Canterbury Rugby League’s shift away from its provincial head coach coupling the role with the demands of club coaching duties has resulted in Jed Lawrie stepping down after two years as SENZ Canterbury Bulls’ coach.

Lawrie, who is eyeing off his ninth straight – and likely last – season as his beloved Hornby Panthers’ premiers coach in 2024, recognised that simultaneously giving the necessary attention to the Bulls position was becoming untenable.

“I agree with [CRL’s stance], for the Bulls to move forward they need a coach there all year,” Lawrie concedes.

“You’ve got to be in touch with the players all year. Doing club [coaching] as well was hard.

“We had a coach lined up at Hornby who fell through, and talking to Corey (Lawrie) – who obviously I have so much respect for – he felt he wasn’t ready [to take over as Panthers coach] and wanted one more year of playing and dabbling in coaching with the Bs, so I agreed to do one more.

“It’s just the way it worked out, it’s unfortunate, but I agree that this season it was hard going from Hornby to Bulls when you can’t work with the players all year round.”

Lawrie opened up on the challenges of juggling the dual roles in a congested local premiership and domestic representative schedule, with a limited lead-in for the SENZ Canterbury Bulls’ 2023 foray on the back of a typically fiercely contested CRL premiership finals series.

“This campaign, our first game was on the Saturday, so we lost our captain’s run. The club season went for a week longer, so that’s another two trainings we lost.

“It’s probably something that needs to be looked at moving forward – how to best manage the Bulls to give them enough time as a team to hit the ground running. The short turnaround is too hard.”

Lawrie’s association with the Bulls stretches back to 2016 – also his first season as Panthers coach – when he came onto incoming head coach Andrew Auimatagi’s staff as an assistant.

He was the right-hand man for all but one (2020, when he instead coached Canterbury 18s) of Auimatagi’s six years at the helm, before succeeding his mate and long-time Linwood rival in 2022.

“It’s been an awesome seven years, you work with great staff like Andrew, Lee (Mou), Mel (Tukapua) and Louis (Fanene), we had Tash (Fergus) on board this year, as well as ‘Pup’ (Corey Lawrie) and Joseph Mika,” Lawrie recollected.

“There’s also been some amazing players over the last seven years that you don’t get to work with in club footy, so coming into the Bulls and getting to work with them – it will be a hard one but at the moment I’m just looking to do what’s best for me.”

Jed Lawrie (right) and Andrew Auimatagi. Photo Credit: Aiden Williams/Stuff

Unsurprisingly, Lawrie nominates guiding the Bulls to the 2022 National Premiership final – where they ultimately came up short against Akarana Falcons at North Harbour Stadium – as the standout achievement of his representative head-coaching tenure.

“Talking to a few of the boys when I told them I was standing down, it was definitely a highlight last year – a great squad, great bunch of boys.

“We were probably a bit unfortunate with the rain [in the final] and we probably didn’t take our opportunities early.

“But that year and 2019, when we made the final and I was Andrew’s assistant, those were probably our best opportunities to win it. [2019 was] another great year.”

Lawrie and the SENZ Canterbury Bulls endured a difficult 2023 campaign, going winless in their pool round-robin before suffering another defeat in the relegation fixture against Waikato Mana.

Underlining his qualities as a coach and a person, Lawrie launched a passionate defence of his players and team in the face of backlash to the disappointing results – firstly on social media, then courtesy of an eloquent and heartfelt speech at the Canterbury Rugby League’s awards night.

“I’m backing those boys – they’re the one who know me the most. I’m not just a coach on the field, I’m also someone who will support them off the field as well,” he explained.

“I was just a bit disappointed with all the mudslinging, but for our game to grow on the back of good things like the Warriors [being successful] – when we’re throwing mud, we’re probably losing that opportunity to grow – so it’s about coming together and trying to build premier footy, put it back on the map.

“Look at the crowd for the Halswell-Hornby semi-final – it was absolutely massive. If we all work hard we can get that towards the end of every year, it would be awesome.”

As the Bulls aim to regain their spot in the 2025 NZRL National Premiership from the second tier next year, Lawrie has backed his former charges to flourish under an as yet unnamed replacement.

He also offered a caveat, though, with some of the region’s most promising tyros departing to advance their careers in 2024.

“A new coach brings new opportunity and obviously new players will come in,” Lawrie said.

“It’s a tough one at the moment because we’re losing a lot of our young ones to Australia, and we’re losing another couple from this campaign with Etelani (Pouli) and Kyle (Amer) heading overseas.

“We probably just need to see some growth in the premier numbers to bring back the Bulls to the way they used to be.”

2023 Canterbury Bulls Season Launch
Ngai Puna Wai, Christchurch, New Zealand
2023 Copyright Image: Matthew Musson/©MattyLouisPhotography

A crucial part of Lawrie’s Canterbury Bulls legacy is continuing to nurture a culture of positivity and accountability – integral tenets of Auimatagi’s stint in charge.

“When I first started working with Andrew, he talked a lot about installing those key things and I tried to carry on what he started.

“We always pride ourselves on once we come into the Bulls campaign, it’s got to be a learning experience for them to be better.”

CRL CEO Malcolm Humm expressed his gratitude to Lawrie for his commitment to the role.

“Canterbury Rugby League would like to sincerely thank Jed for his time as the Canterbury Bulls coach,” Humm said.

“Having coached the team to the NZRL Men’s National Premiership final in his first year was an outstanding accomplishment. We would like to wish Jed all the very best for his future endeavours.”

Lawrie’s focus will soon shift to the Panthers’ 2024 Massetti Cup campaign – and atoning for consecutive last-gasp grand final defeats at the hands of the Keas in 2022-23 since steering the club to a long-awaited triumph in 2021.

The laconic mentor is adamant that he’ll be hanging up the clipboard at the end of 2024…but he’s also well aware we’ve heard that line before.

“There’s been a few grand final losses now, it breaks the old heart but those results are gone now,” Lawrie lamented.

“Looking forward, this is definitely the last one – I keep saying it’s my last one and I’m back here again, it makes me look like a bit of an idiot.

“But this is definitely my last one and I’m looking forward to taking a really good holiday overseas at the end of August. It’s something I haven’t done in a long time so it’s another reason to try and get that summer break and enjoy some time with the kids.”

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