One coach is on top of the ladder, while the other finds himself at its foot.
- NRL coaches Paul McGregor and Brad Arthur have each had around six years in the job
- But the form of their clubs, the Dragons and the Eels, could not be more different
- Looking back through rugby league history, nobody comes close to the records of Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy
Yet there’s more similarity between the tenures of St George Illawarra coach Paul McGregor and the Eels’ Brad Arthur than you might expect.
Both are the only active coaches in the NRL with six years in their jobs who still boast a negative points differential.
The Eels are in better shape than at any other time during Arthur’s seven-year tenure, having just won five games in a row for their best start to a season since 1986.
The Dragons are doing … less well, opening the season with a four-match losing streak.
Many speculated through the week why McGregor remained employed after the Dragons’ loss to another struggling club, the Bulldogs.
According to a statement issued by Dragons chairman Andrew Gordon, the club “will continue to support Paul, his staff and the team through these tough times”.
Matthew Elliott, former Canberra, Penrith and Warriors coach and ABC Grandstand regular, said the Dragons’ financial situation might have helped McGregor avoid the axe.
“I don’t think they’re in a position to pay him out,” he said.
“I’m making an assumption there but I think that is certainly part of the decision-making process.”
Some reports suggest McGregor would be entitled to receive as much as $1 million if he was let go by the club.
Publicly the Dragons are sticking by their man … for now.
“We are a club that stands by our people when under pressure,” Gordon said.
“This is a time for loyalty, strength and commitment from the players, coach, board and staff to improve.”
When the time is right
So if this is a time for loyalty, when does disloyalty kick in?
If you judge it by past experience, only around a quarter of coaches have made it past their third season in the history of the NRL and NSWRL, and many more are given the boot far sooner than that.
Elliott, who now runs a program called The Change Room that helps people get back to work after serious injuries, said new appointees could typically expect a season-and-a-half to show some results.
But even coaches that start at clubs where expectation is low might only have two or three years to turn it around.
“If you come in and inherit a club like [Canterbury coach] Dean Pay has, he’s not going to be doing anything in a season and a half,” Elliott said.
“That’s a three-year rebuild at least.”
The greatest ever
Rugby league fans today are witnessing the work of the two most successful coaches ever.
Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy are streets ahead of their rivals in a running tally of points for and against for every match coached.
But flipping through the history books reveals some surprises, like coaches who started out slowly but then managed to turn their records around.
Clive Churchill earned the wooden spoon at Canterbury before winning four premierships with Souths.
Brian Smith made four grand finals and coached close to 600 games after winning just a third of matches over three years with the Illawarra Steelers in the 1980s.
And Des Hasler didn’t record a career positive for-and-against until his fourth year at the Sea Eagles.
On Saturday, Canberra coach Ricky Stuart coached his 400th match, though the milestone came as a surprise.
“Craig Bellamy called me [on Tuesday] and actually told me. I wasn’t aware of it,” he said.
“You look back on it and I certainly look at one thing and appreciate the opportunity that Nick Politis and Phil Gould gave to me at the Roosters many many years ago, and fortunately I’ve had a bit of longevity in the game as a coach.
“It’s something I take very personally, and enjoy doing.”
He’s one of just eight coaches to have made it to the 400-game mark, according to records kept by the Rugby League Project.
Stuart credits Gould and Tim Sheens for helping shape the coach he has become.
Elliott believes coaches, in order to succeed in the NRL, need to be granted autonomy by club management over recruitment, development, coaching and staff.
He said Stuart’s longevity is down to his ability to adapt, after hiccups midway through his career.
“I don’t think Ricky would have lasted if he was the guy that had the same approach as he did at Parramatta or Cronulla,” Elliott said.
At the Eels in 2013, Stuart won just five matches.
“The thing that I really admire about Ricky Stuart is that he’s gone away and recognised that, he’s learned and he’s got mentoring in how to improve key areas of his coaching,” Elliott said.
“The good coaches that last a long time continue to learn.”
Paul McGregor’s St George Illawarra Dragons play the Cronulla Sharks at 6:30pm (AEST) on Sunday.