“If it is good, you won’t hear from me. If it’s not good, I’ll probably let you know”.
That was the only advice Craig Bellamy gave to Jason Ryles before he addressed the Melbourne Storm playing group for the first time in his role as an assistant to the NRL’s current longest serving head coach.
“I was petrified,” Ryles said. “There was Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk in the room, and Craig was sitting there. I was just thinking, ‘what am I going to tell these guys’. But Craig never checked me, he never had a look at what I was presenting.
“He said, ‘you know what you are doing, just get up and do it’. He lets you express yourself. It is not ‘this is how you do it’. With Craig, no feedback is good feedback.”
Ryles, who is now the right hand man to Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson, is one of more than a dozen NRL head coaches or senior assistants whose coaching careers began at the Storm under Bellamy.
Among them are Wests Tigers mentor Michael Maguire, Newcastle’s Adam O’Brien, Parramatta’s Brad Arthur and Brisbane’s Kevin Walters. Titans NRLW coach Jamie Feeney was also previously on Bellamy’s coaching staff.
Stephen Kearney (Eels, Warriors), Anthony Seibold (Rabbitohs, Broncos) and Dean Pay (Bulldogs) are others who went on to become NRL head coaches.
Ryles (Roosters), David Kidwell (Eels) and Justin Morgan (Warriors) are senior assistants at NRL clubs, while Warriors head coach Nathan Brown also worked with Bellamy at the Storm in 2015.
Each of those who learned their trade from Bellamy credit the influence of the man set to take charge of his 500th NRL game against South Sydney on Thursday night for their success.
“I came back from playing in England and on my first day in the job he gave me a bit of an idea of what my role was going to be – looking after the forwards and ruck attack, and so on – and he just sort of pushed me out there,” Kearney recalled.
“He gave me a little bit of advice, but he wasn’t telling me, ‘this is what you do’ or ‘this is how you do it’. No doubt if there were issues, he would have pulled me up, but he let me find my way.
“I think that is a real strength of Craig’s. He lets the individual find their way, whether that is my way, Rylesy’s way, Adam’s way or whoever. I found that really encouraging.”
The Bellamy way
An unsung member of the great Canberra Raiders teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s coached by Wayne Bennett and Tim Sheens, Bellamy had his own coaching philosophy when he arrived in Melbourne in 2003 for the first of his 20 seasons at the club's helm.
He had begun as a strength and conditioning coach under Bennett at the Broncos and created a regime based on fitness and discipline at the Storm from the outset.
Kearney, who is now enjoying a second stint with Bellamy in Melbourne, was the Storm captain when he first took charge and received a phone call from the incoming coach asking if he knew of any hills for training.
"I said when [former coach] Chris Anderson was here, we would head out to Studley Park Road [in Kew] every Saturday morning and there were some hills out there where we used to go on a bike ride.
"He said 'you won’t need your f---ing bikes', and straight away I knew we were in trouble. We still ended up going out to the same place but he used the bushes through the hills for runs instead of the road for the bikes."
Troy Thomson, who is now the NRL's senior performance manager, was in charge of sports science for the Storm at the time.
"Back in those days we used to do a lot of hill running and he would hide in the bushes and scare the players," Thomson said. "If any of them started walking at the back he would jump out of the bushes and get them to keep running.
"He was always pretty full on and his sprays were legendary. I copped a bit of a spray one time when we were beating North Queensland by about 40 points in Townsville because I was walking the kick tee off. Just because it’s 40-0 you still have to run the kicking tee off."
The sight of Bellamy blowing up in the coach's box is often highlighted by the television coverage of Storm matches but coaches who have worked alongside him say he composes himself quickly and is usually calm when he addresses the players at halftime or after a game.
Bellamy is also renowned for the high standards he sets for his players and staff, his work ethic and a focus on perfecting the basics.
“He is the best teacher in rugby league that I have seen," said Seibold, who is currently in Paris helping Eddie Jones prepare the England rugby union team for their Six Nations clash with France.
"He keeps things simple and has a really narrow focus. He values effort and being a good team-mate. He can also have a real tough conversation with staff and players as well so he is a great man manager.
"I learned more in three seasons under Bellyache than any other time involved in the game. Craig and [Storm GM of football] Frank Ponissi were big influences on me.
"They were extremely good to me and even during the good times since then, and the challenging times as a coach, they have always reached out to me and checked in on me so I will forever be grateful for their support."
Ryles, who like Kearney, Feeney and Parramatta assistant David Kidwell had played at the Storm before transitioning into coaching, said it wasn't a career he had thought about until playing under Bellamy.
“It was like footy made a lot more sense," Ryles said. "There was a genuine process of how to do things and why you did it.
“Off the back of that, all of my beliefs and the way I think about things derive from playing there and coaching under him. He instilled the idea about doing the basic things consistently well.
“All coaches work hard so he is no different in that regard but his insistence on doing the basics consistently well year in and year out is the underlying secret to his success. It sounds simple but I think that is the key to it."
Thomson can still recall the first ball-work session that Bellamy oversaw when he joined the Storm in 2003.
"It was just catching and passing," Thomson said. "He said 'I need to make sure they have got the basics right and the fundamentals correct'. He came in and knew what he wanted to achieve. He stripped it right back.
“It was amazing to see the transformation of the joint. By 2005 we were playing finals and in 2006 we were in the grand final."
Almost two decades later, Ryles said Bellamy still focused on getting the basics right.
"The things that you would do in under 15s were just constantly coached that hard that it became second nature and constantly under fatigue so he gets his teams really fit as well as skilling them up," Ryles said.
“He is not a complicated guy. People expect him to be one of these Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi-type biblical speakers but he is very simple. He is just a typical, normal bloke who knows how to win footy games by doing the basic things well."
“His insistence on the basics and his ability to evolve, and still keep things simple, are his three greatest strengths."
Almost every year Bellamy questions how long he will continue to coach as he puts so much into the job that by the end of the season he is often exhausted.
However, his desire to continually improve and willingness to mentor young coaches usually helps to freshens him up.
“Even though he is stuck in his ways, he is smart enough to realise that he needs to move forward as well, and he has always been smart with the people he has put around him," Thomson said.
Marc Brentnall and Bellamy's son, Aaron, are the latest rookie coaches currently doing their apprenticeships as assistants to the five-times grand final winning coach.
“Going away for 10 years and coming back, there is a lot that has changed but there is a lot that hasn’t," Kearney said.
“He is constantly looking at how can the club, the team and the individuals get better. He has got some wonderful young assistants with him at the moment in Marc, Aaron and Ryan Hinchcliffe.
"I think that energy really helps him and they are all wonderful coaches in their own right too. Marc and Aaron look after the attack and he gets them to drive that. That is part of the evolution."
Ryles added: "The Bellyache who went to Melbourne in 2003 is not the same as the Bellyache of now, from what I can gather, and that is one of the secrets of his success."
Bellamy coaching tree
During Bellamy’s 20-years at the Storm, seven of his assistant coaches have gone on to take charge of rival NRL clubs, while Jamie Feeney is the Titans NRLW head coach.
Michael Maguire (Wests Tigers 2019-present; South Sydney 2012-2017)
Maguire took over from Greg Brentnall as an assistant in 2005 in the first change to Bellamy’s coaching staff and continued until 2010 when he accepted the Wigan job. After achieving immediate premiership success in Super League and guiding Wigan to victory in the 2011 Challenge Cup Maguire was appointed to the Rabbitohs job in 2012 and plotted the end of the club’s 43-year premiership drought in 2014. He has been the New Zealand Kiwis coach since 2018.
Stephen Kearney (Parramatta 2011-2012; Warriors 2017-2020)
After being Bellamy’s inaugural captain in 2003, Kearney finished his playing career with Hull FC before returning to Melbourne in 2006 as an assistant coach. He coached the Kiwis to victory in the 2008 World Cup and is New Zealand’s most successful coach, with the 2010 and 2014 Four Nations finals among the nation’s 23 Test wins under his charge. Kearney remained in the role for six years before accepting the Parramatta job in 2011. After departing the Eels, he joined the Broncos as an assistant to Wayne Bennett in 2013 before taking over as Warriors coach from 2017 to 2020. Kearney returned to the Storm to again work under Bellamy in 2021.
Jamie Feeney (Sydney Roosters 2020, Gold Coast Titans 2021-)
After finishing his playing career in Melbourne in 2006, Feeney transitioned into coaching with the club's Jersey Flegg team, the Central Coast Storm. He spent five years as a member of the Storm coaching staff before joining the NSWRL, where he developed an interest in women's rugby league that led to him becoming an assistant coach with the Jillaroos. He coached Sydney Roosters in the 2020 NRLW competition and is currently in charge of the Titans.
Brad Arthur (Parramatta 2014-)
Arthur started as the Storm’s development coach in 2008 and then spent two years in charge of the club’s Under 20s team before being promoted to assistant coach after Maguire’s departure for Wigan. He joined Kearney at the Eels as his right-hand man in 2011 and took over as interim coach for the final six games of the 2012 season. Arthur worked under Geoff Toovey at Manly in 2013 before returning to the Eels a year later as head coach.
Dean Pay (Canterbury-Bankstown 2018-2020)
Pay began his coaching career as the Storm under 20s coach in 2010, replacing Arthur, who had been elevated to assist Bellamy after Maguire’s departure. He continued in the role the following season and also took on the job of NSW Under 20s coach before joining close friend Ricky Stuart at Parramatta in 2012. Pay followed Stuart to Canberra in 2013 and was his assistant until taking over as Bulldogs head coach in 2018.
Kevin Walters (Brisbane 2020-present)
After a two-year stint in charge of the Catalans Dragons, Walters moved to Melbourne in 2011 as assistant coach, along with former Storm forward David Kidwell. Walters stayed in the role until 2014 when he joined Wayne Bennett at Newcastle before following him to Brisbane in 2015 to work alongside Kearney as Broncos assistant coaches. He coached Queensland from 2016 to 2019 before standing down to focus on his new job in charge of the Broncos.
Anthony Seibold (South Sydney 2018; Brisbane 2019-2020)
Seibold was the Storm Under 20s coach in 2013 before being elevated to an assistant’s role with Justin Morgan in 2014. After two years he moved to Manly to continue his apprenticeship and then to Souths in 2017 before succeeding Maguire the following season. Considered the best up-and-coming mentor in the game after steering the Rabbitohs to within one win of a grand final in his first season, Seibold was approached by the Broncos and he accepted a five-year deal beginning in 2019. However, his stint ended after two seasons and Seibold is now working as an assistant coach to Eddie Jones with the England rugby union team.
Adam O’Brien (Newcastle 2020-present)
O’Brien’s first NRL coaching role was as an assistant to Brad Arthur with the Storm’s under 20s team in 2007 and he remained in the role for four years before becoming the club’s development coach in 2011. O’Brien was promoted to assistant coach in 2014 and three years later he stepped up again to the senior assistant. After helping the Storm to three consecutive grand finals in 2016, 2017 and 2018, which yielded a premiership in 2017, he enjoyed further success with the winning 2019 Sydney Roosters team before accepting the Knights job. O’Brien has taken Newcastle to the finals in his first two seasons as coach.