That old saying about great players making great coaches is easily proven.
You could fill a retirement village with coaches who won titles with star-studded teams before having their limitations cruelly exposed by something more judgemental than a rose-clutching Bachelorette — time.
Yet very few teams have gone all the way without at least the odd superstar to provide the inspiration when the coach’s demand for perspiration simply wasn’t enough.
But as undefeated Melbourne Storm enter Friday night’s tantalising NRL Grand Final rematch with second-placed Sydney Roosters, it gets ever more difficult to apply the axiom to Craig Bellamy.
Surely we must acknowledge the Storm coach’s status as the NRL’s, and Australian sport’s, finest coach is as much the consequence of his own rare gifts as the great players who have occupied his locker room.
As one by one the future Immortals who supposedly made coaching the Storm easier than riding Winx defected or retired, we have circled the Storm like pensioners around an all-you-can-eat buffet, waiting for them to stumble.
Greg Inglis’s retirement tributes this week reminded us the Storm lost a generational talent when he was the collateral damage in the Storm’s salary cap crisis.
Many overachieving Storm years later, Cooper Cronk followed his heart to Sydney and the Roosters, yet the Storm still made the 2018 grand final, where their former star stole the title with the greatest piece of one-armed banditry this side of the Rooty Hill RSL.
Then before this season the brilliant and talismanic Billy Slater rode off into the sunset and, despite all prior evidence, some of us couldn’t help wondering if this was the last brick in the wall.
Craig Bellamy lost the services of Cooper Cronk in 2017, only to meet again in the 2018 grand final. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Although only until about 49 minutes into the first round match against the Broncos, when the Storm led 16-0 and it was already startlingly obvious they would be in the premiership mix yet again.
So unless you want to venture that Bellamy owes it all to the last remaining member of the Big Four, Cameron Smith — not completely inarguable last weekend when Smith broke Hazem El Masri’s NRL point-scoring record — it is time to flip that old saying; time to acknowledge that, in this rare case, a great coach has made his players, his team and even his club great.
How? When I helped Slater write his autobiography he confirmed the importance of the well-chronicled Bellamy methods: the arduous pre-seasons that gave the Storm an edge on most opposition; the occasional fiery exchange that underlined his enormous expectations; the consuming work ethic and obsession with planning and detail; and, most poignantly, the loyalty and compassion he had shown players in times good and bad.
Billy Slater (centre) and Cameron Smith helped Melbourne become a formidable team, but Craig Bellamy is at the heart of the Storm’s success. (AAP: Daniel Pockett)
Yet I was surprised by the number of times Slater would recount an anecdote about one of the Storm’s great triumphs without mentioning Bellamy’s role until prompted.
This was not a sign or disrespect to his only NRL coach but an indication how empowering Bellamy had been for his superstars.
Bellamy would meticulously lay the foundation for the Storm’s greatest performances through arduous pre-seasons and intricate training drills, then get out of their way.
Through the prying lens of the TV camera Bellamy has become famed for his emotional reactions to triumph and travail.
So much so, when a caterer with a plate of sandwiches walked into the Storm coaching box during a recent game and Bellamy turned angrily to find out who had dared enter his high-pressure domain, you momentarily feared for both the caterer and his sangers.
But rather than unrestrained rage, perhaps Bellamy’s tortured game-day expression is that of a man who knows he has done his part and now must hand over control.
Even if this means writhing in frustration and despair as his players do their best to enact his best laid plans.
Few know Bellamy better than Offsiders panellist Roy Masters, a former grand final coach and confidant of the Storm coach.
I asked Masters to list the five things that have made Bellamy the game’s preeminent coach. This is what he came up with:
- Honest. He is frank and truthful in his relations with players.
- Work ethic. If the sorcerer’s stone of coaching is to work harder than the players, he has found it.
- Technical expertise. He makes players better by making incremental improvements to their skills.
- Emotional maturity. It’s taken a while to achieve this but he rarely allows himself to be rattled by an unexpected, discriminatory act.
- A coach for a whole club. Although he is primarily a “player’s coach”, he also recognises their families, the admin staff, the owners, fans, media and upholds the image of the club.
Trent Robinson led the Roosters to the 2018 Premiership, beating Bellamy’s Storm in the grand final. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
There is nothing particularly extraordinary in any of those individual observations, but it is difficult to come up with another coach in any code who applies them all so expertly.
Comparisons between coaches in vastly different game can be fatuous. But currently in Australia only Hawthorn’s Alastair Clarkson compares with Bellamy — and Clarkson must now prove he can keep the Hawks near the top of the ladder after losing the generation of superstars who some might argue (wrongly in my opinion) made him great.
The current NRL coach who reminds me most of Bellamy is the Roosters’ Trent Robinson. Not in his persona, but in his quiet intelligence and ability to pull together not just his team but a notoriously political and ambitious club.
So on Friday night you can forget that old saying. We will see a great coach and one with the hallmarks of greatness making their talented teams much better.
All the results and issues from the sporting weekend will be dissected on Offsiders on ABC TV, 10am Sunday.