First published in League Express, Mon 5th Aug 2013
Malcolm Andrews reflects on the latest example of an NRL coach getting the sack.
Regular readers are well aware of my love of the unorthodox nature of rugby players from the Pacific Islands. Most have an inbred love of the game … a passion that few Anglo-Saxons could ever hope to fully understand.
But it is not only the Pacific Islanders’ attitude towards Rugby League that fills me with enthusiasm. It is their whole outlook on life.
That is why I have written some 80,000 words of a book on the famous and infamous characters of the South Pacific and hope to finish it by the end of the year.
Currently I am having a bit of trouble getting one of my publishers to share my passion.
“Books on the South Pacific never sell,” he sniffed at me.
“You should have tried telling that to James A Michener when he was alive,” I replied.
“But he was a famous writer,” said my publisher. “His books always sold.” “He wasn’t famous when he wrote Tales of the South Pacific, his first and arguably finest book.” It won him the Pulitzer Prize for literature, sold many, many millions of copies and was turned into a Broadway musical and later a Hollywood movie.
Most importantly, its success enabled Michener to write about any subject that tickled his fancy. He was even able to write about sport.
I have often used a great quotation of Michener about football coaches.
He was, of course, writing about NFL (American football) but his observations could well have applied to our great game and its coaches.
“The pressures on big-time coaches to win are cruel and the penalty for failure inescapable,” Michener wrote.
“I know of no other occupation where the evaluation of a man’s work is so incessant.
“The coach is trapped in an impossible bind. To keep his job he must win, but if he wins it means that coaches Y and Z at the bottom of the ladder must be losers, and sooner or later they will be fired.” Neil Henry got sacked last week. Well, not quite sacked. He was called into the front office of the North Queensland Cowboys headquarters in Townsville and told he wouldn’t be with the club next season.
The whole episode was disgraceful.
Former Test player cum electronic media commentator Matt Johns had heard about Henry’s imminent demise at the Origin decider almost three weeks ago and revealed what he had been told on radio the next morning.
Henry was livid and had words with Johns.
As usual, the soon-to-be-sacked coach was always the last to know.
The Cowboys eventually admitted Henry wouldn’t be there for the final year of his contract.
They could have chosen a much better time to admit what everyone was saying – the announcement came just 48 hours after the death of another former North Queensland coach, Graham Murray.
The much-loved Murray had suffered the same fate as Henry five years ago – and like Henry showed the dignity so lacking in so many club officials who wield the axe.
Henry could have spat the dummy and walked away. Instead he chose to stay until the end of the season and help his players restore some semblance of pride.
They had a minute’s silence for Graham Murray before kickoff in Townsville on Saturday.
Then the Cowboys did what they should have been doing all year. They dug deep for Neil Henry.
The South Sydney players switched from proud Rabbitohs to bumbling bunnies as North Queensland ran in five tries and had another three disallowed by the video referees.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Cowboys continued in that vein, won the rest of their games and managed to sneak into the play-offs.
Stranger things have happened.
Henry won’t be unemployed for long. It was he who was the tactical brains behind the early days of the Maroons’ current winning streak in the State of Origin series, but he later relinquished his job as Mal Meninga’s assistant coach to concentrate on the Cowboys.
Meninga himself has blasted the Cowboys officials for their treatment of Henry.
“It is the annual ritual where, about halfway through the season if a club is not performing, whispers begin and linger and regrettably it is often the coach who is the last to officially hear about it,” Meninga wrote in his column in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail newspaper.
“It’s been the same old story for as long as the game has been played. Where is the fairness in this process? How does the coach protect his integrity and his future?
“Unfortunately, it is a one-way street. Among all the wonderful advancements and best practise methods that continue Rugby League’s growth into a fully professional sport, one thing has remained the same ““ the coach is the pawn.
“Not the players, not the administration, not the board. Only the coach. If there is a problem, removing him will fix the problem.
“They are the sacrificial lambs.” Meninga posed the question as to why the Cowboys would throw away such a valuable asset as Henry.
“Because that is the way it has always been done in Rugby League,” he wrote. “If the results aren’t there, sack the coach.
“Perhaps the smarter option would have been not replacing a coach, but engaging more of them. The coach lives and dies on the strength of his team’s results, but what about the officials? Where are their checks and measures?
Back to Michener.
“If he [a coach] is of a sensitive or retiring type he has no place in coaching. If he is deficient, a crowded stadium witnesses his failure, and he is not allowed to remain deficient very long.
“An ordinary official can get away with murder for decades without detection.” Does it sound like a few of today’s Rugby League club officials?