If you’re going to sack a Dally M medal winner, you’d better know what you’re doing.
‘New’ Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett — returning to the club he helped build after six years away — has caused quite a stir in his first few months back with the team. He’s rebuilt the club in his image, a process he completed yesterday by signing veteran fullback Darius Boyd to replace Ben Barba, who was hailed as the best player in the game just two years ago.
Naturally, there are those who have accused Bennett of favouritism (Boyd also played for the supercoach in Newcastle, St George, and during his original stint in Brisbane), and those who think Bennett made the wrong choice by giving Barba his marching orders (even though Barba was desperately out of form during his one season with the Broncos).
Respectfully, there’s only one thing we can say to those critics: Y’all must have forgot about Wayne. So here’s a reminder — 10 moments that defined Wayne Bennett, and 10 reasons why we trust the Team Brisbane member to deliver the goods in his second go-round with the Broncs.
Even in his youth
Bennett has been a disciplinarian since Day One. He started working as a police officer when he was just 15 in order to support his two sisters and two brothers. (Bennett’s dad, a problem gambler and an alcoholic, had abandoned the family when Wayne was just 11 years old.) Straight-edge Wayne set an example for his siblings (and demonstrated his notoriously firm principles) by refusing to smoke, drink or gamble, and he continued to work for the Queensland Police until he took on a full-time role with the Queensland Rugby League.
“Some people never change the mould that they come from,” Wayne’s brother Bob later told Australian Story, “but he did. He broke the mould and we all followed the break.”
Why does this matter? Well, it doesn’t just establish that Wayne was a hard-arse from an early age — it also tells us that Bennett has lived. Unlike many of today’s top coaches, who have spent their entire lives in the game, Bennett has had a ‘real’ job and he’s been around the block a few times. He knows how people work, and he’s a good judge of character.
Outside the Bax
It’s kind of hard to believe now, but Bennett was a star winger in the Brisbane Rugby League premiership in the early ’70s, when he was coached by Bob Bax. A huge influence on Bennett, Bax was known for making tough, unorthodox decisions that paid off (he once signed a 26-year-old AFL player who had never played league; the player, Barry Spring, ended up kicking so many goals that the game’s establishment had to lessen the amount of points awarded for a field goal).
Bax was also ahead of his time when it came to compiling stats on players, a skill that most sports have only started to take seriously in the last couple of decades. Bax’s vision paid off as he made it to the Brisbane Rugby League finals 17 times in 18 years, and his clubs won nine of the 14 grand finals they qualified for.
Down with the King
Fast forward a decade or two, and Bax’s willingness to make the tough decisions had obviously rubbed off on his protege. Bennett, who took the reins of the Broncos for their first season in ’88 after co-coaching the Canberra Raiders to the Grand Final in ’87, didn’t exactly win friends when he gave beloved Broncs captain and Queensland legend Wally Lewis the boot in 1990. The King didn’t get the contract offer he was expecting, because Bennett wanted to spend the money on the club’s younger talents. The Broncos won their first premiership in 1992.
Bennett’s critics have often tried to take away from his premiership achievements by pointing to the strength of his squads (“how could you not win a premiership,” the argument often goes, “with Alfie, Steve Renouf, the Walters Brothers etc. on your side?”), but it was tough decisions like this early on that made those later teams possible.
“Benny made some tough decisions and didn’t really care if they upset people,” Lewis said later. “He wasn’t the kind of guy who stands by the letter box to see how many Christmas cards he got.”
Even if those Christmas cards were from the King.
Bennett was named the Queensland Father of the Year in 1998. He’s famously proud of his three children, but that’s not the only reason he won the award — Bennett is also seen as a father to his players.
“I really do see him like a second father,” then-Broncos star Kevin Walters told Australian Story at the time. “I could go and speak to him about things and more often than not I believe he points me in the right direction.”
“I don’t think there’s much difference between them [the players] and your children,” Bennett told Newcastle’s KO FM earlier this year. “You spend so much time with them, particularly when they come to you young… so you have a fair influence on their life and they certainly rely on you for a lot of things.”
Is Wayne Bennett a father figure for Darius Boyd? Absolutely. Does Bennett share a bond with Boyd that he doesn’t share with Barba? Of course. Does that mean Bennett made an emotional choice, and not a logical one? Not a chance…
Don’t call it a comeback
We’ll get to an example of Bennett’s brutally unemotional decision-making process in a moment, but first, another instance of outside-the-box thinking. It’s July 2001, the State of Origin series is tied at one game a piece heading into the decider, and NSW is riding high on the anticipation surrounding captain Brad Fittler’s final Origin game.
QLD needed an emotional spark of their own, and it would come when Bennett put 35-year-old Allan Langer (who had retired from the NRL a year earlier, and was playing for the Warrington Wolves in the English Super League) on a plane home. (To maintain the suspense, Langer checked into the flight under a false name — something he would have had a much harder time doing if the game had taken place a few months later.)
The collective memory is that Langer dominated the game — in reality, Darren Lockyer was Queensland’s best player on the night, but either way, the fairytale had been etched in stone. Bennett’s decision to call up a 35-year-old has-been was retroactively hailed as a masterstroke, and we all learned never to question him again. Well, almost.
Buy the book
Bennett released his first book, Don’t Die With The Music In You (inspired by US intellectual Oliver Wendel), in 2002, and his second, The Man in the Mirror (perhaps inspired by US intellectual Michael Jackson) in 2008. The books showed the world the master motivator his players had always known and the rest of the world had never been allowed to see.
Much like San Antonio Spurs’ champion coach Gregg Popovich, Bennett is notorious for his refusal to cooperate with journalists but praised by those who know him as a sparkling conversationalist. Freed from the constraints of a post-match press conference, Bennett’s books proved that still waters run deep.
You wanted proof of Bennett’s brutal efficiency? Here it is. After five years without a Grand Final appearance, Bennett decided there was something rotten in the state of Denmark in 2005, and promptly sacked his coaching staff. This wouldn’t be such a big deal, if said coaching staff didn’t include longtime friends, allies and club legends Gary Belcher, Glenn Lazarus and Kevin Walters. Yes, that Kevin Walters — the one who said he saw Wayne as his “second father” in ’99.
For now, Bennett’s roster and staff are stocked with familiar faces (including Walters, back in the fold after developing his coaching skills elsewhere). But if the supercoach isn’t satisfied with their performance, don’t expect them to hang around past their expiry date.
In case you’re wondering if the clean-out worked — the Broncos won their sixth title in 2006.
Taking his talents to Lady Robinsons Beach
After a prolonged falling out with the Broncos was sparked by failed attempts to broker a “secret deal” to coach the Sydney Roosters in 2006, Bennett’s relationship with the team hit rock bottom when he refused to speak at a ceremony honouring him as a life member of the club. (Of course, it was nothing new for Bennett to give people the silent treatment, but he usually reserved it for the media.) In March 2008, it became official — Bennett would take his talents to St George in 2009.
Bennett’s arrival was heralded by a massive turnover of staff and players (sound familiar?), including a number of Broncos players heading to the Dragons (Boyd was one of them). In 2009, Bennett’s new club won the minor premiership, awarded for the league’s best regular season record, but were eliminated from the finals by the Broncos (of course).
In 2010, however, there was no stopping Bennett’s Dragons. They won the minor premiership again (making them the only team to claim consecutive minor premierships since the formation of the NRL in 1998), and then Bennett pulled off what might be his most impressive coaching feat — taking the Dragons, a team of so-called chokers who hadn’t won a premiership since 1979, to the promised land. It was Bennett’s seventh Grand Final win from seven attempts, putting him two rings clear of the legendary Jack Gibson.
In 2011, the Dragons were once again eliminated before the Grand Final by Bennett’s old club, but by winning a premiership with the Dragons during his exodus from Red Hill while the Broncos slowly fell into an organisational malaise, Bennett had made his value abundantly clear.
Slice of heaven
Around the same time that Bennett was masterminding his move to St George, he pulled off one of his other great coaching feats — he helped the New Zealand Kiwis win the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. Now, to a league novice, helping a New Zealand rugby team win a trophy might not sound like all that difficult or impressive a feat, but league is not union, and the Kiwis are not the All Blacks.
Before Bennett’s arrival, New Zealand had competed in every Rugby League World Cup since 1954, but had nothing in their trophy cabinet to show for it. In that same period, Australia had won the tournament nine times — almost a perfect record. That didn’t sit well with Kiwi administrator Graham Lowe, who approached Bennett to help the NZRL and serve as head coach Stephen Kearney’s assistant (and something of a mentor).
“With the World Cup trophy in the cabinet,” Lowe soon found himself writing in the New Zealand Herald, “Wayne has become part of league folklore in New Zealand.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful to Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney or any of his staff and players when I say this but without the experience of Wayne Bennett to help, the Kiwis would not have won the World Cup.”
Lowe, a keen student of history, explained his confidence in Bennett by way of a Confucius quote: “Study the past if you would define the future.”
Newcastle, old attitude
In 2011, Bennett packed up his toys and left St George to join the Newcastle Knights, a club that had just been acquired by mining magnate Nathan Tinkler (at the time, this was generally considered to be a good thing). Tinkler wasted no time making a splash, and the traditionally cash-strapped club suddenly looked like the NRL’s real Silvertails.
Bennett revived 31-year-old Willie Mason’s career in 2012, but the club underachieved, failing to make the finals. It was the first time Bennett had been forced to watch finals football from the couch in 21 years.
In 2013, Bennett brought Craig Gower into the fold, drawing harsh criticism from observers who couldn’t understand why Bennett would take a chance on a 35-year-old who had been plying his trade in the English Super League. Yes, really. Gower had a positive impact on the club, but wasn’t quite able to write a fairytale ending to match Langer’s — he suffered an injury at the end of the season, and the Knights were eliminated just one match out from the Grand Final. Still, it was the closest the Knights had come to glory since the halcyon days of Andrew Johns in the early 2000s.
2014 was a horror year for the Knights, who suffered through Nathan Tinkler’s fall from grace and Alex McKinnon’s sickening, career-ending spinal injury. Bennett announced his departure early in the season, and the club missed the finals.
But there’s a saying about great clubs — they don’t rebuild, they reload. The same goes for men like Bennett.
The Broncos will end up being glad that he’s got the rest of the league in his sights next season.
Do you think the Broncos will go all the way in 2015? Was bringing back Bennett the right choice? Will we regret letting Barba go? Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Wayne Bennett is a proud member of Team Brisbane. For more information about Team Brisbane, visit teambne.com.au. To join the Team Brisbane conversation, use the hashtags #TeamBNE and #BrisbaneAnyDay.