With the NRL coaching merry-go-round starting up, Wayne Bennett has been linked to every struggling club. As per usual, he’s not happy about it.
“One minute it’s the Warriors, then it’s the Bulldogs, next I will be coaching at the Cowboys,” Bennett said last week.
“It’s crazy stuff … I must be the busiest coach in the NRL.”
Oh Wayne, you’re so whacky – they don’t expect you to coach them all at the same time! (But you knew that, didn’t you – you really missed your calling in panto.)
But while the ravenous desire for content and our 24-7 news cycle mean there’s plenty of junk, unsubstantiated rumour and downright lies reported to fill the airwaves, there’s a reason Bennett’s name gets tossed up every time another coach loses two games in a row.
Because scattered among his seven premierships are almost as many broken deals.
While he made his name at the Broncos, Benny’s first gig in the NSWRL was as co-coach of the Canberra Raiders in 1987.
He was an immediate success, leading the Green Machine to their inaugural grand final in his first year in charge.
Then he left with three years left on his contract.
“I had agreed to coach Brisbane but it was subject to me getting out of my four-year deal with Canberra,” Bennett explained in 2018.
“I didn’t feel comfortable walking out on a contract but it was important to me because it was a Queensland team and I was keen to come home with my family, no question.”
Now the thrust of that 2018 anecdote is Bennett framing how he didn’t do the dirt on the Raiders to go to Brisbane, that he insisted the Broncos “would see Canberra to sort it out”, but the outcome is still the same.
In Wayne’s first shot at coaching in the big time, he quit one year in to a four-year deal.
Brisbane Broncos (take one)
Bennett’s success as foundation coach at the Broncos should be the focus of his initial 21 years in Brisbane, but for the purpose of this piece, let’s reflect on how he left.
Quick reminder: Bennett broke his contract.
Now, it’s a little more complicated than that – it always is – so we’ll explore some of the detail that has been made public.
In late 2006, Bennett made a secret deal with Nick Politis to coach the Sydney Roosters. What’s more, according to a piece Phil Gould wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘How Wayne Bennett betrayed Roosters’, this agreement cost then-Tricolours coach Ricky Stuart his job.
“I got a call from Politis telling me he’d sacked Stuart,” Gus wrote in September 2006.
“I didn’t find out for another week the replacement was Bennett.”
So, having sacked their coach – at Bennett’s suggestion, according to Gus, albeit so Stuart “would have maximum time to find another job” – the Roosters then got the news about a month later that Wayne was no longer coming to Bondi.
“When Bennett informed Politis he wasn’t coming it hit like a sledgehammer,” Gould wrote.
“I respect his right to make this decision but I don’t understand it.”
Nonetheless, and even following a sixth grand final victory that same year, the relationship between Bennett and the Broncos began to fall apart after the Roosters renege was made public.
So a succession plan was put in place – Bennett would coach the club until the end of 2009, before handing the reins over in a seamless transition.
But apparently fearful he was going to be pushed, Bennett instead decided to jump in February 2008, tendering his resignation to the board, who agreed to let him see out that season and release him with a year to go on his deal.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Heading to the Gong to coach the Dragons in 2009 was a breath of fresh air for Bennett and the club, with the master coach taking the Red V to victory in the 2010 grand final – their first premiership in 31 years.
Early in 2011, the third year of his three-year deal, Bennett announced he would not continue on with St George Illawarra:
“I didn’t come here as a long-term coach, I came here to get a job done, I believe that has been done and I think it’s a good time for me to move on.”
Won the club a premiership and gave them plenty of time to find a replacement. You can’t say fairer than that.
We don’t need to rehash the whole sorry saga that was Wayne’s time at a club being dismantled by Nathan Tinkler and his mob.
But after the ‘Boganaire’ had the club taken away from him in 2014 – and, not for nothing, with the first-grade squad Bennett assembled looking decidedly long in the tooth – Wayne decided he was going to bail on the fourth and final year of his contract.
The coach cited the fact he had struck a deal with Tinkler, not the Newcastle Knights, so his departure was justified. But he also admitted he was leaving the club in a hole that he just didn’t feel like digging them out of:
“I believe it will take a number of years to reach an acceptable position and that is what I am unable to commit to. A longer term coach is crucial for future success.”
Never forget, Knights fans.
Brisbane Broncos (take two)
The prodigal grandfather returned to the River City in 2015 and took the club he helped to build to within moments of a seventh grand final victory in his first year back.
But by the back half of 2018, the club had decided Bennett was no longer the man to lead the first-grade team. However, they recognised the importance of his history and legacy, so offered him a senior administrative role. Bennett refused, saying he wanted to keep coaching.
And thus, once again, the relationship between coach and head office deteriorated.
“Last time I left [in 2008], I left for similar reasons, but made the decision to leave so this [sort of distraction] wouldn’t happen,” Bennett said in August ’18, as speculation about his future intensified.
“I made it easy for them last time, I’m not doing it this time.”
Not exactly the words of a happy and settled employee.
As such, as the post-season rolled around we knew Anthony Seibold and Bennett would be swapping jobs for 2020. With that being the case, it seemed logical they simply switch immediately.
The specifics of how it all shook out remains somewhat murky – the Broncos maintain Bennett was insubordinate and had to go, while the coach claims he simply wanted to see out his final year.
A game of silly buggers ensued, including Bennett hiding in the back of a car to avoid the cameras, and a series of media releases and press conferences where “nothing to see here” was the message.
Eventually the Broncos board realised Bennett was, as promised, not going to make it easy for them and in early December he was sacked via voicemail.
However, after copping the boot, Bennett told the media: “I was happy to be sacked, I’ll just leave it at that, I was happy.”
South Sydney Rabbitohs
And so we come to the current situation at Souths, where Bennett is once again part of a succession plan, with an agreement in place that 2021 will be his final year and assistant Jason Demetriou will be in charge from 2022.
So, following Stephen Kearney’s sacking, speculation began that Bennett might be on the move a year early.
And Wayne’s pissed about it, going on a lengthy rant last week.
“You can clarify it 100 per cent [I’m staying]. The boys don’t need to be told, they know I’m not going anywhere. Nothing has been driven from the club, it’s all been driven from you guys on the outside who don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told the media.
“Are you hard of hearing? I said the same things last week. I’m not going to keep repeating myself – you guys make up the headlines, I don’t have to play your game. I’m not going to continue to get up and defend myself.”
Now maybe he’s being legit. Maybe he has every intention of seeing out his deal and making a clean exit from the Rabbitohs.
But how’s his track record?
Canberra: broke his contract early
Brisbane (take one): broke his contract early
St George Illawarra: saw his deal out
Newcastle: broke his contract early
Brisbane (take two): was “happy to be sacked” early
Add the Roosters job he backflipped on and Wayne has seen out one of six deals in his 32 years as an NRL coach.
Now my aim is not to cast aspersions on Wayne Bennett’s integrity – I would bet my house there is way more to each and every one of his broken and terminated contracts than the public will ever know.
But with a job completion rate of 16.67 per cent, history overwhelmingly suggests he’s not going to see out his final year at the Bunnies. Which is why Wayne doesn’t have a leg to stand on when he goes out there and tears strips off the press for asking questions about his future.
He may not “make up the headlines” but his actions are the reason they can be written – because his one-in-six record means the public are inclined to believe said headlines may contain some truth.
As they say in the classics, ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me five times…’
What’s more, with just 16 head coaching jobs in the NRL – fewer really, because the likes of Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson and Brad Arthur are safe as houses – Wayne would be foolish not to throw his hat in the ring if a potential long-term role came up this year, given his stated desire to continue coaching in 2022 and beyond.
Perhaps the Warriors gig is not his preference, but with Dean Pay’s job security looking shakier by the week, would Bennett really turn down a multi-year contract at Belmore if, for example, the Bulldogs came knocking for his services from next year onwards?
Look, this is all just speculation – but then everything in the world of sports contracts is speculation until the ink is dry.
And Wayne’s track record means he is the most likely of candidates when coaching speculation starts up. Because he doesn’t see out his deals.
And if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then it would be insane to think Wayne Bennett will be at the Rabbitohs next year.