Being a coach in the NRL has to be one of the most precarious and high-pressured jobs in the sporting world. Each and every year those that are struggling are closely scrutinised as they do everything within their power to lift clubs out of slumps and into finals contention. Each year several are shown the door as fans and sponsors become increasingly frustrated by losing records.
New coaches are afforded a honeymoon period, primarily because they are usually taking over at a club that has been struggling. It is accepted that they will need time to put their own stamp on the team they have inherited, deal with systems and players the previous coach has put in place and lift the morale of all involved.
The 2021 NRL season sees five coaches starting their tenures at the head of new clubs. All have varying degrees of previous experience and all will be working flat out to make a success of their new roles. We take a look at the five familiar looking new guys.
Brisbane Broncos - Kevin Walters
Age: 53 Previous senior coaching: Catalan Dragons - 2009-10, Queensland Origin - 2016-20
Walters is a Brisbane Broncos legend, having played at the club during its glory days in the 1990s. He has also had two stints as assistant coach there under Wayne Bennett, as well as his run as coach of Queensland.
The Broncos collected their first ever wooden spoon last season, so things couldn't really get any worse under Walters. It is expected that he'll look to restore pride in the jersey with tales of the glory days, in much the same way Origin players are convinced to run through walls for the Maroons jersey. He will have to be truly inspirational as the Broncos have lost some talent in the off season, after being simply awful last year.
New Zealand Warriors - Nathan Brown
Age: 47 Previous senior coaching: St George Illawarra Dragons 2003-08, Huddersfield Giants 2009-12, St Helens 2013-14, Newcastle Knights 2016-19
When Brown took on his first coaching role with the Dragons, he was just 29 and had not long hung up his playing boots. A lot of the criticism of his time at the club was based on his closeness to the players who had recently been his teammates. He enjoyed much more success in the English Super League in charge of Huddersfield and then St Helens. His second stint as head coach in the NRL came with the Newcastle Knights, where he collected back-to-back wooden spoons in his first two seasons. His winning percentage barely improved and he was shown the door two years later.
He takes on the onerous task of steering the Warriors through another uncertain season, with players likely stranded in Australia again, at least for the early part of the season. The Warriors did remarkably well last season, but still managed to sack coach Steve Kearney half way through. This will be a true test of Brown's ability to unite and squeeze the best out of a team which has a long-earned reputation for inconsistent performances.
Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs - Trent Barrett
Age: 43 Previous senior coaching: Country Origin 2012-15, Manly Warringah Sea Eagles 2016-18
Barrett started his club coaching career with Manly and managed to take the team to the finals in his second season. A lot of behind the scenes drama saw him replaced by club favourite Des Hasler, while still having a year left on his contract. He headed to Penrith to be the attacking coach under Ivan Cleary and took a lot of credit for the club's rise to the 2020 Grand Final.
Barrett returns to the top job at the Bulldogs where he has already overseen a raft of roster changes. He has a lot of work to do if he is going to turn around a Bulldogs attack which in recent years has been beyond woeful. He has new weapons in half Kyle Flanagan, centre Nick Cotric and fullback Corey Allan at his disposal this year with Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr on their way in 2022. Bulldogs fans expect success from their club and have been starved of it for far too long. Barrett needs a good start to maintain their support.
North Queenland Cowboys - Todd Payten
Age: 42 Previous senior coaching: Interim coach New Zealand Warriors 2020
After retiring from a lengthy playing career Payten enjoyed successful junior coaching roles with the Tigers, New South Wales and Cowboys. He was also assistant coach at the Cowboys, Tigers and Warriors before being handed the reigns with the Kiwi club after coach Steven Kearney was sacked mid-season. The Warriors seemed to respond to his leadership under difficult circumstances and he was offered a contract, but declined, having already been in contact with the Cowboys.
He takes over a North Queensland side which has yet to recover from the loss of Johnathan Thurston at the end of 2018. Payten will need to squeeze the best out of experienced players like Michael Morgan and Valentine Holmes while finding the fresh talent needed to carry the club forward. It will be a tough task, but no tougher than guiding the Warriors around last season when they were homeless and struggling to find motivation.
St George Illawarra Dragons - Anthony Griffin
Age: 54 Previous senior coaching: Brisbane Broncos 2011-14, Penrith Panthers 2016-18
Griffin started his coaching career in the Queensland Cup, with a stint as assistant coach at Melbourne Storm thrown in for good measure. After two successful seasons with the Broncos Toyota Cup team, he was named Ivan Henjak's assistant for a year before taking the top job from him in 2011. In his first year he took Brisbane to within one win of a grand final, losing to eventual premiers Manly in the Preliminary Final. They limped into the finals two of the next three seasons and in 2014 it was announced that Wayne Bennet would be returning to coach the club.
Griffin took over the Panthers in 2016 and led them to finals appearances in his first two seasons, earning a contract extension which was ended mysteriously as he was headed towards another finals appearance in 2018. It was revealed that club boss Phil Gould had butted heads with Griffin over many coaching decisions and in the end Gould's ego won out.
The Dragons in recent years have been among the NRL's biggest underachievers. They have suffered from the burden of a huge Ben Hunt contract that has failed to deliver value for money. They have lost two heart and soul players this season with Tyson Frizell going to the Knights and Cameron McInnes injuring his knee on his way to the Sharks next season. Griffin has a monumental task ahead of him at the proud club, but sackings aside, he has a fairly successful coaching record behind him.