How Much Pressure Is Your Coach Under in 2017?
Last season was as steady a year for NRL coaches as I can remember. Rugby League is the greatest soap opera in Sydney throughout winter, and the scrutiny and pressure it puts on coaches usually makes for plenty of back page headlines. However, last season, remarkably, we got right through the 26 rounds without a coach being dismissed. Eventually Andrew McFadden was relieved of his duties as coach of the Warriors. McFadden had gone back-to-back seasons outside the finals, and with the talent at his disposal, I don't think the decision was a harsh one. This season unfortunately I am expecting the tide to turn and coaches to be part of the storyline for some of the wrong reasons. There are plenty of coaches under pressure in 2017, with some entering the final year of their contract, while some are trying to rebound from a disappointing 2016. I rate all coaches from 1 to 16, from under the most pressure to the least, in 2017.
1. Paul McGregor (St George Illawarra) - McGregor, to me, is close to a dead man walking at the Dragons. The fans are already extremely restless and the team has a poor roster for 2017. What could possibly go wrong? I don't actually think McGregor has done a terrible job at Saints. He has 28 wins and 31 losses from 59 games, and finished in 8th place and 10th place. To me, in both years the Dragons didn't have a Top 8 roster, so in many respects they punched above their weight. However, their football is unattractive and there seems little development and improvement in young players and team dynamic. McGregor looks to be coaching for the short term, and I think his side are about to hit a big brick wall in 2017. They don't have a halfback, they lack aggression in the forwards, and they have not made any significant off season purchases. Paul Vaughan looked good in a giant Canberra pack; however I don't think he will be a difference maker at Saints. I don't think McGregor will last the season if I am being honest. He is under extreme pressure, and needs a few wins early in the season to quell the noise.
2. Jason Taylor (Wests Tigers) - Arguably the coach under the most scrutiny over the past two years has been Jason Taylor at the Wests Tigers. The Tigers, under Taylor, resembled a warzone at times during the height of the Robbie Farah drama. However, the coach survived after a terrible first season finishing 15th to improve the Tigers to 9th and take them to the cusp of the Finals. While there is no doubt Taylor is under extreme pressure, his chances of holding on to his job are higher than McGregor’s, simply because he has a better roster. I think the Tigers have the most up side of emerging talent of all the coaches that I have listed as “under extreme pressure” next season. The problem I have with Taylor is that he came into the Club preaching defence and defence only. He wanted to be judged on that alone. Well the Tigers conceding 600 points last season to rank 15th defensively. I think Taylor has done a really job good in other areas like bringing in a coaching staff where injuries have halved, and players are fitter and stronger and the Tigers are more competitive most weeks. He does not have the resources or the spending power of most the big guns so we should not expect miracles. However, he needs to make good on his promise and toughen this side up. He deserves a 3rd season to try and put an exclamation point on the progress he has made. He hasn't been afraid of making the hard calls, but whether he has gone about that the right way is another matter. I don't doubt Taylor’s tactical acumen and general football nous - he is a very smart operator. However, do guys want to run through a brick wall for him? He can come across as a bit of a "smart alec know it all". The Tigers’ first ten games are absolutely crucial for Taylor. He can't afford a 2-6 start like last season or he will be out of a job.
3. Des Hasler (Bulldogs) - Despite the Bulldogs’ record under Des Hasler, the drums are beating at Belmore and they are getting louder. Make no mistake Des Hasler for the first time in is career is under extreme pressure in 2017. The Dogs have played in two Grand Finals under him, and have made the finals every year. However, that hasn't been enough to appease Canterbury fans and some board members. At some clubs, that record would have fans doing back to front handstands and singing Hasler's name, but not at Canterbury. Hasler was called into an emergency board meeting in October to save his job. Critically though, he left without a contract extension, in a sign that relations are strained and times are tense at Belmore. The Bulldogs spend more money on their football operations (coaches and training facilities) than any other club, and Hasler is one of the highest paid coaches in the game. Put simply, the Dogs’ fans want a better return on their investment, rightly or wrongly. Let’s be honest, the Bulldogs played an outdated and clunky style of football last season. What worked a few years ago has gone out of vogue now. Their slow forwards acting as ball players and tip on merchants worked well in the past, but looked slow and predictable last season. Their halves and hooker were close to the worst in the competition in terms of their organisation, fluency and their kicking game. Those sorts of game planning areas fall on Hasler's shoulders. The Dogs can't play that style of football in 2017 or he will be out, I think, before the end of the season. What I do know is Hasler is an excellent NRL coach with a proven record. With his back against the wall, I wouldn't write him off one bit. However what I do doubt is the Canterbury roster. It lacks speed and key decisions makers, while I think James Graham is past his best. I think there are more turbulent times at Belmore ahead in 2017.
4. Trent Barrett (Manly Sea Eagles) - I had a long think about this one before elevating Trent Barrett into the "Extreme Pressure" category. Trent Barrett was hailed as the next “super coach” when Manly savagely sacked Geoff Toovey after 2015. Toovey missed the finals for the first time during his rule, which included three Top 4 finishes, and a Grand Final. So why should Barrett he allowed a 2nd season wallowing in the bottom 5 when Toovey was afforded far less? Barrett and his team fell well short of expectations last season, finishing 13th. Barrett is clearly a young coach who wears his heart on his sleeve, and you could see the frustration and pressure mounting as losses accumulated. I have no doubt he is a smart operator, however Manly don't put up with poor seasons back- to-back, and that means Barrett is under extreme pressure this season. Another year outside of the finals and I think he will be very lucky to survive at Manly. The problem I see for Barrett is this is a side treading water and rebuilding. They have lost so much experience in such a short space of time. Add in curious decisions to let go of Jamie Buhrer and Matt Parcell and it has the recipe for a long season for the Sea Eagles. Unless Daly Cherry Evans can really take the bull by the horns and stamp his authority on this team, I think Manly are going to struggle. They have some young talent emerging, but they look light on for depth and size up front. Barrett will survive the season but he needs to finish higher on the ladder than last season.
5. Trent Robinson (Roosters) - I'm a big fan of Trent Robinson as a coach. He speaks straight and he exudes common sense, which is not so common Rugby League. So I think he would have learnt a lot from last year's Roosters collapse. He had earned a season like that after three straight Minor Premierships. The only reason I put him under the high category of pressure is the Roosters have a decent roster and Nick Politis doesn't put up with two poor seasons in a row. Top 8 will be the minimum expectation at Bondi. If the Roosters miss the finals this year I have doubts whether Robinson will survive. Like I said, I think he is gun coach, but they don't settle for second best at Bondi.
6. Michael Maguire (South Sydney) - Contract extension or not, I still think Maguire is under some pressure at Souths heading into 2017. A late winning streak seemed to quell a few fires. However the bottom line is this team looked jaded in 2016 and was touched up a number of times in really unfamiliar fashion. Like the Roosters, Russell Crowe will be expecting this team to return to the finals in 2017. The problem I envisage for Maguire is I'm not sure this side has enough depth and fire power out wide to cause problems. He is known to be a very intense operator and I have my doubts whether his messages are having the same impact as back in 2014. I still think they rely on their superstars, and I’m not sure some of those superstars are the players they once were. All in all Maguire won't get sacked mid season, but is still under "high pressure" at Souths.
7. Wayne Bennett (Broncos) - People might raise their eyebrows at this one. You could make a case that Wayne Bennett is under no pressure at Brisbane, based on his record at the Club. How could a man who has delivered several Premierships to Red Hill and never missed a final’s appearance be under pressure? Simple. Expectations are high and the Broncos under achieved last season. The signing of Benji Marshall, I think, puts him under pressure. I really don't know if a player at this stage of his career can add any impact to a club like the Broncos. The Broncos were Premiership favourites last year and didn't deliver, that's the bottom line. Bennett nearly always bounces back when people start to doubt him. However, I'm a bit unsure about this Bronco’s roster. I don't know if they match last year’s effort, which will make for some interesting times at Red Hill.
8. Steve Kearney (Warriors) - You might say this is harsh given Steve Kearney just put his feet under the desk across the ditch. The Warriors have been outside the Finals for the past four seasons, so why should Kearney be under any immediate pressure to turn it around? Simple. Because the Warriors have a high quality roster that should be doing a lot better. Kearney failed at Parramatta in his first coaching stint, and this is a last chance saloon, so the pressure is there immediately. There are rarely second chances for some NRL coaches and never a third chance, so Kearney needs to make this season count. While I am not for any minute suggesting he should be sacked if the Warriors miss the finals this year, I think there is an immediate level of expectation with the roster they have at their disposal. If Kieran Foran is fit, and with Roger Tuivasa Sheck, Isaac Luke and Shain Johnson, this is a Top 8 roster. Kearney needs to make the finals in Year 1 to avoid heading higher up the pressure index.
9. Brad Arthur (Parramatta) - I have a lot of respect for every NRL coach, however Brad Arthur in particular. What he had to deal with last year was a fire storm and a circus at Parramatta that just got worse and worse. Initially I had Arthur in the low category, however Parramatta are a basket case off the field and anything can happen. They are an unpredictable organisation that makes decisions on a whim. Arthur did an outstanding job through much of last season to keep this team afloat, playing a combative and intense brand of football. It was clear the Parramatta players were playing for him. I just worry at a club like Parramatta that they’re such a mess salary cap wise, that anything could happen this year. I’m not really sure how this team are going to perform, and I have doubts whether they are a Top 8 side. I don't think Arthur is in any real danger of getting sacked - he is the man holding Parramatta together - but that doesn't mean he won’t be feeling the heat at the circus that is Parramatta in 2017.
10. Neil Henry (Gold Coast Titans) - Neil Henry got his team to exceed all expectations last season by making the finals after being favourites for the wooden spoon. Henry would be one of the lowest paid coaches in the game, and he came in during a turbulent time for the Club and quietly went about his business. I think he has a good improving roster that is going to get better. The Club are as stable as they have been for five years, so I don't see Henry having too many worries in 2017, despite expectations being higher.
11. Ricky Stuart (Raiders) - Heading into last season, Ricky Stuart would have been right up in the extreme category. Stuart had two disappointing seasons at the Raiders, off the back of collecting a wooden spoon at Parramatta, and a generally awful four years at Cronulla. Many thought the game had passed Stuart by and, as harsh as this sounds, he had become a bit of a figure to poke fun at. However, Stuart showed last year he is an outstanding coach when he has the right circumstances. He built a vibrant, young, exciting team in Canberra last year that exceeded all expectations. Stuart did it by way of making extremely astute purchases, without the money to chase the big names. This Canberra side are set for 3-4 years of finals' football in my opinion and, although anything can happen with injuries and form, I think Stuart is set for the long haul in Canberra.
12. Anthony Griffin (Panthers) - Griffin is under little pressure as he exceeded expectations last season and has a team that is on the rise. The Panthers are so chock full of talent that I think they would have to implode spectacularly not to play finals. Crucially for Griffin, he was Phil Gould’s man. Gus didn't interview anyone else for the job - he wanted Griffin and Griffin only. He repaid him this year and Gould, being the stubborn bugger that he is, will want to see Griffin succeed badly at Penrith. He is in a good spot.
13. Nathan Brown (Newcastle Knights) - Why so low you say? I think the Knights know what sort of mess they are in and what sort of repulsive job this is. This is not a 2-3 year turnaround; this is a 5-year turnaround. Their roster was not NRL standard last season and, at times, it was embarrassing to watch. Nathan Brown is clearly looking long term and I think he has been given the freedom to really make sweeping changes without the threat of the sack. Plus, how can you not improve on a one-win season? This team can go only one way and that is up. I still expect them to finish last, but they will win more than one game, and therefore Brown should be left to do his work.
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14. Paul Green (North Queensland Cowboys) - Green has done a great job in his three years up North. While plenty of the credit goes to Johnathan Thurston, Green has seen the emergence of some young talent and developed a style of play that can at last be attractive and competitive, even without Thurston. Some of the Cowboys' players got to another level under Green, and that’s why they broke through for a maiden title. He is another couple of bad seasons away from being under any pressure.
15. Shane Flanagan (Cronulla Sharks) - Flanagan has a lifetime’s supply of goodwill at Cronulla after delivering the Club’s first title in 50 years. While plenty of credit went to the Sharks’ senior players, you have to give credit to Flanagan for allowing them to play a style of football that suited the Club’s players. He wasn't afraid to make some big calls either in relation to making Ben Barba the fullback, and hooking Chad Townsend midway through a final’s game. Flanagan would have to have a couple of really poor years to be under any pressure again at Cronulla.
16. Craig Bellamy (Melbourne Storm) - Bellamy is the Number 1 coach in the game, without a shadow of doubt. If I could have any man at the Tigers, it would be Bellamy in a heartbeat. Without Billy Slater for the past two years, Bellamy has still got his Melbourne Storm challenging for titles, missing last season by a heartbreaking margin. He has never missed the finals, and he will be at Melbourne until he decides he has had enough.
How Much Pressure Is Your Coach Under in 2017?