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With the news this week that current Newcastle coach Michael Hagan will leave the club and take the reigns at Parramatta from 2007, it seems the claws have come out regarding the legacy Hagan will leave behind in Newcastle. This week internet forums have sprung to life over the decision by Parramatta to appoint Hagan as their replacement for Brian Smith following the Newcastle board electing not to renew Hagan?s current contract which expires at the end of 2006.
Teaming with Andrew Johns for the 2001 NRL season brought immediate success with the Novocastrians overcoming the favoured Eels in the Grand Final. But reaching that level of success has been beyond Newcastle ever since. The naysayers pinpoint Hagan as the culprit; the facts however suggest a far more logical answer.
Those who have written off the Knights this season because of Hagan's impending departure and 'conflict of interest' during 2006 conveniently forget the fact that every year Hagan and Newcastle?s record has lived and died by the availability of one Andrew Johns.
Evaluating a coach inevitably comes back to wins on the board and premierships won. While club, player and league-wide profile development are often advertised as critical areas for a coach to improve once given the job ? the fact is no matter how much success a coach has with the club off the field - only Premiership victory and sustained success delivers job security. Having your best player available generally has a lot to do with satisfying the latter.
Since taking charge of the Knights in 2001 Hagan has won a premiership (2001), reached the Finals on three occasions (2001-03) and won 53.1% of premiership games coached.
The Knights may have taken the Wooden Spoon home in 2005, but the long term injury to Johns and a weakened playing roster (no Ben Kennedy, Timana Tahu, Robbie O?Davis or Matt Parsons) were at the forefront of the reasons they were awarded the infamous kitchen utensil for the first time.
Without Johns the Knights don?t win - that has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt (thanks Matthew Johns for making that saying fashionable again) and reading opinion criticising Hagan for not delivering success without Johns is bewildering.
Let's look at the facts ? examining Newcastle?s fortunes with and without Andrew Johns during Michael Hagan?s tenure.
2001 ? PREMIERS.
Johns available for most of season (bar knee injury that keeps him out 10 weeks but that is mid-year so Knights get good start with him in the side) and in brilliant form come finals time. Rolling past the Roosters and edging the Sharks in the lead up games they blow the Eels off the park in the Grand Final?s opening 40 minutes and take the title from 3rd position. Johns wins the Clive Churchill Medal and definitively establishes himself as the best in the game.
2002 - Knocked out of the Finals with consecutive losses after finishing 2nd on table.
Johns and the Knights look set to repeat as champions with a great regular season. But when Luke Bailey's knees collide with Joey's spine in the qualifying final - it is all over bar the shouting. The Knights lose that game to the Dragons and despite pushing the Roosters in the elimination semi final bow out of the race. The first question of 'what if Johns was fit' arises.
2003 - Knocked out of the Finals in week one by Roosters.
Johns leads the NSW Blues in their victorious State of Origin campaign and dominates the NRL once again. Late in the season Johns injures his neck despite playing on for a few weeks finally succumbs to the pain after leading the Knights to a 48 point first half romp against the Cowboys. He doesn't play again and the Knights limp into the Finals where they are easily defeated by the Roosters in the qualifying final. 'What Ifs' abound around Newcastle for a second year running.
2004 - 10th place missed Finals by two points.
The Joey led Knights beat Panthers in Round 1, Melbourne in Round 2 and just get pipped by the Eels in Round 3 - the round Joey does his knee. In case you're wondering Penrith won the comp in 2003, Melbourne got knocked out in the semi final stage and Parramatta had just beaten the Broncos in the previous round of the 2004 premiership. A decent start to the season but without Johns in the side there is no realistic hope of a title challenge. Despite having no Joey for almost the entire season the Knights only just miss the Finals.
2005 - Wooden Spoon.
A vastly weaker side than any of the Knights teams that ran around from 2002-04 and a bad start having lost their first four games is compounded when Johns breaks his jaw against the Warriors in Round 6 (a game they looked set to win before his injury). By the time Joey returns the Knights are rock bottom and no chance of making the Finals. They win 8 of their last 11 and one Andrew Johns has an awful lot to do about it.
Now if Andrew Johns is fit in the 2002 and 2003 campaigns - Newcastle probably make at least one Grand Final. And you can?t deny them the possibility of making it three titles on the trot. In 2004 - he's injured for the whole season and in 2005 his relatively short term injury occurs at the wrong time for the Knights to be able to salvage their season upon his return.
So is it fair to say that Hagan is a ?dud? coach because Newcastle didn't win anything in 2002 and 2003 without Johns? And is it fair to expect Hagan to have led the Knights to the Finals without the injured Johns in 2004 and 2005?
Whether or not you like Hagan and Johns - surely there must be a general understanding amongst fans that when the coach of an NRL side structures his game plan he does so around his best and most influential player. That game plan only backfires if that player gets hurt at Finals time and your chances of winning the title go out the window, or if you lose him during the season which makes a playoff spot a tough, tough ask.
Still whether you agree or not the above are I believe pretty much factual summations of each Newcastle season since 2001.
2006 could be another year of 'What Ifs' for the Knights but I cannot rule them out simply because their coach is leaving in 2007 as has been suggested. The fact is with Andrew Johns back in the side and a very, very good pack assembled for 2006, the Knights can and probably will challenge the more fancied teams this season.
And if Joey is fit come Finals time I certainly don't want to bet against the guy.
So if Michael Hagan walks away from the Knights with 2 premierships in 5 seasons at the helm - really who are any of us to say that he's not got any credibility as a coach? Not to mention the fact he would leave Newcastle as the club?s most successful premiership coach.
And while I've just stated Andrew Johns is the reason for the rise and fall of the Knights in recent seasons, surely everyone doesn?t think Jack Gibson, Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens, Clive Churchill, Ken Kearney and Norm Provan (all with at least four premierships) won simply because of their own coaching ability?
The players you have, the luck you get and yes, the ability of your coach, win premierships (plus many other factors). Coaches need players like players need coaches - and if I had to pick the most important factor it would be the health of your number one player, but that hardly guarantees success.
Michael Hagan will leave Newcastle with I believe a legacy of success that may have been tied to the fitness of Andrew Johns but that legacy will have been well earned for backing his number one player to lead the Knights to victory.