Rugby league: Why loyalty is superfluous in a league of impatience

Coaches are the victims in the new world of rugby league, argues Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
It used to be said, only half in jest, that Frank Foster survived for 10 years as coach at Barrow in the Seventies and Eighties because, although it had been decided to sack him several times, nobody dared tell him. Even Foster would do well to last that long these days.

As soon as fortunes took a downturn, the men in the grey suits would be knocking on his door and shortly afterwards there would be an announcement that he was leaving "by mutual agreement".

It is no mere statistical accident that of the 12 men coaching Super League clubs last season, half are no longer in charge. If your results are not as super as they might be in rugby league's new world, you will be out - super-quick.

The exit of John Joyner yesterday from Castleford, the club he joined as a 16-year-old, underlines what a precarious job coaching at this level has become. Joyner was the fourth coach to leave a Super League club in the last seven weeks.

All departures are subtly different, and Brian Smith's from Bradford, which started the 50 per cent cull last August, was strictly a voluntary one. So was Gary Hetherington's move from Sheffield to become chief executive at Leeds, but Michel Mazare - already effectively sidelined by John Kear during the season - had to go in order to bring Peter Mulholland to Paris.

Graeme West was sacked at Wigan before the league season even began, whilst Steve Simms jumped before he was pushed at Halifax, on the basis of a cup defeat by Keighley.

Ross O'Reilly, in charge at relegated Workington Town, was axed last week, when John Dorahy also fell on his sword at Warrington. Finally - for now - Joyner went, by mutual consent, after Castleford's depressing start to the season.

It is a casualty rate previously unheard of in the game and it is the hyped-up expectation engendered by Super League that is largely responsible. Clubs included in the elite competition first established last season all believe that they are entitled to do well in it. When those expectations are disappointed, heads must roll.

There are other factors at work as well. Not long ago, a coach was only answerable to his chairman and - to varying extents - the club's supporters. Now there are chief executives, football managers and various other functionaries to be satisfied and placated. The opportunities for internal power struggles, which coaches generally lose, are far greater than they once were.

A coach now has a much bigger budget to answer for. Once in charge only of deciding which 13 players would draw winning or losing pay for a given weekend, he now has a staff of a few dozen, all on lucrative contracts. If things are going wrong, they are going wrong expensively.

Then there is the change in the psychology of the game. Followers of Super League clubs have been assured so often that everything is going to be, well, super that, when it is not, there has to be a scapegoat.

Chairmen being no more inclined to sack themselves than they ever were, the buck stops with the man with the clipboard and, increasingly, the worried expression.