The Alan Jonestown Massacre
by Ed Burton
As round one of the new NRL season comes around this week, the strangest fixture is, without doubt, Saturday night’s match between the Titans and the Tigers. With everything that has happened on the Gold Coast over the last week or two, it would take a minor miracle for the Titans to be competitive. It would be an achievement just to get enough players together to form a match day squad. But I have made it my prerogative not to talk about controversial off field incidents in this space, and I plan on sticking to that. However one thing that is certain, is that this fixture will be very important to how the young Tigers team fares. A win (and a likely big one at that) may just give them the confidence to get their season going early. A loss, under the circumstances, may be impossible to recover from.
The Tigers are rebuilding. It is a common practice in sport, but not commonly done well. The Tigers have reason to believe that the rebuilding strategy that they are using – promoting promising youth prospects into first grade to give them the experience necessary to go to the next level – will be successful for them. Not only has it worked well in recent times for Penrith, but the last time they tried it themselves, they won a competition in 2005. That was a ‘golden generation’ of players that never quite went on to fulfill the potential that many expected of them. Benji and Robbie certainly hit the heights that the code can offer, but for every one of them we have a handful of Gibbs’, Fulton’s and Bronson Harrison’s who didn’t. I have debated with many different people the reasons for this (coaching, guidance, physical development, never really had it in the first place etc). But what is certain is that this never became THE Golden Generation that you think of when you hear the Tigers’ name, or even that their early success suggested they might be.
That moniker belongs to the Balmain side of the late 80’s and early 90’s which remains possibly the best team to never win a competition. They were a once in a lifetime combination of world class forwards and brilliant backs, whose title winning potential went so close to being fulfilled, and was then utterly crushed by the destructive Rugby League cyclone that is Alan Jones.
In the late 80’s, Warren Ryan was an absolute supercoach. Everything he touched turned to gold. In fact, in that decade he took every team he coached to a grand final. Between 1981 and 1989, Ryan coached a grand final team 6 times for 3 wins (out of 9 total seasons). Two of the three losses came while at the helm of the Balmain Tigers. 1988 saw the star studded Tigers cop one of the all-time cheap shots from Canterbury’s Terry Lamb to take out their star player (Ellery Hanley) and I have written about the 1989 Grand Final before. But what hasn’t really been given as much attention is how the club somehow managed to ruin the prime of some of their greatest ever players in arguably their greatest ever collection of talent. Ryan’s last season in charge of the Tigers saw them scrape into the finals and make a quick exit. It also saw the exit of club legend Wayne Pearce. As much as it was a loss to have him out of the squad, the club’s playing ranks were still very well stocked, with the emergence of a young Tim Brasher coming through at the same time.
Alan Jones was a successful Rugby coach with his time in charge of the national Australian side, the Wallabies. He brought a level of professionalism to the team that was heretofore not seen in the code, and this combined with the high level of talent in the country’s rugby programs saw him preside over a dominant period. But while his Rugby knowledge made him an interesting, if flawed, tactician, his strength was as more a motivational style of coach, big on stirring speeches and clichés like going the extra mile, or digging deep. He is, after all, a radio personality. Speaking is supposed to be his forte.
Prior to his appointment as the Head Coach at Balmain, his involvement with Rugby League had been minimal. But like many a Rugby fan before him, he seemed to think that it was all pretty much the same. As Chris Masters’ book (Jonestown) points out, this was particularly noticeable from the very early days at training -
“Balmain players were surprised when they realised Jones seemed unaware of even the basics. In Rugby League the player numbering system works in the opposite direction to Union. Balmain halfback Gary Freeman was asked, ‘What’s number one, the prop or what?’”
In addition to this, his talent spotting ability, was not doing him any favours, and rumors were rife that it may have had more to do with factors outside of football ability. Another section of Masters’ book states –
“Jones treated [Jacin Sinclair] like something in between an object of romantic longing and a prodigal son. Tigers’ jaws dropped when Alan proclaimed young Jacin as ‘the next Reg Gasnier’.”
For those wondering (Rugby League fans and non-fans alike) Sinclair played for 9 seasons, scoring 13 tries in total. Half of his career first grade games came in the three seasons he played in Balmain – with Jones as his coach.
In Jones’ first season in charge of the Tigers he took a team that had finished in the finals for the previous three consecutive seasons to 12th (out of 16). This was a team that featured the majority of the playing roster from the seasons prior. That side, with those players, would have been odds on to make the finals that year. It would have been harder to finish 10th than 1st with that team. Quite an achievement from Jones then to be all the way down in 12th position.
Rugby League was already a professional sport at this time. Jones’ methods which were considered advanced in Rugby Union, were merely average for a NSWRL club. His lack of knowledge around the differences between the two codes (shockingly) proved problematic. His absence of a tactical plan was fatal, and his inspired words seemed to fall on deaf ears. He fell out with quality, senior players, such as Gary Freeman* and took to players of lesser talents for unknown reasons.
A poor year by any measurable standard, that started with one win in the first ten games, however it did have some good patches. Under Jones the team was nothing if not streaky. A run of 3 straight wins in the middle of the season had them appearing to turn a corner, but it was followed by another three losses and no further win streak (which they did have) could save the season, back in a time when only 5 teams made the finals.
In spite of this, he kept his job. Due in no small part to the fact that he was doing the job for free. There’s the catch. The club was in no financial position to remove a coach who cost them nothing. Jones’ reputation was dwindling, but it was still high enough at the time that it would be considered a foolish move to oust him in some parts, regardless of the money aspect.
His second season in charge did see an improvement. After looking early in the season as though it would be another miserable year, they went on a 5 match winning run that saw them as high as 3rd on the ladder. But this was to be not only the high watermark of the season, but of Jones’ time as a Rugby League coach.
The team went on to finish the season in 10th and the pressure began to mount on Jones. Roach and Jack were now in their thirties, Elias and Sironen were in their late 20’s, and what should have been a prime title window, was turning into a farce. But again, the club was simply in no financial position to entertain any other offers. Their books had so clearly been planned out with no allocation for funding a coach. It is hard to blame them for that. When you consider what Jones achieved with the Wallabies, his volunteering to coach the team for free was an absolute no brainer for a club in their position.
So he was given his third year in charge. But Jack and Roach had seen enough, and they retired, the twilight of their careers wasted.**
But the Tigers weren’t giving up on getting the last of this golden generation into contention once again. They brought in former international Mark Geyer and Graham Lyons came in to fill Brasher’s boots, given his move to fullback to cover Jack.
They started the season with 6 losses and never recovered, finishing in 15th and only avoiding the wooden spoon because of the stunningly bad Gold Coast side that won only a single game all year. In truth the whole club never recovered, and were forced to merge within the decade.
Warren Ryan’s coaching history always showed that once he had a season that didn’t reach the lofty standards he set, he knew there was nothing more that he could do and he moved on. But that didn’t mean that there was nothing more that the team could achieve, just that he had nothing left to teach them. His final year at Canterbury saw them drop to 6th after 3 consecutive Grand Finals and he left them, still in a strong position. The following season, Phil Gould was able to take that Canterbury side to another winning Grand Final (against Ryan himself).
When Ryan left the Tigers after the 1990 season, he left a 19 year old Tim Brasher, who led the team in points in spite of his age. He left 3 current Kangaroos, 3 former Kangaroos, 1 current Kiwi, 1 former British Lion and a former State of Origin player. He left a 3 times Dally M fullback of the year, a 3 times Dally M Prop of the year, a 2 time Dally M Hooker of the year, a Dally M Rookie and Dally M Second Rower of the year, a Rugby League Week player of the year and a Golden Boot winner for Jones to work with. He left them in a position that was as good, if not better than, where he left the Bulldogs.
Jones parlayed that into a 12th, 10th and 15th, oversaw the retirement of a few of the all-time Tigers greats*** and by the time he walked out the door, all the Tigers had was a 30 year old Elias in his final year, a 29 year old Sironen doing all that he could and the lone spark for the future in 23 year old Brasher. A once in a lifetime generation of players whose primes were wasted, left to lament their legacies, or lack thereof.
Jones went on to almost send South Sydney into extinction, and eventually be run out of Rugby League a failure, but few seem to appreciate the truly astonishing level of failure that he achieved, and the damage he did. As the (now Wests) Tigers once again look to rebuild, it is a timely reminder that the most important appointment in the process is getting the right coach. If Taylor is the man for the job or not remains to be seen, but if he is not, the Tigers need to make sure that they are not afraid to cut bait for the sake of finances again.
*Freeman moved to the Roosters the following season and won the Dally M
**Jack made a brief and unsuccessful come back several years later for the Wests Tigers
***Saying that they retired during that time makes it seem like they were just no good any more. This is far from the case. This was a time when players retired at 30 or 31 before their bodies broke down and started to betray their abilities. It was also a time before the athleticism of today, where losing a half step of speed or strength mattered less, as long as you still had your skill level. These players were still strong contributors.