Todd Payten faces up to the coaching equivalent of mission impossible on Friday after taking over from Stephen Kearney, with his first match as caretaker up against Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne Storm.
But teams have regularly responded to their coach’s mid-season sacking with a boilover result or backs-to-the-wall performance in the past. Here’s the most memorable interim coach debuts of the NRL era.
10. Andrew McFadden – Warriors (2014)
‘Cappy’ McFadden arrived in Auckland with Matt Elliott in 2013 and took over from the dumped Elliott in Round 6 of the 2014 season. The Warriors fell agonisingly short of a momentous win over heavyweights Canterbury in McFadden’s first game in charge, with a controversial penalty goal and field goal from Trent Hodkinson in the dying minutes consigning them to a 21-20 loss at Eden Park. A mid-season run of nine wins from 13 games helped secure McFadden the gig fulltime, while the Warriors missed the 2014 finals on for-and-against.
9. Rick Stone – Newcastle (2009)
A month after signing on as Sydney Roosters’ new coach for 2010, Brian Smith quit Newcastle with just four rounds of the ’09 season remaining. Assistant Rick Stone – who had enjoyed plenty of Queensland Cup success with Burleigh Bears – guided the Knights to a 26-14 upset of Melbourne in his first game in charge. Two wins from the remaining three rounds saw the Knights scrape into the finals in eighth, while Stone went on to coach the club fulltime in 2010-11 and later in the post-Wayne Bennett 2015 season.
8. Cameron Ciraldo – Penrith (2018)
Anthony Griffin’s messy exit from the finals-bound Panthers in 2018 thrust Cameron Ciraldo, long highly-regarded as an assistant, into the hot-seat with four rounds left. The Panthers snatched remarkable 17-16 victory over the Titans in Ciraldo’s first game, forcing golden point with a late surge. Ciraldo took the club to the second week of the finals after his charges disposed of the Warriors, but he was ultimately passed over for Ivan Cleary.
7. Steve Georgallis – Penrith (2011)
Future Warriors coach Matt Elliott’s axing at Penrith in 2011 gave Steve Georgallis an 11-game opportunity at the helm. The Panthers responded with a 30-20 victory over the Cowboys – the first of three wins in four games that lifted the side to eighth on the ladder. But they lost six of their last seven games, Ivan Cleary signed up to begin his first stint at the club in 2012 after the Warriors dropped the ball, and Georgallis has fulfilled NRL assistant and lower-grade head coach roles at Wests Tigers and Canterbury since.
6. Peter Sharp – Manly (1999)
Long-time heavyweights Manly slumped to a 0-7 start to 1999, resulting in club legend Bob Fulton standing down after more than 400 games as a first-grade coach. Peter Sharp stepped up to the plate and the Sea Eagles went on a three-match winning streak, beginning with a gutsy 12-6 win over high-flying Parramatta. Sharp led Manly to nine wins and draw from 17 games for a 13th-place finish in ’99 and was at the helm for the troubled Northern Eagles joint venture’s three-season existence, but made way for Des Hasler after Manly’s poor 2003 NRL re-entry. He later had two truncated stints filling in as Cronulla’s head coach due to Shane Flanagan’s suspensions.
5. Dean Lance – Adelaide (1998)
The axe finally fell on the widely disliked Rod Reddy after Adelaide Rams won just won of their first 10 games in 1998. Canberra great Dean Lance, who coached the doomed Perth Reds the previous season, took over and the relieved players responded with a 35-18 thrashing of Penrith. The lowly Rams won six of their first 10 games under Lance, but they lost their last four games heavily and the club was chopped by the NRL at the end of the year. Lance later coached Leeds with some success in 2000.
4. Tony Kemp – Warriors (2004)
An assistant since 2001, Tony Kemp took the reins after Daniel Anderson walked out midway through a disastrous ’04 campaign. After a wide-ranging honesty session, the Warriors regrouped with a memorable 20-14 victory over Canberra at Ericsson Stadium. The club’s initiative to include the players’ fathers in an emotional build-up was pivotal to the turnaround. The enduring memory of the match is Kemp shouting encouragement from the sidelines as his charges scored three tries in the last 10 minutes to grab an unlikely result. The remainder of 2004 garnered just two more wins from 12 games, while Kemp was dumped in favour of Ivan Cleary at the end of a much-improved ’05 campaign.
3. Brad Fittler – Sydney Roosters (2007)
Dual premiership-winning coach Chris Anderson’s last NRL head coaching foray was a disaster, lasting just 16 games at Sydney Roosters and quitting (citing health reasons) after a 56-0 humiliation at the hands of Manly. Club legend Brad Fittler accepted the role and enjoyed a dream run, beginning with the 5-11 Roosters’ 23-12 win over Cronulla. The Roosters went unbeaten in Fittler’s first five games – including an unforgettable golden point draw against the Warriors – before eventually finishing 10th. Fittler led the Tricolours to the top four in 2008 but he decided to concentrate on rep coaching after a diabolical wooden spoon season in ’09.
2. Jamie Shepherd – Cronulla (2014)
With Shane Flanagan serving an NRL-imposed suspension, Cronulla Sharks were running last in 2014 under Peter Sharp when they pulled off an incredible 22-point comeback to beat Brisbane in Round 16 – after failing to score a point in their previous three games. But the Todd Carney ‘bubbler’ incident in the ensuing days proved too much for Sharp, who stepped down and handed the job to Jamie Shepherd. Incredibly, the Sharks broke their biggest comeback club record for the second time in a week, shocking the defending champion Roosters 30-28 after trailing by 24 points. Shepherd enjoyed just one more win in nine remaining games and Flanagan returned ahead of 2015.
1. Arthur Kitinas – South Sydney (2004)
Paul Langmack’s tumultuous, wildly unsuccessful stint in charge at Souths came to an end in the wake of a mid-2004 beatdown from Cronulla. Former Easts and Souths halfback Arthur Kitinas took on the role and the last-placed Rabbitohs rolled Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne side 28-26 – after trailing 16-0 early. The quietly-spoken Kitinas’ dream start continued with a 34-30 win over Manly a week later, but Souths went winless in the last eight rounds to finish with the spoon and Shaun McRae took over in 2005.