The Top 5 Rugby League Coaches of All Time
Coaching is arguably the toughest job in rugby league.
It takes countless hours, a great understanding of the game and the ability to extract the best from each player – and the team as a whole.
The best coaches must also be innovative, tactically brilliant, be able to work through a myriad of challenges and have an unrelenting desire for success.
Judging who have been the best coaches in the history of the game is, inevitably, contentious. No two coaches deal with the same people, same issues or have the same playing personnel at their disposal.
But in the cut-throat business of coaching, premiership success is a key measure.
With that in mind, our top five is:
5. Tim Sheens
Sheens coached close to 700 games at four clubs (Penrith Panthers, Canberra Raiders, North Queensland Cowboys and Wests Tigers) between 1984 and 2012 and has a record the envy of most. He took the Panthers to their first finals series in 1985 and was at the helm for the Raiders’ first premiership in 1989, as well as title wins in 1990 and 94. Despite lean years at the Cowboys, he bounced back to take the Tigers to the 2005 NRL title. Sheens also has an outstanding record as the Australian rep coach, a position he still holds. Testament to his influence as a mentor is that the likes of Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Craig Bellamy and Michael Maguire all played under him at Canberra.
4. Clive Churchill
The “Little Master” coached South Sydney in 1958 and was player-coach for Norths Brisbane in their premiership win the following year, in which he also coached the Kangaroos. Although he coached Canterbury with little success in 1964 he returned to mentor the Bunnies in 1967 and they went on to five successive grand finals, winning four. Churchill remained in the role until 1975, with a 64 percent winning record during that nine year stint.
3. Norm Provan
In the modern day it is almost unimaginable that the player-coach role once existed. Norm Provan not only held both jobs at St George from 1962-65, but took the Dragons to premierships in those four seasons. He coached the club again in 1968, had a successful season with Parramatta in 1975, and took the Sharks to a grand final in the first of his two seasons at Cronulla.
2. Wayne Bennett
A giant of the game, Bennett has deservedly worn the moniker of “super coach” for the past two decades. He began coaching in the Brisbane league and was appointed Queensland Origin coach in 1986 – a role he held three times, for a total of seven series, by 2003.
Bennett co-coached Canberra to a grand final in his first year of NSWRL coaching in 1987 before becoming the foundation Brisbane Broncos coach the following year. He won premierships with Brisbane in 1992 and 93, the Super League title in 1997 and NRL titles in 1998, 2000 and 2006 during 21 years at the club. In 2009, he moved to the Dragons and took them to a long-awaited title in his second season. After three seasons with limited success at the Newcastle Knights, Bennett returns to the Broncos in 2015 to complete the final chapter of his remarkable career.
Bennett has coached most of the game’s best in the past 30 years and has the respect of all. With a 62 percent winning percentage after more than 700 premiership games and enviable records for Queensland and Australia, his record speaks for itself.
1. Jack Gibson
The original “super coach”, Gibson was a five time premiership winner and as innovative as anybody before or since. In his debut coaching season in 1967 he took the Roosters from winless wooden spooners to semi-finalists (arguably the greatest turnaround in Australian rugby league history). When he went to St George for two seasons he took them to the 1971 grand final. In one season at Newtown he won the pre-season comp and took his side to the finals. Returning to the Roosters the following year he took them to back-to-back premierships. Although he had two fruitless seasons at Souths he took the helm at Parramatta in 1981 and guided the Eels – who had not previously won a premiership – to three successive titles.
Gibson had outstanding players to work with in his premiership sides (e.g., Ron Coote and Arthur Beetson, among one of the greatest forward packs of all time, at Easts and Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Mick Cronin, forming one of rugby league’s best-ever backlines, at Parramatta), but was a pioneer.
He is credited with being the first coach to use computers in evaluating player performance and in using video as a coaching device, with making the bomb a potent attacking weapon (through kicker John Peard) and even introduced the use of mascara under the eyes to reduce glare for night games. He is also thought to be the first league coach to have his teams train alongside footballers from other codes.
The Best of the Rest:
Balmain’s Arthur Halloway (who took the Tigers to four premierships in five years between 1916 and 1920) or Souths’ Charlie Lynch (who won four titles between 1928 and 1932) might be considered unlucky to miss our list. So too Phil Gould, after winning a title with Canterbury in his debut season in 1988 and at Penrith in 1991 (after taking the Panthers to their first grand final the previous year) and for his impact on NSW at State of Origin level. Craig Bellamy’s record with Melbourne Storm and his innovative defensive methods would also make him a contender, while Warren Ryan – whose defensive emphasis helped the Bulldogs to titles in 1984 and 1986 – was another to greatly influence the way the game is played.
What do you think? Who is the greatest Rugby League coach of all time? How would your top 5 look?