Hooked: Inside the demise of Dragons coach Anthony Griffin
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On the eve of the new season, when asked to reflect on a spate of Dragons dramas that had pushed the summer sports off the front and back pages, Anthony Griffin was dismissive.
“If you take that one day out of our last 12 or 14 weeks,” Griffin said in March, in reference to a poor Charity Shield performance that was followed by a drunken altercation between players in Mudgee, “I’m really happy with where they are at.”
Unfortunately for Griffin, things didn’t get any better once the actual football started. A summer of scandal – including controversies as varied as the infamous presentation dinner no-shows by the club’s top players to the standing down of Talatau “Junior” Amone over an alleged hammer attack – were pointers to the type of ill discipline that can cost coaches their jobs.
Having come under fire from sections of the fanbase for hiring Griffin in the first place, the St George Illawarra board doubled down by triggering a contract extension for the 2023 season. When Griffin’s tenure was last seriously discussed at board level four weeks ago, it was evident he was not the man to lead the Red V to a bright, new era. It was hoped, however, that the former Broncos and Panthers mentor would notch enough wins to justify the decision to allow him to start the season and ultimately see it out.
The Dragons haven’t won since. A discussion was held between directors on Monday night, before Tuesday’s official board meeting, and while the Kogarah and Illawarra sides of the merger don’t always see eye to eye, on this occasion it was agreed there was no other choice. “Hook” was hooked.
“There had been strong support a month ago, but since that last board meeting we haven’t had another win,” Dragons CEO Ryan Webb told this masthead.
Anthony Griffin has coached his last game for the Dragons.Credit: Getty
“The way the whole season has gone, we needed to make a change.”
Around the time of the Mudgee incident, the Dragons’ hierarchy informed Griffin that other candidates would be sounded out about his job. He has had the axe hanging over him ever since and on Tuesday morning, less than two hours after his players were forced to speculate on his future during a pre-arranged media session, it finally fell.
Griffin will finish his NRL head coaching career with a win rate of 51 per cent, akin to the likes of premiership-winner Ricky Stuart, yet his appointment was not a successful one. It is a mistake Red V powerbrokers can’t afford to repeat.
Like the competition’s other joint-venture club Wests Tigers, they will go back to the future for an answer. They will choose their new coach from among a triumvirate of former players, with Ben Hornby and Dean Young the fallback options if terms can’t be agreed with Jason Ryles.
The latter, like Cronulla’s head coach Craig Fitzgibbon and the Bulldogs’ Cameron Ciraldo before him, is considered the rookie most ready to step up to the NRL. Accordingly, Ryles will be able to name his terms, which are likely to include a term of five years and input over a new-look football department.
When Ivan Cleary left the Wests Tigers to rejoin Penrith, the joint-venture outfit secured a $250,000 compensation fee in exchange for releasing him from the last two years of his contract. The Roosters will seek a similar amount to release Ryles.
Because Ryles and his agent have been transparent about the interest shown in him from the Dragons, he will leave with the Tricolours’ blessing and be allowed to see out the season at Bondi Junction.
The former Test prop is also on a very short list to replace Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy if he ever decides to leave the Storm, but waiting for Bellamy to retire is akin to waiting for Godot.
Young is expected to speak to the Dragons on Friday. Hornby is also being sounded out, but the job is Ryles’ to lose.
The former Test prop never enjoyed premiership success at the Dragons as a player, but may have the chance to do so as a coach. However, the club has a chequered record in picking coaches, as evidenced by the hiring and firing of Griffin.
Asked the biggest learning to come from it all, Webb said: “With hindsight, you never make any incorrect decisions.”
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