14 May 2020

Hemmings Way: My Famous Five Coaches

Hello again – this week some good news at last! From June 1st the Government will be looking at possible relaxation of the lockdown in terms of cultural and sporting events that can be celebrated and played behind closed doors - with a view to them being televised. There is then a small light at the end of the tunnel.

But I would caution against any mass hysteria that Super League, or any sport for that matter that involves close contact, will be back on our screens any time soon. There are great hurdles to be jumped and several hoops to be gone through before that happens. The procedures for testing people for Coronavirus for a start are mind bogglingly complex – so have patience… let’s wait and see.

Delays like that – and the uncertainty about a restart date - must be a nightmare for everyone but particularly for the coaches in Super League and the managers in Football to overcome. It led me to wonder about their role – not just in this period of crisis, but more generally when things eventually get back to normal.

There are some pundits who believe the role of a coach is irrelevant – it’s players that win matches not coaches. You’ll all have your own opinions about that.

In the next couple of weeks, on the Super League YouTube channel, Catalans coach Steve McNamara and Castleford’s Daryl Powell, are going to be seen giving a presentation in front of the camera, as if they were talking to their teams about a particular aspect of the game. It should be fascinating to watch.

Of course during my 30 years with Sky Sports covering Rugby League I came into contact with all the leading coaches in the game. Generally – with just a couple of minor irritations – they were absolutely brilliant. I’d ring them up on pre-game day and they would share their team news with me and would trust me with any last-minute injury secrets. I felt very privileged and felt I was part of the inner sanctum. I shared confidences with them – confidences I would never break.

I sincerely believe though that each of them knew – that when they signed on the dotted line and accepted their job – they were probably signing up for the sack at some stage later down the line. They say a coach’s life span is roughly six or seven years – men like Wayne Bennett and Tim Sheens belie that statistic but generally I think it’s about right.

So who are the top five coaches who most impressed me over the years? Five? There are dozens who did! But for the purposes of this exercise I have to stick with just five – so and, in no particular order (as they say on the X Factor) here we go:

Going right back to the start of Super League in 1996 I think we have to give credit to Shaun McRae for the way he woke up the sleeping giant that was St Helens back in the day. The League and Cup Double in the inaugural season is testimony to that. He’s also one of the great characters of the game – and a joy to be with. So he certainly gets a vote.

Hot on the heels of Shaun is Brian Noble - three titles with Bradford Bulls in 2001, 2003 and 2005 is a great personal record. Add to those the Challenge Cup for the ‘Double’ in 2003, and three World Club Challenge wins – no wonder he won the International Coach of the Year award in 2004. He also helped Wigan retain their Super League status as I remember when all seemed lost… and he didn’t do a bad job with Great Britain either.

When you talk about Wigan of course you can’t help but have admiration for Shaun Wane. He followed Michael Maguire into the hot seat at the DW Stadium and maintained, and developed still further, their winning habit. The ‘Double’ in 2013 and two further titles in 2016 and 2018 – which was his grand finale at Wigan. A brilliant man manager respected by his players in whom he had great faith. How delighted are we all that Shaun’s Bulldog Spirit will be evident now with England as our National head coach?

I am also full of admiration for Brian McDermott – back in the game with Toronto just now after an ignominious departure from Headingley. What he did at Leeds Rhinos is truly remarkable. Four titles – half the number that Leeds have won in the Super League era – and two of them when he somehow galvanised his team to make it to Old Trafford and win the Grand Final from a fifth placed finish!  Unbelievable - but such was the fighting spirit he instilled in his men the Rhinos never knew what defeat was. Throw in a couple of Challenge Cups and the World Club challenge win in 2012 – “Big Mac” has a record second to none.

I think honourable mentions should also go at this point to Daniel Anderson for his treble year with Saints in 2006; Trent Robinson for the outstanding job he did with the Catalans Dragons and look what he has continued with the Roosters in Australia; Chris Chester who has a very good record on one of the smallest budgets in the game at Wakefield; and how about Ian Watson and his achievement at Salford? Who dared predict at the start of 2019 that the Red Devils would make it to their first Grand final? Talk about miracles!

But now to my fifth top five memorable man – Daryl Powell at Castleford. What a sensational job he has done. Remember when he walked through the doors at The Jungle Castleford looked dead and buried. He has transformed the club with some outstanding signings and deft recruitment in Ryan Sheridan and Danny Orr behind him. 2017 and their run to the Grand Final and that Luke Gale Golden Point victory over St Helens in the semi-final – for Tigers’ fans memories are made of this!

So there you have it my Famous Five – and a few others well worth their honourable mentions too.

See you next week – stay safe.