Monday, September 24, 2012

From Wayne Bennett to Wallace Arnold


In rugby league, like in any other sport, they divide opinion amongst fans of their particular teams. Nowhere at the moment is that division more apparent however than in the case of Brian McDermott and fans of Leeds Rhinos.

Approaching the end of his second season in charge, McDermott has had a total of seven trophies to compete for. Of these, he's won two (the 2012 World Club Challenge and 2011 Super League Grand Final), still has a chance of winning a third and has finished runner-up in two (the 2011 and 2012 Challenge Cup finals).

It's a record that stands comparison with any other coach in the competition over the same period. Yet there is still a loud rumble of discontent from many Leeds fans about both performances and results.

Why? Simply put, Leeds fans have been spoiled rotten. Prior to McDermott, under the coaching of Tony Smith and Brian McLennan, Leeds were the dominant side in the competition - at least when it came to winning Grand Finals and World Club Challenges.

The emergence of an outstanding crop of young local players early in the last decade, coupled with some astute signings from overseas and other SL clubs, made Leeds the team to beat. Grand Final winners four times in six years between 2004 and 2009, they set the standard for all else to follow.

Sport however, is cyclical. Leeds were never going to remain the dominant side for ever. As the team began to age, its ability to raise its game every week of every season began to fade. There have been some frankly embarrasing results at the hands of the likes of Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Huddersfield, yet in big knockout games they have been able to turn the form book on its head.

So how much of what a team does is down to its coach? As much as the man in the stand and his staff can do during the week, once the players cross the line the coach is virtually helpless in terms of influencing individual performance. He can maximise it by making the most of his interchanges or make tweaks to strategy, but he can't make tackles, put out passes or kick goals. He's very much at the mercy of his players.

In some cases, in my opinion, the Leeds players have let their coach and fans down over the last couple of years. Conversely, they have also pulled out results that neither coach nor fans had a right to expect, the Challenge Cup semi-final against Wigan in 2012 being a case in point.

The received wisdom on forums seems to be that when a team wins, it's down to the players. When a team loses, it's down to something the coach did wrong. I'm reminded of the comments of great Australian coach Wayne Bennett, who said "If you start listening to the fans, it won't be long before you're sitting with them".

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