QRL Article written by Rikki-Lee Arnold (Community Content Producer)
Retired rugby league journeyman Darren Nicholls is set to make his mark on the game in a new way in 2023, with the former playmaker venturing into the world of coaching.
Nicholls, who hung up the boots with Brisbane Tigers at the end of the 2022 season, will take on the role of assistant coach for Wynnum Manly’s Hostplus Cup side, coming in under the tutelage of his former NSW Cup mentor, Matt Head.
With his former Brisbane Tigers and Souths Logan Magpies coach Jon Buchanan also now at the Seagulls as the development and pathways manager, Nicholls will be supported by two of the men who influenced his playing career the most as he looks to open a new chapter in the game.
The 33-year-old – who also played with Norths and Redcliffe throughout his Cup career in Queensland – said he started to naturally gravitate towards coaching in the back end of his playing days and through his work at Marsden State High School.
So when Head – also in his first season at Wynnum Manly – gave Nicholls a call and asked him to be his assistant for 2023, it was a no brainer.
“I let (Brisbane) know I was going to retire and there was a little bit of an opportunity to coach in the younger grades there,” Nicholls said.
“But I know Matty Head from the (St George Illawarra) Dragons and when he got the gig at Wynnum, he called me straight away.
“With the opportunity to learn under Heady, I couldn’t say no.
“In the later stage of my career, I started to have a bit more input into training sessions and was sort of doing some coaching on the run. Through my school where I’m a PE teacher, I help coach the junior footy teams.
“It’s something I’ve always enjoyed and I liked learning off different coaches as a player. I like having the ability to impact a player and to help them develop and grow.”
Already several weeks into pre-season training, Nicholls has been hard at work putting Wynnum Manly’s Cup side through their paces and has been thoroughly impressed by the response from the players and the intensity of their training sessions – so intense in fact, it makes him happy to be retired.
The former halfback will focus mostly on the team’s attack throughout season 2023, with a desire for Wynnum to be seen as a “highly skilled team that really promotes the football.”
But Nicholls is also keen to see what challenges he faces in his first season as part of a coaching line-up and is glad to have such strong influences around him as he gets started.
After making his NRL debut with the Dragons in 2018, with another two appearances in 2019, Nicholls returned to Queensland in 2020 to join Souths Logan under his former XXXX Queensland Residents coach, Buchanan.
He then followed his mentor across to the Brisbane Tigers in 2021 and said it was because of Buchanan that he’d been able to start the journey into coaching.
“JB (Buchanan) was the one that got me up to Brisbane,” Nicholls said.
“That started my journey. I got the job at Marsden and we have a rugby league program that I help out with.
“At the back end of my career (at Brisbane Tigers), he’d let me take some drills, run through some things at a session. I was able to get my foot in the door and that started my coaching journey in a sense.
“I’ve been to a fair few clubs and each club and each coach, you learn different things. Being a fulltime player (in an NRL system), you also learn from the head coach and then go back to your Cup coach and learn there.
“Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and I can take from that.
“At Wynnum Manly now it’s an opportunity for me to learn some more and to add things to the sessions and the game plans that I’ve learnt along the way.
“It’s good for me to have JB and Heady … it’s a good mixture. We’re comfortable challenging each other. If we think there’s something we can do differently, it’s open for honest conversations.
“JB and I have had that the past few years already and I spent two years with Heady at the Dragons. It’s worked out well in that sense. There’s plenty of banter at training.”
The new-look coaching staff are not the only big changes at Wynnum Manly in 2023, with a significant turnover in the playing group as well.
The club have announced the re-signings of players such as Max Plath and player of the year, Kalolo Saitaua, while also bringing to the club the likes of Brendan Frei (North Queensland Cowboys), Lachlan Timm (Redcliffe Dolphins), Gideon Gela-Mosby (Northern Pride), Kitron Laka (PNG Hunters), Darius Farmer and Tony Pellow (Brisbane Tigers).
Nicholls said at some point over the pre-season the new group will sit down together to discuss what they believe success will look like for them as a club.
But in the meantime, as they approach the Christmas break, the coaching staff are enjoying getting to know the players and trying to get the best from them.
“There’s a big turnover,” Nicholls said.
“They lost a lot of their senior players so we’re looking at it as a bit of blank canvas.
“We have some great signings brought in and I personally love the addition of Brendan Frei. His intensity at training and leadership has been outstanding.
“Coming up against him when I played, he was always a dangerous player.
“The whole squad has had a great intensity at training. From the first night to where they are now, they’re really challenging each other and there’s competitiveness there as well.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for spots and that opportunity drives a lot competitiveness.”