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The unforgiving world of a first-year coach

Of the five coaches who head into round three still searching for their first win of 2021, it's the straight shooter Todd Payten and the favourite son Kevin Walters who will be feeling the most heat.

In Walters's case, either he or Canterbury's new coach Trent Barrett will get to break their duck for 2021 when the Broncos and Bulldogs square off on Saturday.

Having lost 13 on the bounce dating back to July last year, Broncos players may need to pass around copies of the team song after the match if they are able to beat Barrett's men.

Renowned for his easy-going nature, Walters was anything but chilled out as he faced the media in the wake of last week's loss to the Titans.

And his demeanour won't improve any if they slump to 0-3 on Saturday night with clashes against the Storm, Rabbitohs, Panthers and Eels looming.

Walters wants steel in defence and control from halves

Come Sunday night and it's Payten turn to face the music when his underwhelming Cowboys play host to the new powerhouse of Queensland rugby league, the Gold Coast Titans.

From the outside looking in, Payten's forthright assessment of two below-par performances has been refreshing, but his players may beg to differ.

Valentine Holmes has won just four of his 14 games at the Cowboys since returning to the Telstra Premiership amid much fanfare last season, but he's quite happy to tell the world he thinks he should be playing fullback rather than wing.

Holmes: I came here to play No.1

Let's not forget this is a bloke who scored 11 tries in the space of seven days as a winger for the Kangaroos at the 2017 World Cup so throwing him the No.5 jersey seems a perfectly logical decision by Payten.

In 2020, Holmes played 10 of his 12 games at fullback and managed only four tries as the Cowboys struggled for points and victories on their way to finishing 14th.

"The reason I came to the Cowboys is to play fullback," Holmes told reporters last week.

"I played on the wing at the Sharks and in my rep footy, so coaches know I can play wing, but it's like I said it's not the position I feel like I can play my best footy at.

"To be able to do what's best for the team and just to play on the weekend, that's what I want to do."

Payten has no doubt taken all this on board and still stuck with Scott Drinkwater at fullback and Holmes on the wing for the Titans tussle.

It's the sort of call NRL coaches have to make on a weekly basis and they live or die by the results.

The coach is the one who fronts the media pack after the game to try and make sense of a loss or keep a win in perspective. The coach is the one whose job is constantly under scrutiny, not the superstar player on the big coin.

Payten has left his superstars Holmes and Jason Taumalolo in no doubt as to how they fit into his plans in 2020 and that brutal honesty is to be admired.

Every try from round 2

You won't see Payten dropping a player via a text message or going behind their back to whinge to club officials or journalists about his players' shortcomings.

He freely admits there's some tension in the air after the losses to the Panthers and Dragons, but he has urged his players to "relax and trust each other" as they look to get on the board on Sunday.

With games against the Sharks, Tigers and Bulldogs to come, a morale-boosting win over the Titans could be the catalyst for a very good month in Townsville.

"You've lost two after a couple of poor seasons, you can drop your head. That's where it's at. It's nothing internal," Payten said on Tuesday.

Cowboys v Titans - Round 3

"It's just when things aren't going your way it feels like small things are big things.”

In the world of the first-year coach, everything is magnified, and the pressure to live up to your own expectations and those of the club can become unbearable.

It takes strong character to stand by their beliefs and trust in the processes that landed them the job in the first place.

For Payten and Walters, that's the challenge heading into the third match of what they hope will be long coaching careers.

They have resisted the urge to make mass changes, preferring to ignore outside noise and stick solid – a show of faith they would have appreciated during their own playing careers.

Barrett, who is in the early stages of his Belmore rebuild following an opening foray into the coaching ranks at Manly, he is following a similar system of sticking solid with his selections from the first two rounds ... for now.

For the other two men at 0-2, Des Hasler and Michael Maguire, the countless rides they've taken on the coaching rollercoaster over the years will serve them well as they head into their clashes with the Dragons and Knights respectively.

What makes a good defensive fullback

In 2004, Hasler found himself 1-5 after his first six games at the helm at Manly, while Maguire launched his career at Souths in 2012 with losses in three of his first four games.

Both have gone on to win premierships and wide acclaim, taking the knowledge gleaned from those early setbacks on board and backing their ability to make a go of it in the cut-throat world of NRL coaching.

It's a path Payten and Walters will be hoping they too can tread, provided they can withstand the scrutiny that is part and parcel of life as a first-year mentor.


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.

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