And so it looks like the coaching situation at Saints has finally been resolved with Justin Holbrook seemingly set to be named as the new man this week.
Saints have been coach-less since the departure of Keiron Cunningham on April 10, since when the triumvirate of Jamahl Lolesi, Sean Long and Derek Traynor have been in interim charge of first team affairs. They have led Saints to two wins and two losses from their first four games at the helm and, while Saints have been inconsistent during that span, the trio have introduced some fresh ideas and a little more excitement in the way Saints go about their business.
So who is Justin Holbrook? Not many Saints fans (including this one if I’m honest) will have heard of the 41-year-old who is currently an assistant coach at Sydney Roosters. He has a good grounding in coaching young players having been in charge of the Paramatta Under-20s side and has also had spells on the coaching staff of both St.George-Illawarra and Canterbury. In all he has almost 10 years coaching experience which is considerable given his age.
Before moving into coaching Holbrook was a halfback for Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers and the Roosters in the NRL and it is hoped that a once creative player can transfer that to the coaching arena at Super League level. It’s a first senior head coaching role for Holbrook so it will be interesting to see how he makes the step up from an assistant’s role to being the main man. He has done it at youth level with the Australian Junior Kangaroos side and also with Parramatta. Whilst with the Eels he turned a side running 14th in the competition into a contender in the space of just a year. That kind of improvement is quite an achievement and something he will no doubt be hoping to replicate with a currently under-achieving Saints outfit.
Yet for all of this his appointment, should it happen, represents something of a gamble for Saints. After all Holbrook has no senior head coaching experience to speak of and you could make the argument that Super League is a vastly different beast to junior rugby league. Wondering out loud whether Saints might have looked for a home-grown coach, even one from the lower leagues, is not unfair. That approach has worked wonderfully well for Castleford Tigers after they took Daryl Powell from Featherstone Rovers, while our own Ian Millward was snapped up from Leigh when they were a second tier outfit at the end of 1999. A greater level of senior head coaching experience might have been desirable even if that experience was not at Super League level.
Not to say that Holbrook won’t be a success. There have already been comparisons made among the fans with former Wigan head coach Michael Maguire. Now the head coach of South Sydney Rabbitohs Maguire spent two seasons with Wigan, winning the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup in that spell and introducing a winning style and culture which has largely been left unsullied by current Warriors coach Shaun Wane. If it ain’t broke…
Where we would hope that Holbrook differs from Maguire is tactically. Maguire made Wigan very tough defensively and so difficult to beat, but they haven’t been the most entertaining team in the world to watch since Maguire introduced their now well-worn attacking structure. Also, though it is natural for a writer of my persuasion to notice the faults of our friends from over the lump, it cannot have escaped the notice of the average neutral that some of Wigan’s defensive tactics are less than desirable. The wrestling, holding down, third-man tackling are all dark arts perfected by Wigan since Maguire’s tenure. The problem for Holbrook is that, unlike at Wigan where winning is enough and who cares if you do it ugly, there is a certain style expected from Saints fans which has to also be married to a desire to win.
Stacked against Holbrook is the sheer amount of work that needs to be done to this squad to make it both entertaining and effective. There are half a dozen or more players currently on the books that simply aren’t capable of contributing to that kind of game at Super League level and who would therefore need to be replaced. The recruitment problems at Saints over the last few years are a well documented and ongoing problem, so Holbrook will have to be exceedingly shrewd in how he goes about building a team that he can call his own.
Additionally, the more observant among you will have noted that Maguire, for all his qualities, is no longer at Wigan. Yes, he left something of a legacy (even if we don’t much care for it) but the fact remains that after just two years in the job he jumped at the first high-profile NRL job that came his way. A coach imported from the NRL, especially an assistant, is much more likely to see a Super League club as a stepping stone to something better and more financially rewarding back home than one who has made the step up from the lower echelons of the British game as Powell did. That might not be a problem if we can then promote from within to continue implementing what will hopefully be a winning, attractive style but there is just as much chance of the whole thing having to be ripped up and started again in two years time. Perhaps on this occasion we just have to accept that in the current climate Saints are a stepping stone to an NRL career, but it doesn’t quite sit right for a club with such an illustrious history.
Still, now is not the time for negative, defeatist talk. Since so little is known about Holbrook and if he is the man in possession of the role by the end of this week then we must get behind him and offer our full support. He’ll struggle to achieve anything without the fans on his side. If he holds up his end of the bargain by re-introducing some of the stylistic traditions that Saints fans hold so dear, and if he can drag the side back into contention for honours once more, then the argument could be made that he has been a good appointment irrespective of what he goes on to do with the rest of his coaching career post-Saints.