Championship Focus: The rise of succession planning as coaches take jobs early

HAS there ever been a season where so many clubs are approaching the business end already knowing they will have a new coach next time around?

Announcing an appointment well in advance and when the current incumbent is still operating might be commonplace in the game Down Under.

But it’s pretty new to Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere, and perhaps a sign that the onset of the IMG era is encouraging longer-term thinking in all areas of operation.

Succession planning, when it comes to coaching, not only eliminates the threat of rushing what is always a key decision, but it also allows the incomer to shape player retention and recruitment before setting foot in the building, rather than having to start from scratch, with all the problems that can entail.

Warrington Wolves are the highest-profile example of the latest bout of Australianisation of European Rugby League, with the confirmation that Sam Burgess will take the reins on a contract covering 2024 and 2025. His arrival at the Halliwell Jones Stadium comes more than two months after Daryl Powell’s departure and following Gary Chambers’ stint as interim coach.

But head outside Super League and former powerhouse forward Burgess’s first club, Bradford Bulls, are among five in the Championship with a fresh face incoming.

Ex-Newcastle Thunder coach Eamon O’Carroll is Odsal-bound on a three-year contract after completing his duties at current Super League leaders Catalans Dragons, where he is among the assistants to Steve McNamara, himself a former player and coach at the West Yorkshire club who once ruled the world but last played in the top-flight in 2014.

Bradford began 2023 with Mark Dunning in situ, but parted company with him in May, after which his assistant Lee Greenwood took over as interim.

There will be continuity at Batley Bulldogs, with long-serving assistant coach Mark Moxon moving up in succession to Craig Lingard, who is due to focus exclusively on his other role on the staff at Castleford Tigers.

And there’s also an element of that at Halifax Panthers, with ex-player Liam Finn, who has a three-year contract in the can after leading Dewsbury Rams to automatic promotion as this season’s League One champions, having been assistant to Shay supremo Simon Grix for half a campaign before trading blue and white for red, amber and black midway through 2022.

Grix is yet to confirm where he will be next season, but current Swinton Lions coach Allan Coleman will be settling in at Widnes Vikings.

He has a two-year deal, to which the club has the option of adding a further twelve months as they seek some stability after John Kear followed Kieron Purtill, Tim Sheens and Simon Finnigan on the list of those who have come, and gone, since Super League status was lost in 2018 (Neil Belshaw is in interim charge).

The void left by Coleman, who first joined Swinton as assistant to Stuart Littler in November 2018, will be filled by Alan Kilshaw, with the added twist that while the former Rochdale Hornets coach is aiming to guide Hunslet to promotion to the Championship before he leaves the South Leeds Stadium after the forthcoming League One play-offs, his next employers could yet drop out of the second tier.

Dewsbury and Hunslet are going through their respective recruitment processes, with the latter aiming to conduct interviews in the week building up to the second set of play-off matches, which will be between Thursday, September 7 and Sunday 10.

Oldham are also set to have a new name at the helm, with Mike Ford, who took over from one-time Swinton coach Littler at the start of this month, insisting it is only a short-term measure, even if he does have widespread experience in both codes.

The Roughyeds are among eight of the 36 clubs in Super League, the Championship and League One who have gone through coaching changes this year, with two at Castleford, where Lee Radford was succeeded by Andy Last, who was then succeeded by Danny Ward.

In addition to those previously mentioned, Featherstone Rovers parted company with Sean Long and put director of rugby James Ford in control, Matt Foster replaced Rhys Lovegrove at Keighley Cougars and Dunning, having departed Bradford, took over from Richard Squires at Midlands Hurricanes.

At the other end of the scale, Mark Aston began his second spell as coach of Sheffield Eagles in 2007 (it’s hard to think of anyone else being in charge) while Sylvain Houles recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of his appointment by Toulouse Olympique.

Paul Crarey began his second spell as coach of Barrow Raiders ahead of the 2015 season, while Doncaster recruited Richard Horne midway through 2017, around the same time McNamara linked up with Catalans.