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The recycled or the rookie? How to hunt a title-winning coach

To borrow, or butcher, an old Vince Lombardi favourite quote: How much enthusiasm should clubs show for coaching candidates that have indeed been fired with enthusiasm?

As glamour outfits Brisbane and St George Illawarra look to dig themselves out of the rugby league gallows, the statistical reality facing recycled NRL coaches is a sobering one.

Since 1990 only two coaches have won their first premiership after more than six seasons of trying at first-grade level – John Lang (Penrith, 2003) and Steve Folkes (Canterbury, 2004).

And only two coaches in that same 30-year timeframe have landed that breakthrough title after coaching 200 games – Lang again, and Manly Immortal Bob Fulton, who coached 229 games before winning the 1987 title, and 348 games en route to the 1996 premiership.

The average numbers of your premiership-winning coach – 99 games, four years into his head coaching career, and roughly 45 years old.

With an unprecedented five clubs turning over their coaches in 2020, three teams have already appointed replacements.

The Warriors have recycled with Nathan Brown at his third club, the Cowboys are taking the relative rookie in Todd Payten and Canterbury are roughly in the middle with Trent Barrett.

St George Illawarra, who will choose between Anthony Griffin, David Furner and Dean Young, and the Broncos, who are likely to go with Kevin Walters or Paul Green, each have options at both ends of the experience spectrum still in play.

Dragons interim coach Dean Young.
Dragons interim coach Dean Young. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Veteran administrator Shane Richardson has plumped for both veterans and newbies when selecting coaches in more than 25 years of calling the shots at Cronulla, Penrith and South Sydney.

As CEO he appointed Lang at the Panthers and Michael Maguire at Redfern, premierships coming in Lang's 10th season of first-grade coaching and Maguire's third.

He was also at the helm for less-successful ventures like Jason Taylor's Rabbitohs tenure, the one-season Anthony Seibold stint at Souths which yielded a finals run but a dramatic exit and played a key role in the club's current set-up that will result in Jason Demetriou succeeding Wayne Bennett in 2022.

"I think the key element when you're weighing up a coach's experience is the maturity of your roster and your football program," Richardson says.

"If you've got a program that doesn't have a lot of quality, senior players to lead them, a senior coach is probably better placed to handle that.

"But sometimes if you've got a roster with good senior players, a young coach can invigorate them.

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"In the case of John Lang and Madge [Maguire], they might not have won premierships but they had had successes previously producing finals sides, so it wasn't as if they were unsuccessful.

"For a young coach or rookie to go in, you've got to have strong set-ups in terms of the roster and the board to support him and have success.

"The days where you brought a coach in and he ran everything, they just don't exist anymore."

Cowboys v Dragons - Round 17

On roster balance, the Dragons have several senior representative players and a respected leader in Cameron McInnes that fit the bill for a rookie coach like Dean Young to take charge.

However the impact of Jack de Belin's uncertain future cannot be underestimated, with a court date now set for November, right in time for the rugby league new year.

The distinct lack of senior leadership at Brisbane points to a particularly tough task for an untried NRL coach like Walters, even with his grounding as Queensland Origin and Catalans head coach as well as time spent under Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett.

That said, Cronulla's John Morris was tossed into the proverbial NRL shark tank in a fashion no one would have planned 18 months ago.

Warriors v Eels - Round 17

He's since kept his head above seriously turbulent water, navigating $750,000 in salary cap punishments, Bronson Xerri's drug suspension, an influx of injuries and the persistent suggestion that Shane Flanagan would possibly return to the club when his NRL ban on head coaching lapsed.

"I think it makes you a stronger person," Morris says as the Sharks continue contract upgrade and extension talks with his management.

"It's definitely made me a stronger coach. We've had a lot of adversity since my appointment last year but I've never really used it as an excuse.

"We've just found a way to use it as an opportunity to grow as a coach. I think that resilience that I've develop as a coach, I've been able to pass that onto the playing squad.

"That's what I'm most proud of … it's been a baptism by fire for some of them.

"But for us to be currently in the eight after playing finals football last year, it's been a really good outcome and hopefully our best is in front of us for this year as well."

Adam O'Brien is also flying the flag for the young coaches in the 2020 Telstra Premiership, taking the Knights back to the playoffs in his first foray after learning the coaching craft under Bellamy and Robinson.

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Gold Coast's Justin Holbrook is another making major strides in his first NRL gig, having served a lengthy apprenticeship at Canterbury, the Roosters under Trent Robinson, and then winning Super League titles with St Helens.

His predecessor Garth Brennan meanwhile is back in his hometown of Newcastle selling houses, the real estate game a better fit than turning around a perennial NRL straggler as a rookie coach.

Ousted Canterbury coach Dean Pay fits the same bill.

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A rookie coach with a lengthy apprenticeship served, but still undone by the sheer size of the task at hand when lacking the support to do it.

When Barrett was first interviewed as his replacement, the questions went both ways.

Barrett wanted assurances that ugly Bulldogs backroom factionalism would be kept in check.

Canterbury officials showed the same wariness around the man management issues that led to five-eighth Jackson Hastings and assistant coach Willie Peters leaving the Sea Eagles after ugly fall-outs with the then-rookie coach.

Bulldogs v Titans - Round 17

"You can't make emotional decisions," Barrett said of his lessons learned from three drama filled years at Manly, which ended with him being paid to sit on the sidelines while Des Hasler turned the club around.

"I think probably sometimes I was probably guilty of that. Not thinking through some of the things or repercussions it has on other people.

"I'll certainly go into this with my eyes wide open and I won't make some of the same mistakes again."

For Richardson, and far more poignantly, the Broncos and Dragons, that is the key.

Throughout Griffin's 173 NRL games and seven seasons at two clubs, his "headmaster" style handling of players has dominated discussions.

Green too is renowned as the toughest of disciplinarians, but like Maguire has premiership-winning clout in his back pocket.

"Man management is the key to rugby league," Richardson says.

"There's not many who fail or are sacked as a coach, who come back to success as a coach. That doesn't mean it can't happen.

"But it does mean you've got to be willing to re-learn your craft to a degree, put your ego aside and make yourself a better coach.

"In my opinion David Furner fits that bill. He's had seven years away from head coaching.

David Furner.
David Furner. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

"He got the arse at Canberra, did a fantastic job at North Queensland, a great job at Souths and has made a difference at Newcastle too.

"He's ready again and Dave Furner would be the first to tell you how much he's learnt at Canberra. You can resurrect yourself. But it's a lot of hard work.

"There's only so many that have the right character to be a head coach, and even Bellamy and Bennett, the reason they've survived so long is they've adapted.

"If you don't, you won't. They have that basic ingredient that makes them good coaches, but if you're not looking to improve the entire package, you just won't last."

Which of course then makes for a third coaching category alongside the rookies and recycled.

A rejected one.