|Fast-tracked or made for the big-time? Trent Barrett has moved quickly from player to coach.|
A new era of NRL coaches has arrived with the appointment of Trent Barrett at Manly for 2016, and the instalment of Danny Buderus at Newcastle as interim coach for the rest of this season. Whilst Buderus’ tenure might be temporary, it signals a changing of the guard at the top-flight of Rugby League coaches’ and a transfer of priority and preference from experience, to a younger leader that can more easily relate to today’s player. But with coaches now coming from those who played in the 1990-2000’s, are they entering the role too early and without enough experience?
In recent seasons, coaches that had played the game but did not fulfil their destiny as a player, have excelled and had unprecedented success. Both Trent Robinson and Michael Maguire were respected players in the game, but barely made any in-roads in their first-grade careers. Seeking paths in the game, they turned to coaching and have both travelled far and wide in their committed pursuit to coach at the highest level. They didn’t have a big-name reputation as a player to rely on to earn their spot, but on the contrary, they didn’t have the experiences a big-name player may have had in a long playing career. The debate of if a great player can make a great coach reigns free.
No doubt whatever path a coach takes to the top level, they will be experienced. Robinson and Maguire worked hard as assistants, technical coaches and did whatever they had to, to build their knowledge. Maguire was known to have regularly mowed the grass of the Wigan training fields when he was their coach. Can you imagine Des Hasler cruising across Belmore Oval on a hot summer’s day? Robinson even become a fluent French speaker during his time at the Catalan Dragons in order to be able to liaise with his players, staff and the French community better.
What’s interesting is how players with limited experience as professional have become so successful as coaches. Like the Rabbitohs and Roosters pair, Wayne Bennett was one to have not had a decorated playing career. He, as it turns out, is the most successful coach of all-time. Craig Bellamy played 148 games for the Canberra Raiders during a decade-long career, but he was never the star of the team. He played off the bench in their 1990 premiership win over the Penrith Panthers. What Bellamy did best after his playing career, was go and undertake a long apprenticeship, and he had to as he didn’t have that big name.
The transition from player to coach can be a dangerous path. Some have gone in immediately following their playing career and have struggled. Others have bided their time, gone away from the game, experienced more and come back with great success. Brad Fittler was one who went in too early. After only a few years out of the game he was thrust into the full-time position of Head Coach with the Sydney Roosters. Whilst he has Phil Gould and others to lean on, Fittler hadn’t properly learnt the ropes as a coach. A wonderful player and on-fielder leader, but coaching as it seems, is a different gig all together. Some of the best players will just not make great coaches, it’s simple.
It could be said that Ricky Stuart jumped in too early, and it is only now that Stuart is finding his potential as a coach after working himself out over a number of years, at a number of clubs. Or maybe Stuart has always been the same coach and it’s simply clicking for him out of the Sydney spotlight at his old club. Nathan Brown went in too early, but he has gone to the Super League and had tremendous success, no doubt transforming himself as a coach. The roles that Fittler and Barrett have occupied as Country and City coaches seem like ideal positions for a person seeking a head coaching role to test themselves. Or are these positions more suitable for people like Fittler who enjoy chiming in and out of the sport while holding positions in the media.
What’s clear is next year Trent Barrett will be the Head Coach of a club currently undergoing a transition, and for him it will either be rocks or diamonds. Manly will need to give him time to build a successful first grade team, but they are a club that expects success and in the game today patience is limited, from fans and the power-holders. Danny Buderus, the ultimate clubman, looks like he will one day make a magnificent coach with an unquestionable level of integrity and fierce leadership. But to jump into the Newcastle Knights at a time when the whole club is being questioned, would be a disaster. For his sake, hopefully he sticks to his guns and stays as an assistant for the time being.
A trend appears to be evolving in the game and almost sport in general, that the best coaches are those who have had varied life experiences and had to learn things from the ground up. Des Hasler had a fantastic playing career at Manly, but after it he went and become a high school maths teacher. Wayne Bennet was in the Queensland Police Force, Maguire a physical education teacher before a coach, Craig Bellamy an electrician. Across the globe, Football’s best coach of today, Jose Mourinho, played in only the Portuguese lower leagues. He has held more assistant positions than probably any other coach in the world game, yet now, he is one of the most successful of all time.
Obviously there is more than just the coach, their personality, skills and philosophy involved in order to achieve success. A club has to be pulling in the same direction from top to bottom, resources have to be there and to use a Rugby League saying, you’ve got to have the cattle. But there is no doubting, and no missing the evolution of the successful coaches, they do their time, somewhere, somehow.