After helping to steer the Illawarra Cutters to victory in the 2016 State Championship final at ANZ Stadium, Daniel Lacey quit to spend more time with his wife Adele, but she is now set to be in the coach’s box with the Dragons mentor for Sunday’s NRLW premiership decider against Brisbane.
Lacey, who began coaching at 18 years of age with an under eight Dapto team featuring the Morris twins, Brett and Josh, and Dan Hunt, has a long association with St George Illawarra and women’s rugby league.
Others among the 53 juniors Lacey has coached who have gone on to play NRL include Dean Young, Jack Bird, Jackson Hastings and Euan Aitken, while he began coaching women’s teams in 2011 after taking charge of Illawarra’s first representative team featuring 2018 Dragons captain Sam Bremner.
Both male and female players who have played under Lacey speak highly of him and his passion for the game and developing talent, which this year led to six key members of the 2018 premiership winning Broncos team wanting to join St George Illawarra.
Broncos v Dragons - Grand Final
However, after he and Jason Demetriou took the Cutters to the 2016 NSWRL premiership and beat Queensland champions Burleigh in the curtain-raiser to Cronulla’s historic grand final triumph over Melbourne, Lacey decided he could no longer commit the time away from his young family and quit.
“I always wanted to make a grand final day and we went close with Justin Holbrook [in 2012], and when Dean [Young] and Ben Hornby coached the under 20s [in 2014], so when we did it with the Cutters I just loved it but it was four days a week for 11 months,” Lacey said.
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The establishment of the Tarsha Gale Cup in 2017 provided an opportunity for Lacey to continue coaching as the competition only ran for nine weeks and he is now one win away from an historic double after guiding the under 18 Steelers to grand final glory earlier this year.
“I’m really proud of our club, we get slammed because our first grade team didn’t do so well but we do a lot of good things developing the game,” Lacey said.
“We have got 12 teams - five girls teams and seven boys teams. That is a lot of development and it is pretty good for our club to do that.
“When I first started with the Tarsha Gale side I got everyone to write down their goals, and mine were that I wanted from southern Sydney down the South Coast to be the best and most dominant areas in the country and I think we are well on our way to doing that.
Match: Broncos v Dragons
Grand Final -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
“Ulladulla won the under 18s schoolgirls comp and Warilla won the under 16s, and I went to the watch the under 14s schoolgirls carnival and the number of teams has gone from 20-to-40-to-60, so it is amazing to see how far it has come in three years, given that I was going to stop coaching.
“My wife likes that I am helping girls and she knows the girls so now she is a part of it and wants us to do well.
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“She sat in the coach’s box against the Warriors and helped out with some stats and she sat in for the Roosters game as well so I said you know you will have to do the same in the grand final because we won both those games and I am a creature of habit.”
Bremner, who has been playing under Lacey on a regular basis since 2011 as he was coach of the 2013 NSW team and 2014 All Stars before becoming the Dragons NRLW mentor last year, said he would often attend local matches and knew all the players.
“He is very passionate about rugby league and the women’s game but also about the girls coming through,” Bremner said.
“He is not all consumed by what is hot right now, he puts a lot of time and energy into developing players for the future and that is what he has done with our Dragons team.
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“My impression of why a lot of people want to play under him is because he focuses a lot on development of players individually as well as the team.
“Even if he knows some girls aren’t going to be with us next year, he just wants to make them better footballers. If girls can have a coach they know is invested in them as much as he is they want to perform for him and that is exactly what they have done, with both the 18s and the NRLW.”
Demetriou, who is now Wayne Bennett's assistant at South Sydney, said Lacey also had a great relationship with the Cutters players when he was assistant coach in 2016.
“He is very passionate about his job and that comes across in what he does but he has also got a high level of care for his players and that is an important quality in any coach,” Demetriou said.
“He invests in every one of them and wants them to do well, and you can see with the way the Dragons are playing that they look like a team that is happy and excited to play footy."
After his retirement, Hunt helped coach the 2016 Steelers SG Ball team and witnessed first-hand how Lacey worked with his players.
“I think the biggest thing with him is his relationship with the players," Hunt said.
"He cares, he listens to them and that is the part I really noticed with him."