Andrew Johns as an NRL head coach? How other Immortals fared when they took the reins

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It’s probably not a surprise that Matty Johns thinks that brother Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns would make a great NRL head coach: the brothers are close and are always likely to back each other up.

Speaking at yesterday’s Fox League season launch, Matty told media that he had never seen his brother happier than when he was coaching, and that he should try to do it full-time.

“I had breakfast with Joey the other day and I said to him, ‘mate, whenever you get to coach like this, I’ve never seen you happier’,” he said.

“He’s happy, he gets fulfillment, and I said, ‘You should do this full time’. He looked at me with this smile on his face, the smile he gives you when you give him a rap – he was like a dog when you give him a biscuit and his tail was wagging.

“Why not? I think it [head coaching] would make him happy. He would also handle the pressure as good as anyone.

Joey is currently in the coaching ranks at the Newcastle Knights, and has also held roles at Parramatta, Manly, Canterbury and the NSW Blues, as well as with Melbourne Rebels in Super Rugby, but has never put himself forward for an NRL head coach role as he balances coaching with extensive media commitments at Nine.

“I’ve heard good reports already about him [at the Knights],” added Matty.

“He’s even been able to help a guy like ‘Klem’ [David Klemmer]. He’s had a yarn to him and said, ‘You’re doing this, but stand here with me and you should be doing more of this’.

“Most of the time Joey was at Parramatta it was hard for him because there were times he was coaching through a wire fence because of COVID. It’s hard to coach the way he likes to coach when you couldn’t get out there with the boys.”

Last year, however, he did throw his hat in the ring for a position in the Samoa national team, alongside Sonny Bill Williams and brother Matty, though the Samoan Rugby League quickly nixed the idea and backed incumbent coach Matt Parish.

Should Joey take the plunge and go for a head coaching role, he would have a serious reputation to live up to: of the 13 Immortals, only Johns and Dally Messenger, who played in the very earliest days of rugby league in Australia, have never coached at least first-grade level.

Andrew Johns playing Origin

New South Wales captain Andrew Johns reacts after scoring a try to seal tonights game. Queensland v New South Wales at Suncorp Stadium (Lang Park) in Brisbane. (Dave Hunt)

Clive Churchill, Bob Fulton, Reg Gasnier, Graeme Langlands, Arthur Beetson and Mal Meninga all went on to coach at the very highest level with the Kangaroos, while Wally Lewis, Johnny Raper, Norm Provan, Frank Burge and Dave Brown all coached first grade.

To keep up with those names, Johns would have to start quickly: Norm Provan won the Premiership in his first four attempts with St George in the 1960s. On the other end of the scale, some of those names had careers that went decades in coaching, with Bob Fulton coaching over a 20 year period in first grade and winning two World Cups and three Ashes series in the 1990s.

There are three Immortals currently alive – Johnny Raper died just last week, with Norm Provan and Bob Fulton passing away in 2021 – and of them, only Mal Meninga, the current Kangaroos coach, has enjoyed a stellar coaching career.

Mal started off with a mixed record at Canberra Raiders in the wake of the Super League War, but went on to great success with Queensland, winning eight consecutive Origins and nine of the ten that he contested, before leading Australia to their 2017 World Cup win.

Wally Lewis did coach first grade at the Gold Coast Seagulls in 1992, but finished dead last while also captaining the side. He retired from playing and stayed on as coach, but his team lost 16 games on the trot en route to the wooden spoon in 1993.

He also coached the Queensland side in 1993 and 1994, but lost both series to New South Wales, with Lewis losing four and winning just two matches as Maroons boss.

Andrew Johns has had a similarly chequered coaching career to date, focussing largely on specific positional coaching the halves as well as mentoring roles.

Famously, he was the centre of a major controversy in 2010 when he was fired as an assistant coach with NSW Blues after using racist language against Greg Inglis, causing NSW player Timana Tahu to walk out of the squad and for Inglis to call for Johns to be barred from coaching.

Johns himself said that his background might stand in his way: he told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had more chance of becoming Pope than getting a top NRL gig, though he thought that “they’d Google my name and make me spend the next 15 years in confession”.

At least if he got that gig, he’d be infallible and Immortal – none of the other 12 rugby league legends could say that.

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