The year is but three weeks old and we
already have a contender for the worst kept secret of the year in the National
Rugby League – the appointment of Michael Hagen as coach of the Parramatta
Eels.

But Eels supporters will have to wait until
the 2007 season to see if their club has made the right choice. Hagen will continue
to coach the Newcastle Knights in the 2006 premiership.

While both the Eels and the Knights are
claiming the position will benefit them, the reality is that the pressure on
every NRL coach will be multiplied a couple of times for Hagen this year.

On the other hand, the outgoing Eels coach,
Brian Smith, who was not offered a new contract, will surely be under less
pressure than any other of the 15 coaches. He really has nothing to lose – and
not much to gain. If the Eels win the premiership this year the club will still
show him the door at the end of the season.

But Michael Hagen has been placed in a
potentially very difficult position even before the season starts. I happen to believe the Knights will do
well this year – provided Andrew Johns’ frame holds together. But if the
Knights falter early in the season, the calls for Hagen to go early
will be deafening.

A coach is under enough pressure when he is
under the scrutiny of the fans, officials and sponsors of his own club, not to
mention the media. This year Hagen will be watched almost as closely in Parramatta as he
will be in Newcastle.

There simply must be a better way for clubs
to switch coaches than the saga that has surrounded the demise of Smith at the
Eels, and the selection of Hagen as his replacement.

When it became apparent the Eels had
already chosen Hagen as the 2007 coach, the Knights board decided not to extend his
contract beyond this year. Now that might make the Knights management feel
good, but what does it do for the coach’s relationship with his players, and
club management, in 2006?

Michael Hagen has generally given the
impression he copes as well as most of his compatriots with pressure. That will
no doubt help him through 2006, but it really is the kind of pressure he, and
his players, could do without in what looks like being a demanding premiership
year.