and the club move on – often with little said publicly by the coach while the club needs to justify its decision - but the character slur on the victim in most cases endures.

Only five sacked coaches in the 2006-17 period have returned to be head coaches at other NRL clubs – Jason Taylor (Souths/Wests Tigers), Griffin (Brisbane/Penrith), Ivan Cleary (Penrith/Wests Tigers), Neil Henry (Cowboys/Titans) and Kearney (Eels/Warriors). Five moved on to assistant coaching roles and three went to Super League (Steve Price, Rick Stone and Tim Sheens).

What we are left with is are several clubs each year with coaches who want to rebuild a roster – which Elliott says take three years "if you have a blinder" and five years or more to realistically complete.

So coaches are at short odds not to be given time unless they click with the right people and have the right results in the meantime.

Coaches Corner: Souths' left edge attack

"In two to three years all you can do is build a foundation," he says.

"That's why the Storm have been so successful. They created a foundation and it's been able to be carried on.

"People talk about the players they've had but no one ever seems to recognise how well they rotated players through that foundation and that's because everyone is on the same page.

"I see the Roosters going in that direction [Trent Robinson is in his sixth season] and I can see Penrith doing it too because underneath they've made extraordinary advances in developmental process and are nothing like the club I worked for."

Anthony Griffin says he accepts "the business is brutal" and knew the axe was coming but he felt it would be at season's end.

If that was the case, this would have been the first year since 2008 that a coach hadn't been sacked by the end of a season.

Elliott says, among all the varying machinations between case to case, one thing is clear … the landscape is not going to change. 

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