NRL 2021: Coach Of The Year Rankings
We're now two-thirds of the way through the 2021 NRL season.
There is still a lot of footy left, but we have a good idea of what these teams are after 16 rounds. Expectations through to Round 25 and beyond have been reevaluated and reset, too.
We also have a fair idea of which coaches are having a positive impact on their club, and those that aren't.
Everybody has different criteria for their Coach of the Year rankings.
For some, copying the NRL ladder is good enough. For others, and the basis on which the below 16 have been judged, it comes down to how they've performed to personal preseason expectations, whether or not they've had to deal with extenuating circumstances, and what the rest of the season looks like from here, among other things.
16. Ricky Stuart
Current Ladder Position - 13th
The Canberra Raiders have been the most disappointing team in the NRL so far in 2021. Stuart's side kicked off the season at 7.4% to win the premiership and 70% to make the Top 8. Through 16 rounds, they're not relevant in the premiership conversation at 0.1% and barely hanging on to hope of a finals spot at 13.9%.
George Williams departing hasn't helped but Stuart needs to shoulder some of the blame there too. Still, this squad is far too good on paper and has performed far too well in recent years to be languishing at 13th on the ladder.
Reaching the 2019 Grand Final did always have a bit of a 'that is probably their best chance at winning it' feel afterwards. However, this fall from grace has been worse than anybody predicted.
15. Trent Barrett
Current Ladder Position - 16th
Sure, Barrett inherited a poor side that finished 15th in 2020. Expectations were low for this group and 2022 has been the focus for much of the season. But this Bulldogs team is worse now than it was 12 months ago.
Barrett hasn't been able to make a player out of Kyle Flanagan despite the reputation he arrived with to start the season. As the points pile up in the NRL and teams cross the line more than ever, the Bulldogs are scoring just 11.4 points per game - down from 14.1 points per game in 2020.
Defensively, they're barely turning up.
Canterbury's 66-0 thrashing at the hands of Manly in Round 15 looked more like a training run. Even when we consider the overall increase in scoring across the competition this season, for the Bulldogs to concede 31.2 points per game - up from 25.2 in 2020 - is a massive cause for concern moving forward given the high-profile players arriving next season will slot into the backline.
14. Kevin Walters
Current Ladder Position - 15th
Walters didn't need to do a lot for his first season at the Broncos to be considered a success. Pick up a few wins, play well at home, and show some sign of this group working towards becoming a more Broncos-like team.
Instead, he's changed his first-choice 17 more than his undies and won just four of his first 16 games.
Four different halves combinations ran out onto the field in the first eight rounds. Corey Oates, once one of the best wingers in the competition spent his preseason training in the backrow before being installed on the wing for Round 6, dropped six weeks later, then recalled again in Round 16. Anthony Milford's struggles on the field could be attributed to vertigo Walters has moved him in, out, back in and back out of the first-grade side that many times.
While he is ranked 14th now, Walters has landed on a half-decent 17. The team that beat the Sharks in Round 16 is one that can win three or four more games this season if things break right.
13. Michael Maguire
Current Ladder Position - 14th
Maguire's two-year extension signed in December last year marked just the second time in the club's history that Wests Tigers had extended a coach. It was a signal that the embattled club had reached a turning point. They'd bottomed out and the finals drought was soon coming to an end.
Instead, the Stats Insider Futures Model gives the Tigers just a 4.1% chance of ending the drought in 2021. Based on what we've seen so far this season, it won't end in 2022 either.
We've seen an inconsistent attack that rarely produces repeatable actions with the ball and a defence conceding 29.9 points per game. It wasn't meant to be like this for the Tigers this season. While the playing group should shoulder a lot of the blame, Maguire doesn't have an excuse for a team considered better than the 2020 version on paper performing worse.
12. Justin Holbrook
Current Ladder Position - 11th
There is one team that is hyped up to jump from the bottom eight to the Top 8 more than others every year. Almost every year, that team fails to make the jump. The Stats Insider Futures Model has the Titans at just 23.1% to buck the trend and play finals footy in 2021.
Conceding 27.6 points per game is a concern. The Gold Coast have fallen to pieces under pressure too often this season. In the two weeks before they beat the Raiders 44-6, the Titans allowed the Roosters to get out to a 30-4 lead and conceded 48 second-half points to the Sea Eagles. However, a young new-look team can be somewhat forgiven for a less than stellar defence.
The Titans attack, on the other hand, has barely improved all season. It has been one-dimensional and reliant on individual brilliance from the start. David Fifita outbursts and kicks bouncing the right way have papered over the cracks at times. In reality, Holbrook hasn't been able to produce consistent and repeatable actions from this attack, and it's a large reason why they lose control of a game when the opposition gets a roll-on.
While they finished the 2020 season strong, it hasn't rolled into 2021.
11. Nathan Brown
Current Ladder Position - 12th
It's always "our year" across the ditch. While few would claim it as a year the Warriors would win the premiership, a spot in the Top 8 became an expectation for Brown in his first season in charge.
Instead, an 18-year-old has been crowbarred into the side to the detriment of the best fullback the club has ever seen, the team hasn't improved, and the un-Warriors-like features that started to show in 2020 are well and truly gone.
Wayde Egan and Kodi Nikorima - senior players in key playmaking positions entering the prime years of their career - haven't improved. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown earned a contract extension with his form last season but is now out of the side. Bunty Afoa achieved something similar early this season but hasn't played more than 22 minutes in a month.
Important players to the development of this side aren't getting better at the moment.
Nor is the team overall.
10. Todd Payten
Current Ladder Position - 10th
Frustratingly for the Warriors faithful, Payten has started to get more out of the Cowboys playing group as the season wears on.
A rough start to the year saw Payten preachers selling their stocks in the Cowboys coach. His calling out Jason Taumalolo for what was a lazy effort from marker rubbed some people up the wrong way. However, his stern approach to coaching and the accountability he demands from the playing group is becoming present.
The Cowboys lack consistency. Even when playing well, they only do so for 30-50 minutes at a time. It's why they sit just outside the Top 8 at 10th on the NRL ladder, and why Payten is in the same spot here. You can see what Payten is doing, though. He's setting up for success in the not too distant future.
9. Josh Hannay
Current Ladder Position - 8th
The Sharks playing group made it quite clear that they didn't think John Morris should have been sacked after their Round 5 loss to the Roosters. Hannay took over as head-coach of a disillusioned team with a tough draw ahead.
Granted, the Round 7 loss to the Bulldogs should never have happened. Given they entered their Round 16 clash with the Broncos on the back of a four-game winning streak, that loss shouldn't have happened either. Still, the Sharks have gone from a wooden spoon smokey to a Top 8 side in the space of six weeks.
Hannay made the bold call of dropping premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend and installed Shaun Johnson in the #7 jersey. While Matt Moylan hasn't been able to stay fit beside him in the halves, the Sharks have looked a lot better playing with their new-look spine.
Hannay is in the unenviable position of wanting to set the Sharks up for the future while also putting his best foot forward as a future full time head coach. So far, he's doing a relatively good job of ticking both boxes.
8. Adam O'Brien
Current Ladder Position - 9th
The Knights haven't played a lot of good football this season. Embarrassed at times, O'Brien's position has come under some question. The team hasn't improved after finishing 7th on the ladder in 2020. However, in Round 16 against the Cowboys, O'Brien named his first-choice spine for just the third time since taking over as head coach for Round 1 last season.
All things considered, to be 9th on the ladder through 16 rounds and with the second-easiest remaining draw of all 16 teamsis a promising foundation to build on towards September. It's now that O'Brien will be judged. Those questions around his position will return if the Knights don't make the Top 8 from here.
7. Trent Robinson
Current Ladder Position - 6th
Trent Robinson has done an outstanding job in keeping the Roosters in the top six while Brett Morris, Luke Keary, Lindsay Collins, Jake Friend and Boyd Cordner all sit on the sideline. Victor Radley has only played half of the season so far, too.
Robinson has been forced into playing Sam Walker a lot earlier than he would have liked, and even with the youngster playing well and a key part of their attack, he has been cautious and responsible in how much he pushes the 18-year-old. Although, Robinson did send Joseph Suaalii out onto Josh Addo-Carr in Round 16. That ended in disaster while the experienced and reliable Matt Ikuvalu sat on the bench as 18th man.
The Roosters have lost all five of their games against the top four teams this season and done so by an average of 20.2 points. Even with the injuries, you'd expect the Roosters to finish within single digits at least once if not cause an upset.
Robinson is absolutely one of the best three or four coaches in the NRL. But this doesn't feel like his best season.
6. Wayne Bennett
Current Ladder Position - 3rd
Bennett is one of the best coaches to ever do it - make no mistake. However, conceding 50 points twice in the same season isn't his best work.
The Rabbitohs came into the 2021 NRL season as one of the big four favourites to win the premiership at 17.2% alongside the Panthers (17.7%), Roosters (17.2%) and Storm (16.7%). While they still are at 17.6% to lift the Provan-Summons Trophy, there is little doubt that the Bunnies have fallen behind the Storm and Panthers. Much of that comes down to their defence conceding 20.7 points per game, and the unexplainable capitulations we've seen at times this season.
Bennett is always working towards and considering the future. I, for one, would like Souths to win the premiership after conceding 50 points in a season so we never need to hear that no team has ever done it ever again. They look a step or two off the pace at the moment, though.
5. Anthony Griffin
Current Ladder Position - 7th
Tipped for the spoon, Griffin is getting more out of this Dragons side than anybody expected. They aren't expected to stay in the Top 8 from this point. However, the fact they're even in the conversation this late into the season is a significant achievement for Griffin in his first year in charge.
Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but much-maligned players Ben Hunt and Matthew Dufty are playing the best football of their careers. Meanwhile, a ragtag backline that has featured Cody Ramsey, Jack Bird, Zac Lomax, Mikaele Ravalawa, Tyrell Fuimaono, Brayden Wiliame, Jordan Pereira, Max and Matt Feagai, Talatau Amone and Gerard Beale have been able to keep the points ticking over at 21.3 per game (8th).
Griffin took over a team that finished 12th last season. One that most considered even worse heading into this one. They've been inside the Top 8 since Round 3, and Griffin deserves a lot of credit for that.
4. Des Hasler
Current Ladder Position - 5th
Hasler has Tom Trbojevic to thank for the Sea Eagles sitting at 5th on the ladder after 16 rounds. We saw that they looked like before Trbojevic's return, but in Hasler's defence, Manly still hung 50 points on North Queensland without the superstar fullback in Round 14.
Jason Saab has been another big beneficiary of Trbojevic's play on the field. However, Lachlan Croker turning into a serviceable hooker, Sean Keppie becoming a key feature of the Manly pack and Haumole Olakau'atu's rise into a first-grade monster should be attributed to the work Hasler has done with the playing group.
Hasler's fortunes as a coach rely on Trbojevic's health, but the club's premiership aspirations depend on how well the coach puts the pieces together around his main man.
3. Brad Arthur
Current Ladder Position - 3rd
Arthur's Eels could have been anything in 2021.
They finished 3rd on the ladder in 2020, but nobody would have been gobsmacked if they fell to pieces and out of the Top 8 this season. That's the reputation of the club and a lot of the players. However, Arthur has done an excellent job in changing that.
He's taken Isaiah Papali'i from the Warriors and turned him into one of the best backrowers in the NRL. The Titans couldn't get rid of Bryce Cartwright soon enough but Arthur has gleaned productive matches from the 26-year-old. Mitchell Moses and Reed Mahoney have developed into State of Origin calibre players while Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Nathan Brown have captured career-best form.
Parramatta won't remove the stigma around their inevitable failure until they play in a Preliminary Final. Even then, they'd need to play well if not reach the Grand Final to be totally clean of their recent past.
Whether it happens this season or not, Arthur has put them in a prime position to do it through 16 rounds.
2. Ivan Cleary
Current Ladder Position - 2nd
It's not always easy to motivate a team to go back for more after failing on the biggest stage. The nature of the competition makes it difficult to sustain top tier success for an extended period unless you're the Storm. But Cleary has motivated his side to the point of a 12-game winning streak to start the season while massively improving the side overall.
The Panthers play an exciting brand of football while also displaying the most patient and regimented approach to their attack. Whether it is by design, down to luck, or a bit of both, the new rules play right into the hands of the Panthers and they're executing to perfection more often than not.
Cleary's Panthers impressed in 2020, but they've separated themselves from most of the pack in 2021. Only the best-attacking team in the NRL era and arguably the best coach in the same period stand taller.
1. Craig Bellamy
Current Ladder Position - 1st
Bellamy is a genius. There is no other way to put it when, with all of the injuries, suspensions and Origin outs he has been forced to deal with, the Storm have produced the best attack at this point of the season ever while only conceding 12.1 points per game.
Ryan Papenhuyzen is one of the best fullbacks in the game but he hasn't been on the field since Round 10. Meanwhile, Harry Grant - Queensland's first-choice #9 - has only featured for Bellamy's Storm seven times this season.
Josh Addo-Carr, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes, Jesse Bromwich, Brandon Smith, Christian Welch, Felise Kaufusi, Kenny Bromwich, Dale Finucane and Nelson Asofa-Solomona have all missed time for one reason or another this season. Still, Bellamy plugs in a Trent Loiero, Darryn Schonig, Tyson Smoothy or Aaron Booth (who are these players!?) and the Storm go on their merry way towards victory.
The argument over who is the greatest coach of all time will pop up again at the end of this year when Bellamy and Bennett are off-contract. Bellamy will have the upper hand in that debate if he keeps going like this through to October 3.
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