WHEN an NRL club appoints a head coach with no first grade experience it is considered a gamble. In most cases, rightfully so.
Trent Barrett’s arrival at Manly sits at the furthest end of the spectrum, under controversial circumstances we are all familiar with by now.
From the moment Barrett was announced as successor to Sea Eagles legend Geoff Toovey, a question mark has hovered over the decision. What does Barrett have that Toovey didn’t? Surely not experience; Toovey trumps him there. But maybe that is not the point. What if the entire conversation surrounding head coaches and their perceived magical and independent abilities is wrong?
Looking at an NRL coach as a singular entity is becoming far too simplistic, because it is becoming increasingly obvious that he isn’t one.
A booming $42 million debt in club-land in 2015 has stirred up a new debate — does Manly have the coaching model of the future?
In the AFL, a trend has emerged where a rookie coach is partnered with a widely-experienced assistant. It’s a tip that worked at the Cowboys in 2015, for the Roosters in 2013 and to a lesser extent, with Michael Maguire and the Rabbitohs in 2014.
Even Steve Folkes came in to help Steve Price when he first took over at the Dragons in 2012.
Put simply, the model allows a full-time experienced coach to be paid an assistant’s wage and gives the head coach, who can’t demand a salary to compete with some of the game’s most brilliant minds, room to develop.
It is not a risky move if you have the right people to pull it off.
“Some clubs take what may be looked at as a punt on a first-year coach but the fact is you’ve got to start somewhere,” reasons Manly assistant John Cartwright, the inaugural Titans head coach who was also a right-hand man for Cowboys boss Paul Green in 2015.
“Trent has done an apprenticeship as far as being involved in representative teams and coached out of Penrith at a junior level and then has been working in their full-time system for a while there.
“While it might be his first venture into NRL coaching he’s had a very good background into getting there.”
If appointing a rookie coach is taking a leap of faith, then hiring experienced assistants is putting down a safety net. The entire department has to go toe-up to fail, and that probability lessens when you have a staff of varied experience and personality.
It’s a new model in the NRL, but the trend has worked in the AFL for a while.
In what the AFL dubbed succession planning, legendary Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy was the head man for the first two seasons at new club GWS Giants, before stepping down to assist rookie boss Leon Cameron. In a more controversial arrangement, Nathan Buckley took over from Mick Malthouse at Collingwood in 2011 after learning the ropes as an assistant.
In a variation more akin to the NRL’s Cowboys, rookie Brendon Bolton will lead Carlton this season with Neil Craig — a seasoned mentor who spent eight years as head coach at Adelaide — brought straight in as an assistant.
For the most part it has been a successful strategy, and slowly NRL clubs are warming to the concept.
WHY IT WORKS
It’s all about stability.
A group of people with various personalities and experiences are going to relate to a group of players with various personalities and experiences.
It’s also cost-effective, so it ticks all the boxes.
“Being in situations before with players and dealing with the workload that comes on a head coach, you try to shoulder some of the extra stuff that gets put on to them,” Cartwright says about his time with Green at the Cowboys, and now with Barrett at Manly.
Before taking up a position with North Queensland along with fellow assistant and former Raiders coach Dave Furner, Cartwright was head coach at the Titans for eight seasons.
During that time he played every possible caretaker role for his players, from father-figure to counsellor to disciplinarian.
Now he says he gets to work in rugby league, which is the dream, and mentor players without having the same kind of responsibility and public accountability that a head coach has.
“You never know where that experience is going to help you, but having had it, you just offer your advice where you can,” he said.
“I know Greeny was always forward in asking opinions, he didn’t always take your opinion but he was very forward in getting your opinion.
“Trent is exactly the same.
“It’s not like a dictatorship.
“You put everything on the table, get everyone’s input and then it’s up to the coach what they do.
“What I have seen with Trent is very similar to what I have seen with Greeny.
“They know what they want and in the back of their mind they probably know what they’re going to do.”
Barrett will be backed by Cartwright and Anthony Seibold, who has been with Melbourne since 2012.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson has former England coach Steve McNamara in his crew, a man with seven years head coaching experience from the ESL.
Nathan Brown has Mick Potter at the Knights and Green still has former Raiders coach Furner at the Cowboys.
In fact, 11 clubs have assistants with head coaching experience from either the NRL or England. That doesn’t count representative coaches, of which there are three.
Of the 30 or so NRL assistants this season, 13 have been head coaches for some period of time over the last five years.
It makes sense, considering the supply of hopefuls is through the roof compared to the limited demand for head coaches.
When Brown took the reins at Newcastle, his first NRL coaching gig since 2008, he was quick to find back up with as much experience as possible — someone he trusted.
He landed on Potter, the former Wests Tigers and Bradford Bulls head coach who also worked with Brown at the Dragons in the early 2000s.
Former Raiders, Panthers and Warriors coach Matt Elliott says youth doesn’t always have to be a gamble.
Elliott spent 17 years as a head coach in Australia and in England and had his fair share of assistants during that time.
He says the smartest coaches are those who delegate — and who better to delegate to than a former NRL coach.
“It comes down to competency and that is not age specific,” he says.
“Sometimes young coaches who are very driven can be super effective because they don’t let other stuff get in the way.”
Rabbitohs assistant Wayne Collins has been around since Elliott was head coach at Canberra.
Collins played over 100 first grade games in the late 1980s and early 1990s but found his niche when he became an assistant at the Raiders.
“Snoopy (Collins) will have specific duties that because of his experience, Madge doesn’t need to worry about,” Elliott says.
“That’s the beauty of an assistant.
“It’s not that different to any other business you will encounter. The boss will say, ‘You’re responsible for this’ and the good ones provide a lot of clarity around that, and that allows them to throw themselves into their role.
“The smarter ones who still have jobs are people that go on to try and run that or they have people that they trust run it, or they’re in organisations that delegate.”
It is no coincidence a well-rounded football department produces the best results — usually by clubs with the means to pay for it.
The idea of a salary cap to cover the football department has been floated in the past but is steadily gaining traction at NRL HQ and among some of the less wealthy clubs.
It is considered by those in the know to be the next step towards making the game equal.
The AFL capped football department spending at $9.3 million per year two years ago, to reduce the widening gulf between the richest and poorest clubs.
As a comparison, the Broncos are believed to have spent around $16 million in the football department in 2015.
In 2016, for each dollar AFL clubs spend over the limit, 75 cents goes into an equalisation fund that is later dispersed to clubs based on their financial situation.
The cap covers all coaches and sports science costs, and appears to be working, with clubs like Port Adelaide and Western Bulldogs — formerly considered poor — now moving up the ladder.
Yet the model isn’t without its critics. The argument is, should rich clubs like the Broncos and the Bulldogs be taxed for doing good business?
The topic recently came up for discussion again, after it was revealed that NRL clubs had collectively lost $42 million in 2015.
To curb further debt in the future, the NRL has held preliminary talks with clubs about limiting football department spending, given the difference in salary between the top and bottom coaches is well over $1 million a year. The difference between the football department spending of the top and bottom club is around $6 million.
Head of Football Todd Greenberg said a plan is likely to be in place by 2018 that will work alongside the salary cap.
“It’s a very complicated discussion,” Greenberg told the Courier Mail last week.
“One of the great strengths of the NRL premiership is the evenness of the competition.
“We don’t want to take that (evenness) for granted so we’re making sure we’re looking at correlations between football department spends and performances.
“The clubs are open for that discussion, as are the NRL, so we will do that together.
“If we were looking to bring in (a salary cap on football departments), it would happen in 2018, so it’s a discussion that will happen over the next 24 months.”
Should this be the case, coaching opportunities in the NRL will be further limited, which could mean the rise of the AFL coaching model.
The thriftiest NRL clubs are already on board.