Webster: Wayne Bennett puts legacy on line

Last updated 08:30 22/07/2014
Wayne Bennett
ON THE MOVE: Knights coach Wayne Bennett will leave the club next season and will return to the Broncos.

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For everything that has happened during the last 40 years of Wayne Bennett's storied career, it is what happens in the next three at the Broncos that will define him as a coach.

OPINION: As always, Bennett has masterfully manoeuvred to get what he wanted - a lucrative contract under which he will come home to Brisbane - but he will surely feel the heat like never before.

The Bennett aura is fading or, at the very least, is significantly dented as he leaves Newcastle in a shambles a season earlier than expected. He left St George Illawarra in a similar position, but at least they had a long-awaited premiership to show for it.

There is a strong belief in the Hunter right now that he should resign immediately, after announcing weeks ago that he was abandoning them with one year remaining on his four-year deal.

Notwithstanding the difficult circumstances around Alex McKinnon's neck injury, and the Nathan Tinkler train crash, he leaves Newcastle with an ageing roster at a time when they are under the caretaker ownership of the NRL.

Bennett said he is leaving because he is embarrassed by results, when almost everyone else reckons it is about money.

The Knights have every right to have a feeling of abandonment. And, no matter which way it is spun, the Bennett legend has been blotted.

He has been working away at this outcome at the Broncos for months, but it's only over the past 48 hours that the deal was sealed.

After much politicking over the weekend, including a phone call to News Corp boss Lachlan Murdoch, whose company is a major shareholder in the Broncos, he returns home despite the doubts of some board members about whether the modern game has passed him by.

That is something the wider league community increasingly ponders after he failed to ignite the Knights.

They appreciate he is a father who is trying to pile up as much money for a life after football and a family that includes two children with special needs.

But they also see a coach who is money-hungry. They question if he is a coach who is just like any other when he is at the helm of a side not laden with Origin and international players.

Bennett would never care what anyone thinks, with the exception of those close to him, but there is certainly an expectation that he will deliver the Broncos a premiership in what looms as his final three years. Seriously, would you dare back against the 64-year-old?

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There is little doubt Bennett will make many of those Broncos players better. The ilk of Ben Hunt, Andrew McCullough, Anthony Milford and, indeed, Ben Barba will improve under him.

His ability to lure players from other clubs - on a cheaper deal because he is, after all, Wayne Bennett - is a given.

He is also at the most well-resourced club in the NRL. He never had that at the Knights, because of Tinkler's empty promises.

Perhaps this is the reason he is heading home to the Broncos, instead of his second home at the Dragons given the joint venture's uncertain financial state.

Last Friday, I reported that a deal was effectively done with the Dragons - although it would be premature to break out the Penfolds yet, because nothing is certain when it comes to Bennett.

Dragons chief executive Peter Doust was supremely confident he had his man, but others remember how much South Sydney thought the same thing in 2011 before Tinkler flashed his cheque book and Bennett signed with Newcastle in the final second of the 11th hour.

As someone who has known Bennett for decades said late on Thursday evening: "Bennett doesn't walk away from the final year of a deal as he has at the Knights unless he has another deal stitched up somewhere, and that is the Dragons."

But, in rugby league, like life, a deal is not a deal until the ink is drying on the contract. Even then, who knows?

On Friday, an influential former Bronco phoned.

"He's got the Dragons dangling on the line," he said. "Look, it won't surprise me if he still ends up there. But he wants to come home to the Broncos. He's working overtime to make it happen."

Fairfax Media's Roy Masters broke the story; Bennett phoned Murdoch on Sunday evening then Anthony Griffin was told he wasn't wanted and the Broncos announced the three-year deal on Monday afternoon.

Bennett observers will note the irony. The strong relationship between Bennett and Murdoch, which was forged during the Super League war, was said to be strained when Bennett agreed to join the Sydney Roosters in 2006.

At the time, the Roosters signing was the most intriguing chapter in the Bennett melodrama, not least when he reneged when news of the deal was leaked to the media.

Coaches are the game's most complex characters. There's madness in the method of all of them, from Jack Gibson to Phil Gould, Des Hasler and Craig Bellamy.

But Bennett intrigues the most because he has achieved so much and the legacy he may just bring down.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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