The role of a rookie coach is always a tough one. They rarely arrive in settled circumstances given that very few coaches get to select when they depart a club.
A rookie generally gets the gig in a couple of positions. Mostly, they’re taking over following a disastrous campaign that sees a club at the bottom of the table. Others move into the hot seat after a period of mediocrity.
Some get the good fortune of taking over a finals calibre side that has underperformed, while the somewhat lucky few get handed the keys to a very strong team when the previous head coach decides his time is done.
For those rookies taking over a bottom of the table club, think Brad Arthur following Stephen Kearney and Ricky Stuart, or Kevin Walters replacing Anthony Seibold.
Replacing mediocrity was Trent Barrett at the Bulldogs after Dean Pay.
Seibold himself was the beneficiary of a strong South Sydney Rabbitohs side that underperformed in Michael Maguire’s final season.
Craig Fitzgibbon moves into the head coaching role at Cronulla after an unstable 2021 season that saw head coach John Morris fired, replaced by Josh Hannay who got the side to equal eighth, missing out on the finals by points differential.
He had the somewhat awkward issue of signing on as Cronulla coach in the middle of the season whilst still being an assistant at the Sydney Roosters.
But his appointment to a full time head coaching role has been a long time coming.
He started his journey as an assistant at the Roosters in 2012 after retiring in England.
The goal-kicking backrower enjoyed a storied career, beginning at the Illawarra Steelers, playing in the inaugural merged Dragons team, before playing 229 games for the tri-colours, netting 1,476 points at the club alongside 11 games for New South Wales and 19 games for Australia.
Fitzgibbon has spent the best part of 20 years with the Roosters. First as a player, then returning as a coach where he has spent almost his entire apprenticeship.
He got a taste of head coaching when he took over the Country Rugby League team for the final City vs Country Origin match.
Aside from his club apprenticeship and short stint at Country, Fitzgibbon has also spent the past three years as an assistant to former teammate Brad Fittler in the NSW Origin side.
In many ways though, coaching is in Fitzgibbon’s blood.
Father, Allan Fitzgibbon coached both the Illawarra Steelers in two stints and the Cronulla Sharks across 162 games from 1982 to 1995.
At the Sharks he steered them to their inaugural minor premiership in 1988 having followed the legendary Jack Gibson.
It was at Cronulla that Craig got a front row seat to leading a team, becoming a ball boy at the club he would one day end up coaching.
To get an understanding of what Fitzgibbon brings to the table, RLM spoke with NSW head coach and former teammate Brad Fittler.
“I trust him undeniably”
Fitzgibbon and Fittler go back 20 years. The current NSW coach was well into his time with the Roosters when Fitzgibbon departed the newly merged St George Illawarra Dragons for Bondi.
The pair became well acquainted with each other over the next five seasons, while also playing Origin together.
Fittler retired at the end of 2004, moving into coaching, while Fitzgibbon continued his career with the Roosters.
The backrower would end up playing under Fittler when he took over the head coaching job at the foundation club from 2007-2009.
Fitzgibbon followed Fittler into coaching, taking over as head coach of Country Origin in 2016-2017, facing his old teammate who was leading City at the time.
For the past three years, the Cronulla head coach has, alongside his role at the Roosters, also been an assistant to Fittler at NSW.
The Origin experience has seen Fitzgibbon develop his skills beyond the club environment.
“Well, I suppose the main thing, because of our history, I just trust him undeniably. I played footy with him, I know what he’s about, he loves the game, he works hard, he puts his club first and he has all these priorities in the right spot,” says Fittler when asked about how his Origin assistant coach has developed in the past three seasons.
Coaches, whether they be rookies or grizzled veterans, are always looking to improve and enhance their skills. As Jack Gibson once said, “In football, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards fast.”
Fittler says Fitzgibbon is a coach who is always willing to learn and adapt at any opportunity.
“That’s the main thing. He’s open to learning. That’s the most important part of a coach.”
And that willingness to learn was something that was evident throughout their playing days, with Fittler believing his former teammate was always going to head into coaching.
“He just loves footy and he’s got such a great work ethic, really personable person and I always felt like he’d be involved in the sport somewhere.”
Fittler himself was in the crucible of club coaching within three years of his retirement from playing. Like most coaches, he didn’t get to choose his exit when he was bundled out of Bondi following a tough few seasons and replaced by Brian Smith.
He says coaching is mostly about learning to handle the pressure and understanding how to deal with adversity.
“Well, the buck stops with you. Now, like all coaches, it’s about handling the pressure and dealing with the day to day activities as a coach.”
The New South Wales coach wouldn’t be drawn on comparing Fitzgibbon to anyone in particular, instead saying he’s probably absorbed a lot from his apprenticeship under Trent Robinson but he’ll have his own style.
“Obviously, Trent Robinson, he’s going to have some of his traits because he’s spent so much time and they’ve done it all under high pressure. Grand finals. He seems to have his own style. He seems to have a nice casualness around him, in saying that he’s got an incredible work ethic.
“And the things he would have learnt off Robbo is about putting structure around your days, and that’s something the Roosters have done as good as anyone. So there are some real valuable lessons there. I’m assuming that he’ll have a lot of Trent Robinson in him.”
Speaking of coaching styles, Fittler adds there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, pointing to rugby league’s current crop of leading coaches.
“I think if you look at the three best coaches at the moment: Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson, Wayne Bennett, they’re extremely different people. So that tells you that every coach is different. Some intense, some relaxed, some studious. At the end of the day it’s about handling the pressure and playing the right team, picking the right team,” he says.
As touched on at the start, Fitzgibbon takes over a competitive side that has only strengthened its roster throughout the year.
While the Sharks added Dragons rake Cameron McInnes 12 months in advance, it has since added Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes from the Melbourne Storm, with Fitzgibbon assisting in negotiations.
Also arriving is Matt Ikuvalu from the Roosters.
Having finished equal eighth, Cronulla will be expecting a finals berth in 2022, providing Fitzgibbon with some pressure in his inaugural season.
But, with a stronger squad, he believes his former teammate can lead the side into September next season.
“I like Cam McInnes, Dale Finucane and Nicho Hynes. I think they’re awesome buys. I’ve always seen them as pretty talented. Shaun Johnson created a lot of their stuff last year. They need to obviously fill that hole. Nicho, they’re probably looking at him to do that but I think they’ll be extremely disappointed if they didn’t make the eight,” he says.
Finals campaigns and rookie coaches though don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
As touched on at the start, rookies are generally handed the reins when a side bottoms out and the club looks for new blood. Very few rookie head coaches get a Jason Demetriou style gig in taking over a grand final side.
Although Fitzgibbon is part way there given Cronulla’s relatively strong roster.
In 2021, there were two bonafide rookie head coaches in Kevin Walters and Todd Payten. Walters had some head coaching experience at Origin level with Queensland, while Payten was an interim coach at the Warriors in 2020.
Justin Holbrook meanwhile arrived for his first gig in the NRL with the Titans, having already been a head coach in England.
Only Holbrook guided his side to the finals, with Walters and Payten both involved in rebuilds at their respective clubs.
Therein lies a more interesting stat. It’s that very few coaches get their first head coaching role in the NRL. They often gain experience overseas, fill in as an interim coach, or in rare cases, will actually coach Origin before a club gig.
Taking in the wider coaching pool for 2022; Brad Arthur was an interim head coach at the Eels in 2012 before returning to an assistant role then taking over Parramatta in 2014, Trent Barrett served an apprenticeship as an assistant and Country Origin coach before arriving at Manly.
Trent Robinson and Michael Maguire were both head coaches in Super League before getting their jobs in the NRL. Nathan Brown was an incredibly young head coach at the Dragons in 2003, Ricky Stuart replaced Graham Murray at the Roosters in 2002, while Ivan Cleary joined the Roosters as their Premier League Coach in 2003 before starting as head coach of the Warriors in 2006.
Des Hasler was retired for seven years before he began coaching Manly in 2004, while Craig Bellamy spent a decade as a lower grades and assistant coach at the Raiders and Broncos before starting at Melbourne in 2003.
Adam O’Brien was an assistant to Bellamy and Trent Robinson across a total of 12 years before becoming head coach of the Knights in 2020.
In 2022 only Fitzgibbon and Demetriou will be rookie head coaches. The rest will be at least one year into their career or, in the case of Craig Bellamy, nearly 20 years in.
Cronulla have recruited one of the most highly regarded assistant coaches in the game, alongside premiership winners and Origin players. Now the challenge really begins.
History beckons for the Parramatta Eels as they head into a preliminary final against the heavily favoured North Queensland Cowboys.
Recalling a legendary player or former coach is often tempting for a club trying to recapture former glory. But rarely does it work, and often it tarnishes the coach’s legacy.
Harry Grant has filled the Melbourne Storm boots of Cameron Smith and seems to be taking the hooking position to the next level.