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There are several ways to judge a rookie coach’s success – wins, losses, preliminary final appearances – but when the man in question shares your name, perhaps the best measure is in the misdirected messages you receive.
When Andrew Webster was the interim coach of the Wests Tigers in 2016, the miscued messages were ones of genuine care and support.
When Andrew Webster was an assistant coach at Penrith, the misguided missives came from head coach Ivan Cleary, asking for video of the opposition to be clipped up – including grand final week last year.
Told he’d messaged the gibbering journalist not his hard-working assistant, Cleary sent back a series of laughing emojis.
But this season, in Andrew Webster’s first as coach of the New Zealand Warriors, the avalanche of congratulatory messages and phone calls from all sorts of people truly tell the tale of his success.
There have even been a few people sliding into my Instagram DMs, either praising Webster or shamelessly asking for a Warriors jumper signed by the entire squad.
Andrew Webster and Shaun Johnson after Saturday’s win against the Knights.Credit: Getty
The Warriors meet the Kevin Walters-coached Broncos in a preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
Most assume one of these two men will be named Dally M Coach of the Year in grand final week, but they should hand the statuette to Webster now.
Sure, Walters has done well to finally get the Broncos – the most scrutinised team in the NRL – into top gear.
But this is his third year in the job, with the NRL’s most promising group of young players at his disposal and halfback Adam Reynolds running the show like an on-field coach.
In his rookie season, Webster took charge of a team that spent the best part of three years living out of a suitcase on the other side of the Tasman – and one that finished second-last in 2022.
The Broncos were expected to go this deep into the season. Few predicted the Warriors could make the eight.
The Warriors have become a graveyard for coaches. Not only does the head coach carry the burden of winning the club’s first premiership since being admitted to the competition in 1995, but he’s also competing with rugby union for young players, fan interest and relevance.
Which makes their resurgence under Webster so remarkable. On his watch, in one season, Mount Smart Stadium resembles a K-Road nightclub, and the All Blacks have been knocked off the front and back pages.
(It’s been a few years since I’ve walked the sticky floorboards of a K-Road nightclub so apologies if this analogy misses the mark).
If you want an indication of why Webster has done so well, lifting his team into the final four, you need to go back to the first round of the season, inside the dressing room at Sky Stadium, Wellington.
The Warriors were about to play the Knights and chief executive Cameron George addressed the playing group, following the tradition of handing the rookie coach a signed jumper.
“Boys, when you get a new coach, the first thing they want to do is change everything,” George said, according to those in the room. “But Andrew was different. He said, ‘I’m happy with the squad we’ve got’.”
Webster stayed true to his word, with only Te Maire Martin and Jackson Ford their genuine off-season recruits, before he set about coaching the hell out of the players he had.
Warriors chief executive Cameron George.Credit: Getty
The first thing he did was enact a policy that ensured every player walks past the coaches’ offices every day – when they arrive and when they leave.
By doing so, Webster didn’t just know when players were arriving but could also engage with them when they left. If there was something that needed addressing, it was done before they went home for the night.
He also adopted the same straightforward, strategic approach that made him invaluable at the Panthers.
He showed his players the targets they needed to hit statistically to roll with the big boys of the competition, either defensively or in terms of possession. That included explaining the historical data of the leading sides of the past five years.
“If you do these things,” he told them, “we’ll play finals football.”
And here they are, one victory off a grand final, and maybe it was meant to be.
When the Warriors were looking for a coach to replace Nathan Brown, George didn’t cast the net too wide.
He didn’t cast a net at all. He ignored the advice being shoved down his throat about recycled coaches who had been sacked from their previous roles.
He flirted with Kristian Woolf because of his experience coaching Tonga, but Webster was always the preference; he’d been an assistant to Andrew McFadden at the Warriors in 2015-16, loved the city, loved the country, and most importantly got on with owner Mark Robinson.
Webster politely declined a request to chat this week.
“I want to keep a lid on it,” he texted. “Happy to do something at the end of the year. That might be too late.”
He’ll never make it as a journo, which is all well and dandy because this Andrew Webster certainly knows how to coach.
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