After 17 weeks of a season where most incumbent coaches have appeared reasonably safe, speculation around NRL coaching has gone into overdrive in the last 7 days. The Penrith Panthers kicked off the drama, which has since engulfed Wests Tigers and spread to Manly and St George, with Brisbane thrown in for good measure. So what actually happened?
First off Panthers supremo Gus Gould kicked off the NRL coaching drama by firing head coach Anthony Griffin just four weeks out from the finals. Penrith have been playing well for most of the year despite a heavy injury toll, and finding ways to win even when they look poor. Gould reportedly was chasing Tigers coach Ivan Cleary, who is contracted at Wests until 2021, and is the father of Panthers star Nathan Cleary – who Gould wants to be the future of the club.
After a few rounds of mud-slinging between Gould and Griffin, in which neither came off well, Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe and chair Marina Go joined the pile in on Gould, revealing that he had approached Cleary senior about returning to Penrith (from where he was sacked in 2015) before firing Griffin.
Cleary released a statement late in the week clarifying his own position. He announced that he had been invited to a meeting at Penrith where (to his surprise) Gould inquired about his desire to return. He told Gould that he was committed to his contract at West Tigers, then immediately informed Go and Pascoe of the situation. He took the opportunity in his statement to clarify that he has every intention of seeing out his contract with the Tigers, removing himself from the NRL coaching carousel.
Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett has been the subject of much speculation about a possible move to the Panthers, given that he is on the outer with Brisbane management. The rumours about NRL coaching movements heated up again when Manly coach Trent Barrett, whose team have finally started winning again, wrote to the Sea Eagles board threatening to resign unless the cash-strapped club can give him the resources he needs to rebuild.
Paul McGregor, the St George Illawarra coach, is also under pressure as the customary late season slide for the Dragons continues. Following a 40-4 thrashing by last placed Parramatta his side has slipped out of the top 4, and may still miss the finals altogether. However, St George are unlikely to have the money to pay out the year remaining on his contract, so he looks to be out of the NRL coaching drama for the moment.