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25 in 25: Best coach in NRL era

The 25th season of the NRL is almost done and dusted so to commemorate the first quarter-century of this instalment of the premiership, The Roar will be looking back at the 25 best players and moments in 25 categories.

After taking a look at the No.1 gun fullbacks and best players never to play Origin in the era, it’s time to turn our attention to the coaching brigade to see who have been the pick of the bunch. 

It’s a trickier than expected exercise – there’s a clear Big Three over the past 25 years and one other who has lifted the trophy more than once while only 10 other coaches have tasted premiership success. 

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Several coaches have gone oh so close to premiership glory without ever getting their hands on the trophy.

In each of these articles recapping the elite performers and standout moments, we have separated the 25 into the top 10 (the best of the best), the next 10 who simply couldn’t miss the cut and the final five who just beat out a bunch of other worthy contenders.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Brisbane Broncos Coach Wayne Bennett and Melbourne Storm Coach Craig Bellamy talk to each other during the NRL Captains Grand Final Breakfast at the Westin Hotel September 28, 2006 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy before the 2006 NRL Grand Final. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Each person has been judged on their collective efforts from 1998 onwards, not including their efforts prior to that season, or if they’re an active coach, up until 2022, without speculating on how their career might play out over next season and beyond.

For the coaches, Bennett’s career is coming to a close after he signalled his intention to step down at the Dolphins after their first two years and unless he can pull off a miracle at the start-up side, he won’t be adding to his premiership tally.

Bellamy is still in the title hunt for the next year at least, possibly more, while Robinson could emulate those two by doubling or even tripling his 10-year stint at the Roosters.

The best of the best – the top 10

1 Wayne Bennett (four premierships from six Grand Finals – 1998-2021) 
2 Craig Bellamy (three premierships from five Grand Finals – 2012-20)
3 Trent Robinson (three premierships – 2013-19)
4 Des Hasler (two premierships from five Grand Finals – 2007-14) 
5 Ivan Cleary (one, maybe two premierships from four Grand Finals – 2011-22)
6 Ricky Stuart (one premiership from four Grand Finals – 2002-19)
7 Steve Folkes (one premiership from two Grand Finals – 1998-2004)
8 Paul Green (one premiership from two Grand Finals – 2015-17)
9 John Lang (one premiership – 2002)
10 Shane Flanagan (one premiership – 2016)

Even if you take away the pre-NRL titles from Brisbane in 1992-93 and ‘97, Bennett’s record stands above his nearest rivals – four titles, three with the Broncos and St George Illawarra’s 2010 breakthrough success, as well as two Grand Final losses by a combined three points at Brisbane and Souths.

Bellamy’s three legitimate premierships plus a couple of other Grand Final appearances over two decades at Melbourne mean he’s the next best – his ability to reinvent his team on the run has stood the test of time and if he keeps delaying his retirement, another title or two could be added to his already impressive resume.

Robinson is a relative newcomer with a decade under his belt at the Roosters but three premiership rings have more than justified the club’s gamble in 2013 to take a punt on the little-known coach. If he can keep the Roosters’ young talent together, more titles could be on the horizon in the next few years.

Trent Robinson

Trent Robinson (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Hasler has attracted his fair share of critics, particularly in recent years, but with five Grand Final appearances and two premierships, he is the best of the rest outside the big three.

Cleary is on course to leapfrog Hasler but challenge the top trio with his Penrith squad set up to compete for the title over the next few years. His effort to drag the Warriors to respectability early in his coaching career, culminating in the 2011 Grand Final was arguably as impressive as his efforts to take his talented Panthers to last year’s title.

Stuart, with four Grand Finals and a victory in his first one at the Roosters in 2002, is demanding and controversial but for the most part over the course of his career, he has achieved decent results apart from his one-year disaster at Parramatta.

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Folkes, who was Bulldogs to the bone, was never outspoken or a media darling but he navigated the club through stormy waters and he was rewarded with a 56.3% success rate over the course of a decade, including the 2004 Grand Final win over the Roosters.

Green was the only other premiership-winning coach in the NRL era who also took a team to another Grand Final – his 2015 Cowboys success will be the recently departed coach’s crowning moment but his effort to take a team missing Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott to the decider after three sudden-death upset wins was perhaps an even more significant achievement.

Lang, after taking a Cronulla team stacked which he had developed with local juniors to a minor premiership in 1999, shocked the NRL world four years later when he guided Penrith to one of the biggest upsets of all time in the Grand Final.

Rounding out the top 10 is Flanagan, who got the nod ahead of the remaining one-premiership coaches of the era due to the fact he had the best winning record of 55.1%. A polarising coach who has twice been suspended by the NRL for breaking off-field rules, he rebuilt Cronulla when the club was on its knees to deliver their first title at long last after nearly half a century of falling short.

The best of the rest – elite performers

11 Michael Hagan (one premiership – 2001)
12 Chris Anderson (one premiership – 1999)
13 Michael Maguire (one premiership – 2014)
14 Tim Sheens (one premiership – 2005)
15 Brian Smith (two Grand Finals – 2001-10)
16 Daniel Anderson (two Grand Finals – 2002-09) 
17 Graham Murray (two Grand Finals – 2000-05)
18 Brad Arthur (one Grand Final – 2022, perhaps a premiership)
19 Geoff Toovey (one Grand Final – 2013)
20 Matt Elliott 

Hagan gets the nod for 11th due to the fact he had a better strike rate (53.2%) than a few of his more-experienced rivals but also for the fact he made the finals at Newcastle and Parramatta in five of his seven seasons, including his first-up premiership for the Knights, coincidentally over the Eels, in 2001.

Chris Anderson created history when he was able to guide the Storm to a premiership in their second season, he took Cronulla to a Preliminary Final in a tempestuous two-season stint while the less said about his brief stay at the Roosters the better.

Maguire rivals his mentor Bellamy as the most intense coaching figure in the NRL era and that was just what South Sydney needed when he took them to the 2014 drought-breaking triumph but it did not translate to success during four seasons at the Wests Tigers.

Sheens was undoubtedly the only coach who could rival Bennett in the 1990s but in the NRL era, he had five seasons of missing the finals at the Cowboys and made the playoffs just three times in a decade at the Wests Tigers but managed to surge to glory in 2005.

Brian Smith looks on during a Roosters training session

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Smith, who lost two Grand Finals with St George in the early 1990s, continued to just fall short continued in the NRL era with Parramatta’s minor premierships in 2001 and ‘05 amounting to nought and also going close with the Roosters in 2010 before being swamped in the decider by his nemesis Bennett overseeing St George Illawarra.

Daniel Anderson was an assistant under Smith and was also the runner-up twice on NRL Grand Final night – with the Warriors in 2002 to the Roosters and the Eels seven years later to a tainted Storm outfit.

Murray is the only other coach to make two GFs since the premiership reunited – at the Roosters in 2000 they were outsiders against Brisbane but his loss at the Cowboys to the Wests Tigers five years later was the one that got away.

Arthur is into his first premiership decider after nine years at the Parramatta helm and could leap higher if he can get the Eels over the line. A big believer in physical fitness and meticulous preparation, he has done extremely well to rebuild the club after inheriting a team that had collected back-to-back wooden spoons.

Toovey, based on record alone, should have surely got another gig after his four seasons at Manly included a Grand Final appearance and a 58.1% success rate. You might say, there needs to be an investigation.

Elliott, with five finals runs, gets the last spot in the top 20. He managed a playoff berth against the odds in four out of five seasons at Canberra as well as another one at Penrith.

The final five

21 Neil Henry
22 Jason Taylor
23 David Waite (one Grand Final – 1999)
24 Kevin Moore 
25 John Cartwright 

Henry and Taylor are coaches who did well with modest rosters at two of their three clubs but didn’t ever manage to turn their teams into title contenders.

Waite is the only other coach in the NRL era to take a team to a Grand Final, doing so with St George Illawarra in 1999 before exiting midway through the next season.

Moore won the Dally M coach of the year and had a 53% strike rate over three seasons at Canterbury but never got another chance elsewhere while Cartwright deserves kudos for moulding the Titans into a competitive outfit from the outset and sadly for Gold Coast fans, he is still their only coach to have won a playoff game.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Just missed the cut

Todd Payten would have sneaked into the top 25 if he had lifted the Cowboys past Parramatta on Friday night to make the Grand Final a year after the team was 15th. 

Jason Demetriou, Craig Fitzgibbon and perhaps Cameron Ciraldo – if he lives up to the hype at Canterbury – are the other likely young coaches of the current crop who could force their way past some of their predecessors in the next few years.

Nathan Brown has overseen the most matches of the remaining coaches but he under-achieved early in his career with a star-studded St George Illawarra side despite reaching the finals four times in six seasons before unsuccessful rebuilds at Newcastle and the Warriors.

Anthony Seibold is the only other coach to win the Dally M award – for his rookie season at Souths – but his disastrous two years at Brisbane have tarnished his legacy.

A curious record among the past 25 years is Ivan Henjak – he led the Broncos to a Preliminary Final and then missed the playoffs, got the bullet and hasn’t been seen since in the coaching ranks. 

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