The disruption to the NRL season caused by COVID-19 was widely assumed to have reinforced Stephen Kearney’s job at the Warriors but the 10-week suspension of games may have contributed to his demise.
While many in the game were shocked by Kearney’s sacking after just six rounds of the rebooted Telstra Premiership, the club's owners and CEO Cameron George believed a decision had to be made now because the year is already at its midway point - even if the season isn’t.
"In any normal year we would be in round 16 or 17 right now," George said.
"This season has been delayed but the 2021 season still starts in March next year.
"Pre-season training will start in November and we are recruiting and planning for next year now. Even though we are only up to round seven, next season is getting closer and we just can’t afford to sit idle on a number of things.
"We never wanted to wait until the end of the season and look back. We still need to plan, we still need to recruit, we still need to understand what we are doing, how we are doing it, what we are planning for and all sorts of things for next year that I can’t neglect."
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In other words, while the competition stopped, the clock kept ticking.
Before a ball was kicked this season, Kearney was already among a group of coaches considered under most pressure to retain their jobs, along with Canterbury’s Dean Pay, St George Illawarra’s Paul McGregor and North Queensland’s Paul Green.
Warriors owner Mark Robinson, whose company Autex took a 100% stake in the club in September, made it clear from the outset that Kearney’s job was dependent on results, even though he already had a new three-year contract that begun this season.
George told NRL.com last December that he wouldn’t be waiting for another end-of-season review to identify and remedy any problems with the team’s performance.
Nathan Brown, Shaun Wane, Anthony Griffin and Geoff Toovey have been mentioned as candidates for the job, along with Wayne Bennett, whose possible availability next season is likely to have a number of clubs considering their options.
However, George is adamant the club did not have a replacement in mind before the decision was made to end Kearney's tenure after last Friday night’s 40-12 loss to South Sydney.
"There has been no other person that I spoke to about the role prior to that happening with Stephen," George said.
"People can say you should have your ducks set up in a row first but to me that is when you leave yourself open to rumour, innuendo and others getting involved."
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There doesn’t appear to be any specific reason for Kearney’s exit, other than Robinson, chairman Rob Croot and George not being convinced he was the coach who could turn the Warriors into the powerhouse most in the game have believed they should be since the club’s inception in 1995.
Kearney was brought to Auckland in 2017 because of his record as coach of the Kiwis, standing as a former Warriors great and a belief that he could get the best out the club’s Polynesian players.
The haka the players performed in his honour after they learned of his sacking on Saturday afternoon demonstrated the support Kearney retained from them but it is unlikely he ever fully won over Robinson and Croot.
"I have got a very passionate, very committed and heavily invested owner that has such a desire to see short-, mid- and long-term success here," George said.
"In the last couple of months we have made some significant changes to the structure of our business, both footy and commercially. We have done so because what we have been doing has not necessarily worked over a period of time."
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A major shift in the philosophy of the Warriors was the decision to withdraw from the NSWRL’s Canterbury Cup and align with Redcliffe Dolphins in Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup, which will provide access to talented juniors at the Brisbane club.
"We have reviewed what history has shown us and created change to make the future better," George said.
"That’s our philosophy, that’s our decision making process, that is our way forward. When you start thinking ‘club first, future first’, you start looking at the pieces of the puzzle and you have got to make sure you are comfortable and satisfied with everything that is in place to achieve it.
"Stephen is a terrific person and he is held in the highest regards by me but sometimes change forces you to make decisions you don’t want to and that is the point that our club is at."
Never a good time to dump a coach
The Warriors have come in for heavy criticism for making the call on Kearney’s future while he and the players are in Gosford after relocating from New Zealand on May 3 to enable the team to continue playing while COVID-19 travel restrictions were in place.
Until a trans-Tasman travel bubble is established, the players and coaching staff will remain in Australia while George is in New Zealand and would have needed to undergo a 14-day quarantine before he could have met Kearney face to face.
Sir John Kirwan, the former All Blacks great who played 35 matches for the Warriors in 1995 and 1996, was among those who slammed the decision to sack Kearney "after all he has done in the biggest sacrifice in any team sport".
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George admits the timing was not ideal but argues if the Warriors had waited until the end of the season or when the team was able to return home to advise Kearney, then they would have been criticised for allowing him to remain in charge after a decision had already been made to sack him.
"Under the circumstances, if I could have sat with Stephen and been there with him - that is my style," George said.
"I would have preferred to have done that but there is no alternative in the world for us at the moment than to deal with our players and staff in Australia on the phone or through Zoom and other platforms.
"That part of it was gut wrenching and my promise to myself was to handle it swiftly and to handle it directly with Stephen before anyone else.
"Stephen is someone I hold in the highest regard and the way he has dealt with it is commendable to his character."
No shortage of candidates
George presented Robinson and Croot with a set of criteria to measure candidates for the job against on Monday before the club begins a search for their 11th head coach in 25 years.
Despite the high turnover, a leading agent told NRL.com that the Warriors was a club with a strong appeal for coaches as everyone in the game was aware of the potential.
Brown has been working with the club as a consultant and is believed to be interested in the job, Wane – the England coach – was previously linked with the Warriors and has an ambition to coach in the NRL, while Toovey told TVNZ he would apply and Griffin is also available.
There is also the possibility Bennett would be interested as South Sydney have already appointed assistant coach Jason Demetriou to replace him in 2022.
Bennett’s availability has previously caused a shake-up of the coaching ranks, with Penrith sacking Griffin and the Dragons and Bulldogs believed to have made enquires before he left Brisbane in 2018, while Souths parted ways with John Lang in 2011 in the belief they had signed him.
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"I have not spoken to any potential candidate, even as of today," George said.
"I have got messages, I have been contacted and I have been emailed but I categorically have not spoken to any potential candidate.
"I know that we have been linked to so many various names and people but the most important thing today is that I provide the owners with a set of criteria that we need to measure everyone against to ensure that we get the best person we can for our club."
Kearney’s assistant Todd Payten has been appointed interim coach and George said he would also be considered for the job.
"He has been fully briefed by me and I made it very clear and very transparent that the club will be talking to people and the club will be linked to people," George said.
"However, he has been given an assurance that before the club does anything the only person he will hear it from is me.
"He is going to do his best and he knows that we are looking for a coach. It may be internal or it may be external. He is under no pressure, he is just doing a job under circumstances which no one would want to."