TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16: Dragons coach Paul McGregor looks on before the start of the round 1 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the St George Illawarra Dragons at 1300SMILES Stadium on March 16, 2019 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

It was a brisk morning as I rounded the corner. Uninterrupted ocean views sit to my left as I look out the passenger window of my car, while well placed houses silently watch the waves lap the sand to my right.

It’s quite literally a million dollar view. 

“I found it one morning riding my bike,” Paul McGregor tells me, as I compliment his view. “People thought we were crazy coming up here. I tried to convince Baz (Trent Barrett) and Timmo (Shaun Timmins) to buy the lots next to me but they wouldn’t. They regret it now.”

His wry smile sets the scene for today’s meeting – a man relaxed, no longer shouldering the burden that comes with holding the clipboard for an NRL team.

The man they call ‘Mary’ welcomes me into his home and offers me coffee. Cautious as you would be with a bloke you’ve never met, he begins with the topic that still dominates his life today: “Did you watch the game yesterday?” 

Thus begins our interview. He talks off the cuff about the game, the players and what he saw in the matches over the weekend. Although he doesn’t get the chance to analyse every fixture the way he wants – “I’ve always got someone over who wants to chat while it’s on” – he still tries to reserve each Dragons clash for a closer look. It’s clear that the club he served through his career remains dear to his heart. 

The boy from Dapto

For Paul, rugby league is a matter of the heart. He followed Saints in his younger years and looked up to fellow South Coast players Graeme Langlands and Steve Morris. 

“Like every kid watching their idol, I always thought ‘Wow, aren’t they unreal’, and wanted to do what they did,” he said.

But it was his father who sits firmly on the landscape to Paul McGregor. A ‘very good bush footballer’, he ‘always filled me with what I needed to know’. It was the stories of his dad, as told by family and friends, that stick in his memory. 

These are the origins of how rugby league began to dominate his life. 

“We played as kids on the road and it was two handed touch on the bitumen and tackle on the grass. Telegraph poles were our try-lines. Hallway footy was also fun.”

Rugby League Immortal Graeme Langlands. Source: St George & Sutherland Shire Leader

His stories are vivid. Footy was an all week affair, he tells me. You trained during the week. You played on Saturday for keeps. And then you played on Sunday, just because you loved it. 

“That’s what you did every day of the week. Playing with or against your mates at school, and the weekends couldn’t come fast enough.”

His story is a glimpse into the life of kids that grew up on the South Coast in the 70’s and 80’s. Worn footballs being passed and kicked around on any patch of dirt you could find. He continues by telling me about the first coach who impacted on him: John Green in the u/12’s. 

“It was all about training well to play well; mateship and enjoying footy. We had a big number of players but everyone had a feeling of inclusion.” 

When he tells the stories, you could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic. These were special times to him. Youth Groups music video to their cover of ‘Forever Young’ would pair well with the trip down memory lane. 

Origins of a coach

Coaches have played a big role in forming who he is, but becoming one was never part of his original plan. “I always respected authority and listened well as a player but never thought anything about coaching. I always thought ‘Why would you want to do that?’” He chuckles at that last comment as the wry smile reemerges. 

It is the likes of Graeme Murray, Allan McMahon and Andrew Farrar that shaped who Paul is today as a coach. 

“Murray improved my footy IQ and work ethic. Most of all, he made me responsible for my choices. There were no excuses with Muz.”

He’s similarly complimentary to Allan McMahon – “He was ahead of his time and the best technical and tactical coach I’ve ever had” – and Andrew Farrar – “A hard arse who hated shortcuts.” 

These are the men who shaped Paul to be who he is today. To use his own words “You take a little from all coaches.”

He learned from David Waite how to educate. From Phil Gould he learned how to analyse and deconstruct the opposition as well as instilling belief in the playing group. And Tommy?

“He had no filter. He said what he wanted and didn’t care how it came out. Tommy owned the room because he was fearless and funny.”

NSW Blues Origin Training
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – 1997: Tommy Raudonikis, coach of the New South Wales Blues talks to his players during a training session prior to the 1997 State of Origin match between the Queensland Maroons held in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

Asked if he saw a little bit of Raudonikis in how he coached, he shook his head and smiled. “No mate, there will always only be one Tommy. They broke the mould.”

Post retirement, he took up the role of Speed and Agility coach at St George Illawarra before graduating into Strength and Conditioning.

“I loved tough and I connected on all levels of their life, encouraging them, challenging them. I was committed and passionate to improving their ability to develop their career and get the most out of their talent.”

Striking out on his own

With the arrival of Wayne Bennett, McGregor took the chance to coach the Western Suburbs Red Devils in 2009. It was the start of a three-peat that gave him a taste for success.

“I brought professionalism to the club. I had an amazing group of local juniors who played with passion and resilience that wanted to win on game day.”

His oversight brought change to the weekly routine of players. He instituted a more rigorous diet and training regime than had been used before. He also brought in five talented u/20’s players and two experienced journeymen that re-balanced the squad to his liking. 

Fitness was his priority, and skills were key, but it was the overarching structure that he changed.

“Technically and tactically we stripped it back. My philosophy was ‘RUC’; Ruthless, United, Consistent. And a Team 1st selflessness in every area of our environment.”

The Red Devils won three in a row, and with Wayne Bennett leaving for Newcastle, Steve Price was promoted to Head Coach of the Dragons. McGregor was brought back to coach the Illawarra Cutters. This created the pathway for his role as Assistant to Price in 2014. 

Reuniting with the Red V

“I wanted to put structures and principles in place, but our attack didn’t always need to be planned,” he tells me. “Connection through communication and combinations was key. Getting players over the advantage line on retreating defenders, putting triggers on third man out and fatigued players, getting the ball to our best threat fast so they could get between defenders, kick placement – I wanted to play with momentum then work on how to win it back.”

It was the work leading into the game that was an assistant coach’s responsibility; game day was left to the players to go out and perform. 

Players should be able to get themselves up. The process through the week is the influence; there could be rival games against certain teams where players make it personal, or wish to achieve a result in their milestone games. But simple words said at the appropriate time is what’s important if players need more.”

This hands off approach was to empower the player, Paul tells me. They needed to be responsible for their performance. 

Then in 2014, the chance to take over the head coach role presented itself when the St George Illawarra Dragons management decided to part ways with Steve Price

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA – MAY 27: New Dragons coach Paul McGregor (C) talks with Garteh Widopp (L) and Benji Marshall during a St George Illawarra Dragons NRL training session at WIN Stadium on May 27, 2014 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

I asked if he always felt like the head coach role was the one he was destined for. He reflects before answering. 

“No, I enjoyed being the brother, not the father – which is how I see the difference between an assistant coach and a head coach.”

I pressed him on why he took the role. “At the time, I was away with the NSW team as a staff member when it all happened. I called Steve Price and he convinced me to stay and take the role and finish the season. The added responsibility was what I enjoyed – my kids were at a good age for me to take the role on, and I was fueled by my passion and care for the club and the players. Since rugby league has been a big piece of my life, the role of head coach developed on me quickly.”

Stepping up

His message to the players at the time was they needed to take ownership – own their choice and prepare for success. 

“Preparation is our key. Let’s work hard together.”

As Paul talks, this last sentence stands out. Whilst he has been influenced by coaches, it is the coming alongside of players to build a simple game plan rooted in effort that stands out as his style.

“Increased simplicity; perfect execution. One defence, one offence, one change up depending on opposition. We worked on clarity and consistency to get our mojo. We would practice and prepare everything through extensive repetition.” 

This game plan revolved around attitude; strong preparation before allowing his players to determine their future on the field in their way. Tactically, he instilled a need to compete through completion of sets, beating the opposition in attack and defence before getting the ball to your key players

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA – MAY 27: New Dragons coach Paul McGregor instructs his players during a St George Illawarra Dragons NRL training session at WIN Stadium on May 27, 2014 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

It is this philosophy that contributed to the success he had in 2018, where ‘score lines were getting out of control’ and they were ‘blowing teams away’. And the philosophy became part of the team’s DNA.

“Our team culture was built around HARD,” he explains. “Happiness, Accountability, Respect and Dedication. Our twin pillars were competitiveness and loyalty.”

Asked how this translated to the game plan, he continued. “We adopted a power game, an unbending commitment to attractive front foot footy and an ability to absorb pressure through a defence that had a consistent line speed.”

That physical game is what Paul prides himself on. Training players to chase the collision – particularly in defence – and to help teach them how to make the right decision on the park was his way of coaching. He coached a structure that focused on physical domination through defensive reads, and planned to beat opposition through a high tempo power game. 

The people employed by the club helped craft the culture McGregor was looking for. Five consultants were brought in over the years to help educate players and staff on the ‘servant-leadership’ he wished to imprint on the side. It was a culture of ‘others first’ that instilled standards for behaviour. It informed a selection criteria that focused on player integrity as the priority. 

This was a culture Paul believed would create the best for staff and players

“My team and I were fortunate to give twenty-six players their debut, and to see these kids develop over time is pleasing. Players that transformed from young NRL players into representatives. Everything done on and off the field was about doing our best and aiming for excellence.”

The rocky path

Despite this, the Dragons only played three finals games. I asked him how he felt about the constant scrutiny. 

“I felt like I was always surviving, never building,” he reflects. He laments the challenges of missing key players through injury or representative duties as simply ‘rough luck’ and a consequence of a squad that at times lacked depth. “We had a team that could play finals footy – and play well – but we never really got the chance. In ‘18, we got beaten by three field goals in a finals match. That’s something that has never happened before.”

The record of the Dragons garnered significant feedback from fans and media alike. He acknowledges the right for fans to have a say, but he was always conscious that there was noise about his future. 

“It affects the players. They don’t want to hear about their coach in the paper. They go for a coffee and see on the back page talk of their coach being punted – it gets in their heads.”

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA – MAY 27: New Dragons coach Paul McGregor talks to the media after a St George Illawarra Dragons NRL training session at WIN Stadium on May 27, 2014 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

When asked how he responded to some of the negativity, he was fairly blunt. “I had a knowledge of where the noise was coming from. I didn’t let the negativity control my attitude or effort. Complaining is like throwing up – it makes you feel better, but makes everyone feel worse. But most players are young men finding their way through life and they need the support at all times. When fans have negative views of the coach, who is their leader, it influences players and impacts on the team results.”

“But this is a results driven business. Coaching is a privilege, and I’d much rather the criticism be directed to me rather than my players.” 

There is an honesty to Paul that is refreshing. He doesn’t hold any grudges for his departure from the Dragons, nor is there any hurt. He also understands that the club had the best intentions for him when they instituted additional frameworks for his 2020 campaign. These measures saw assistant coaches Shane Flanagan and Dean Young have a say in the team selection each week – often overruling Paul’s decisions. But it was this feature that caused ‘the divorce’, as Paul terms it.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 14: Dragons assistant coach Dean Young looks on before the round 14 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the St George Illawarra Dragons at Bankwest Stadium on August 14, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“I was happy to be accountable for my selections. But I felt I needed to be in charge of selecting the team if I was to be given the chance to succeed,” he tells me. “The selection panel prevented me from doing that. In the end, I felt it was best that I leave rather than keep going.”

Disagreement over this decision saw St George Illawarra and Paul McGregor part ways. It brought mixed emotions from commentators, fans and players, all of whom were polarised by the decision. McGregor is adamant he didn’t lose the playing group, believing it was media spin driven by an agenda to get him out rather than there being any truth to the rumour. I suppose only the playing group can really answer that question. 

Looking forward

But as the dust settles, McGregor’s hunger to coach remains. In charge of the NSW u/19’s, he is looking forward to once again coming alongside young men to help them achieve success.

“I want to make it an enjoyable experience and to surround the players with knowledgeable, encouraging people who have reached the peak level in rugby league. I want to show them what it looks like to be a NSW Blue of the future, and what’s important now.”

And what will be his standards?

“Behave decently, eat sensibly, sleep sufficiently and act fearlessly.”

The annual face off between the Blues and Maroons is time honoured. Having spent time in Origin camp, he knows what it takes to beat the enemy north of the border. 

“We’ll beat them in our preparation and in our game plan.” He chuckles and again smiles wryly before continuing. “And in our dislike for Queenslanders.”

And his game plan? 

“Simple is powerful.”

As we wrapped up our time, I asked him if coaching in the NRL was on the cards. 

“Absolutely – I’d love to join the circus again,” he laughs. When asked who would be his ideal choice, he paused to think before continuing. “Newcastle. I would enjoy the community support and their love of the game. Their supporters are special, down to earth country people who appreciate the sport.” 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 25: Dragons coach Paul McGregor watches on during pre-game ANZAC day commemorations before the round eight NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium on April 25, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In a game that is sanitised by the NRL and scrutinised by the media, Paul McGregor remains a country boy at heart. His love for the game and passion for the players is as strong today as ever. As the longest serving custodian of the St George Illawarra Dragons – overseeing 151 games for 70 wins and two finals campaigns – he believes he leaves the club in a better place than when he found it. 

But what is clear is that Paul sees rugby league as a simple game, where teams who work hard, have self belief and come together as one will net the reward they’re hoping for. 

It is perhaps this fact that has polarised the clubs supporter base on whether he was a success or not. The average fan loves the relatively up front approach he brings to football, while the more discerning consider his game plan too one dimensional and lacking the sophistication other club coaches have adopted. The former considers the results something the players must own, while the latter believe the players were never given the tools to succeed. I don’t believe that divide will ever be crossed by those who follow the Red V and remember Paul’s time in the chair. 

Regardless, that time is now over. Paul now looks to the future, as do the Dragons. But the record books will always tell their tale.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is a very good article, and many thanks to Zac Martins for posting it. It portrays the man as a person and not as a failure. I always believed that Paul McGregor was honest, enthusiastic, open minded, dedicated, loyal, devoted and committed when he was coaching the Dragons, and this article certainly reinforces my belief. I have always had a lot of time and respect for Mary despite being unable to achieve higher honours with the club.
    I know a lot of people see him as a failed coach, but in my opinion he gave everything he had for the Red V, and he shouldn’t have been criticised for having such commitment. Apart from Wayne, Mary is the coach I will always remember and respect, and I really hope Anthony Griffin can unlock the key that is holding the once mighty Dragons back.

Comments are closed.