Newcastle Knights Training Session
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 06: Adam O'Brien coach of the Newcastle Knights during a Newcastle Knights NRL training session at Newcastle on February 06, 2020 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

Newcastle Knights coach Adam O’Brien gave an unusual press conference this week following his team’s home capitulation to the Bulldogs.

Without context, the quotes read like the words of a passionate new boss whose team isn’t delivering for him.

“Previous to getting the job here, I was in four grand finals,” O’Brien said after the 24-10 loss.

“I have seen how the teams prepare in those grand finals. I know the systems they used defensively. You don’t unlearn that, but applying it and getting it ingrained is going to take some time.

“We have the right people in the job. We just need a plan and we need to coach the hell out of it and hopefully we can look back on this season as a year that helped us grow.”

But the context is worth noting: O’Brien and his team have been in charge of the Knights for nearly three years. It's also worth noting that at each of those four grand finals, O'Brien was an assistant.

Over the past two seasons Newcastle has scraped into the finals and been quickly ousted, but this year things have become much worse, with the Knights now 15th and likely to miss the wooden spoon by a narrow margin.

O’Brien’s case isn’t unique, either. Across the league and across the years there has been an increasingly long line of NRL assistant coaches deemed ready for the next level, only to take the step up and find themselves thinking “…but I’ve been to four grand finals”.

Not all former assistants come in and struggle – but are there any key indicators that can tell us if an assistant is ready to step up after serving their apprenticeship with some of the greatest coaches in NRL history?

There are two clear groups of former assistant coaches in the NRL at the moment – the first being those who’ve enjoyed some early success thanks to a good set-up and a good squad.

North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage and Fan Day In Ayr
AYR, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on during a North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage game against the Townsville Blackhawks at Rugby Park on February 13, 2021 in Ayr, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Todd Payten, Craig Fitzgibbon and Jason Demetriou are enjoying that kind of standing this year. Even Kevin Walters, despite a rough start, has managed to build something admirable out of the Broncos’ current crop.

The other group consists of those who’ve had a wealth of experience, tested themselves at junior levels or abroad and have had the best preparation possible for their aspiring careers, only for their initial gains to inexplicably fall flat – the likes of Adam O’Brien and Justin Holbrook.

What's the difference?

All of these coaches have had similar trajectories toward the NRL.

Craig Fitzgibbon was hired by the Roosters to work as a defensive coach under Trent Robinson in 2013, recommended by Jason Taylor when Robinson came on board.

Todd Payten enjoyed under-20s coaching titles with the Tigers and Cowboys on his way to an assistant role in North Queensland that made him a part of the club’s 2015 premiership success.

He then joined the Warriors in another assistant role before taking the reins when Stephen Kearney was sacked but expressing no interest in the full-time position. From there he returned to the Cowboys and the rest is recent history.

Demetriou, meanwhile, spent five years under arguably the game’s best coach in Wayne Bennett – and that last year was also spent in the knowledge he’d be taking charge of the side. Still, it hasn’t been easy.

Does that mean all an assistant has to do is be part of a successful system, under the tutelage of some of the game’s great minds? Ha! Remember Anthony Seibold?

In case you forgot, AOB’s been involved with four grand finals. He spent nearly a decade at the Storm, both in their under-20s set up and then directly assisting Craig Bellamy. He then became attacking coach at the Roosters under Trent Robinson. He’s spent a very long time in arguably the two most successful set-ups in the modern NRL.

Yet after nearly three years in Newcastle, the club is going backwards.

Then there’s Justin Holbrook, who also assisted at a number of NRL clubs before joining the Roosters to replace Jason Taylor as Robinson’s ‘right-hand man’ in 2014.

From there he went to St Helens in the ESL, with Robinson’s blessing, and led a dominant team. He won the league leaders shield and a Challenge Cup before his highly-anticipated return.

But this isn’t really about Justin Holbrook – at least until he runs his mouth in an equally befuddling press conference.

South Sydney Rabbitohs Training Session
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 09: Rabbbitohs assistant coach Jason Demetriou talks to Rabbitohs head coach Wayne Bennett during a South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL training session at Redfern Oval on March 09, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

It’s worth noting that both O’Brien and Holbrook assumed control of clubs that were not performing well. The Knights and Titans have been mainstays near the foot of the NRL ladder for most of the last decade.

An immediate turnaround from a horrible position is great, but the Knights arguably rushed to offer the coach a contract extension. After so long languishing at the foot of the competition, immediate improvement can be enough for expectations to shoot sky-high, but also for complacency to develop and long-standing problems to re-emerge.

But how long is too long for an NRL coach?

Is O’Brien right? Does he just need more time? Is it ridiculous to suggest that any coach could turn a club around over in just two and a half years?

Craig Bellamy has never had a losing year at the Storm since he took over in 2003. Wayne Bennett, who taught Bellamy (among others) has been around longer and he’s also coached at many different clubs. But in all that time he’s had just four losing seasons.

In six years at the Warriors, Ivan Cleary finished with a losing record just once, and left the club on a high after taking them to their only grand final appearance in 2011. He had some testing times in the middle, but now he’s now looking at his third season of 20+ wins in a row.

Perhaps the closest we can come to an equivalent to AOB and Holbrook from any of the long-standing NRL coaches is Ricky Stuart, who was sacked by two clubs and quit another before his Raiders homecoming.

Even in Stuart's case, results were immediate. His first three seasons at the Roosters were impeccable, they became a grand final mainstay before things slowed down.

But at one stage Stuart endured a nightmare run of 15 wins in three years. Despite that, the Raiders saw something in him – and clearly still do, having signed him until 2025 after reaching two preliminary finals and a grand final appearance. Their patience has been rewarded.

STILL STANDING: Ricky Stuart has had a tougher coaching journey than most but is rewarding Canberra's faith. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

O’Brien says he’s glad that the Knights didn’t make the finals this year, because it would have glossed over the team’s inadequacies.

But those problems were there for all to see early on, as Newcastle lost eight games from nine outings between March and May this year. Surely the time for change was then.

No coach who has become an NRL mainstay has had a record like O’Brien or Holbrook after three years.

Every current NRL coach with more than 100 games under their belt has a record in the vicinity of 50% - even the low 50’s like Stuart and Brad Arthur.

Demetriou and Fitzgibbon are comfortably over 50. Payten is yet to hit the mark but he draws closer every week – and his record shows a tangible improvement under his watch, something O’Brien and Holbrook have been left without after 2022.

After more than 60 games in charge of their teams, AOB has a win ratio nearing just 43%, while Holbrook’s is an atrocious 34%.

What's the secret to coaching success?

There are plenty of reasons a coach can succeed quickly. A talented and well-established playing group with a mix of youth and experience who are all willing to learn, the support of the club and community – but O’Brien has had all of those, far more than some Knights coaches have had in the past.

Being in grand finals – as an assistant – is no guarantee of success. But if you ask Bellamy, Robinson and most other NRL coaches who were assistants themselves at one point, it’s a valuable experience.

Winning lower grade honours or a Super League title is also no guarantee. The success of Michael Maguire (49%) at Wigan translated quickly into an NRL premiership (though he was sacked just this year so make of that what you will). Nathan Brown (41%) also won a Super League title, and he was also sacked this year.

Garth Brennan (30%) and Trent Barrett (31%) both emerged from a successful Panthers system that included lower grade success, and both have been fired from their last coaching job.

The fact that O’Brien has been to four grand finals and around such institutionalised success for so long, but can’t turn that into continued growth for a team after two and a half years, reads as a failing on his part.

It’s not something he would have wanted to draw attention to before he sat down for Sunday's press conference but the cat’s out of the bag now and it’s up to him to respond.

All we learn from looking at the game’s most successful coaches is that there is no straightforward template for NRL coaching success. You'd think after this time that O'Brien would have learned that, if he wasn't aware already.

There are a few common elements, sure, but there’s a lot that numbers don’t tell us.

It could be personality, it could be the individual approach, it could just be how paternal someone looks to a bunch of young men.

It could be all of those, it could be none. Whatever it is, Adam O’Brien looks to have lost it.

He might still get it back one day. I hope he does.

But when Mick Potter can help the Bulldogs develop more of an on-field identity in a matter of weeks than O’Brien has done in two-and-a-half years, the signs don’t look good.

Sure, the playing group matters. But for every coach that can't succeed without the right team, there's a team of individuals who can't succeed without the right coach.

Newcastle have one of the biggest name game-breakers in the NRL, they've got one of the most experienced packs in the competition and they've got a bunch of exciting young outside backs. They're no different to the majority of teams in the NRL, even Penrith.

Hopefully AOB’s fifth grand final is the only one we’ll need to talk about in future. But unless he really does 'coach the hell' out of this Knights side, it might not be in Newcastle.