Warren Ryan’s Rugby League Legacy


When I was at school in northern New South Wales in the late 80s and early 90s, Warren Ryan had divine status.

He had coached three different teams to a total of six Grand Finals in the 80s, winning two with Canterbury in 1984 and 85.

As the 90s progressed, Ryan’s halo faded. Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens, Chris Anderson, Phil Gould and Brian Smith have become the best tacticians in the game.

Ryan never stayed at a club longer than four seasons and it usually ended in acrimony. While he coached Country Origin for five seasons, he was never given a big rep job. Perhaps he was deemed too clumsy and confrontational to handle the media circus that accompanies home state, or the diplomacy required on the international stage.

But for all that, Warren Ryan is arguably the most influential manager in rugby league history. He and Jack Gibson are the ancestors of the analyst, tactician, mentor and media polemicist that is the modern coach.

Gibson hastened the move away from clubs by handing over the coaching position to the current or former player with the best officiating qualities. Ryan made training a discipline and spawned many imitators.

He was born and raised in Newcastle in the 1940s and 1950s and became an exceptional athlete. He represented Australia in the shot put at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth where he finished seventh overall.

Ryan’s athletics career came to an end when he successfully tried out for a contract at St George. He made his one and only appearance for the Dragons against the Souths in the eighth round of 1965 when the club’s Future Immortals and various other stars were touring New Zealand.

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Opportunities at St George were understandably limited, although he did make an appearance on the day of the 1965 Grand Final when an estimated 78,000 people packed the SCG to see St George win his tenth consecutive premiership and Ryan play in the Dragons reserve grand final against Balmain. .

After a brief stint at Cronulla between 1967 and 68 he moved to Wests Wollongong where he won four premierships and became a coach after retiring in 1972.

The genesis of Ryan’s training appears to have been at St George. He expected Conquering Dragons to have a scientific method, but observed that it was more of an art form, based on the talents of Johnny Raper, Norm Provan, Graeme Langlands, Reg Gasnier and company.

When inquiring about the intricacies of the Dragons game, it was suggested that Ryan “go ask Poppa Clay – he might know”.

In 1978, John Dorahy and Shane Day, former managers of Ryan at Wests Wollongong and then playing for Wests in Sydney, suggested bringing Ryan to the Magpies.

He was named Wests Under-23 coach and took them from fifth place to a grand final against a Penrith side featuring Ken Wilson and Henry Foster. He also contributed as a defensive coach to Roy Masters freshman team winning the minor premiership.

His contributions were quickly noticed. Newtown secretary Frank Farrington brought Ryan to the Jets in 1979 and their improvement over the next three seasons was remarkable.

Newtown finished a distant second in 1978, winning just two games and giving up, on average, more than 26 points per game. Newtown finished second to last in 1979, but their attacking and defensive numbers improved considerably, and by 1980 they were on the fringes of the finals.

Ryan’s success in taking Newtown to the 1981 Grand Final, a narrow loss to Parramatta at the SCG, is still considered by some to be miraculous. But Newtown finished ahead of Parramatta that season and had a very good team, with Phil Sigsworth, John Ferguson, Ray Blacklock, Ken Wilson, Graeme O’Grady, Phil Gould and Geoff Bugden.

Phil 'Gus' Gould

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

None of this is meant to detract from his success in Newtown. Rather the opposite; the Warren Ryan effect was not miraculous, it was method.

In 1984, Ryan inherited a Canterbury side that had finished second the previous season, but with a remarkably poor defensive record. The improvement was immediate. Canterbury finished with the best defensive record in 1984, won the Minor Premiership and beat reigning Premiers Parramatta in the Grand Final.

They weren’t as dominant in 1985 or 1986, but they were parsimonious again and reached the grand final in both seasons, beating St George in 1985 and narrowly losing to Parramatta in the 1986 no-try match.

It wasn’t always pretty, especially the aggressive and sometimes cynical umbrella defense, but it was very effective. Canterbury’s relentless bombardment of full-backs, notably Glenn Burgess in the 1985 grand final, eventually forced a change to the rules regarding in-goal restarts.

Ryan took Balmain to back-to-back finals in 1988 and 1989, but neither season was an outstanding team. According to Ryan, Balmain’s star-studded attacking pack has often been let down by a mediocre set of outside backs.

It was the problem Ellery Hanley was brought in to solve in 1988 and the problem that may have cost them the 1989 decision against Canberra’s Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley and John Ferguson.

Ryan’s stories at this point in his career begin to paint a picture of an increasingly inflexible character. There had been tensions and fallout before: Tom Raudonikis in Newtown, Steve Mortimer in Canterbury and the media in general.

Tommy Raudonikis

(Photo by Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

In 1991, Ryan left a declining Balmain for Wests. According to Steve Roach, Ryan’s parting words to his Balmain players were “the lemon has been squeezed”.

Wests, who was already struggling financially, backed his new manager with Canterbury-era veterans Andrew Farrar, David Gillespie, Joe Thomas and Paul Langmack, as well as representative strikers Graeme Wynn and Tony Rampling. There were also promising youngsters like Jim Dymock, Darren Britt, Jason Taylor and Jamie Ainscough.

Unsurprisingly, Wests improved, rising from 13th in 1990 to finals in 1991 and 1992. But the improvement was short-lived, with a decline in 1993 followed by Ryan’s sacking in 1994 after another fallout with players seniors and officials, mainly over the club’s inability to re-sign young players like Dymock and Taylor.

Ryan had a few choices and the following words in Tony Adams’ book, game mastersabout the administrators with whom he has dealt: “There is no future in coaching [under] chook raffle administrators who are a combination of geriatrics and hillbillies. I went there, I did that and I am no longer interested in going through this aggravation”.

Except he was. Ryan returned for two farewell seasons at his hometown Newcastle Knights in 1999 and 2000, providing a bridge between Premiership-winning coaches Malcolm Reilly and Michael Hagan.

Ryan’s legacy is not like that of Brian Smith, a residual influence in the practice and custom of his former clubs.

Many players have found Ryan difficult to understand, difficult to understand, or both. They liked his technical and tactical acumen but could find it hard to come to terms with his bluntness.

Ryan was a trainer of a trainer. Brian Smith has admitted to being obsessed with Ryan’s defensive structures. Rumor has it that Wayne Bennett asked for outside help to crack the code.

Ryan’s legacy is made up of five premiership winning coaches he influenced directly or indirectly. As Phil Gould noted, “There is so much in our game today where the embryo goes back to his teachings in the early 1980s. And from there he created people who could coach .


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