The Queensland State of Origin side has crafted one of the greatest dynasties in rugby league history under the stewardship of coach Mal Meninga, winning nine series in 10 seasons – including a record eight in a row from 2006-13.
The Maroons have seamlessly overcome the retirement of legends such as Darren Lockyer and Petero Civoniceva during that time, with their succession planning among the playing group paramount to their astonishing success. But can they make the same smooth transition in the coaching department?
Meninga’s departure to take up the vacant Australian Test role shapes as the biggest threat to Queensland’s ongoing supremacy since the Maroons icon took over in ’06.
The battle to replace ‘Big Mal’ at the helm already appears to be down to two candidates: long-serving assistants – and key members of the Maroons brains trust – Kevin Walters and Michael Hagan. Another assistant and former playing great, Allan Langer, has also been thrown up as a possible contender, but is realistically a long shot.
Wayne Bennett, Neil Henry and Paul Green are ineligible to put their names forward due to their responsibilities at NRL level.
Walters and Hagan are both highly credentialed. Broncos assistant Walters has also been on the staff at Melbourne and Newcastle, while he impressed during stints in charge of Ispwich Jets and Catalans Dragons; he has been on the cusp of an NRL head coach gig for several seasons. The five-eighth played 20 Origins for Queensland from 1989-99 – captaining the state in his farewell appearance – but does not carry the same aura as the likes of Meninga after often being made a scapegoat by selectors.
Hagan, a versatile, scheming half, represented the Maroons five times in 1989-90. He led Newcastle to a premiership in 2001, his rookie season as an NRL coach, but his subsequent years with the Knights and Parramatta failed to deliver similar success. Hagan quit the first-grade coaching ranks in 2008 due to health reasons.
Hagan was promoted to the Queensland Origin role in 2004, but was replaced by Meninga following two straight series defeats. Since then, Hagan has been credited as the tactical brains behind the Maroons’ record winning streak, but the side’s failure under his tutelage a decade ago may still count against him. Being dumped from the Knights’ coaching staff recently also hasn’t done a lot for Hagan’s cachet.
It’s not their rugby league smarts that make them inferior Origin coaching prospects to Meninga, however – it’s that they will struggle to replicate the Team of the Century centre’s presence and ability to take the pressure off his players when the Origin spotlight is burning brightest.
Meninga’s relationship with the (NSW) media was testy at times during his decade-long reign, but he unwaveringly took on the responsibilities associated with the saturation coverage Origin footy generates. His generally relaxed demeanour in the public eye – aside from the notorious ‘rats and filth’ newspaper column broadside in 2011 – is reflected by the composure and confident calm his team exudes.
While not media-shy by any stretch, those responsibilities will represent a major adjustment for Meninga’s replacement, particularly if that happens to be Walters.
The timing of Meninga’s move to the comparatively low-profile Kangaroos post is awkward for the Maroons, although perhaps not as troublesome as it may have been in a year or two’s time. The current legend-stacked line-up will be dismantled rapidly, with key men Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston and Corey Parker all 32 or older, and forward stalwarts Nate Myles, Sam Thaiday and Matt Scott all turning 30 in recent months. Meanwhile, Justin Hodges signed off from the representative arena in glory this season.
Those senior players will undoubtedly play a vital role next year as their new coach transitions into the role. Ideally, the man in the hot-seat will have had a couple of seasons at the helm and be well settled by the time the next generation – which includes Michael Morgan, Daly Cherry-Evans, Ben Hunt, Anthony Milford, Jake Friend, Cameron Munster, Josh McGuire, Dylan Napa and Valentine Holmes – step up to permanently take over from the elder statesmen.
A factor in the dominant Maroons’ favour is that NSW are seemingly no closer to putting together a winning combination. Despite boasting a massive pool of quality players in most positions, the Blues are still hampered by instability and a lack of direction in the spine, while the long-suffering southerners face their own potential leadership vacuum as skipper Paul Gallen and vice-captain Robbie Farah enter the twilight period of their careers.
But as Laurie Daley and co. ponder whether to inject the likes of Blake Austin, Matt Moylan, Bryce Cartwright, Tyson Frizell, Adam Reynolds and Wade Graham in 2016 or resolutely (read: naively) stick with the line-up that was pounded by a record margin in July’s decider, the Blues will be acutely aware Meninga’s absence has presented them with a rare opportunity to turn the interstate tables.