From The Coach’s Office: Lessons From The Broncos

By LEE ADDISON

THE curse of Lee Addison’s rugbyleaguehub.com articles strikes again! 

Last week I said Justin Holbrook had a ‘titanic task’ to fix the Gold Coast Titans. I totally stand by that but it then it does pose the question about how bad the current Brisbane outfit are really travelling after the teetering Titans thumped the Broncos 30-12 at Suncorp Stadium.

I’ve seen this kind of thing happen a thousand times in rugby league and in sport in general. So I think it important to try and write something that looks for the reasons ‘why’ rather than just listing everything that is wrong. The world is full of people who pass comment-  but not as common is those who offer solutions or remedies  So here’s my attempt. And I’ll start at the beginning.

The Coach recruitment decision. 

It is a pretty open secret or is widely alleged in the game that Anthony Seibold (the current Broncos head coach) was the man that the Broncos wanted all along.  Other interviewees were reported to be…

  • Michael Maguire – a premiership winner on both sides of the world as a coach;
  • Kevin Walters – a Broncos and Queensland legend, the current Origin coach with plenty of wins under his belt;
  • Jason Demetriou – a man who has worked wonders in the lower grades, winning competitions and has done an excellent and thorough ‘head coach’ apprenticeship. 

They instead plumped for a man who had been coaching for just over a decade in various roles. When he was appointed at Souths prior to his time at the Broncos, their CEO Shane Richardson stated that “Anthony has done a long apprenticeship with some of the best coaches and organisations in rugby league.”

Indeed this is true. But as a head coach, Seibold’s record is a little more questionable. He indeed took the South Wales Scorpions to the finals in their first ever season in 2010. But they were in the third division of the UK system. He then took over the Mackay Cutters in the Queensland Cup in 2011. They had finished in the top four in 2010. Under Seibold they finished ninth then eighth and he had a 41 per cent winning record  After that he was largely an assistant coach before taking the South Sydney role for the 2018 season. 

In his only season at Redfern, the Bunnies finished third .  In the finals, they finished one game from the grand final, losing to eventual premiers, the Roosters. It was a year boosted by a great period mid-season. The locals in Redfern and many commentators thought they had a premiership challenging roster but they fell just short. 

So let’s look at this for what it is. Seibold had a lot of experience as an assistant under some top coaches and in some excellent organisations but his head coach record didn’t necessarily jump out as an exceptional one. One finals appearance with a team in the UK’s third division and one good season with the Rabbitohs. Being the boss is very different to being a 2IC.

The Broncos replaced Wayne Bennett with Seibold. Love him or loathe him, believe in him or think his powers are on the wane – the facts are not disputable: Bennett has won more premierships than any other coach in the history of the sport and, in his 25 years in Brisbane, made the finals in every single year. In his second spell he even got them to a grand final, losing in extra time to intervention from the man many believe to be the best to ever play the game, Jonathan Thurston.

The Broncos replaced the man who won seven premierships with a man who has never won one and said they were going to win a premiership under him. 

The coach swap, you may remember, was an absolute circus. But you can also imagine what kind of conversations were happening at Broncos HQ. In 2018 under Bennett, the Brisbane outfit finished sixth and limped out of the finals. Down in Sydney, a young coach who didn’t snarl at the media and spoke of innovation in training and team management was guiding his side to third and playing off to reach the grand final. The young coach got a five-year contract and the old coach got the boot.

My assessment of this is that I can see what the Broncos are trying to do (or were trying to do) so they absolutely have to come out in support of their man right now. Otherwise, they are accepting they got the appointment wrong. The coach is certainly no mug, he’s got plenty of smarts but that doesn’t mean he is putting those smarts in the right direction and, like so many intelligent people we all meet in life, it seems he is missing some of the things that everyone else can see blatantly.

It seems to me that he is still a ‘young’ coach learning his trade in the harshest possible environment.  He is a coach still very much ‘under construction’. His head coaching record prior to being at Brisbane suggests that and Seibold is learning rapidly that this game is not all about X’s and O’s or the latest scientific theories. 

The Brisbane Old Boys

Channel Seven reporter Chris Garry recently wrote that there are three camps that the Brisbane ‘old boys’ fall into: “Seibold supporters, Walters supporters and Wayne Bennett supporters”.

Wayne Bennett will be something of a shadow over the Broncos for a while. He had been a coach at the club for so long that so many of his ex-players are out there. Many of them are in media roles and have plenty to say about the current Broncos predicament. To be fair, some of them never accepted Seibold from day one.

The Broncos old boy network is a strong one.  Bennett used to have so many of them return to the club for regular barbeques after the last training session of each week during his tenure. They have always been part of the fabric of the place and have had a regular say in proceedings too, whether their opinions were welcome or not.

The appointment of Seibold was thought of as a departure from the Bennett era but you look at a similar situation in soccer to see parallels and potential pitfalls. Manchester United show how departing from the ways of such a successful and long term statesman can be hard. Alex Ferguson left United in 2013 after winning everything in sight for over two decades. Since then, the club hasn’t won a league title and churned through some of the worlds most decorated managers. They have recently gone back to a Ferguson acolyte as their coaching option. 

A similar person for the Broncos would have been Kevvie Walters, who played and coached under Bennett. No way is Walters a Bennett clone or even close with the old master coach but there can be no doubting that a huge chunk of his learnings came from him. Walters has been forced to avoid commenting on reports he had a handshake agreement to coach the Broncos when instead the job went to Seibold.   

If Seibold does have supporters in the old boys camp, then they are being drowned out in the media by those in the other two camps-  and this is adding to the ‘white noise’ surrounding the club. There is also one big significant difference between the Broncos and United situation. Ferguson chose the time to retire and went on his own terms and Bennett didn’t. He was sacked. 

On the field

Like any team that is struggling there is no shortage of things to target for improvement.  But the first one that jumps out to me is how many of their players get injured. 


The first place the coach must look at is the training methods. I know a few of the characters around the club and it keeps coming back to me that the Broncos training is brutal.  Yet their players don’t look particularly fit for the task at hand and many of them are getting injured. And a lot of them have been injured in training. 

So training methods absolutely need to be assessed and reconsidered.    

Tactically and selection wise, I don’t really want to add to the current plethora of opinions out there, except to say, Milford is a runner not an organiser and put Dearden in the number seven jersey. 

Mentality is key

The Broncos won the two opening rounds of this years NRL competition. Even though they got whacked by the Eels and then the Roosters on the resumption, in round five they were 18-0 up against Manly Sea Eagles at half time having played excellently. They managed to lose 20-18.

If they had won that game then they would have probably won at least one of the next two, yet losing to Manly in such a fashion showed that there was some mental fragility there.

As a result, playing a team like the Titans, they were probably more worried about losing than focused on winning. Performance anxiety can be crippling. They smack of a team that are shot mentally. 

The other factor is what the players did or didn’t do while in lockdown and how their training was handled on the resumption but the mentality and psychology of sport is still a very under-valued force. The players need to relax and focus on processes, not outcomes. 

Recruitment

“They lack experience” say the same media that said they were a premiership-capable roster regularly over the last 18 months. 

Well yes, they are a young squad and once again, I use Alex Ferguson as a guide. He has said several times words to the effect that a team needs to be a three-way equal split between young guns with their best years ahead, players in their peak and players who are at the experienced end of the scale. And you get shot of the experienced ones before they go past their used by date. 

Although a soccer man, Ferguson’s formula is very straight forward and makes sense for any team measure. If that is a fair measure then the Broncos have got this balance all wrong.   

The words they use to explain their approach is they are building a squad for the future.  Seibold refers to his side as the ‘youngest in the competition’. Yet the vultures are constantly circling, with their gun back row David Fifita currently having heaps of cash waved at him from elsewhere. They nearly lost Alex Glenn to another club in the off-season because their contract offer was less than widely expected, yet made him captain. Ben Ikin referred to him as the ‘accidental captain’ in a Fox Sports article dated June 5, 2020. 

In the important nine, six, seven and one positions, the Broncos originally had players that Ikin described as having “experience, combination and a good understanding of the club’s history and culture, traits the coach seemingly didn’t value.” They were replaced by players who are a lot less experienced and very early in their careers. 

Ikin closed his article with thoughts that he couldn’t “quite figure out if the coach is the victim of a broken system, or part of the problem.”

Yes, the Broncos have injuries and lack experience in places. But a big part of the problem with the Broncos now is managing expectations.

The club may be one of the richest but it plays in a salary capped sport.

When they had the glory days of the 1990s, they were the only show in town for most of it. The Cowboys (1,350 kilometres away) took a while to grow into the force they became and the Titans (80km away) were still a decade or so from starting up. Yes there was the Crushers and the like but they never truly got a hold on the market.

Now, instead of having most of Queensland to themselves, they have to compete with two other NRL clubs and also Sydney clubs (and the Storm) that are a lot more sophisticated and advanced when it comes to finding the best talent in the Sunshine State.

The Broncos as a club haven’t won a premiership since 2006. That was their first in six years and they have got to one Grand Final in the last 14 years.
The Broncos have ‘come back to the pack’ and they’ve been like that for well over a decade really.

Summary

The Broncos expect to win premierships but that could be a false hope without fundamental reform. Most teams in the salary cap era have ‘premiership windows’ where they seem capable of winning the big prize (based mainly on perceived roster strength). The teams that have been mostly successful in this era are the Roosters and Melbourne Storm. Both those clubs have what seems from the outside as a strong club ethos, values and clear recruitment and retention strategies.       

When the Broncos used to win most of their premierships, they used to have Kangaroos and Origin stars galore. Salary caps these days are more restrictive. 

To win the premierships again, they appointed a coach with little in terms of successful head coach experience and who has never won one. This has come on a collision course with expectations that the Broncos need to be in the mix for every premiership that is ever contested. Apparently you don’t get rebuilding years at the Broncos.     

If they stay on the path they are on, Seibold will learn on the job. He’s an intelligent man who is close to the coaching version of rock bottom.He will be learning more about himself than ever. But all Broncos stakeholders need to recalibrate their thoughts and prepare for a bit more pain before there is widespread gain.   

If the powers that be feel that they can’t continue on this path, it will be because the pressure becomes too big and they feel that the bottom line will suffer, namely memberships and supporter base. In that instance, it would be they who must answer the serious questions. 

Lee Addison is the Head of Performance for Spain Rugby League but any views expressed in this column are his own.  You can find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au.      He is also offering FREE 4 week training programs for Coaches and Players to help recover from COVID.   Please visit the ‘Rugby League Coach’ YouTube page, click subscribe and send a screenshot to admin@rugbyleaguecoach.com.au for your free programs.

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