"It’s disappointing for the Sharks, that puts a lot of pressure on Johnny Morris."
Coming in the opening minute of Sunday night’s post-match show on Foxtel, this comment from Matthew Johns typified what has become one of the main talking points after games since the NRL season resumed on May 28.
The narrative coming out of Campbelltown Stadium on Sunday was Paul McGregor’s job was safe after St George Illawarra’s 30-16 defeat of Cronulla but John Morris had now inherited the NRL coaching hot seat.
Less than a week earlier, Dragons directors had felt the need to try and end the speculation about McGregor after the Red V were beaten 22-2 to Canterbury, whose own coach, Dean Pay, was the subject of similar reports about his future before that match.
Brisbane coach Anthony Seibold had also come under scrutiny after heavy losses to Parramatta and Sydney Roosters, while North Queensland players were asked on Monday if Paul Green was displaying any signs of pressure over his position following back-to-back defeats.
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The NRL season is just five rounds old but the spotlight on coaches and players has never been more intense, with McGregor, Pay and Morris all forced to defend their records and Benji Marshall, Jarrod Wallace, Nathan Peats and Korbin Sims among the big names to feel the selection axe.
To put things into perspective, the Dragons, Sharks, Bulldogs and Gold Coast Titans are all two points behind the eighth-placed Cowboys with one win apiece.
Yet there seems to be an expectation this season could yield the earliest NRL coaching casualty since Murray Hurst parted company with the Cowboys after just four rounds in 2002.
Coaches united in support
CEO of the newly formed Rugby League Coaches Association, Kelly Egan, praised the St George Illawarra directors for supporting McGregor after an emergency board meeting last week that was widely expected to result in his sacking.
McGregor had maintained the speculation about his position was coming from outside the club and the statement by Dragons chairman Andrew Gordon was intended to convince fans and the media there were no plans to change coaches.
"It’s not for me to comment on what the Dragons should or shouldn’t do as a board but obviously they saw a need to have a conversation about it and that was a proactive approach from them," Egan said.
"There has got to be a balance applied and there has also got to be a consideration around wellbeing and the internal respect that exists in a club.
"It is a performance-orientated environment that we are working in but I think some balance needs to be applied and unfortunately you have got a lot of external factors that influence how that pressure is applied."
With a dedicated 24-hour NRL channel on Foxtel, three radio stations broadcasting matches and the game being a major driver for website traffic, the coverage never stops and reporters are always looking for a new story or angle.
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Former Canberra, Penrith and Warriors mentor Matthew Elliott said it could be difficult for coaches to deal with the intense scrutiny, but it was part of the job.
"Having been in the media or around the media for the past six years, people want stuff to talk about and an unfortunate truth of modern life – not just in rugby league but if you watch the news – is that people seem to like controversy," said Elliott, who is a commentator and analyst for NRL.com and ABC radio.
"The fact that an individual is being put under pressure or their job is on the line seems to generate interest and then allows people to have an opinion on it.
"I know at times when I was coaching early on I got distracted by that stuff and I had to reframe the story.
"I have had things said about me that I knew wasn’t true so why should I worry about it but I did and I responded to it, and the outcome of that is never helpful.
"Some people get paid to ask the questions that no one else would, some people get paid to ask questions that are so socially awkward they are impolite but that person gets paid to do that and that is how they feed their kids."
Reduced season increases intensity
With this season’s competition having been reduced from 24 matches to 20 due to the stoppage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on results is greater as there are fewer opportunities for the bottom teams to bridge the gap with those at the top.
In addition, coaches have had to cope with a disrupted season, players being isolated for five weeks due to health restrictions and the introduction of the six-again rule after the first two rounds.
"Coaches can see what their teams need to do to adapt to the rules but you can’t make those adaptations in a week because players need to think about it too much," Elliott said.
"I reckon they are still settling into it and maybe the difference between the top and the bottom is a little bit more apparent at the moment as well."
The anticipated reduction in the football department salary cap for next season is likely to increase pressure on coaches as they may have to take on extra duties as staffing levels at clubs are reduced.
This could encourage clubs to favour an experienced mentor like Wayne Bennett, Anthony Griffin, Nathan Brown, Steve Price or Shaun Wane over a highly regarded assistant such as Craig Fitzgibbon, Jason Ryles or Dean Young.
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However, few clubs can afford the pay-out to sack a coach in the current environment and Egan called for patience.
"There have been a lot of changes implemented to get the game back up and running and the coaches have embraced that," Egan said.
"As a collective we have all said ‘if that is what the game needs to survive we are on board’ but I think everyone needs a bit of time to adjust.
"We have really only played three games so there are 15 more games to go and the spread from first to last is not very much."
Players not immune from blowtorch
Wests Tigers coach Michael Maguire last week axed five players, including Marshall, and Titans mentor Justin Holbrook recently dropped Wallace, Peats and fellow representative forward Shannon Boyd.
Elsewhere, Broncos veteran Darius Boyd, Sharks playmaker Shaun Johnson and Dragons halfback Ben Hunt have been subjected to heavy criticism.
Boyd and Johnson responded on social media and their stories were featured on a new Instagram account, @AthletesAreHumans
"It’s hard not to hear all the criticism, which is pretty disappointing," Boyd said after Brisbane’s 59-0 loss to the Roosters.
"At the end of the day we are very lucky to be able to do what we do but we are also human beings.
"Just because we are perceived to be role models and on TV it doesn’t mean we should have targets on our backs."
Johnson said: "A lot of people feel it’s easier to speak negatively instead of positively. It’s easier to slag someone than praise someone."
Asked on Monday about reports that Green could be the next coach under pressure, Cowboys forward Mitch Dunn said: "It has been a pretty crazy year so far so I don’t think we will be buying into any of that.
"We want to win a comp, we have got a pretty good squad up here to do that so that’s our long-term aim, to do that."
Dunn can see the effects of the reduced schedule for the Telstra Premiership, describing it as "cut-throat".
"It is a lot more intense with the shortened season," Dunn said.
"You can’t give away easy games and you have got to give your best effort in every game because it will probably pretty close at the end of the year."