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A good way to replace a coach? Not easy but can be done

Former Dragons coach Paul McGregor had lunch last Thursday with the man who oversaw his departure from the club, St George Illawarra CEO Ryan Webb.

A few weeks earlier McGregor had caught up for a drink with members of the Dragons board in North Queensland, where he cheered the team he coached for six-and-a-half years to their first win under new mentor Anthony Griffin.

In the wake of Cronulla’s decision to abruptly end John Morris's coaching tenure last week, McGregor’s relationship with those in charge of the Red V demonstrates the parting of ways between coach and club doesn’t always need to be so swift.  

"My situation is a bit different to John Morris and some of the other coaches who have been [replaced]," McGregor said.

"When the decision was made my biggest regret was that I didn’t get to speak to the board face-to-face because of the COVID situation, but I have got some great memories and friendships with people who gave me their trust and the opportunity to coach and play at the club.

"I ran into some board members in North Queensland and we had a beer together so I have got no animosity towards anyone."

Former Sharks coach John Morris.
Former Sharks coach John Morris. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Morris’s dramatic exit from the Sharks on Tuesday raised the question - does a good way for a club to replace a coach actually exist?

Probably not, but the idea of Stephen Kearney's departure while in isolation with the Warriors players in Gosford last year and the campaign of negativity endured by Anthony Seibold before his exit from the Broncos left many feeling uncomfortable.

There are examples in other sports of coaches being sacked by text message, including former Manchester United and Liverpool star Paul Ince at Blackpool in 2014, or email, as happened to long-serving Fulham manager Brede Hangeland in 2015.

In the same year, the manager of Bosnian club FK Drina Zvornik, Vladica Petrovic, learned of his demise by reading a post on the club’s Facebook page. Petrovic replied in the comments section: "Thanks for the notice."

Compare those to the images of McGregor being presented with a jersey by captain Cameron McInnes on behalf of the players before his final game in charge and receiving a standing ovation after their emotion-charged 14-12 win against Parramatta.

McGregor, who hopes to coach again in the Telstra Premiership, was offered the opportunity to see out the remaining seven matches of the season but he wanted just one more game to farewell his players before assistant Dean Young took over.

"When the finishing line came up there was a lot of emotions because of the journey over the previous six-and-a-half years," he said.

Cameron McInnes and Paul McGregor after the coach's last match in charge.
Cameron McInnes and Paul McGregor after the coach's last match in charge. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"To be able to tell the players in my own way and then to coach the last game, I thought it was really well planned by both parties."

The end of McGregor’s tenure came after his request for control of team selections and greater input into recruitment and retention were rejected by the St George Illawarra board.

The decision indicated the board no longer had the same faith in McGregor that they previously had and both parties realised it was time for a change.

"We worked out that it was time to part ways and once we had all decided that it was then it was about how do we do this in a dignified way," Webb said.

"Paul wants another job in the future and we don’t want to be a club that just churns and burns people so there was that conversation about what was in the best interests of everyone and we came to a point.

"I can’t articulate enough that the smoothness of it was probably more to do with Paul than it was to do with the club.

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"There were moments when he could have made it difficult to be amicable but he didn’t, and then catching up for lunch he could have told me to 'stick it' when I messaged him or when I ran into last time but he was good.

"I think that is because we were able to have those open, honest conversations at the time."

The difference between McGregor’s departure from St George Illawarra and Morris’s swift dismissal at Cronulla is the Dragons did not have a replacement lined up before making the decision to change coaches.

The Sharks had been looking around for some time for another option before deciding to make a change and once Craig Fitzgibbon told the Sydney Roosters he was seriously considering an approach from Cronulla, the process became like a runaway train.

Sharks players learned of Morris’s departure when they received a message in their team group chat after training on Tuesday informing them Josh Hannay was taking over as caretaker coach before Fitzgibbon’s arrival in the off-season.

After steering Cronulla to the finals for the past two seasons with salary cap restrictions, Morris’s circumstances are unusual, according to Rugby League Coaches Association CEO Neil Henry, who has coached Canberra, North Queensland and Gold Coast.

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"It’s not like there was a strong reason for that to happen except that the powers that be have made the decision they want to move in another direction," Henry said.

"That’s the governance of the club and it is their prerogative as an employer but there is no easy way to do it.  

"I have been in that situation and most coaches have. There are only a few coaches who ever get through a career without having a contract terminated."

Among the long list of coaches to have been replaced at some stage of their careers are the two most successful mentors in living memory, Wayne Bennett (Brisbane) and Jack Gibson (South Sydney).

Griffin, who replaced McGregor at the Dragons, left his last job at Penrith when the Panthers were in the top four at the time with the finals just a month away.

It is their [a club's] prerogative as an employer but there is no easy way to do it

Rugby League Coaches Association CEO Neil Henry

Since taking over at St George Illawarra, Griffin has been given sole responsibility for team selections and greater involvement in recruitment and retention decisions than McGregor was allowed.

"I am pleased that the thing I fought for when I left the new coach has now got and for me I thought that was really important for the club going forward because the process that was in place wasn’t sustainable," McGregor said.

"They felt it was the right direction with me as coach because they wanted shared accountability but at the end of the day, I think that they have realised the coach has to be responsible for the players and accountable for the results.

"I think they all felt they were all trying to help and that is one reason I didn’t leave with any animosity because I understood what they were trying to achieve.

"I still want to coach and I miss coaching because it is something I have a passion for and I have got a belief that I could do well but they thought a little bit differently."

 

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