The 10 Most Successful Coaches in Australian Rugby League History
Australian rugby league has certainly produced its share of outstanding coaches over the past 110 seasons, but who are the very best?
In the early years of rugby league in Australia, cash strapped clubs couldn’t afford coaches, so those duties were unofficially led by the captain. Full time coaches started appearing more regularly after World War 1 and by the end of the Second World War, all clubs had coaches. Since then, hiring a quality coach has been a prerequisite for premiership success.
Today, we’re paying tribute to the 10 coaches who’ve achieved the most over the years. Our ranking is purely statistical, based on the number of premierships won.
10. Tim Sheens
4 Premierships – 669 games, 340 wins, 11 draws, 318 losses – 50.62%
Tim Sheens was a mobile forward for Penrith throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, playing for ten years at the top level before trying his hand at coaching. The rookie coach made his debut in 1984 and helped Penrith move towards a long awaited finals campaign. In 1985 the young side finally made it, before getting hammered by the mighty Parramatta Eels in the first week of the playoffs. The next two seasons saw the Panthers drift outside of finals contention.
In 1988, Sheens moved to the Canberra Raiders, a club fresh off a Grand Final appearance, and in ’89, he helped them win their maiden title in an epic decider against favourites Balmain. Canberra then won a second premiership in 1990 against Sheens’ former side Penrith. The two teams clashed again in the 1991 decider (Sheens’ third straight Grand Final), but this time the Panthers were victorious.
After shedding players in 1992 and missing the finals, Canberra were back in the top 5 in 1993, but fell short of the decider after halfback Ricky Stuart suffered a horrific ankle injury. In 1994, Sheens’ Raiders were back to their best, annihilating the competition and strolling past the Canterbury Bulldogs in the Grand Final to claim the club’s third title. The Green Machine fell to eventual premiers the Bulldogs in the 1995 finals series and in 1996 they were beaten by St.George in the first week of the playoffs.
Sheens then had an unhappy time as coach at the lowly Cowboys, getting axed halfway through his fourth season. In 2003, he took over the Wests Tigers and in 2005, despite heading into the season at odds of 151-1 to win the title, brought the club their maiden premiership. Four lacklustre seasons followed before the Tigers became a force again, but after a poor 2012 campaign, Sheens was let go from the club.
Sheens also coached the NSW Origin side in 1991, losing the series, and was the Australian coach from 2009-15, scoring a World Cup win in 2013.
9. Clive Churchill
4 Premierships – 260 games, 148 win, 5 draws, 107 losses – 56.92%
“The Little Master” was (and still is) regarded by many as the greatest footballer to have ever played the game in Australia. His first role as a coach was for the Australian Test team in 1952, aged just 25. He gave the job away the following year, waiting until his final campaign as a player at Souths in 1958 to try his hand again. South struggled and Clive moved to Queensland at the end of the season. He coached their state side the following year and returned to coaching the Test team.
In 1963, Churchill took on the coaching job at Canterbury, where the side struggled, winning just 7 of 36 games over two years. Souths then lured him back and their magnificent union instantly brought success to the club. Churchill’s men ended the mighty Dragons’ 11 Premiership streak by claiming the title in 1967. They won again in 1968 before going down to Balmain in the 1969 decider, arguably the biggest Grand Final upset in the game’s history. Churchill’s men returned to the top with premierships in 1970 and 1971. After four season of worsening performances, Churchill resigned late in the 1975 season, thus ending a phenomenal career and the last great reign of South Sydney.
8. Charlie Lynch
4 Premierships – 184 games, 118 wins, 6 draws, 60 losses – 64.13%
Charlie Lynch was the first genuine full time coach who didn’t come into the position on the back of an elite career as a player. He took on the coaching duties at South Sydney in 1928, relieving club legend Alf Blair of the role. His impact at the star-studded club was instantaneous, as he went to win a premiership in his debut season and followed it with a second title in 1929.
In 1930, Lynch’s side lost their semi-final to eventual premiers Western Suburbs, but returned to the top of the League the following season, winning back-to-back titles again in 1931/32. The team continued to be contenders, but bowed out in the semis over the next two years. Lynch then took a break before returning to the role in 1937 after Souths had fallen to third last in 1936. After running third, the Rabbitohs returned to finals football in 1938, but lost their semi-final clash. In 1939, Lynch steered the side to another Grand Final, but they were completely outclassed by Balmain in the decider.
After a relatively poor season in 1940 where Souths finished sixth, Lynch retired. He made one last brief return in 1947 and helped St George reach the playoffs before hanging up the clipboard for good.
7. Craig Bellamy
2 Premierships – 395 games, 269 wins, 2 draws, 124 losses – 68.10%
Craig Bellamy was a solid and reliable utility player with Canberra from 1982 til 1992, in a career that saw him play under prominent coaches Don Furner, Wayne Bennett and Tim Sheens. He moved into assistant coaching duties and served a long apprenticeship under Bennett before picking up the head role at Melbourne after he was turned away by the Wests Tigers (who opted to sign his former mentor Tim Sheens).
Bellamy’s reign at Melbourne has been ultra-impressive. His ability to spot world class talent and to have a team function as a tight unit – especially defensively – is unparalleled. Not only that, but his remarkable capacity for innovation (some of which is much maligned, like wrestling techniques) has helped him stay at the top of the game. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, his side reached the Semi Finals, failing to advance, but in 2006 he steered the club to the decider against Brisbane, coached by his mentor Wayne Bennett. The Storm ultimately went down in a tough contest, but it was the start of a new era.
Melbourne then featured in the next three Grand Finals, winning two, before having them stripped after the salary cap scandal. After playing for no competition points in 2010 (they still won enough games to finish in fifth place), they won the Minor Premiership in 2011 but failed to reach the Grand Final; an aberration they rectified the following year to give Bellamy his first official NRL Premiership.
The Storm remained in the finals campaign over the next three seasons before appearing in the 2016 decider. They were unable to topple a spirited Cronulla outfit, who claimed their maiden title, but Bellamy’s chargers again rebounded to win the 2017 Grand Final in their most dominant season since the cap scandal.
6. Norm Provan
4 Premierships – 181 games, 124 wins, 8 draws, 49 losses – 68.51%
As a player, Norm Provan achieved success at club, state and international level that others could only dream of. He played in 10 of the Dragons’ 11 straight premierships! In his final seasons, Provan took on the role of Captain-Coach and helped continue the club’s unbelievable dominance, becoming the only coach in history to win four premierships in his first four years in charge.
Provan took a brief hiatus from the game after retiring in 1965 before returning to the Dragons as coach one last time in 1968. The Red V reached the semis under Provan’s tutelage, but lost to the all-conquering South Sydney side, denying them a place in the Grand Final.
In 1975, ‘Sticks’ took over the reins at Parramatta, who had finished 1974 with the wooden spoon. He turned the club around immediately, helping them to reach the finals in what would be the start of a 12 year reign of dominance for the Eels.
Provan’s season at Parramatta saw him earn the tag of ‘team rebuilder’ and in 1978, Cronulla came calling. After making it to the 1973 decider, the Sharks had spent four seasons underachieving and not playing finals football. Provan again came to the rescue and guided the Sharks to the Grand Final, which they drew with Manly, but ultimately lost in a mid-week Grand Final Replay. Cronulla featured in the finals in 1979 but fell short of the big one. At season’s end, Provan stood down as a coach permanently, ending one of rugby league’s finest careers.
5. Jack Rayner
5 Premierships – 216 games, 121 wins, 4 draws, 91 losses – 56.02%
Jack Rayner is widely regarded as one of the best leaders in the history of the game. His time as captain and coach at South Sydney saw the club return to dominance after a disappointing era either side of the war.
Rayner came to the club in 1946 after he was spotted playing for the Australian Army while serving in Papua New Guinea. The South Sydney side of 1946 was the worst in the club’s history, as they failed to win a game all year. The team improved moderately in the next two seasons before breaking through with a Grand Final appearance in 1949. In 1950, Rayner was made captain-coach and oversaw a dynasty of success, as the Rabbitohs went on to win Premierships in 1950, ’51, ’53, ’54 and ’55 (in 1952 they lost the Grand Final!). In his last two seasons, Souths’ impressive reign was ended by the amazing St. George one. Rayner’s side made the finals in 1956 and ’57 but could not reach the decider on either occasion.
Rayner then took on the onerous task of trying to help Parramatta become competitive – a mission which proved too difficult, as the Eels claimed the wooden spoon in each of his three seasons at the club from 1958 to 1960. In his defence, they had finished last in the two seasons before he arrived and remained there for the year after he left.
4. Ken Kearney
5 Premierships – 284 games, 168 wins, 5 draws, 111 losses – 59.15%
The impressive career of Ken Kearney speaks volumes for his ability as a player and coach. He played Rugby Union initially, appearing in 7 Tests for the Wallabies in 1947-48 after having served in World War II. At the end of the Wallabies’ Northern Tour of 1947-48, Kearney switched codes and played for Leeds for three seasons before returning to Australia and linking with St. George, where he played for ten years. Kearney is often credited with introducing the ruthless professionalism which contributed heavily to the Dragons’ dominance at the time.
A natural leader, he took on the role of captain-coach in 1954 and, with the exception of the 1956 season, held the role until retiring as a player in 1961. Kearney was at the helm for their Premierships in 1957, ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61. He switched to Parramatta in 1962 and steered the Eels into their first ever finals series after having run dead last for eight of their previous 10 seasons. His three years at Parramatta saw them feature in the finals every season.
Kearney’s final years were more challenging. He spent 1965 in charge of Wests but was unable to improve the side. He then became the inaugural coach of Cronulla when they entered the competition in 1967, but unfortunately, the Sharks struggled, collecting two wooden spoons in his three seasons there. After finishing last in 1969, he retired.
3. Jack Gibson
5 Premierships – 394 games, 245 wins, 10 draws, 139 losses – 62.18%
Jack Gibson was a tough as nails, no-nonsense forward who played for Easts from 1953-61, Newtown in 1962 and his last two seasons at Wests in 1963-64. He also played for New South Wales in 1954.
In 1967, Gibson accepted the role as coach of Easts after they had finished their 1966 season dead last, having lost every game. It was their third wooden spoon in four seasons. Gibson’s dry, direct candour had an immediate effect, elevating the team off the bottom of the table and into the finals in both 1967 and ’68. He moved to the Dragons for the 1970 and ’71 seasons, where they featured in the finals both times, reaching the decider in 1971.
Gibson spent the 1972 season honing his craft and studying the practices employed in American Football. In 1973 he coached Newtown, steering them to their first finals campaign since 1966. Then came the start of his immense success, linking with former club Easts in 1974. He won back-to-back titles in 1974-75, marshaling one of the game’s greatest ever club sides, before falling just shy of the decider in 1976.
Gibson moved to Souths in 1978 and helped improve the ailing club, yet failed to reach the finals. He then transitioned to Parramatta in 1981 and delivered them their first ever title. It was a period of dominance, as Gibson guided the Eels to three consecutive premierships (1981-83).
In 1985, he accepted his final and most challenging club coaching role, running the financially stricken Cronulla side. Unfortunately, even Gibson was unable to improve the team and retired at the end of 1987. He made a brief return at representative level in 1989 and 1990, coaching the City and NSW Origin sides, winning the 1990 series. Gibson was honoured in 2008 as being the coach of the Team of the Century.
2. Wayne Bennett
7 Premierships – 788 games, 489 wins, 14 draws, 285 losses – 62.06%
Wayne Bennett was a lanky winger in Brisbane who earned 7 caps at state level from 1971 to 1973. He was a surprise inclusion in Australia’s 1972 squad, making two minor appearances on the New Zealand tour. He moved into coaching in his mid 20’s, running Ipswich, Brisbane Souths and Brothers in the BRL competition. In 1986 he was appointed to coach the Queensland Origin side and the following year was co-coach of the Canberra Raiders, alongside Test coach Don Furner. The two helped the young side to the 1987 Grand Final where they were beaten by Manly.
The introduction of the Brisbane Broncos in 1988 allowed Bennett to return north as their coach, a role he held until 2008. He became the most successful coach of the 1990s, steering the Broncos to a pair of premierships in 1992/93, a Super League title in 1997, and victory in the inaugural season of the unified NRL competition in 1998. He oversaw two more Brisbane premierships in the subsequent decade (2000, 2006), before moving to the Dragons in 2009.
Bennett’s success continued at St George, guiding his side to a minor premiership in 2009 and then to a long-awaited NRL title in 2010. In 2012, he moved to Newcastle in what transpired to be a poor time for the experienced coach. He left the club a season early and returned to the Broncos for the 2015 season. Bennett’s Brisbane side made the decider, but suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Cowboys in extra time.
Bennett has also coached Australia, was an assistant coach for New Zealand in their triumphant 2008 World Cup campaign, and is the current coach of England.
1. Arthur Halloway
8 Premierships – 286 games, 178 wins, 17 draws, 91 losses – 62.24%
Arthur Halloway’s phenomenal career as a player and coach spanned over 40 years. He was a pioneer player in the game’s inaugural season of 1908 with Glebe. The following year he moved to nearby Balmain for three seasons, before playing at Easts for three years. He returned to Balmain in 1915, playing through their golden era and retiring as a player in 1920, having won 7 premierships.
In 1916, after returning to Balmain, he took on the role as captain-coach, guiding the side to Premiership success in 1916, ’17, ’19 and ’20. After a few years in Country NSW, Halloway returned to Sydney and coached Newtown in a disappointing 1923 campaign. He resumed coaching in 1930, this time with Easts and led them throughout all bar two years of the decade (1932 and 1939). It would prove to be the most dominant period in the club’s history as they won premierships in 1935, ’36 and ’37.
In 1940, Halloway took over at North Sydney for two seasons, with little success. After a three year hiatus he returned to Easts in 1945 and won his eighth and final premiership as coach. The 1947 season was a poor one by his standards as Easts ran third last. He switched to Canterbury for one last year in 1948, but they fell from Grand Finalists to fifth place and missed the finals, thus bringing a close to the career of one of the game’s greatest leaders.