Why Parramatta Eels are considering Trent Barrett over English coaches: and what it tells us about the NRL market

Mike Meehall Wood
Lee Briers, Steve McNamara and Brian McDermott

If you had picked up a Sydney newspaper over the last week, you’d have been led to believe that Trent Barrett was a coaching genius. 

The current Parramatta caretaker has been in PR overdrive, angling for a full-time appointment at the Eels as the club goes through a long list of candidates to succeed the recently sacked Brad Arthur. 

The former St George Illawarra, Wigan, New South Wales and Australia playmaker was one of the best of his time as a player – some who saw him in the Cherry & White might go as far as genius – but in the coaches box, across three stints, it would be fair to say that he has not replicated that form. 

Barrett, now 46, has been a disaster as a coach, with a poor spell at Manly compounded by an all-timer of a bad spell at Canterbury Bulldogs that saw him sacked less than three months into the 2022 season with just five wins in 34 matches. 

This wasn’t the story in the papers, however. 

The Daily Telegraph, Sydney’s biggest tabloid, splashed several times, including over a two page spread on Saturday – featuring exclusives with current players – on why Barrett was the guy to get the job full-time.

Obviously, given that he is selecting the side right now, Parra’s players were unlikely to say he’s rubbish, but the idea that those being coached get to pick their own boss is patently ludicrous.  

If that factors into decision making at the Eels for a second, the lunatics have well and truly taken over the asylum. It’s not the fault of the media that they run these stories – in fact it makes perfect sense. 

Parramatta are a huge club with a massive fanbase, one of the best around, and Barrett is a polarising figure guaranteed to generate interest.  

There are several candidates in the race but few of them are at liberty to talk to the media and only one, Barrett, is literally forced to front pressers every week where journalists can turn up and ask him his thoughts. 

Only Jason Demetriou, the former Souths coach who was also sacked earlier this year, and Michael Cheika, the legendary rugby union coach who led Lebanon to the last Rugby League World Cup, are currently unemployed and can float themselves as options. 

Every other figure is a current assistant coach, including John Hannay (Cronulla), Jason Ryles (Melbourne) and Brian McDermott (Newcatle), so don’t have to do media and if they did, would only say they were focused on the job they have now anyway. 

But that Barrett has got such a run speaks to a cognitive dissonance at the heart of NRL coaching – and one that both holds back clubs and negatively impacts British coaches. 

The day after Arthur was sacked, Parramatta CEO Jim Sarantinos fronted the media and explicitly said that his preferred candidate would be “someone who’s been involved in a winning program and someone who’s been around a high-performing culture”. 

Trent Barrett – career winning record: 32% – certainly isn’t that. He is, however, a known figure with a lot of contacts and a very powerful agent, therefore always likely to get a good run. 

READ NEXT: South Sydney bounce back, Brisbane sliding, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow try: NRL 7 tackle set debrief

This is par for the course in the Sydney rugby league goldfish bowl, where an approved list of coaches are able to get jobs time and again based on being a known quantity and a decent bloke. 

Barrett has already done this once before: he got the Bulldogs gig despite a shocking record at Manly that saw him finish second-last with a roster that included Daly Cherry-Evans, Addin Fonua-Blake, Api Koroisau and both Trbojevics. 

At Canterbury, he was an unmitigated disaster, as proven not only by his record but also by how quickly the team improved once he was sacked: having won twice in nine games and never scored more than 16 points in a match, the Bulldogs won five under caretaker coach Mick Potter and barely dipped below 16 for the rest of the season. 

There was a peculiar moment late in his tenure where Barrett was grilled over his decision to select Kyle Flanagan, son of Shane Flanagan, with rumours that Phil Gould, the Dogs’ Head of Football, had gone over his head.  

All four characters share the same player manager, Wayne Beavis, but that passed without comment. Anthony Griffin, who was sacked last year from the Dragons after a horrendous tenure, is another Beavis client who was rewarded for mediocrity.  

He got the Penrith job on the back of two shocking years with a stacked Brisbane side, failed massively and then got the St George Illawarra gig anyway. 

When he was sacked, he appeared mere weeks later as a commentator on Fox LeagueShane Flanagan, who took over at the Dragons for 2024, vacated a position in the commentary box to do so.  

Flanagan, who had won a Premiership with Cronulla, has immediately improved the team, proving that sometimes the recycling can work, if the right bloke is recycled. 

This isn’t a knock on Beavis, who is clearly doing his job exactly as he should in the interests of his clients, but rather a question of why clubs choose to make bad decisions repeatedly when there are plenty of options available to them. 

McDermott was at least interviewed for the Parramatta job – closer than any British coach has got to an NRL gig in years, if not decades – which is the bare minimum he should get given his stellar CV in the UK and immediate impact on Newcastle since arriving last year. 

Lee Briers, far and away the most impactful NRL assistant coach, might have had a chance but has instead opted to go to South Sydney to work with the incoming Wayne Bennett. 

READ NEXT: Brits Down Under: Herbie Farnworth, Elliott Whitehead on scoresheet, Morgan Smithies stars for Canberra

That someone like Steve McNamara, the standout coach in the Super League, wasn’t even close to any of the jobs that have come up in recent years speaks to the close-mindedness and inefficiencies in hiring processes. 

There is no inclination that he wants to leave Catalans or has proactively done anything to link himself with jobs in Australia, but if he was Australian, he would have been asked multiple times by clubs.  

Super League fans will not need McNamara’s record explaining to them, but as a UK-raised coach with no agent in Australia (or anywhere), he’s not close to a conversation. 

McDermott only got an interview because he’s an NRL assistant and you can guarantee that if he was still based in Europe, he wouldn’t have been close no matter how many championships there are on his CV. 

Matty Peet, who has won literally everything available, is far more qualified than any of the Australian candidates for the Parra job, as is Shaun Wane. Neither would likely leave current roles, but the question wasn’t asked anyway. 

It is telling that Sam Burgess has been the English coach with the most links to an Australian job despite his lack of experience compared to other candidates, but his familiarity to club bosses ensured that his name appeared regularly.  

That no club will take the plunge is ironic given the success of ex-Super League coaches in the NRL and the fact that the most successful coaching appointment of recent years has been one totally out of left-field. 

Both Michael Maguire and Trent Robinson, plus last year’s Grand Finalist Kevin Walters, cut their teeth in the Super League and transitioned well to the NRL. 

Kristian Woolf will do so next year and Justin Holbrook, though he was sacked from the Titans, actually had his reputation enhanced in the process and will return to head coaching sooner rather than later. 

READ NEXT: Luke Keary to Super League confusion as conflicting reports emerge on NRL star’s future

It makes sense to look to the Super League: only 29 people can coach in elite rugby league at one time and 12 of them are in that competition, so ignoring that talent pool is flat out dumb. 

Moreover, while the standards between the two comps on a week-to-week basis differ for players, the coaching level is perhaps where they are most similar.  

The skills required of a head coach, from tactics to salary cap management to player interactions, are totally transferable. The best preparation for being a head coach is being a head coach, not being an assistant at a different club. 

When a club last took a punt on someone unknown, they were richly rewarded: Andrew Webster got the Warriors job and won Coach of the Year in his first season.  

He was, incidentally, assisted by two former Super League head coaches in Justin Morgan and Richard Agar, as well as former Warriors head coach, Stacey Jones. 

The way that NRL recruitment works in the coaching sphere is clearly inefficient, and any club that breaks from it likely has a decent chance of striking gold. 

It is a glass ceiling for British coaches, but also for anyone with an innovative approach to the game. When you recycle coaches, you recycle ideas and stifle innovation.  

That Parramatta are contemplating Barrett shows the sort of thinking rife within the NRL. Supporters can only hope that someone else interviewed well enough that he isn’t given the job and a better candidate is picked. 

But make no mistake: there will be other vacancies and the same faces will appear again. British coaches are at the pointy end of this inefficiencies, but they are far from the only ones. 

READ NEXT: Leeds Rhinos bottom, Leigh Leopards flying in Super League mood table