Almost sacked, Origin glory now beckons for Daley with NSW

Blues brothers: Laurie Daley and Josh Dugan. Picture: Ben Rushton/Fairfax Media
Blues brothers: Laurie Daley and Josh Dugan. Picture: Ben Rushton/Fairfax Media

The story nobody from the NSW Rugby League wants you to write at the moment is whether Laurie Daley should coach beyond this Origin series.

Considering we're a day or so out from game two, with the series still very much in limbo, that's fair enough.

It's too early to make a call except to say this is the most important match in recent history for the Blues and their coach. No pressure.

Daley's closest friends are guarding his thoughts on his future as though Donald Trump has just asked them to mind the nuclear codes, but the safest bet is he'll continue on if his side beats Queensland at ANZ Stadium on Wednesday night.

If they do, it will be the Blues' second series win in Daley's five years at the helm.

If they win this match, he'll have won seven matches and lost seven matches. 

Given the calibre of the Queensland side in that period, it's not a terrible strike rate.

If the Blues lose this series, if they suffer a third consecutive series defeat on his watch, Daley probably won't want the job.

Then again, the decision probably won't be his to make.

Last year, he went perilously close to losing his job.

He took stock, made significant changes to his approach, and the result was there for all to see in Brisbane three weeks ago in game one at Suncorp Stadium.

Almost a year ago to the day, in the sombre visitors' dressing room at Suncorp an hour after NSW had lost the series, Daley was adamant he would not be budging from the path he was taking, even if it was a losing one.

"We're not deviating, we're not changing, we are staying on this course," he said.

"We're going to keep pushing ahead with what we have been doing for the last few years. It will turn."

When he said it, the first thought that popped into the mind was … SACK HIM! Brutal, yes, but this is footy and this is Origin and after losing back-to-back series something had to change.

If Daley wasn't prepared to change, his bosses at the NSWRL had to change the coach. And they almost did.

Publicly, chairman George Peponis said "everything was on the table" but insisted Daley would see out the final year of his contract in 2017.

Privately, a faction of the board was far from convinced. NSW needed to win, or at least be gallant in defeat, in the dead rubber in Sydney or the push for Daley to be sacked would well and truly be on.

The Blues won 18-14. Daley survived.

Those on the outside easily assume coaching Origin is the easiest job in the business.

Three games of footy in the middle of the year and so on and so forth. In reality, the pressure is heavy.

Daley wears defeat worse than the players, although he  allows only a few people to see it.

When he lost the series in his first year, in 2013, he was so stressed he ended up with shingles.

After the cataclysmic 52-6 loss in game three in 2015, he didn't leave the house for three weeks.

After last year's series loss, Daley did change, he did deviate, he did change course.

When the Blues won in 2014, they did so with a platoon of coaches, experts and consultants.

It worked then but in the last two years it has proven too much.

Daley has pared back his coaching staff and taken it back to basics.

The fundamental change, I'm told, is John Cartwright, a NSW legend in his own right but an even-tempered influence as Daley's assistant.

So, too, Peter Sterling as his coaching advisor after Immortal Bob Fulton moved aside to focus on his role at Manly.

This calmer approach has been reflected on the training paddock. Daley's empowered his players to take control, not least halves Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney.

On the eve of game one, he trotted his side out for their captain's run. It lasted less than 15 minutes.

He was content with what he saw. A few years ago, he would've stayed out for much longer, just for the sake of it.

For this game, the players didn't have their first field session until last Thursday after coming into camp on the Monday night.

Daley was conscious some of them had played for the Dragons and Bulldogs on Monday.

His true masterstroke was relocating the team base from Coffs Harbour to Kingscliff before game one and keeping his players away from Brisbane for as long as possible.

NSW players are effectively captives in their hotel rooms when they play in Brisbane, so hostile can the locals be.

When they have the captain's run on the day before the game, Suncorp Stadium staff flash NSW's worst moments up on the big screen.

At the same time, well-lubricated Maroons corporates at an Origin luncheon hurl abuse from a function room that overlooks the ground.

By staying at Kingscliff, just over the border, the Blues did their captain's run at the Gold Coast, and then ducked up the road to Brisbane the following day to win game one by a record margin.

But that's one game.

Showering Daley with praise now about how he turned the Blues around is the other story nobody from NSW wants you to write.

If NSW can't beat Queensland in game two, they will head back to Kingscliff knowing they must beat the Maroons at home, in a decider, with Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk all likely to be wearing the jumper for the final time.

No pressure.