Wests Tigers produced a left-field solution to their coaching crisis few saw coming, returning 2005 premiership coach and septuagenarian Tim Sheens to the post he left in acrimonious circumstances a decade ago.
But the real surprise was the addition of recently Tigers icon Benji Marshall as assistant coach – and Sheens’ head coach heir from 2025.
How this succession plan unfolds remains to be seen, but there is something exciting and romantic about a club legend returning to coach their team.
It’s a tale as old as rugby league itself, leading to some of the great coaching success stories…and some of the biggest flops.
Here’s the most memorable instances of favourite sons picking up the clipboard after hanging up the boots.
Harry Bath (Balmain and St George)
Champion forward Bath spent the bulk of his career creating a legend in England, but he had the unique distinction of winning premierships in all five seasons he spent in Sydney: 1946-47 for Balmain and 1957-59 with the St George juggernaut.
The ‘Old Fox’ wasted little time getting into coaching after hanging up the boots.
Taking over at Balmain in 1961, he steered the black-and-golds to grand finals in 1964 and ’66 during the tail-end of the Dragons’ 11-year reign.
After a less successful stint at Newtown, Bath returned to St George in 1977.
‘Bath’s Babes’ won the ’77 premiership in the first-ever grand final replay and earned another title in ’79, eventually winding up a glittering coaching tenure in 1981.
Bob Fulton (Manly)
‘Bozo’ was the brilliant attacking spearhead of Manly’s first three premierships – the latter in 1976 as captain in his 213th and last game for the club.
He joined Eastern Suburbs, where he retired as captain-coach due to injury midway through 1979.
Fulton stayed on as non-playing coach and steered the Roosters to back-to-back minor premierships in 1980 (including a grand final appearance) and ’81 but was lured back to Manly in 1983.
The Immortal led the Sea Eagles to a second straight grand final in his first attempt and helmed an emphatic premiership triumph in 1987.
Stepping down at the end of 1988 to concentrate on the Australian job, Fulton answered the call from Manly when Graham Lowe quit due to health reasons ahead of the 1993 campaign.
Fulton’s charges made six straight finals series and three consecutive grand finals, with shock losses to the Bulldogs and Knights bookending the 1996 victory over the Dragons.
During 1999, his 13th season in charge at Manly (a then-record for most years coaching a single club), Fulton became the first coach to bring up 400 first-grade matches but abdicated midyear.
One of the most influential people in the history of the game, Fulton passed away in 2021.
Arthur Beetson (Eastern Suburbs)
‘Big Artie’s’ incomparable career peaked at Bondi Junction in the mid-1970s, captaining the Roosters to back-to-back premierships.
He captain-coached the club in 1977-78 before finishing his playing career with stints at Parramatta and Redcliffe.
Beetson returned to stagnating Eastern Suburbs in 1985 for a well-received four-season stint, winning more games than he lost and steering the club to a preliminary final in ’87, though the Roosters could not shed their reputation as an underperforming transit lounge during his stay.
The future Immortal’s last coaching gig was an underwhelming one at Cronulla in 1992-93.
Beetson holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous Australian to captain and coach their country in any sport.
George Piggins (South Sydney)
A fiery hooker who featured in Souths’ 1971 grand final triumph and represented Australia, Piggins bled myrtle and cardinal.
Piggins returned to Redfern in 1986 for a memorable five-season stay as coach, winning two Dally M Coach of the Year awards and a minor premiership in 1989 – but he stepped down after Souths plummeted to last in 1990.
The pugnacious Piggins’ greatest legacy to the club he loved was still to come, however: the Rabbitohs chairman led the club’s fight for readmission to the NRL from the front.
His never-say-die spirit was integral to Souths’ return to the premiership in 2002.
Russell Fairfax (Eastern Suburbs)
Fairfax succeeded Beetson at Easts in 1989 for one of the more disastrous forays into coaching the premiership has seen.
A glamour boy of the Beetson-led Roosters’ 1974-75 premiership sides, he cut his teeth in coaching in Souths’ lower grades.
Handed the reins of the Tricolours he represented with such aplomb as an exciting fullback, Fairfax steered Easts to just 11 wins in 36 matches – and a club-record 66-4 loss to Canberra – before being punted midway through 1990.
Mick Cronin (Parramatta)
Champion centre and pointscoring machine Cronin was an integral part of Parramatta’s four premierships during the 1980s and finished with a then-premiership-record 1,971 points from 216 games for the club.
‘The Crow’ stepped into the breach left by John Monie in 1990, but the Eels’ decline continued.
After a promising eighth-place finish in his initial campaign, the blue-and-golds came second-last under Cronin in 1991-92 and 11th in 1993 before he stepped aside.
Despite notching just 33 wins in 88 matches, Cronin’s reputation remained relatively untarnished.
He was replaced by another Eels great, 156-game hardman Ron Hilditch, who led the club for three years before Brian Smith belatedly ended their finals drought in 1997.
Chris Anderson (Canterbury)
Canterbury’s stints under Warren Ryan (1984-87) and Phil Gould (1988-89) both netted premierships, but also plenty of off-field tumult.
The Bulldogs doubled down on their ‘family club’ ethos by installing Chris Anderson – son-in-law of Canterbury patriarch Peter ‘Bullfrog’ Moore – as coach in 1990.
Anderson scored 94 tries in 231 games for the Bulldogs, featuring in their 1980 grand final success.
Already boasting a handy coaching reputation after a successful stay at Halifax, ‘Opes’ gradually rebuilt the Bulldogs.
Steering them to consecutive minor premierships in 1993-94 and back-to-back grand finals in 1994-95, winning the latter against all odds versus Manly after finishing sixth and being torn apart by the Super League upheaval.
Anderson left Canterbury at the end of 1997 to head up fledgling Melbourne Storm, where he won another title in ’99.
Royce Simmons (Penrith)
After premiership coach Phil Gould’s abrupt exit in late-1994, Penrith’s 1991 grand final hero Royce Simmons took the reins at just 34 years of age.
It was a lean period for the Panthers but Simmons was a popular boss and stayed until 2001.
Highlights included a Super League finals appearance in 1997 and a surprise fifth-place finish in the 2000 NRL season, but they collected the wooden spoon in his last campaign.
Simmons was Tim Sheens’ right-hand man for Wests Tigers’ stunning 2005 title charge with the two clubs contesting the inaugural Royce Simmons Cup in Round 18 of 2022.
Tom Raudonikis (Western Suburbs)
Western Suburbs’ appearances record-holder (201 games) and one of Australia’s greatest halfbacks, Raudonikis brought every ounce of his passion for the black-and-white jumper to the coaching gig when he returned to the Magpies in 1995.
Raudonikis had previously coached Ipswich in the pre-Broncos BRL and groomed a young Allan Langer for stardom.
He led Wests to some impressive results initially, including a return to the playoffs in 1996, and nabbed the NSW Origin post.
But it all went sour after a final-round capitulation to the wooden-spoon Crushers cost the Magpies a 1997 finals berth.
Tommy’s charges picked up back-to-back spoons in record-breaking style in 1998-99, while the coaching job went to Balmain’s Wayne Pearce (who also succeeded him as Blues coach) when the Magpies merged with the Tigers.
Mal Meninga (Canberra)
Only three years after hanging up the boots, rugby league colossus Meninga picked up the clipboard following three-time premiership coach Tim Sheens’ departure to Townsville.
‘Big Mal’s’ five season stint included three finals appearances and a 52.8 win percentage but was generally regarded as underwhelming, while he was forced oversee the salary cap-enforced exit of Raiders legends and long-time teammates Ricky Stuart and Bradley Clyde.
After stepping down from the Raiders and embarking on the shortest political career of all time, Meninga eventually became a staggeringly successful representative coach with Queensland and Australia and achieved Immortal status in 2018.
Steve Folkes (Canterbury)
Test back-rower Folkes was a highly-respected part of the Bulldogs’ set-up as a player, featuring in four grand final wins among 245 appearances for the club.
Another son-in-law of the ‘Bullfrog’, Folkes was a natural choice to succeed Anderson and went on to become Canterbury’s longest-serving coach.
In fact, his 11-season stint – which featured a Grand Final appearance at his first crack in 1998 and a premiership in 2004 – was the second-longest unbroken tenure at a single club in history at the time.
Folkes was replaced after a disastrous wooden-spoon campaign in 2008 but he later coached the Jillaroos, before tragically dying of a heart attack in 2018, aged just 59.
Michael Hagan (Newcastle)
Former Canterbury playmaker Hagan’s 111-game tenure with fledgling Newcastle included captaining the club to its maiden finals series in 1992.
After lower-grade coaching stints with the Raiders and Knights, he took over from Warren Ryan at the latter in 2001 and became just the third non-playing rookie first-grade coach to win a grand final at their first attempt – one of the great upsets in a premiership decider against Parramatta.
The Knights were finals regulars during Hagan’s six seasons in charge in the Hunter, but his team’s fortunes largely swung on Andrew Johns’ fitness.
He was lured to the Eels in 2007, replacing his vanquished ’01 grand final foe Brian Smith, who subsequently took the vacant Knights job.
Des Hasler (Manly)
Only three other coaches – Wayne Bennett, Craig Bellamy and Fulton – have led a single club in more seasons than Hasler’s 12 at Manly.
The former utility nonpareil took over from Peter Sharp in 2004 and built the Sea Eagles from a low ebb into a premiership force.
Three grand final appearances, including emphatic premiership triumphs in 2008 and ’11, ensued before the tempestuous ‘Dessie’ left for Canterbury in a shock move immediately after the latter.
Two grand final losses with the Bulldogs were followed by a rapid decline, but Hasler enjoyed a renaissance after returning to the northern beaches in 2019 – including the Sea Eagles’ first preliminary final appearance in eight years in 2021.
Brad Fittler (Sydney Roosters)
Ex-Penrith wonderboy Fittler linked with the Roosters in 1996, playing 217 games for the club and captaining it to four grand finals – including the 2002 premiership.
Following Chris Andrson’s decision to stand down only 17 games into his tenure at Bondi in 2007, ‘Freddy’ stepped up and led a spirited late-season arrival to get the gig fulltime.
A top-four finish in 2008 followed but the axe fell on Fittler after a diabolical wooden spoon season in 2009.
Fittler has since become only the second NSW coach after former mentor Phil Gould to win three Origin series.
Geoff Toovey (Manly)
Long-serving assistant Toovey slotted into the post abruptly left by Hasler after Manly’s 2011 grand final victory.
The Sea Eagles finished in the top-four in ‘Tooves’’ first three seasons at the helm and reached a grand final in 2013.
But he was somewhat unluckily ditched at the end of 2015 – with the 11-13 Sea Eagles finishing ninth – and has been unable to snag an NRL job since, despite perpetually putting himself in the shop window.
An unsuccessful season at ailing Bradford in 2017 is his only subsequent head role.
Toovey joined the coaching blow-up Hall of Fame for his “there’s got to be an investigation” tirade
Ricky Stuart (Canberra)
Stuart retired from playing in 2000, steered the Bulldogs to a Jersey Flegg title in 2001 and joined a select group of rookie first-grade coaches to win a premiership with the Roosters in 2002 – the first of three straight grand final appearances.
His coaching career from that point – sacked after the Roosters missed the 2005-06 finals, axed after the 2008 Kangaroos’ World Cup final loss and an infamous hotel lobby blow-up, one finals appearance in four seasons in charge at Cronulla, and walking out on Parramatta after one wooden spoon campaign in 2013 – was comparatively rocky.
But Stuart has found his niche back in Canberra, where he made his name as a scheming three-time premiership halfback.
It’s been up and down and laden with NRL-imposed fines, but the Raiders have reached a grand final and another two prelims since Stuart – who will equal Tim Sheens for the most games as Canberra coach later this year – took over in 2014.
Paul McGregor (St George Illawarra)
Illawarra Steelers great McGregor led the St George Illawarra joint venture to a grand final in its first season in 1999. He retired but later returned for the Dragons in 2001.
After serving a long apprenticeship as an assistant, ‘Mary’ took the Saints’ reins in 2014 for a seven-season stint that garnered two finals appearances but was generally a disappointment.
McGregor was axed midway through 2020.
Dean Pay (Canterbury)
Dubbo tough guy Pay played 108 games for Canterbury, his career peaking as an integral member of the Bulldogs’ 1994 grand final (subsequently earning Kangaroo Tour honours) and ’95 premiership-winning teams.
Pay’s decision (along with Jason Smith, Jim Dymock and Jarrod McCracken) to backflip on a Super League contract and join Parramatta put him on the nose with Bulldogs fans but he returned to the club as head coach in 2018 after assistant roles at Catalans, Melbourne and Parramatta.
Inheriting the mess left by Des Hasler and hamstrung by a dreadful roster and salary cap issues, Pay won just 19 of 57 games before pulling the pin midway through 2020.
Kevin Walters (Brisbane)
One of the Broncos’ greatest-ever players, Walters was one of only two players (with Michael Hancock) to feature in each of the club’s first five grand final victories – including the 2000 triumph as captain.
Earning his coaching stripes at Toowoomba and Catalans before a long tenure as an assistant at Melbourne, Newcastle and Brisbane, ‘Kevvie’ coached the Queensland Origin team from 2016-19 for two series wins and two losses.
But it was the Broncos head coach role he truly coveted – and it appeared it would remain tantalisingly out of reach.
Anthony Seibold’s spectacular failure opened the door for Walters, however and he took over ahead of the 2021 season.
Some pundits believed the club legend was merely a placeholder for a bigger fish and initially it appeared a poisoned chalice, with the rebuilding Broncos winning just seven games and finishing 14th.
But Walters has overseen a dramatic Broncos revival in 2022, leading the club to an 11-6 record and an almost certain return to the playoffs.