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Michael Hagan...only time will tell - Australian Rugby league News
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globalrugbyleague - Mon, 05 Feb 2007 06:44:00 GMT
When Michael Hagan was named by Eels supremo Denis Fitzgerald as the man
to succeed former coach Brian Smith, some fans gestured that Hagan’s arrival in
2007 was six-seasons too late, a cutting reminder that some wounds never fully
heal.



Like a scar which remains evident on a knee which was
knocked into the sedimentary side of a rock-pool, the mob from O’Connell St are
not able to fully bandage the bloody wounds penetrated by the dagger that was
the 2001 Grand Final.



Nor should they have to, considering the blue and gold foot soldiers valiantly
played some of the best attacking and defensive football that year until they
lost their footing and slipped while only one step away from reaching the top
of Rugby League’s very own Kosciusko.



Given that it was Hagan’s tactical precision in targeting the Eels’ talented
but smaller stars with his huge forward trunks which handed him a trophy in his
rookie year as an NRL coach, the presumption is he should still be able to pull
off similar magic.



The theory is ' you scratched their back, now do ours'.



Down in Sydney’s
north-west, the appetite for success remains strong.



Six years later, the Eels are still hunting for their first premiership trophy
since their tryless 4-2 win over Canterbury in 1986 while Brian Smith (filling
in Hagan’s old gig at Newcastle like a scene out of eighties flick 'Trading
Places') remains the best coach never to win a premiership.



The scent is certainly their for a rivalry in the making between the Eels and
the Knights, considering the bonds they will share together for the next
three-years.



While one talkback caller earlier this year suggested the Knights payout Brian
Smith’s contract before he even gets to make his first post-match speech next
season, Hagan has been embraced by Eels supporters with a quiet sense of
exuberance.



This is hardly surprising. Hagan comes from a culture of winning when it counts
which dates back to playing for a Canterbury-Bankstown outfit which won three
premierships during his time at Belmore.



Should the former Queensland Origin coach win another Grand Final or Smith lose
his fourth, the knockers will be out in force, yelling out “I told you so” on
every Sports program and in every internet forum.



One gets the feeling however that the critics are already hovering over the
handset.



Almost 80 days after the 2006 season officially ended, the ‘experts’ are
already putting everyone’s favourite NRL teams on trial with particular
emphasis on the quantity and quality of talent acquisition and disposal.



And the same cynics are back, ready to chew on a new Parramatta outfit right to the bone. Yet do
they really know the power of the mentor they’re dealing with?



In Darryl Brohman’s case, yes and no.



Brohman – a member of the Canterbury
pack which won two premierships in 1984-85 – played alongside Hagan and has
followed his career as a coach in the media since retiring from the game in
1987.



On the ratio of ins and outs at Parramatta,
the scale appears dangerously lopsided.16 players have either left or been
released at the end of 2006 while only 5 have joined the club.



Members of the gang of 16 which recently departed include Glenn Morrison
(Bradford), Wade McKinnon (Warriors), John Morris (Tigers) Dean Widders
(Rabbitohs), Luke O’Dwyer (Titans), Jeremy Smith (Rabbitohs) just to name a
few.



The players arriving at the club hoping to turn the world on fire? Brett Finch
(Roosters), Todd Lowrie (Knights), Ian Hindmarsh (Les Catalans), Michael Lett
(Roosters) and Richard Fa'aoso (Castleford).



Club representatives can argue till the moon turns square about the salary cap
taking it’s toll. But the bitter taste which ensues from losing that much
talent at the end of one season is hard to numb regardless.



It could be the catalyst for one of those ‘forks’ in the road that Kevin Rudd
has spotted recently. Okay, it’s time for that trendy phrase to fork off.



Brohman however is not deterred from concluding in the Daily Telegraph’s
32-page ultimate pre-season guide that the Eels “will struggle to be
competitive.”



He has a point.



The last four teams to win NRL premierships have averaged 8 players exiting the
club at the end of the preceding season.



Parramatta has
conceded an average of 10 players leaving the club per season since the end of
2003. Arch rivals Canterbury
averaged 7 and have won a title in the last five seasons.



So is there too much team re-building per off-season at Parramatta? Perhaps.



But then open up your Big League season review edition from 2005 and the
statistics like the weather don’t always provide a reliable guide.



The Eels won a minor premiership after turning over 14 players (one notable
name being Jamie Lyon) to either other clubs, other codes or retirement while
gaining only 9 new faces.



And what happened to Brohmans former mob at Belmore that year? They didn’t even
make the top eight, granted they were dealt a list of injuries as long as your Franklins shopping list.



So why is the ‘Big Man’ worried about Hagan’s Heroes being unable to compete in
2007?



Two of the Eels five off-season recruits have both played in Grand Finals
within the last six seasons, (Hindmarsh – 01 & Finch – 04) which suggests
they have a firm grasp of team continuity.



11 of the stars predicted by the press to make next year’s starting line-up
featured heavily in helping the Eels get to within 1 game of the 2005 Grand
Final.



And what about Hagan’s first-year record with clubs? That can’t be laughed at
easily either by rival coaches or fans.



After winning the wooden spoon in 2005, it’s easy to forget Hagan’s 65 per cent
winning rate in 2001 (19 Wins, 9 losses and 1 draw), no easy feat in the week
to week world of bash and barge football where the world’s worst injuries are
only just around the corner for some of the world’ best players.



Add to that his winning percentage of 70.83 per cent in his second year
mentoring the Knights and the old ‘had a lucky first year’ theory is killed
off.



Finishing 4 th in his first year with the Canberra Raiders first division squad
in 1999 (a side which included new Eels five-eighth, Brett Finch) and falling
one game short in the preliminary final against eventual premiers, Parramatta,
isn’t a stain on his report card either.



Merely more evidence strengthening Denis Fitzgerald’s decision to go with a
‘proven’ winner. And why not?



The last time Fitzgerald appointed a first grade coach who had previously won a
premiership or two, the Eels did more then win a title. They went onto create a
dynasty by winning the next three Winfield Cups.



The name of that coach was Jack Gibson.



Gibson – at the time he was appointed to take over from John Peard – had come
in from the cold after a less then fruitful period with South
Sydney.



During his two season stint (1978-79), the Bunnies failed to make the finals,
mostly due to the lack of quality talent in the playing ranks.



Gibson’s innovations while unsuccessful at Souths, turned to gold at Parramatta, elevating the
theory that grey skies do occassionally descend upon coaching greats yet they
can still clear up.



What worked for Chris Anderson at the Bulldogs in 95 and the Storm in 99 did
not work at Cronulla but could re-ignite fireworks at the Roosters. The same
ethos could mold Hagan’s time with the Eels too.



As we arrive into 2007, there are 6 NRL coaches who each deserve their own spot
in a pepsi commercial where the catch-cry is, "Been there, done
that!"



The question therefore is not can Hagan win the Eels a title but how? Does he
have the quality that Gibson stumbled upon in 1981 or is he about to endure his
own time in premiership purgatory like his predecessor.



Watch and learn.


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