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EARLY EDITION: Neon red flashing warning sign that almost everyone ignored
Holbrook has been replaced by Hasler at the Titans, some more Origin thoughts and the Ben Hunt situation
Programming: Next week’s edition of The Weekly hit 2,500 words yesterday and we haven’t even played any club footy yet. I’m splitting that draft into today’s Early Edition and a shorter The Weekly will follow on Monday (or Tuesday) with a recap of the weekend’s rugby league football action and, hopefully, minimal news breaking over the weekend. Keep an eye out for a write-up of the Broncos-Titans game that should hit in your inbox Sunday night (or Monday).
Holbrook out, Hasler in
And it’s about time. I’ve never found Holbrook a very compelling coach1. The repeated 20+ point disintegrations - four in just the last two years, having gone the previous 15 years with zero such collapses - were a neon red flashing warning sign that almost everyone ignored.
Robina could have engineered this once Hasler was forced out of Manly for Seibold late last year. Perhaps Hasler needed some time off and wasn’t prepared to start until 2024? Hasler walks into the job with a decent roster but one that is balanced too much to its forwards and has too many fullbacks and not enough good, reliable playmakers2. The cap situation could get messy with so many players signed to 2025-26, so there will need sensible leadership3. But, as a bonus, there is zero media pressure that comes with the Titans job because no one expects anything.
As proof: the news broke at 11.38am. I had lunch at a nearby sports club, leaving my desk at about 11.45am and returning just before 1pm. While at the sports club, I ignored my colleagues and watched the screens showing Fox League’s highlights packages of women’s game 1 and then men’s game 2. The Titans’ news did not break into the broadcast or even merit a ticker announcement that I noticed and I only found out once I got back to my computer. To repeat, a 24 hour NRL-dedicated channel did not interrupt Origin highlights to announce the sacking of a NRL coach. There’s big clubs and there’s small clubs and then there’s the Titans.
It seemed unlikely that Gold Coast would be able to stick a landing in the top eight this year. The Tans are projected to go 11-13 by Elo and finish outside the top ten. That might be optimistic, considering six of their remaining ten fixtures are against top eight teams and most of the remaining four can probably still beat them. Either way, it’s clear the roster is underperforming their potential and the club is going nowhere under Holbrook, so it’s time for a change. It’s time for Des. I can’t wait.
Here’s how the Titans see it:
Titans CEO Steve Mitchell: "We think we need a winner in that place and someone who's got the IP of being at Grand Finals, and in Des' case multiple Grand Finals, and what that brings into your organisation and the IP it leaves behind is significant & material. The time is now."
-h/t Mark Gottlieb on Twitter
Great stuff. Former Burleigh coaching great, Jimmy Lenihan, will coach in the interim.
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Moments of the Week
Origin 2: Origin Harder
New South Wales haven't won a men's series without the assistance of Vlandoball in this decade. Their five most recent series wins are now 2005, 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2021*. It's 2023. If the Blues went on an unstoppable series winning streak, it'd be 2031 before they drew level with Queensland's number of series won.
That the Blues haven’t gone on an unstoppable winning streak while having a substantial talent advantage from 2018 to 20224 (and they were 40 minutes away from winning 2017 as well) is an indictment on the NSWRL’s system and Brad Fittler, in particular.
Fittler doesn’t really seem to understand what it takes to win football games from the coach’s box. He selects players on whim. He uses the bench poorly. He abandons tactical concepts mid-series - like trying to mimic Penrith in game 1 - and tries something else - like not trying to mimic Penrith in game 2 - only for neither to work. He lost the 2020 series, an echo of Phil Gould’s loss in 1995, and his weaknesses were apparent even when he was winning.
Fittler is NSW’s second longest tenured coach, after Phil Gould. His winning percentage is under .500 but he is the only Blues coach, other than Gould, to win more than one series. It is not clear who would or could replace him, so long may he reign.
Were the mainstream newspaper columnists to actually pay the women’s game any attention, everything that followed this game should be hammering the NRL for the two game format. If given a choice between the dumbest tie-breaking mechanism in the history of sport, one so stupid that no one from the NRL is taking any bullets for coming up with that one, or New South Wales retaining the shield on the basis of the series being a draw, I would’ve preferred the latter. They weren’t even going to play extra time if the game finished equal on aggregate! Insane.
This is not soccer, with its feverent reverence for equalising home and away advantages and using away goals as a means of settling two-legged fixtures, and even UEFA has moved away from that, preferring to settle matters on the pitch. This is rugby league. Origin has been a three game series since 19825 and if we’re serious about parity between the men’s and women’s game - which the NRL is not but should be - then it’s so painfully obvious that this should grow to a three game series next year.
The 18,000 people who turned up to Queensland Country Bank Stadium to watch a good but not great women’s football match should be a hint that this is a sustainable proposition.
Men’s and women’s under 19s Origin returns on July 13 at Kayo Stadium. These games will follow the day after men’s game 3 and will complete the first 7-game Interstate Championship (a thing I just made up right now but did have as a thought bubble a while ago). Queensland leads the series 3-1, with New South Wales still able to win this if they get the next three.
Hopefully, the NRL staggers the games in next year’s Interstate Championship a little more to avoid drowning the women’s games in men’s coverage.
Contracts are not worth the paper they’re written on
…is a trope trotted out by fans and the media, almost none of whom read the contract they signed when they started their job or got a loan from the bank, let alone have any regular experience dealing with contracts. It is, without a doubt, 100% untrue but as a cliche, it disengages brains that might otherwise conclude that management is not doing their job.
Ben Hunt is in the most relatable situation imaginable. He hates his job, he hates his coworkers and he hates his bosses but he needs to pay the bills, so he sucks it up until a better opportunity presents itself. If you take Hunt out of the Dragons and put him in the same situation in an office, his actions would be entirely understandable. I personally refuse to hold him to a higher standard than I would myself and that he gets paid a lot more money than me is irrelevant: work is work and people are people and to date, he has done his job. Unfortunately for him, he can’t simply submit his resignation in writing with four weeks’ notice and have a snippy exit interview, so he has to burn the place down to get out.
Players don’t leave if they’re happy, and therefore productive, unless they are paid substantial overs. That no one is going to pay Hunt more than his worth, if not less, and he is still willing to leave - even threatening to buy out his own contract if that’s what it takes - is a clear signal that management at the Dragons6 have failed to carry out their most basic responsibilities. If Hunt is weird and aloof, his fellow players don’t like him and is generally not leadership material, he shouldn’t have been made captain. If Hunt is so tied to the old coach, then management should’ve been aware of that relationship and prepared a plan for this eventuality as part of firing the old coach7 but instead, management have been caught flat footed. That the new coach hasn’t had a top job for five years because he repeatedly cheated “hasn’t settled” Hunt is the least surprising thing about this saga.
If Hunt has a legally valid contract, which does not seem to be in dispute, then its on the Dragons to enforce the provisions of it. If Hunt does not want to play ball, then the Dragons can either sit him, as they have very little to lose in the short to medium term, and Hunt can watch his value tank, or the Dragons can sue him for not meeting his obligations. That no club ever goes to court over poor playing performance should give you a clue about the nature of HR in the NRL8 but due to their lack of conviction, the Dragons have conceded to Hunt his only leverage.
Given this is the same club that got an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled The six reasons the Dragons don't want Matt Dufty while trying to push Dufty out the door in 20219, it’s hardly surprising that coverage is full of deflections that might otherwise lay any blame at the feet of the people whose job it is to literally manage the situation. Hunt wants to leave behind an organisation that’s shown little in the way of being the least bit functional and if he can come home and/or win, that might be a bonus. More power to him.
As for the poor widdle fans, Dragons fans know what they signed up for. Allegiance to a football club is a conscious choice and it’s been clear what this club is for a decade. To wit, Hunt played halfback in the Dragons only post-season win since the 2010 grand final. Listing the Dragons’ missteps, even over the last few years, would take an article in its own right. Fans are pissed their team sucks and they’re taking cues from the club and the media to lash out on the guy that’s extracting himself from the situation because their ego refuses to countenance doing the same thing, even if it would be better for them in the long run.
Fans determined to remain loyal could instead direct their energy at the decision makers at the top who continue to make poor choices for their club but given any meaningful political action to enact change would require more than momentary discomfort, it’s easier to get enraged at a player on social media and stop turning up. You get the football club you deserve.
WA has a new premier and he has apparently called Peter V’Landys to get Perth into the race for NRL18, which gets us one step closer to an actual bid from WA. Such a bid would obviously change the expansion calculus and possibly trigger another 5,000 words from yours truly. If the new team ends up being the West Coast Jets over the Pasifika Bears, I might die laughing.
The men’s Origin TV ratings look pretty healthy with both games over 3 million. This is especially good compared to recent years, but it’s mostly because they’ve started counted streaming towards the total. Those people have been otherwise invisible.
Joe McDermott has joined the Broncos as Football Manager, a move I rate as generally of minimal consequence.
Kurt Capewell is out injured and expected to return in round 20. Piakura will get another few weeks to cement his spot.
Jake Averillo will join the Dolphins from next year.
Lachlan Coote had announced his retirement already but it's now effective immediately due to the concussions he's suffered the last couple of years.
With Holbrook gone, Payten becomes the next most likely coach to be replaced in Queensland. He has to show something with the Cowboys at the end of this year and probably make a finals appearance next year if he is to hold his position. Walters might be on the cusp of a premiership, which has bought him at least a few years, if not a lifetime position at Red Hill if he wins the grand final. Bennett is only employed until the end of next year at Kippa-Ring before Woolf takes over and will presumably be given until some time in 2026 before any pressure could begin mounting. Hasler will need to show results almost immediately.
It probably won’t be a problem for a few years yet, but the Maroons do have a halfback depth problem. Cherry-Evans and Hunt are about the same age, so will likely retire at about the same time. After that, there’s plenty of five-eighths to go around (Munster, Dearden, Mam) but not many halfbacks (Sam Walker, Tanah Boyd, Jamal Fogarty, ?). I’m sure Billy and Ben have got it under control and we might get some clues in the U19s. Failing that, I’m sure there’s some kid in grade 11 at Ipswich State High right now that will be a star by 2026 at the latest.
Some good thoughts from Jason Oliver at Rugby League Writers (SUBSCRIBE TODAY - it’s just $5/month) about Holmes’ second try, Tesi Niu’s shortcomings and Brayden McGrady.
As reported by Brad at Rugby League Observer, there is yet another Lee boy. Hootin’, hollerin’, etc.
Buzz thinks NSW got the rough end of the refereeing stick in Origin. Putting aside the penalty count, you work for the Tele, not the Courier Mail. Stay in your lane.
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I’m taking a victory lap. From 2020:
The strong finish to the season has made Holbrook a popular man at Robina. This is because the bar has been set unfathomably low for the Titans after years of poor performances. A coach that has the team looking like they’re at least trying for the first time in living memory becomes a demi-god, instead of just meeting minimum expectations for a head coach in the NRL…
Bearing in mind that their 1-5 start is as meaningful as their 5-1 finish and their points difference was the worst outside of the bottom four, I think we should really be questioning the extent and the sustainability of this year’s improvement in the Titans.
I’m yet to be convinced that Holbrook knows what he’s doing, certainly not in a premiership-aspiring sense. If they continue in the Knights path, they’ve come from the bottom, had their year of overperformance, had their year of regression to the mean and now look set to win a justified place at the finals table in 2022. After that, who knows? They may flounder like the Knights and become week 1 cannon fodder or they may find a way to take that next step.
On the men’s side, we’ve seen enough to know Holbrook ain’t it. The Titans are 25-43 under his leadership and haven’t had a winning season. He doesn’t seem to be able to find his best lineup and stick with it, nor motivate the players that he does have. He hasn’t shown any improvement and, if anything seems to be getting worse, going from two seasons one game off .500 to a completely unnecessary spoon battle with the Tigers and finishing behind a team that did punt its coach…
Like Kevin Walters, Holbrook is going to need to be exceedingly lucky to avoid the chop next year and I’d like to think it’s only fear of the unknown that’s held them back from doing it this year.
I’m never wrong, just early (this applies to Walters too), but because it’s the Titans, no one gives a crap.
Is there room for Ben Hunt? Only time will tell.
Mal Meninga being annoyed that he wasn’t consulted on this decision, despite clearly being on a gravy train, might not be the person to turn to to resolve this problem.
People will tell you the Blues also had a talent advantage in 2023. Those people are very, very wrong.
And probably shoud have been long before that but They Don’t Get Origin isn’t a new phenomenon.
I’m not learning their names.
It’s entirely reasonable to wonder why Griffin was appointed in the first place, or really any of them since Bennett left. Or why the last captain was allowed to leave. Or why de Belin was stood by despite the evidence entered into court. Or why a character reference for Brett Finch was written on club letterhead. Anyway, we could be here all day.
Look up “good faith” and then have a think about what might be uncovered with a half decent investigation into club communications. Refer to Shane Flanagan’s case if necessary.
Gee, I wonder if this is indicative of the internal culture and treament of players?