Almanac Rugby League – Who Wants To Be A Coach?

It’s been a tough year to be a Penrith Panthers fan in the National Rugby League. It must have been so much tougher if you were the actual coach.

2014 ended with the promise of so much hope following a season that took us to a Preliminary Final, 2015 was supposed to be another year of a top 4 finish and a genuine shot at the title. It was in the stars, we won in 1991, 12 years later in 2003 and now 12 years on again it was supposed to be our year.

Instead the season came down to a final round showdown against Newcastle for the wooden spoon.

A record 32 players ran out for the Panthers this year. Ten different halves pairings. All because of an injury toll which no coach could overcome. These injuries weren’t a reflection of the training and conditioning of the players. Every NRL club takes into consideration the soft tissue injuries which mount during the course of a long season. Penrith players were going down with broken bones, dislocated joints and most distressing of all was Dallin Watene Zelezniak’s collapsed lungs.

But the coaching staff was splintering. As early as May it was rumoured assistant coach Trent Barrett was going to be appointed as the head coach of Manly next year. Rumours which turned out to be true.

Barrett was “suspended” not long after, until he had made a decision on his future. He never returned. It was suggested his working relationship with Jamie Soward, Matt Moylan, James Segeyaro and Peter Wallace was strong and these high profile players were none too happy with how their specialist playmaking coach had been treated.

But whose decision was it to sack Barrett mid season, head coach Ivan Cleary or Football Operations Manager and Channel 9 commentator Phil Gould? The answer differs depending on who you talk to, but officially it was the head coach’s call.

Another sub-plot is the constant rumour Cleary’s former club, New Zealand Warriors, were trying to entice him back at the expense of their current coach Andrew McFadden. This forced Gould to make statements on his Twitter account suggesting Ivan wasn’t going anywhere and re-committing to his statements that he regarded Ivan Cleary as one of the premier coaches in the game.

So why then was Cleary summarily dismissed on Monday afternoon? According to the press release from Panthers it was the opinion of Phil Gould that the coach has looked “tired and worn out.”

Really? I mean seriously, has the state of industrial relations gotten to the point where the grounds for terminating an employment contract now accepts such a spurious opinion of the employer.

I invite Phil Gould to come down to Penrith railway station on any workday morning to watch the thousands of people begin their commute into the CBD, or North Sydney, Chatswood, Parramatta, Olympic Park and try to find one who doesn’t look “tired and worn out.” Actually get on the train and find the commuters from the Blue Mountains with their inflatable neck cushions trying to grab just that little bit of extra sleep before reaching their destinations.

These same people are your club members, Phil. If anything, they would be very sympathetic to the fate you have hit Ivan Cleary with.

In following statements in the press Gould has said words to the effect that he spoke with Cleary during the season with his concern that the coach was getting worn out and becoming obsessed with the job. Something Cleary denied and said he wanted to continue with the job.

When I read those words I was shocked. The first thing that came to my mind was the interviews the late Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh gave in the months prior to his murder. Walsh admitted his intensity in the various roles he had coaching over the years had come at the cost of his relationships within his own family.

Was Phil Gould suggesting Ivan Cleary was somehow neglecting his role as a father and husband to his family? If Gould is right in coming to that opinion, what steps did he take as the employer to help Cleary find a healthy balance between his work and family life?

One thing is certain, sacking the man surely isn’t the best solution if you’re genuinely concerned for his welfare. Cleary has been left stunned and shocked at the manner he was dismissed on Monday. It has been reported Phil Gould presented his season review to the Panthers Board of Directors last week with the recommendation of removing the head coach. When Cleary arrived at Pepper Stadium to meet with Gould, his fate was already sealed.

So where to now? Former Brisbane coach Anthony Griffen is expected to be named the replacement on Wednesday morning.

I’m assured by better judges than me Griffen is a good coach. But is he as good or better than Cleary? Universally the answer is no.

Griffen became coach of the Broncos after another Ivan. Ivan Henjak was the man with the unenviable task of replacing the only coach the club had in it’s first 21 years, Wayne Bennett. Henjak was sacked mid season in 2011. Griffen got the Broncos to the semi’s in his first full season in charge, but they missed out in 2013 and 14.

His 2014 was an endurance which was replicated by Geoff Toovey at Manly this year. It was the worst kept secret he would be replaced for 2015 by the returning Wayne Bennett, then at Newcastle.

At no stage during the season did he use that destabilisation as a crux for the lack of on field results that year. He maintained a sense a dignity and style which can only be applauded.

But the question needs to be asked, would you accept an employment contract with an employer who just summarily sacked someone for the most spurious of reasons? Ivan Cleary isn’t unemployed today because of incompetence, misconduct or any other measure by which you might reasonably find yourself being told to collect your personal effects and am escorted off the premises.

Good luck to whomever takes the job. You’ll need it.

About Wayne Ball

Tragic fan of the Australian and NSW cricket teams (for those of you outside NSW, there is a difference, despite what David Hookes said). Not a fan of T20. Penrith Panthers are the only club of decency and all which is good in Rugby League, the Waratah's were once the national team of Rugby Union, the first non Victorian team in the VFL/AFL is the Sydney Swans, and they all enjoy my passionate support. Sings for Wanderers. Internationally, I have been to see the Oakland Athletics and Green Bay Packers play. One day, I'll see Norwich City play for the FA Cup at Wembley.

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