Opinion: Is there a lack of rugby league talent, or just poor coaching?

I was watching Fox League and their panel of “experts” were discussing why Parramatta don’t have the roster to win the competition (their opinion, not mine). This got me thinking. If Parra don’t have a squad to win the title, what chance do the teams below them have, given Parra currently sit in FOURTH PLACE? The panel went further and agreed that if you want a real shot of premiership glory, you need a halfback like Nathan Cleary or Jarome Hughes.

We know that to build a team that competes with the best, you need a good spine. Obviously you need the talent and skill in all positions, but without a good spine and in particular a good halfback/general, it’s like having a car with no steering wheel.

In recent years many of the games greats have retired that filled some of these positions. Thurston, Cronk, Slater, Inglis, for our Wests Tigers it was Robbie Farah, and most recently Cameron Smith. All superstars.

The fullback stocks in 2021 have never been better. There are at least ten fullbacks that wouldn’t look out of place in a premiership winning team.

Other than Nathan Cleary, Jerome Hughes, and to a lesser degree premiership winners Adam Reynolds and maybe Daly Cherry-Evans, the top quality halfback stocks are thin.

Listen to our interview with Adam Doueihi on the WestsLife podcast now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podbean.

The hooking stocks are even thinner in this author’s opinion. There is no standout hooker though there are some that have improved considerably. Most notably, the recently injured Reed Mahoney.

So the question beckons, why are there so few quality halfbacks and hookers or is this a blight on most coaches?

This can’t be said of the Melbourne Storm and of their spine. Over time, they’ve lost three of the greats in Slater, Cronk & Smith. The transition into the new era has barely been noticed and this Storm team and in fact may go down as the best ever Melbourne team should they take the title without another loss. A statement that would’ve been laughed at with the absence of the three greats I’ve mentioned. Papenhuyzen, Hynes, Hughes, Grant weren’t on the map three years ago and the new Smith had been biding his time for a while. Every player that enters the Storm system becomes a better player. The same could probably be said of the Sydney Roosters, but you couldn’t say that about many other clubs.

As a Wests Tigers fan, I’m not a fan of Ivan Cleary, mainly for the mess he left our club in. Though I am glad he righted a couple of wrongs in bringing back club legends Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.

I digress. Admitedly, Cleary has done a fantastic job with the young Panthers team. The Penrith pathways were starting to bear fruit as he was returning, but it still takes good coaching to get such a young team to gel the way they have. Api Korisau was a key purchase and his Penrith form, particularly in 2020, was levels better than anything he’d shown in his time at Manly.

So Bellamy, Robinson and Cleary all seem to make their players better in their own unique ways.

Go to the bottom of the ladder and one questions the skills of Trent Barrett and Kevin Walters. Granted it’s their first year at their respective clubs.

There were always doubts about one of the Broncos favourite son’s in Walters prior to his arrival. He inherited a rabble from Seibold. Other than the improvement in Tyson Gamble, I don’t see any improvement in their players except for Payne Haas who would excel anywhere and has always been a shining light since he burst onto the scene.

Barrett has been a head coach at Manly previously and that quickly turned into a rabble. He had the Trbojovic brothers, Cherry Evans, a starting front row of Fonau-Blake, Korisau and Tapau. Solid back rowers in Joel Thompson and Curtis Sironen. No excuses. He failed. Hasler has a similar squad to what Barrett had. They’re flying. In Barrett’s time at Canterbury this year, the club has gone backwards. The Bulldogs were better under Dean Pay and last year’s roster was slightly worse than this one. Given his failure at Manly, will he succeed next year with all their purchases? They will improve and have some good moments but without a genuine halfback to allow the running game of Matt Burton to flourish, they won’t be as successful as some will expect.

Back to Parra. They have the team in my opinion to win a competition. Great forwards and forward depth. Good halves. And enough quality in the backs with the likes of Gutherson, Sivo, Blake and Ferguson. So what’s their problem? In my opinion, it’s their style against the better teams in the competition. They’re too conservative. They don’t offer much in the redzone and wait until a last tackle Moses kick. Parra are blessed with talented hard running forwards. All of whom have a great offload. They have the ability to play great footy, but only seem to do so against the lesser likes. Whilst coach Arthur has done a good job with them, he needs to release the shackles. I’d love to see more second phase football from them. If they don’t do that and chance their hand, in my opinion they won’t take the next step.

So what do other struggling clubs like my beloved Tigers and others do if there are only a handful of halfbacks or less capable of winning a title? These key playmakers will always be first priority to re-sign at their respective clubs. The answer is we need coaches to do a lot more work in developing players and spending less time being man managers.

I often see on TV or read in an article “we need to find a centre that understands defence” or “we need to find a general to direct us around the park”. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better if a coach taught that centre how to defend and position himself in defence better instead of buying a player? Or developing your halfback to guide your team around the park (like Sam Walker is being taught at the Roosters by his coach)?

It’s the coaches duty to teach players to become better. In fact it’s their duty. Today’s players have never been better athletically.

Buying a plethora of established talent to get success and then saying “oh what a great coach he is” isn’t great coaching. Yes, some recruitment is essential but please don’t make excuses like some journalists are saying Coach X hasn’t got the players. If a coach is a genuine coach, players will improve under his tutelage. If the players don’t, occasionally it’ll mean that player isn’t a first grader but mostly it’ll say that the coach can’t coach.

There’s plenty of conjecture that Michael Maguire isn’t getting improvement from his playing squad. However, I believe there are notable improvements to several of the Tigers squad. Daine Laurie, Luciano Leilua, Stefano Utoikamanu, Shawn Blore, Joe Ofahengaue, Jacob Liddle and Thomas Mikaele, have all improved. He’s also blooded other youngsters in first grade despite lower grade games being postponed and subsequently called off. It’s been somewhat forgotten how hard it is for young players to improve without any form of game time. The verdict on whether Maguire is the right man for the Tigers should be left for the end of 2022, as this will be a season where the Tigers are devoid of most of their salary cap problems. The first time in many years.

One thing I know for sure. If the Wests Tigers were sitting in fourth position like Parramatta are right now, there’d be no calls for his removal as coach like Brad Arthur is currently receiving.

Rugby League can be a cruel and fickle sport.

Published by Rob Bechara

Rob is a longtime passionate Wests Tigers fan who's become synonymous with his no holding back approach when he co-hosts on the WestsLife Podcast.

One thought on “Opinion: Is there a lack of rugby league talent, or just poor coaching?

  1. It’s not just one silver bullet .. Head Coaching done well mixes the inputs of assistants ie. ‘D’ and ‘A’ roles; RL ‘intelligence’ ie. game awareness etc
    Madge’s coaching doesn’t evidence your assertion: “I’d love to see more second phase football from them. If they don’t do that and chance their hand, in my opinion they won’t take the next step.”
    Arthur and Madge in varying degrees are ‘formula’ coaching and that’s best evidenced by us (Tigers) regularly not having anyone “backing up breaks” viz. not even having a dummy half for Hoff’ recently.
    Farah, Benji, Scott Prince we’re always in the current ‘play’ – with eyes up footy foremost in their minds – not necessarily looking to next predetermined structural play…AD is starting to play outside the square whereas Brooks seems very comfortable (and thus predictable) going through the play ‘step-by-step’ – and that is the fault of over-coaching.


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