The constant churn of coaching positions in the NRL is generally accepted as a necessary evil across the landscape of the competition. The cut-throat nature of the top job showcased when a losing streak commences, and the only answer seems to be anything but unwavering loyalty to the current man in charge.
Assistant coaches have been all the rage for replacements, with an increasing number scooping up the vacancies ahead of more experienced candidates. The coaching food chain has undergone a significant shift as the familiar faces of the past have been usurped.
There is a certain lineage in the appointments which can be traced back to a few select men within the game.
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Jason Demetriou served an apprenticeship at South Sydney under Wayne Bennett before being handed the reins. Kristian Woolf is set to repeat this formula at the Dolphins when he takes over from Bennett a few years from now.
Craig Fitzgibbon emerged from out of the shadow of Trent Robinson to takeover at the Sharks. Justin Holbrook was another Robinson assistant who journeyed around the houses – via St Helens – before landing on the Gold Coast.
Adam O’Brien and Brad Arthur both graduated from Craig Bellamy’s school of hard knocks, with the Melbourne mentor himself tracing back to Bennett just like how Anthony Griffin does. And on and on the connections go.
“Club success and team success generally dictate individual success,” Fitzgibbon told The Bye Round Podcast with James Graham.
Assistants in quality set-ups are currently some of the most sought-after coaches in the game. It is no coincidence that those with the pedigree from an NRL powerhouse are being viewed in such elevated terms.
“As a coach, you need to be involved in a successful system,” Fitzgibbon explained.
“If you look at other clubs you can see where there are good systems in play.
“The reputation of Robbo being such a strong coach and an educator – that helped me.
“Freddy [Brad Fittler] giving me a crack with the Blues really helped as well. That sort of got me access to some other players that might have enjoyed the coaching there.
“Ultimately, most of it comes from good operating systems and good head coaches.”
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The glut of recent appointments has often seen the eschewing of head coaching experience that was often thought of as a necessity in the past.
Clubs are now more willing to bypass that previous prerequisite and take a chance on prospects who have been inside successful organisations. Perhaps, in the hope they can impart some of the wisdom gleaned from some of the best operators in the game.
The majority of them emanate from a small group of head coaches who have effectively rubberstamped their ability to handle the pressure that comes with being the main man.
“Tim Sheens- how many coaches have come out from underneath him?” Fitzgibbon posed, with Benji Marshall the latest cab off the rank.
“Craig Bellamy- how many guys have come out of his coaching? There is Robbo. There’s Wayne.
“There are a handful of guys who have managed to filter out some coaches, so that’s probably the link that gets formed.”
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Ivan Cleary has undoubtedly muscled his way into this conversation due to the relentless winning machine he has presided over in Penrith.
Trent Barrett rebuilt his reputation under him at the foot of the mountains and earned a fresh start at Canterbury, while Cameron Ciraldo and Andrew Webster have also been added to the coaching pool.
The fervour around Ciraldo to be an NRL head coach reached incredible levels last season with multiple clubs scrapping for his signature despite him having almost no experience in the role.
He eventually inked a five-year deal with the Bulldogs which was the lengthiest handed out to a rookie coach in the game’s history.
He wasn’t the only Penrith assistant to depart though, with Webster venturing across the ditch to the Warriors.
The Panthers providing the clearest evidence yet that a successful system elevates those working within it to unprecedented heights.
Clearly, the prestige involved in being part of such a system is one of the key traits powerbrokers at clubs are now looking for when they make their most important coaching appointment.
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“When you’re an assistant and you’re watching people make decisions, you can sort of sit back and go, ‘I’d do this or I’d do that’ but that costs you no energy at all,” Fitzgibbon said, when discussing the differences between being second-in-command and the head coach.
“When you’ve got to make the decisions, you’re lonely…At the end of the day, you want to be in control of decisions that influence your club.”
This is something Saints legend, Sean Long, touched on after embarking on his own head coaching career with Featherstone.
“I realised it was time for me to step up to the plate,” he told The Independent this week.
“I’ve got a couple of great coaches, but the buck stops with me.
“I had always been happy being an assistant, but for the last two or three years I’d been itching to pull the trigger.”
Assistants have always been viewed as a coach condensed down to its purist form- all skill drills and minimal baggage thanks to the lack of limelight and interference from boardroom figures in their work.
“Assistant coaching is pure footy coaching,” Fitzgibbon said.
“You don’t have to deal with the sideshow, if you will. It’s incredibly rewarding in a footy sense.
“Part of accepting a head coaching role though is if you take it on, you’ve got to give it everything. You can’t shortcut it. You’re playing with fire if you’re not all-in.”
The increasing responsibility of a head coach behind-the-scenes within a club has necessitated a handover of power that has allowed assistant coaches to flourish.
“At most clubs, it’s the assistant who does most of the coaching,” David Furner told NRL.com.
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“The head coach oversees and has to do media, connect with the CEO and board. So, I also think that’s why the assistant’s profile has become bigger.”
Four head coaches lost their job last season which was in keeping with the decade-long average of four sackings per year. Five were booted two years ago, with all five replaced by their assistants in interim roles.
Expect that to be mirrored in 2023, with the old guard being shuffled out as young assistant coaches from credentialed backgrounds continue to be the hottest commodity in the coaching world.