Limited top-line NRL coaches: Where are the pathways to develop Bennett, Bellamy and Cleary’s replacements?


With the news that Wayne Bennett will undertake another rescue mission at South Sydney, the value of a top line NRL coach with experience and the acumen to deliver premierships is again enunciated.

With Jason Demetriou overseeing a worsening scenario at the Bunnies and despite all his popularity and goodwill, the club decided to go to the well one more time with an old master, that, based on the Dolphins’ first two seasons, has lost little of his know-how.

There was no desire to go for a rookie coach or a moderately successful one. For South Sydney, it was a simple case of get Wayne and then enjoy the comfort of knowing exactly what they were paying for.

Whilst pathways is an oft used word in the playing ranks and coaches do indeed work their way through the levels, it appears that the modern NRL throws the youngsters into the deep end and a sink or swim situation plays out.

Subsequently, just a handful appear to be consistently above water.

The continuing long periods of success enjoyed by Ivan Cleary’s Panthers and Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne Storm, along with the quality that Bennett will bring to the Bunnies during his second stint at the club, reinforces a fact that those three coaches stand head and shoulders above their peers.

It is easy to appreciate their million-dollar value on the open market, especially considering that coach’s in the modern era appear far less expendable and replaceable than ever before.

The Storm are a perfect example of that fact, with names like Cronk, Slater, Inglis, Finucane and Smith having come and gone, before the expert pathways created by Bellamy saw new men enter the fray and effectively replace players that other clubs would almost certainly struggle to manage.

He is an undoubted coaching genius, yet within the NRL system of development, a existing pathway that locates and grooms a coach capable of stepping in and taking over Bellamy’s post once he does call time on his career does not appear to exist.

Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy before the 2006 NRL Grand Final. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Of course, There are some promising young coaches in the ranks. Craig Fitzgibbon has his Sharks on the fringes of serious contention, despite the odd stumble that does have many querying whether the team might be an excellent over-achiever and a little off the pace of the elite.

Canterbury’s Cameron Ciraldo may not have the wins on the board just yet, however his skills appear to be building something promising at the kennel and time will be the final judge on exactly how successful he will become.

While Andrew Webster looks arguably the best of the young three, based on what he achieved with the enigmatic Warriors in 2023.

Complete judgement is also still pending on North Queensland’s Todd Payten – his competence now begs for an ability to raise his troops to the elite level that others have managed to achieve more consistently.

Kevin Walters, after a rocky start, is certainly delivering on the hopes he laid out to the Broncos’ suits, like Payten, whether he has what it takes to step into the coaching elite is an interesting watch.

And then there is the older crew, proven coaches with premierships in their locker yet distanced from the three modern greats, thanks to poor seasons interspersed with better ones. Canberra’s Ricky Stuart and Des Hasler have been around the garden path plenty of times.

Both good on their day and in the right circumstances, at the right time, capable of coaching well. Yet far too many poor seasons make them more like good second options outside of the top three. Something the Titans saw in their pursuit of Hasler.

Des Hasler is another adding plenty of years to the average age of NRL coaches. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Brad Arthur was much the same, yet unable to put the polish on a Parramatta team that begged for only a marginal percentage increase and Shane Flanagan achieved impressively with the Sharks, but sadly in a 2016 premiership win that will always have an asterisk attached to it for many NRL fans.

In short, if you were sitting in a board room and discussing the acquisition of a new coach, three names would feature clearly at the top of your list.

While there occasionally might be an enthusiasm or necessity to invest in a young, unproven man like Benji Marshall or a serial failure like Trent Barrett, such moves reek of desperation and not decent planning.

Trent Robinson is probably in the conversion to be included as the fourth member of a most wanted coach list, yet unlike the playing stocks, there simply does seem to be any other clear challenges to the best in the business at this stage.

The pathways to elite coaching do not appear to be throwing up new men skilled enough to face the Bennett’s, Cleary’s and Bellamy’s of the NRL and subsequently dismantle their teams on the field.

Perhaps a Ciraldo, Webster or Marshall might eventually do so. Yet for now, the top coaches in the NRL age like fine wines, with Cleary the youngest of the three at 53.

One might have thought that at age 64 and 74 respectively, Bellamy and Bennett would have been surpassed by the next generation. But still they remain on top and perhaps that will be their greatest achievement.

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