The NRL coach's report card: craft and corruption, via Paul Kent.
The NRL coach's report card: craft and corruption, via Paul Kent.

Kent: NRL brains turning season on its head

FORM and momentum are about to take their annual holiday.

State of Origin teams are picked this weekend, an annual anomaly which always has the sure result of corrupting the competition for the next seven to eight weeks.

As they say in the comics, you can't win the premiership through here, but you can certainly lose it.

This season has a whole new storyline, though.

The unlikely fallout of last season's coaching carnage has freshened the NRL with new life. Already 2019 has had more plot twists than Game of Thrones, season four, the one where Joffrey fails to see it through the Purple Wedding.

 

It starts out simply enough, with the NRL's top three teams being the same three teams that ended at the top of the competition last year.

At Souths, Melbourne and the Roosters, the only significant change is South Sydney's new coach, Wayne Bennett.

From there, though, it gets interesting.

The unlikely Canberra Raiders, 10th last year, sit fourth on the ladder and in a very unRaider-like way.

Ricky Stuart's English-led revival has shocked many. Consistently the NRL's most potent attacking team in recent seasons, the Raiders resumed this season with what is currently the NRL's second best defence.

Has Raiders coach Ricky Stuart finally hit on the right mix? Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt
Has Raiders coach Ricky Stuart finally hit on the right mix? Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Manly has gone through something of their own purple wedding of late.

The Sea Eagles finished 15th last season and lost a coach, Trent Barrett, who resigned because he couldn't accept the substandard conditions at the club anymore. He had to bring in own garden chairs, for one.

Still, it made no sense at all that the under-furnished Sea Eagles employed the one coach in the game who liked his extravagant toys more than any other, the one who actually left the club for Canterbury because the Bulldogs opened an Alladin's cave of gadgets and sports science.

Yet it was not only Des Hasler that returned to Manly. The steel returned, too.

Des Hasler has brought the Sea Eagles together. Image: John Grainger
Des Hasler has brought the Sea Eagles together. Image: John Grainger

Hasler has had Tom Trbojevic, a genuine matchwinner, available for just two games.

At various points through the first 10 rounds he has been without Addin Fonua-Blake (six games), Jorge Taufua (eight games), Trent Hodkinson (one game) and Dylan Walker, his one game coming last Sunday.

Three weeks back he lost Daly Cherry-Evans to surgery yet the Sea Eagles hardly faltered, beating Canterbury and Cronulla with a loss to Brisbane sandwiched in the middle. And mid-game injuries cruelled them against the Broncos.

For the past three weeks the Sea Eagles have been led by … Kane Elgey and Lachlan Croker, and yet the Sea Eagles have won six from 10 and now sit equal fourth with Canberra.

Hasler's performance has embarrassed other coaches around the league.

Maguire has given Wests Tigers new direction. Image: Phil Hillyard
Maguire has given Wests Tigers new direction. Image: Phil Hillyard

The most volatile off-season in coaching history saw six clubs with new coaches for round one.

Along with Hasler came Michael Maguire (Wests Tigers), John Morris (Cronulla), Anthony Seibold (Brisbane), Bennett (Souths) and Ivan Cleary (Penith).

Hasler has been the standout, followed closely by Stuart and Michael Maguire.

Maguire was overlooked at Brisbane and knocked back Manly before landing at Concord, as unfashionable as stone-washed jeans.

But he has resurrected his reputation with a couple of other old-timers, Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.

Nathan Brown has to deliver for Newcastle this season. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images
Nathan Brown has to deliver for Newcastle this season. Image: Tony Feder/Getty Images

After six rounds Nathan Brown was fighting for his job. Brown now has the Knights in the top eight and on a roll that has the faithful humming.

John Morris got Cronulla off to a solid start and underlined his coaching credentials with a brave win against Melbourne in round eight while heavily down on numbers. But then the Sharks got mugged by Manly last Sunday, showing there is still a way to go.

From there, though, it becomes a cautionary tale.

It is absurd to think the Titans had an opportunity to sign Maguire and Hasler and passed on both.

Is Garth Brennan a dead man walking? Image: Gold Coast Titans
Is Garth Brennan a dead man walking? Image: Gold Coast Titans

The Titans are the NRL's nicely-nicely franchise. Happy to participate, unwilling to offend.

They appointed rookie Garth Brennan ahead of two established coaches, among others, and when that failed to ignite Mal Meninga was brought in as head of performance and culture.

Such a regal title is a sign of the naivety at the Titans and the death knell for Brennan. As anybody knows, if a coach does not own his club's performance and culture then he must be filling water bottles.

By far the greatest upheaval has taken place at Penrith, where the Panthers went to the bottom of the tawdry well of rugby league politics to force Wests Tigers to release their coach Ivan Cleary because, well, they wanted him more.

Was this really all such a good idea for Penrith? Image: Brett Costello
Was this really all such a good idea for Penrith? Image: Brett Costello

It's a metaphor for how things are getting done at Penrith at the moment. Or not getting done.

Like Penrith, the Cowboys haven't been able to overcome a disrupted off-season, floods and Hurricane Barba knocking them off tilt.

Similarly, St George Illawarra has been unable to overcome the sense of unfairness from within over the suspension of Jack de Belin.

The Bulldogs, like the Titans, are doing their best with a State Cup team and Dean Pay is able to periodically infuse them with energy.

Each club has had their Injuries but there isn't a team in the NRL that hasn't been significantly affected by injury more than another to use it as an excuse.

The trick, as Manly is showing, is do the only thing that matters in the NRL and get the job done anyway.

News Corp Australia


Fires close Cooloola camping grounds on eve of school hols

premium_icon Fires close Cooloola camping grounds on eve of school hols

Popular spots will be out of action for at least two weeks.

Sensational Samsung Galaxy tablet offer

premium_icon Sensational Samsung Galaxy tablet offer

Get a $249 tablet with your 12 month subscription to this website

Anger over sharks’ rights before swimmer safety

premium_icon Anger over sharks’ rights before swimmer safety

State Government fearing for the lives of tourists and swimmers