Written by Joshua Dean
Photo by News Corp Australia
Few professions offer the highs and lows of being a fulltime NRL Head Coach, but former Cronulla Sharks mentor Shane Flanagan may just have the largest range of euphoric triumphs and despondent despair of any current figure in the game.
Being away from the head coaching position has allowed him to reflect on what it takes to be successful in the endless pursuit to replicate the feelings of ecstasy that came with lifting the Provan-Summons Trophy on grand final day back in 2016.
“As a coach, I never worried about how long or what time I went and got home from work, it is something I love and just got on with it.” Flanagan told Everything Rugby League.
Many rugby league fans think they could be an NRL Coach, in which they could make better decisions than their own teams’ coach however few NRL fans truly grasp just how difficult and laborious the role is, Flanagan knows this all too well.
Whilst an undertone of humbleness and modesty was omnipresent during our interview, it quickly became evident that most coaches do not get the credit they deserve.
“In season you can’t catch your breath. You have to review the previous round’s performance and deal with things like injuries etc. Then you have a plan and get ready again. It is a fast, think on your feet type of role every day.”
To be a head coach in the NRL you must be passionate, dogged and single-minded bordering on the point of obsession.
There are not many days off and a full eight-hour sleep becomes a luxury, even early in the off season.
“It is a big job and hard to escape at times but if you are passionate about your job, getting days off doesn’t play a part. Everyday has its purpose in relation to what part of the week and how many days turnaround we have. Planning is everything in this job but you also have to be flexible” he says.
Resilience and mental stamina are two of the necessities to even make it into the NRL coaching ranks. Each round is often completely different from the last, meaning coaches must prepare thoroughly and make changes for every team they come up against.
“100% each week we change our game plans depending on the team. All oppositions will be different, some highly noticeable and some only slight changes. Most of the time it’s things such as our kicking game, identifying strengths and weaknesses of the opposition.”
There is a section on the NRL fan base who have long believed that entry into the coaching ranks depends on who you know, not what you know. This point of view is bolstered by the number of former first-class players currently coaching at NRL clubs however there is no denying that on-field experience is a key asset needed to be one of the great coaches. In saying this, most great coaches were only handy players at best during their playing career. Obvious examples of this are Wayne Bennett (Brisbane Rugby League), Jack Gibson (primarily for Easts) and Craig Bellamy (Canberra).
Flanagan himself was in and out of first grade for the Dragons, Magpies and Eels between 1987-94. With time, it became evident that Flanagan’s true calling lied in the coaching ranks where his strengths served him a lot better.
“There are a wide range of qualities that are needed to be successful as a team in the NRL, including having good staff, players and management that work together for a common goal. Young players these days are well educated on what is required to make it in the NRL. Work, effort, attitude and dedication is a good start, however the most talented aren’t always the ones that make it.”
Flanagan has been a premiership winning head coach as well as an assistant coach in the NRL, one of Craig Bellamys’ deputies for the NSW State of Origin side plus he had a stint in the Super League alongside Aaron Raper at Castleford.
“I would say yes that each team has specific drills that they use. Some coaches allow their assistants to design club drills etc. There is a big difference between being a Head Coach and an Assistant Coach in the NRL. All departments of a football club want the Head Coach’s input, not the Assistants.” he said.
It is often said that it takes at least three years for a new head coach to gather the playing squad he needs to make a team successful. The sceptical fan might say this is only really said by coaches themselves to alleviate some of the pressure on their shoulders however there’s no denying that recruitment is a major part of the NRL and the coach plays a pivotal part in player recruitment.
“Every club has different recruitment structures with recruitment managers and other staff involved. The head coach is usually only one part of a bigger structure.”
One unique thing about Shane Flanagan is that he is one of only a handful of people to have coached their own son in the NRL. Others of note include John and Martin Lang along with Ivan and Nathan Cleary. Some people would love coaching their son whilst others would hate it. Flanagan Senior made little effort to hide his desire to one day coach son Kyle in the NRL one day, stating that it “would be nice to coach Kyle again in the NRL.”
The layman out there might struggle to fathom why coaches put themselves through what they do however “working hard with your team all week and then getting that result on the weekend is the most rewarding. When the team embraces and portrays teamwork is what makes coaching special.” Flanagan says.
Widely respected Independent Commission Chairman Peter V’landys last year made public the governing body’s desire to establish a 17th NRL club in Brisbane. Whilst many fans questioned whether this location can genuinely be called expansion, Flanagan was decisively of the same opinion, stating that he’d put a team in Sunshine State: “Brisbane for sure. It’s a big city and could handle two NRL teams easily.”
The market for uncontracted premiership winning head coaches is extremely minute, however most punters are of the belief that it is only a matter of time before Flanagan is back coaching in the NRL ranks again and he is hoping to be involved in the game in some capacity, stating “There are a few opportunities hopefully for the 2021 season.”
As the late Jack Gibson once said, there’s always free cheese in a mousetrap. Whist it is debatable whether Gibson was referring to the rigmarole of the head coaching gig when he said this, it’s not a matter of if Shane Flanagan re-joins the mousetrap, but when.