John Monie took over from the great Jack Gibson as the coach of the star-studded Parramatta Eels in 1984. He left five years later having won a Grand Final before embarking on one of the most sensational coaching stints in the history of the sport when he led Wigan to four League and Cup doubles in just four seasons. He returned to Wigan in 1998 after becoming the first coach of Auckland Warriors in 1995 before embarking on an unhappy spell at London Broncos. Having coached France in last year’s World Cup, he is now a man of leisure living by one of Queensland’s many stunning beaches. He spoke to me for Rugby League World in 2009.
Have you finished coaching?
I think after the run that I’ve had, I’ve probably had enough! With any job in coaching, the emotional stuff you go through is pretty good. When you’re a young coach, you get knocked down but you get up again and you’re ready to go again on Monday but as you get older, it takes a little bit longer to recover from the losses. You expect the wins but you don’t enjoy them as much as you used to. It gets harder on an emotional level I think.
How hard was Jack Gibson to follow?
As I said, when you’re young you work hard and the hours don’t mean much. You do whatever you’ve got to do to get the job done. I’ve had three years working under Jack and Ron Massey which were very enjoyable – Massey was the co-ordinator who put everything together. It was a great learning time for me and when Jack walked away, he recommended I got the job. I inherited a very good football team with a tough mental attitude and plenty of football ability. You have to believe in yourself and keep your head down.
You lost a Grand Final in your first year by two points to Canterbury.
I had great self-belief and the players wanted me to do the job. At the time, I’d have probably rather not made the final than get beaten in it by such a narrow scoreline but as the years go by and you look back, it was all learning for me and we rectified everything a couple of years later.
You coached some of the greatest players to have played the game in Australia. Who was the best?
I can’t pick a best. They all have different qualities – same when I was at Wigan with Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards. They were three completely different individuals. It was the same at Parramatta with Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe and Ray Price. They all had to be treated differently and ply their trade for the good of the team. The team comes first and the individuals have to do what they have to do.
How fondly do you remember 1986?
No-one’s ever done what we did in 1986. We won the pre-season competition, we were the minor premiers, we won the Midweek Cup and we went on to win the Grand Final. We also had lots of players chosen in the representative teams. It was a fantastic year.
Why were the Eels never as good after 1986?
I think it had a bit to do with recruitment. The majority of the players who played in that era came through the local system. Ella and Kenny were Parramatta juniors, Sterling had played for the local high school and Price had grown up in Parramatta and played rugby union there. They held on to the belief that more would come through and I think they held on to that belief for too long and the recruitment wasn’t what it should be.
How much did Maurice Lindsay have to persuade you to join Wigan?
Two or three ‘phone calls per week for a month! By 1989 I wanted to have year off from the game to do some surfing but every couple of days the ‘phone would ring and a voice would say, ‘I’m a little Englishman and I’m the chairman of a Rugby League club in Wigan’. He’s say, ‘I think I’m talking to the next Wigan coach’. That went on for a few weeks – he was just persistent. He told me how great a club Wigan was and he came up with a famous line about how Wigan Pier was almost as good for surfing as Queensland! It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
How well did you get on with Lindsay?
I had a great working relationship with Maurice – he ran the business side and I ran the football side. We had disagreements but because we were friends we could understand where each other was coming from. We’ve become very good friends and we see each other all the time.
You won four doubles in four seasons. Do you have a favourite year?
No. Those four years were a bit of a blur. We had a great captain in Ellery, who was an inspiration to everybody in training and in games and we had great players in many positions – Joe Lydon, Steve Hampson, Andy Gregory, Shaun Edwards, Dean Bell and many more. I remember not wanting Frano Botica when Jack Robinson bought him – I was after an Australian because I didn’t want to take a risk with a guy who had never played the game before. But he turned out to be a great success story. All the players worked really hard and there was a fear of failure. We broke a lot of new ground with things we did – things I introduced from Sydney – and we got a jump on the other clubs for a few years.
How tough was it to coach so many high-profile players? Were there personality clashes?
No because the players knew I was the coach and they had to do what they had to do. They all got on board with the philosophy of the club. We had many strong personalities like Andy Goodway who was fantastic – I was told he’d be trouble but he wasn’t. I remember Andy Platt lining up to sprint against Martin Offiah and really believing he could win. There was so much determination in the players that it could only be a good thing. We trained really hard and did a lot of the hard work that other clubs weren’t doing. People focused on the fact we had a lot of great players but they busted a gut. They didn’t take any shortcuts.
How big a decision was it to leave?
I went to Wigan for two years and left after four so I thought that was long enough. When the Warriors got into the Winfield Cup, I thought the time was right to go there.
How do you look back on your time in New Zealand?
I enjoyed it up until the last year. We missed the play-offs in the first season by two points – two points that we were deducted for putting on an illegal substitute. Some mis-information came up to the coaches box about how many we’d made and I put Willie Poching or Joe Vagana – one of the two – on. I didn’t need to put him on, I just did it so he’d get some experience in a game we’d already won but we got docked the two points and missed the semi-finals which would have been a great achievement.
Were you disappointed with how things ended at the Warriors?
Yes, it’s always disappointing when you get the sack but there aren’t many coaches around who haven’t been given the sack. It was my first taste of that and I didn’t like it. The expectations were massive and people thought once they had a team in the Winfield Cup, they’d be as good as the All Blacks. But it doesn’t work like that – it takes time. People weren’t patient enough and wanted success too quickly.
People say you should never go back, so how did you feel when Wigan approached you again?
I was very keen; still keen to coach and familiar with Wigan so I was delighted to go back.
You had a great year in 1998 but, famously, you lost the Challenge Cup Final to Sheffield.
By that stage in my career, I could accept the defeats as well as the victories. We didn’t get off to a good start and probably lost the game early on. We didn’t take our opportunities and Sheffield got the momentum they needed. I probably wasn’t as upset with that loss as some people would have thought. When you’re coaching you only want to win, but when it’s over you have look at the scoreboard and accept what it says. I congratulated John Kear and the Sheffield players. It was gut-wrenching at the time – I’m not trying to make light of it – but when I look back at my Wembley experiences, it’s been a pretty good ride.
You had some tremendous battles with Leeds in 1998, the last of them being the Grand Final, which you won.
Graham Murray coached Leeds and they set the pace that season. They had a very tough pack and were such a hard side to beat. I look back on that as one of my major achievements, winning that Grand Final. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of good players putting their shoulders to the wheel. Jason Robinson scored a great try for us that night. But I actually preferred the system where the team who finished top won the league, even though I’d come from a Grand Final system.
You lost some very good players at the end of the year and struggled in 1999. Were you aggrieved when the club pushed you out?
It certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth. I told the chairman that we’d struggle if we got some injuries and that’s what happened. The start of the season wasn’t as good as we’d have liked and it wasn’t pleasant to leave.
Do you regret going to coach London?
It was a mistake going there. There wasn’t a lot of tradition down there nor much depth in the squad. I probably should have come back to Australia after Wigan because I don’t have too many pleasant memories of 12 months in London. We moved across the city to a crappy little ground and lost a lot of young players we’d been developing. We did everything wrong.
And what about France?
I enjoyed coaching France and helping them move from European Cup level into the top league of countries who didn’t have to qualify for the World Cup. We beat Wales in a final in Carcassonne and then in 2007 we pushed Great Britain close at Headingley and were five minutes away from beating New Zealand in Paris. But we had to use too many players from the French Elite. They need another Super League club to choose players from; that would make a big difference. The World Cup was disappointing but we won our first game and suffered injuries to players in key positions.
Are you enjoying life now?
Very much. I love it here, I play a bit of golf with my wife and we spent some time with Wayne Bennett over Christmas. I loved my career in the game and I’ve got a lot of great memories to look back on.