Return of the Jedi? The empire strikes back? Or in this case, the man who built the Brisbane Broncos empire. Wayne Bennett 21 years a Bronco, from 1988 to 2008, will return to Red Hill after walking out on the embattled Newcastle Knights to rejoin the club he built from the grounds up 26 years ago. At what cost though? If you believe what you hear, around $4 million and at the expense of current Brisbane mentor, Anthony Griffin. Such is the nature of professional sport summed up by Griffin’s classy display in the press conference, confirming his sacking and appointment of Bennett stating, “it’s a big bad world out there. It’s business” Yes it certainly is. There is no room for sentiment or emotion as performance and results are the name of the game.
Whilst Griffin held himself which such class and esteem of his sacking, the same class could not be said for the man that will replace him. A day after the NRL’s #RiseForAlex Round which sure over $1.3 Million raised for Alex McKinnon, Bennett was said to have negotiated a return to the Broncos on the day of the Newcastle Knights game which was paying tribute to one of its own who has fallen on bad times due to a horrific accident which has halted the career of one of Rugby League’s nice guys.
Bennett had reportedly informed Brisbane directors including chairman Lachlan Murdoch signaling his desire to return. Suffice to say, Broncos directors and officials did not need much convincing, believing Wayne Bennett, the man who has delivered the Broncos with 6 Premierships is again the coach to restore success and bring about a 7th Premiership. Time will tell if their decision was the correct one.
Many people in the Rugby League community have had their opinion. But those that count and matter most are players and club greats who have been divided over Bennett’s return. Steve Renouf has been supportive of Bennett returning for some time, often been quoted as saying “Come home Wayne” Whilst Gorden Tallis and Darren Lockyer have said that the club has moved on from that era and its time to look ahead not backwards. Many were surprised at Lockyer’s comments, considering the bond that the two shared in their time as both player, captain and coach of the Brisbane Broncos.
Bearing in mind it has been 7 years since Bennett last coached the Broncos. Not only has a lot changed at Brisbane, the game itself has continued to evolve, becoming more scientific both from a tactical and sports science perspective. The way coaches now delve into breaking down an 80 minute performance through analysis, video, studying players, team’s respective structure and shape, defensive patterns. It’s far from ‘the simple game’ that Wayne Bennett has famously clichéd over his 26 years of coaching First Grade. Is it wrong to question the 64 year old’s ability? Is Bennett now at a point where he can no longer evolve as a coach? The Game has changed. Wayne unfortunately has not.
Perhaps this is why the embattled Newcastle Knights languish at the rear end of the premiership ladder. If not the sole reason, then definitely one of many factors. Bennett’s coaching philosophy in a word is in fact simple. Ask any player who has had the privilege of playing under the master coach and they will tell you, he does not complicate the uncomplicated. Whilst not a master tactician or analyst, his strength lies within his man management; being able to get the best out of the individual, unearthing self-belief.
Whilst all players who climb to the great heights of playing First Grade in the NRL have an element of talent and ability, these two attributes will only take an individual so far. Coupled with hard work, the last remaining part of the jigsaw puzzle in what can make a good player into a great player is ultimately self-belief. This is where Bennett shines.
The likes of young halfback Tyrone Roberts for the Knights is a definitely beneficiary of this. Struggling for form and confidence before Bennett’s arrival, Roberts continues to grow in confidence week in week out, which is vitally important for any young half who’s job description is to lead and direct his fellow players for 80 minutes week in week out. However, unlike at the Broncos and Dragons, Bennett is yet to deliver Newcastle with what he achieved at the two clubs prior, an elusive Premiership.
The Knights went close last year, riding on momentum and a wave of emotional support for outgoing Novocastrian skipper and club legend Danny Burderus, falling one game short of a Grand Final appearance. But in 2012and thus far in 2014, Newcastle look anything but a Premiership contender. Whilst adversity has rocked the Knights foundations through the Alex McKinnon incident and its well documented break up with former savior and owner of Newcastle club in Nathan Tinkler; those reasons aside, the elephant in the room which no one wants to discuss is that Bennett has not been able to achieve the success because of playing roster far less superior to the superstar teams he had at his disposal at both Brisbane and St.George Illawarra.
Having won 6 Premierships at the Broncos whose squads over his initial 21 years boasted more Queensland State of Origin players and Australian Test representatives than any other team definitely contributed to this success. Enter the Dragons in 2009, Bennett had 10 internationals in his squad, which summed up the attainment of the Joint Venture’s maiden Premiership in 2010 whilst also featuring in the finals in both his first and last year at the Wollongong based club.
What does this say about Bennett as a coach? Read into it what you like. Ask any first grade coach and they’ll tell you candidly that they would have loved to have been able to have the rosters that Wayne did at both the Broncos and Dragons. Players that are of high caliber almost coach themselves. Whilst comparing his Premiership winning squads to the current squad at Newcastle, the Knights resemble an F-Troop style team, lacking genuine match winners and x-factors. Many will take aim and form the opinion saying that Bennett without a talented roster tripping over themselves in ability, skill and rep honours, he’s a substandard coach that only achieves success having rosters that coach themselves at his disposal; compared to other coaches who have to educate, teach, guide and develop players into consistent regular first graders and potential stars.
(Photo courtesy of http://images.theage.com.au/2010/10/01/1959948/wayne_bennett_420-420×0.jpg)
Walking out on Newcastle was the easy way out for Bennett. The mark of a great coach would have been to commit, extend his tenure and see it out, with a legacy, which would suggest he stuck it out and leaves the Knights club in a better position than when he found it. Sadly for Newcastle fans, that wont be the case. To Bennett’s credit he did put his hand up stating that he had failed by his own admission, but what good does that do Newcastle?
Bennett had an opportunity to prove his worth as a coach. To send a strong message to the Rugby League world that not only could he achieve success with great players, he could also take a plain, standard roster to greatness in the next 3 years. Instead, he will return to Brisbane with the luxury of half a dozen Origin and International Test players, strong leaders in Parker, Hodges, Thaiday, livewire excitement machines in Barba and Milford. A future Queensland halfback in Ben Hunt and some of the most exciting outside backs in the likes of Copley, Kahu, Nikorima which will already see Brisbane be more of a competitive outfit than what the poor old Knights will be able to offer for their next mentor. A competitive roster, $4 million dollars and the opportunity to return home; no wonder why Bennett agreed to get out of the Hunter and back to the sunshine state.
How will the game and history remember Wayne Bennett? Undoubtedly as one of the game’s great coaches. Any coach who has won a premiership, let alone 7 will be talked about fondly. As so they should. It takes hard work, dedication and a element of luck to go your way to achieve such feats. However, Bennett’s second coming at Brisbane does not guarantee success next year or in several years time. Whilst the game grows older, so does the coach. Like most sequels, nothing quite beats the first installment or the original. Broncos fans will be hoping this is not the case. Whoever is writing the script, I just hope for the Brisbane faithful it does not read that “the game has out grown Wayne Bennett” because what was once a simple game Wayne, is anything but….