First published in League Express, Monday 30th Sept 2013
What makes a great coach? You might as well ask: “How long is a piece of string?”
One thing is certain. It’s not necessary to have been a great player. Many of the greatest players have not succeeded with clipboard in hand because they played by instinct – and you can’t pass instinct on to the players you are trying to mentor. Johnny Raper was one playing legend who never managed the switch, Wally Lewis another.
And then there were some of the greatest coaches who never really made a lasting impact during their playing days.
I remember chatting to Jack Gibson at a lunch at St George Leagues Club commemorating Raper’s 50th birthday.
“We’re you upset that the Test selectors never gave you the chance to play for Australia, Jack” I said the great man, who had turned out for New South Wales in 1954.
“Nah,” he said in that familiar drawl. “The selectors had nothing to do with it. There was only one reason I never played Test football. I wasn’t bloody good enough!”
Gibson was always brutally honest – especially with himself.”
Wayne Bennett did play for Australia, but never in the Test arena. As a 20-year-old winger from Toowoomba in southeastern Queensland, he toured New Zealand in 1971 and played in two minor matches (against New Zealand B and Auckland).
The lack of Test experience didn’t stop him from becoming one of our coaching greats.
As a player, Craig Bellamy managed to win a Premiership, with Canberra in 1990 but never played representative rugby.
A couple of the favourites for the Dally M Coach of the Year to be announced on Tuesday are Souths’ Michael Maguire (just 11 matches as a player with the Raiders and another six with the defunct Adelaide Rams) and the Roosters’ Trent Robinson, who played a grand total of four NRL games for Wests Tigers and Parramatta before a stint with Toulouse Olympique in France.
So what does it take to excel as both a player and a coach? It’s back to that piece of string again!
I am indebted to Australia’s great stats guru David Middleton, who revealed that only five individuals have captained a club to Premiership success and gone on to achieve the same triumph as a non-playing coach.
Of course, in the past there were many more who were player-coaches. But life was much simpler then. The last coach who actually played was Bob Fulton, in 1979. He was the last, because there never will be another who pulls on the boots at the senior level.
Next Sunday Geoff Toovey will attempt to become the first former captain to guide a club to Premiership success as coach since Fulton was at the helm on the same club, Manly, in 1996.
If Toovey can do it, he will be in illustrious company.
- Charles ‘Boxer’ Russell was captain of Newtown when the Bluebags won the title in 1910. It was first past the post in that year, so when they managed a draw against second-placed South Sydney the Bluebags won the Premiership. Russell, a fine centre, played three Tests while touring Britain with the Kangaroos in 1911-12. He had switched codes after winning a gold medal for rugby at the 1908 London Olympics. He went on to steer Newtown to the club’s second Premiership in 1933.
- Bill Kelly, a fine New Zealand centre who switched nations and played a Test against the touring 1914 British Lions, was a captain of Balmain during the 1915 season when they were unbeaten and won the title under the first past the post system. He was later non-playing coach of the Balmain side that beat South Sydney 33-4 in the Premiership final.
- Arthur ‘Pony’ Halloway, one of the greatest halfbacks of all time. As a player he led Balmain to four Premierships between 1916 and 1920 (he had also been a member of the side that won in 1915 and had two previous Premierships with Eastern Suburbs). He also visited Britain twice with Kangaroo sides (1908-09 and 1911-12). As a coach he won four titles with Easts (1935-37 and 1945).
- The versatile Jimmy Craig, who was skipper of Western Suburbs when they beat St George 27-2 in the 1930 Grand Final (after being beaten in the final, but having the right to challenge because the Magpies had been Minor Premiers). Craig also steered Canterbury to the Berries’ first Premiership, in 1938.
- Fulton was captain when Manly Sea Eagles won the title in 1976. After he hung up his boots he was back at the helm as coach in their 1987 and 1996 successes.
There was panic among fans when Des Hasler quit as coach after the Sea Eagles won the Grand Final two years ago and he defected to Canterbury.
They should not have worried. Toovey was a perfect replacement.
He had been captain when Manly won in 1996. Toovey played 13 Tests for Australia in an era in which his competition for the scrum-half role included Newcastle’s Andrew Johns and Brisbane’s Allan Langer.
Tiny in stature, but large in heart, Toovey always has had an incredible will to win, no matter at what level.
It would not surprise me to see his players replicate that spirit next Sunday.