On the surface, Wests Tigers caretaker coach Andrew Webster faces a near-impossible task this weekend, preparing his beleaguered squad for a showdown with the unbeaten Melbourne Storm.
After conceding 82 points in the past two weeks, head coach Jason Taylor was sacked, and the players have been subjected to an exhaustive media inquiry since – and they shape as cannon fodder for the ruthless Storm.
But drama often galvanises clubs – especially in the short-term – and the last 25 years of the premiership is littered with teams who reacted to their coach’s departure with a stunning performance just days later.
Here are the times when caretaker coaches took care of business.
Royce Simmons (Penrith) – 1994
After high-profile premiership-winning coach Phil Gould stepped down as Penrith coach in acrimonious circumstances with six rounds of the 1994 season remaining, Gould’s former captain, club legend Royce Simmons, stepped into the breach. The Panthers pulled off a gutsy 28-24 win over two-time grand finalists St George in their first match under Simmons, who ultimately stayed on as coach until the end of 2001.
Dean Lance (Adelaide) – 1998
The Rams were a rabble early in the 1998 NRL season, winning just one of their opening 10 games as coach Rod Reddy butted heads with his senior players. Former Canberra forward and Perth Reds coach Dean Lance took on the arduous role after Reddy was punted, and the Rams stunned Penrith 35-18 in their first outing under their new mentor. Lance led the ill-fated Rams to six wins in his first 10 games in charge to stave off the wooden spoon.
Peter Sharp (Manly) – 1999
Bob Fulton’s wonderful tenure as Manly coach came to an end after an 0-7 start to the 1999 season. The respected Sharp took over when Fulton stood down, and the Sea Eagles outlasted hotshots Parramatta 12-6 in Round 8. The club won nine and drew 1 of their 17 games that year under Sharp, who was at the helm of the Northern Eagles joint venture for three years and coached Manly in their 2003 re-entry.
Tony Kemp (Warriors) – 2004
Daniel Anderson’s charmed tenure at the helm of the Warriors came to an abrupt halt midway through a disastrous 2004 campaign, but just four days after Anderson walked out former Kiwis star Tony Kemp steered the embattled side to a 20-14 upset over Canberra at Mt Smart. It would be one of just 13 victories Kemp enjoyed in 37 games in charge, however, before Ivan Cleary took over in 2006.
Arthur Kitinas (South Sydney) – 2004
Just a week after the Warriors saluted under Kemp, former Easts and Souths hooker Arthur Kitinas – who replaced the sacked Paul Langmack – led the Rabbitohs to one of the biggest upsets of 2004, a 28-26 boilover against the Melbourne Storm. The Bunnies recovered from a 16-0 deficit to snare one of only five wins they enjoyed that season.
Brad Fittler (Sydney Roosters) – 2007
In one of the great caretaker coach stories, Brad Fittler took over from Chris Anderson after the Roosters suffered a 56-0 loss to Manly. Club legend ‘Freddy’ engineered a 22-12 upset over Cronulla at his first attempt, and took the Tricolours from a 5-11 record to the verge of contending for the finals by remaining unbeaten for five weeks – including a win over Melbourne. They ultimately missed the eight, but Fittler was in charge of the Roosters as they reached the top four in 2008, before hanging up the clipboard in the wake of a disastrous wooden-spoon season in ’09.
Rick Stone (Newcastle) – 2009
Respected former Burleigh Bears coach Stone took the Newcastle reins after Brian Smith’s shock departure with just three rounds of 2009 to go. Stone led the Knights to an unlikely 26-14 defeat of Melbourne, and became just the second caretaker coach to guide a team into the finals. Stone kept the role for 2010-11 before reverting to an assistant position under Bennett, but last just one season back in the hot-seat as the Knights collected the wooden spoon in 2015.
Steve Georgallis (Penrith) – 2011
Serial oddball Matthew Elliott was axed after 15 rounds of the 2011 season, but highly-regarded caretaker Georgallis celebrated in a 30-20 win over fourth-placed North Queensland in his first match in charge. The former Roosters, Magpies and Wests Tigers utility achieved three wins in his first four games at the helm, before the Panthers’ season petered out with six losses in their last seven games.
Brad Arthur (Parramatta) – 2012
Stephen Kearney pulled the pin on a difficult two seasons as Parramatta coach with six rounds of 2011 remaining, but Brad Arthur enjoyed a remarkable introduction to NRL coaching via a 42-22 spanking of Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium. The Eels imprudently hired Ricky Stuart, before Arthur returned to the helm in 2014.
Peter Sharp (Cronulla) – 2013
Proving himself to be the G.O.A.T. of caretaker coaches, Sharp filled in while Shane Flanagan was provisionally stood down by the NRL amid Cronulla’s supplements saga at the start of 2013. Sharp took the Sharks to a 12-10 win over Gold Coast in Round 1, before Flanagan returned for the remainder of the season a fortnight later.
Andrew McFadden (Warriors) – 2014
This is the only loss on the list, but it’s certainly worth a mention. That man again, Matt Elliott, was punted after the Warriors’ pathetic 37-6 loss to the embattled Sharks in Round 5 of the 2014 season. Andrew McFadden came agonisingly close to a debut win, with the Warriors controversially pipped 21-20 by the heavyweight Bulldogs at Eden Park. Though taking on the role well before his time, ‘Cappy’ led the Warriors to within eight for-and-against points of a finals berth, but success was to elude the popular coach over the next two seasons and he slipped back into an assistant role under Stephen Kearney ahead of the 2017 season.
Jamie Shepherd (Cronulla) – 2014
Sharp took over again after Flanagan’s 12-month ban was handed down, but Todd Carney’s ‘bubbler’ scandal was the last straw for the veteran mentor and he packed his bags after the Sharks’ incredible comeback from a 22-0 deficit against Brisbane. Incredibly, the last-placed side overturned a 24-point deficit against the Roosters in their first match under former Roosters half Jamie Shepherd, one of just two wins under his 10-game stewardship before Flanagan returned for 2015.