Ranking the ten best Super League coaches of all time

In the 26 years of Super League we have seen hundreds of coaches try to achieve success with one or multiple teams.

The majority fail to inspire that trophy-winning success, but a handful of coaches stand out for their ability to get their side to the top and then some even go one better and keep them there.

But who are the best of the best? Here are our top 10…

10. Ian Millward

There’s no denying Ian Millward’s success in the game, especially his six seasons with St Helens. Having lifted two Super League titles and as many Challenge Cups as well as the League Leaders Shield and World Club Challenge, Millward made a name for himself as one of the top coaches in the British game. After leaving Saints under a cloud, he took over arch-rivals Wigan but endured a turbulent spell and was sacked early in 2006. It was six years before the Australian was seen in Super League again, taking over Castleford in 2012, winning six of his 25 games in charge before his departure a year later.

9. Justin Holbrook

Justin Holbrook will be long remembered for reviving St Helens’ flagging fortunes and turning them into the top team once more in Super League. Saints looked lost in 2017 under former playing great Keiron Cunningham, as they languished in mid-table and were hammered by Castleford in the Challenge Cup. Then in came their salvation Holbrook; he immediately got off to a flying start by annihilating Hull FC at Magic Weekend in his first official game. That was the sign of things to come as since then the Red Vee have bagged back-to-back League Leaders Shields, set a record for the amount of points in a season and lifted their seventh, eighth and ninth Super League title.

8. Tony Smith

Tony Smith guided Huddersfield back up to Super League and helped them survive the drop against all odds in 2003. He replaced Daryl Powell at Leeds a year later and secured the Rhinos their first Super League title in 2004. He led the club to World Club Challenge glory a year later before taking another Super League crown in 2007. After an unsuccessful spell in charge of England, Smith returned to the domestic game and made Warrington contenders again, taking them from the bottom to the top of the league within two years. The highlight of his time at the Wolves came between 2009 and 2012 as they won three Challenge Cups in four years. Now at Hull KR, Smith was tasked with leading the Robins out of a relegation dogfight and they did just that in 2021, finishing sixth and qualifying for the Super League play-off semi-finals.

7. Brian McLennan

The Kiwi assumed the role at Leeds from the aforementioned Smith in 2008 and immediately helped the Rhinos win their second World Club Challenge. Taking over the champions is never easy but ‘Bluey’ made it look easy at times as they secured back-to-back titles under his leadership, and three in a row as a club. In what was a golden decade of success for the Headingley outfit, the role of McClennan should not be forgotten and his selflessness in handing over the reins early to Brian McDermott will probably never be seen again.

6. Shaun Wane

Taking over from Michael Maguire at Wigan in 2012, Wane successfully maintained Wigan’s high standards of rugby league that his predecessor initially introduced. Having won three Super League titles alongside a League Leaders Shield, Challenge Cup and World Club Challenge, Wane’s no-nonsense style of coaching was certainly effective. His passionate, old-school attitude is something the British game still desires and he could yet prove to be the perfect fit in his new role as the England national team head coach

5. Michael Maguire

Wane’s predecessor Michael Maguire is ranked that place higher despite spending considerably less time in charge at the Warriors. Wigan had finished sixth in 2009 and the dominance of Leeds and St Helens looked too much to overcome, certainly in the short term. However, the Australian turned the Cherry & Whites into the team to beat in the blink of an eye. They topped the league, defeated every other side, and lifted both the League Leaders’ Shield and Super League title in a season of dominance. Though 2011 was not quite as successful, Maguire still managed a Wembley win and set a precedence that Wigan’s ‘glory days’ were well and truly back.

4. Brian Noble

Brian Noble is number three on this list purely because of his trophy-laden seven-year spell in charge of the Bradford Bulls in which he was named the International Coach of the Year and the club’s Coach of the Century. Noble brought the best out of the Bulls, who reached their peak in the early-to-mid 2000s, with the side he assembled full of size, speed and international prowess. His spell in charge saw Bradford win three Super League titles, three World Club Challenge trophies, two League Leaders’ Shields and a Challenge Cup. The Bulls even stormed to the treble in 2003 before Noble left for Wigan in 2006, helping the Warriors back up the table. He then took over Welsh outfit Crusaders and guided them to an unlikely play-off spot in 2010. His last job in Super League was with Salford in 2014, but Noble will always be remembered for his heroics at Bradford during the peak of ‘Bullmania’.

3. Kristian Woolf

Kristian Woolf, by rights, deserves his name laden so high on this list. He hasn’t transformed St Helens into a title-winning side, but he has kept them as one – a feat perhaps even more difficult than getting there. Back-to-back Grand Final victories in 2020 and 2021 – as well as a Challenge Cup victory in 2021 – has firmly etched the Tongan national coach into Saints folklore, but he is still well-placed to achieve three Grand Final successes in a row in 2022 – and a fourth for St Helens overall. The manner in which Woolf has got his side set-up is incredible; the defence is almost impregnable whilst they have lost absolutely nothing going forward. The mettle of the man will be tested in 2022 with the departures of key stars like Kevin Naiqama, Lachlan Coote and Theo Fages, but don’t bet against Saints being present at Old Trafford once more.

2. Daniel Anderson

Arriving in 2005 to replace Ian Millward, Daniel Anderson would guide St Helens to four consecutive League Leaders’ Shields, a feat matched by no other coach in the summer era. After somehow missing out on both finals in 2005, Saints dominated a year later and secured a clean sweep of awards, including the Sports Personality Team of the Year. An impressive world title followed in 2007 and was backed up as they secured their third consecutive Challenge Cup triumph in 2008. Two heartbreaking defeats to Leeds at Old Trafford in both 2007 and 2008 denied Saints an unprecedented treble-treble, an achievement that will likely never be seen. Anderson’s impact didn’t just bring silverware; he helped Saints produce arguably the most scintillating rugby Super League has ever seen, especially in 2006.

1. Brian McDermott

So many questions still befall Brian McDermott but one thing that cannot be denied is his success. After toughing it out at Harlequins, he took over at Leeds in 2011 and made history by taking them to back-to-back Super League titles from fifth place. After ending the club’s Wembley drought in 2014, McDermott made history by guiding the Rhinos to the treble in 2015, followed by another Super League title in 2017. He coached and brought the best out of so many legends and though his reign did not end well, his record stands far and above any previous Leeds coach.

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