Our coach of the year Craig Bellamy gave Melbourne a year to remember in 2012.
Photo: Getty Images
The best performed coaches are not simply those whose teams win the most matches. We have looked at what each NRL coach has achieved in 2012 with the players at his disposal, in the broader context of his club.
Neil Henry has not made our list because the Cowboys should have finished higher given their talent. Michael Maguire missed out because his gifted Rabbitohs did not beat a top-eight team after round nine. Wayne Bennett is the most celebrated coach in the game but did not shine in 2012. These are the six coaches who did:6. Ivan Cleary
What? This is a gee-up, right? The coach of the team that finished one place above last is supposed to have put in the sixth-best coaching performance of 2012? Is this madness?
Well – it was certainly a rough year for the Panthers, going 8-16 and attracting bad headlines. But we liked Cleary’s efforts. He wants the Panthers to go to the top. He doesn’t want to settle for mid-table mediocrity. That meant making hard decisions, shaking the joint up, and asserting his authority. That is exactly what he did when he dumped his highest-paid player, Michael Jennings, back to NSW Cup. It is what was happening when he took the captaincy off Luke Lewis, and when he refused to be bossed around by fullback Michael Gordon.
It was the message he sent by blooding seven debutants, more rookies than any other club. He brought out Tim Grant’s leadership, he unearthed Lachlan Coote’s potential as a five-eighth and he got valuable game time into youngsters like Josh Mansour and Travis Robinson. He also managed the relationship with new club football supremo Gus Gould without public rancour – and who knows how complicated that might have been. No coach wants to finish second-last, but we were impressed by Cleary’s strength in 2012 and hope his vision pays off in forthcoming seasons.
5. David Furner
It was a remarkable season for the Canberra coach. For the first two-thirds of it he was bashed by pundits who thought he should be sacked. Indeed, there were several occasions when it was whispered that Furner would be axed if the Raiders lost their next game – but they won each time.
Furner did not lose faith and rallied his team to win the last five matches of the regular season, earning a home final, and then winning it before bowing out in week two of the playoffs.
The nadir was in round 13 when they slumped to second-last after a horrible home thumping by the Tigers, 40-0. The following week they won against Newcastle, lost to the Cowboys to have Furner on skid row again, then rebounded with quality wins over the Dragons and Storm.
With captain Terry Campese playing only seven games, Furner had to rely on Sam Williams to run the show in league with the improved Josh McCrone. Shaun Fensom, Sandor Earl, Josh Papli and Reece Robinson all reached new heights. The difficulty for Furner is that the bar has now been set higher, and it will be intriguing to see whether he earns the respect or wrath of fickle Raiders fans next year.4. Des Hasler
There was plenty of talk this year about Dessie becoming the new coaching messiah. He did well, but he had some outstanding players at his disposal.
We predicted pre-season that James Graham would be the recruit of the year – and we were right. Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett turned up mid-season to provide skill out wide. The pack, which included Sam Kasiano, Aiden Tolman, Frank Pritchard, Greg Eastwood, skipper Michael Ennis and Graham is outrageously talented. Hasler exploited this unique collection of ball-playing forwards by giving them license to make the play where they saw fit, in support of boom youngster Josh Reynolds at pivot. His other trump was Dally M medallist Ben Barba at fullback.
The Bulldogs ultimately won 20 games and lost seven, including the one that mattered most. That is above a pass mark and should please the Belmore nabobs, but with the team he had it is about what could have been expected of Hasler, and we mark him down slightly for failing to change the course of the grand final. Bonus points for the mid-year haircut, though.3. Shane Flanagan
The Sharks finished 2012 with 12 wins, 12 losses and a draw. However, they were robbed in round one, were very unlucky in the round 18 draw, were equally unlucky in the one point loss to Penrith in round 21 and went within a minute of beating the eventual premiers in round 25. If those results had gone Cronulla’s way, it could have been a different season. We loved Flanagan’s no-nonsense approach. Yes, he had the inspirational Paul Gallen (albeit for only 16 of their 25 matches) and picked up Todd Carney, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and Ben Ross pre-season, but overall the Sharks had the shallowest talent pool of any of the teams which made the eight.
Flanagan turned Jeff Robson into a good organising halfback, took Jeremy Smith to a new level, and shifted Wade Graham to the backrow which resulted in a form turnaround. He made Gibbs and Fifita want to rip and tear, and kept Carney on the straight and narrow. He got all he could from a no-name backline that offered precious little strike-power (no player managed to score 10 or more tries) and has plenty to build on in 2013.
2. Geoff Toovey
Comb through the headlines between the end of the 2011 season and the start of 2012 and it would be hard to find anything positive being said about Manly. The reigning premiers were imploding. The coach had gone and he was going to fillet the playing roster. The best players were on contracts so badly back-ended that many would need to be offloaded. The club was riven at board level. It was going to be a disastrous season.
Rookie coach Toovey took on one of the hardest tasks in sport – succeeding a premiership-winning coach. He got his team into the penultimate match of the season and coached extremely well. His carping at referees became repetitious, but he sent a clear message: we are a club under siege, and we will fight for every advantage.
Overcoming the premiership hangover was beyond the Sea Eagles, ultimately, but they didn’t give any opponent an easy game. After round 12 their only losses were to the Knights and the eventual grand finalists. Tooves did himself and his club proud.1. Craig Bellamy
The Melbourne Storm mentor enhanced his standing as the most valuable coach in the sport. His feat in keeping Storm near the top of the tree for a prolonged period is made more remarkable by the turmoil that has surrounded the club in recent years. Yes, he has at his disposal one of the most potent trifectas of playmakers the game has seen.
However, because the Big Three take up so much salary cap space, Bellamy has to get the absolute maximum from other players on smaller money. At the end of each year the Storm lose players who have become excellent under Bellamy’s tutelage. Rarely do they reach such heights at their next club.
After bombing out of the finals in 2011, Bellamy had his side firing at the start of 2012 and they quickly went to the top of the table. Then, five straight losses including a defeat by the Eels had some pundits wondering if Storm would even make the finals. They did, and produced three excellent finals matches, highlighted by the daredevil up-and-in defensive game plan that sealed the grand final win.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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