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Why NRL coaches have never been more vulnerable

The salary cap has added to the problem in that a club such as the Broncos can’t buy its way out of the embarrassment. Some coaches, such as Wests Tigers’ Michael Maguire, are forced to wear a “bad cap” in that they inherit overpaid players.

When his team lost three successive matches, there were reports Maguire was eyeing off the vacant position at the Cowboys. Fortunately, a few “footy heads” in the Ashfield boardroom saw this as a ploy by an agent manoeuvring to install his client at Wests Tigers. A trigger-happy board may have reacted otherwise.

After a tough split with the Knights, Nathan Brown is back for more at the Warriors.

After a tough split with the Knights, Nathan Brown is back for more at the Warriors.Credit:Getty

Agents didn’t exist 40 years ago. Now, a player is closer to his manager than his coach. It means, therefore, that the player often doesn’t hear the unvarnished truth. No wonder modern coaches approach some players they are dropping with the fear of someone handling a 15th Century Ming vase.

Once, when coaches asked players to take their customary places in the dressing room, wingers stood in front of the mirror. Now, half a team lines up behind them.

There is no way the fire and brimstone coaches – more tormentor than mentor – could exist today. However, coaches these past 20 years have brought some of the problems on themselves by too much player empowerment. One of the first actions of Dragons’ interim coach Dean Young should be to sack the player leadership group. With James Graham and Gareth Widdop gone, there isn’t a leader in the place. Ditto the Broncos.

An effectively policed salary cap, with coaches of approximate equal ability, means that every club should be closing the gap on everyone else. Yet rule changes designed to speed up the game, introduced after the COVID-19 shutdown, have exacerbated defensive weaknesses in 2020.

There are gaps between the top four teams, middle six and bottom six, with occasional swapping of places. The corporate types on the boards of the bottom clubs ask “why isn’t our coach a Trent Robinson or Craig Bellamy?” In the days of three grades a club, the top coach kept a close eye on those in reserve grade. Now, there is a fuzzy line between the top-30 player group and the development squad.

McGregor may have lost touch with this latter group, given his reliance on senior non-performing players but, in 2020, with abandoned State Cup competitions, the players in the lower group receive no “development”.

The online world has also added to the pressure on coaches. Whereas talkback radio was once a lightning rod for ridicule from angry fans, they now have a voice through a myriad of social media platforms. It means those who Americans call “Monday morning quarterbacks” now question NRL coaches on Thursday.

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The ubiquitous eye of TV and mobile phone cameras brings us close-ups of the coach in all his agony during games. Yet, despite fans saying “who would want to be a coach?”, some, such as new Warriors coach Nathan Brown, keep coming back.

There’s something addictive about the job. It’s matching wits against a rival. It’s watching the marginal player improve. For the bleary-eyed lifers such as Wayne Bennett, it’s also the comfort of the routine, the nourishing of the ego, the pay cheque. Ask the Skinny Coach in 10 years time about the job and he’ll echo Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, wistfully describing the smell of napalm in the morning.

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