With the Brisbane Broncos having completed their twentieth season in 2007, with Wayne Bennett at the helm for each of them, I met Bennett to discuss some of the highlights of his time in charge of Australia’s glamour club.
IT is unimaginable to think of anybody other than Wayne Bennett coaching Brisbane Broncos.
Since their very first fixture, a resounding 44-10 win over champions Manly in 1988, Bennett has been their coach. He guided them through their early years, going on to build a number of champion sides. He even sacked Wally Lewis, the man widely regarded as the greatest player in the history of the sport.
The Broncos came into the Winfield Cup competition on the back of Queensland’s success in State of Origin. Origin was born in 1980 and the Maroons had prevailed in the first five years and then again in 1987 with Bennett as coach and a little known Ipswich Jets halfback called Allan Langer partnering Lewis behind the scrum. Queensland had proved themselves. It was now time for their state to be represented in what was known as the Sydney competition.
They looked to Canberra for their coach, where Bennett and co-coach Don Furner had guided the Raiders to the Grand Final. Bennett had ended up in coaching almost by accident.
“I never had ambitions to coach,” said Bennett. “I’d been a police cadet and they needed a coach so I did it. I never thought I’d be a first grade coach. I didn’t have ambitions to be one yet here I am today.
“I had one year at Canberra and it was during that year in 1987 that the Broncos approached me to coach their new team. It was a very difficult decision for us but we made it and we went back to Queensland.
“In the early days at the Broncos we won six in a row. Everyone thought we’d be the Premiers but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Only battle-hardened footy teams win Premierships and we were far from that. We had a lot of wonderful players but a lot of them were coming towards the end of their careers. Even so, the expectation was phenomenal especially after that first game with Manly but, having coached in Canberra, I knew how tough the Winfield Cup was and I was under no illusions of grandeur about waltzing into the comp and being the dominant football team. The directors shared the same view so there were no ideas of sacking the coach or any administrators and even now, our great strength is that consistency. In 20 seasons, we’ve had one coach and three Chief Executives.”
On the playing staff, the Broncos had not only the incomparable Lewis and Langer but also Gene Miles, Greg Dowling and a classy loose forward called Terry Matterson. It was unsurprising that the media and fans expected instant success.
“The players were even more realistic than us because they were the ones going out putting their bodies on the line. They knew just how tough the competition was. There was obviously a learning curve for our players coming from local competition. The other teams were full of good players, ready to beat you.
“I had high demands obviously but we were never paranoid [that the club didn't win an early Premiership]. That would have destroyed what the club wanted to achieve.
“We never got frustrated by it. We knew it was a tough competition that had been going for 80 odd years and we were the Johnny-come-latelys. We were realistic and that was a good thing about the club. The vision was towards the future, there were no short-cuts taken and the club was built from the grassroots up. The only thing I have never accepted was people not doing their best. I won’t accept that.”
After failing to make the finals in their first two seasons, Bennett stunned the Rugby League world by removing the captaincy from Lewis. It was the biggest Rugby League story in years and a move that infuriated Lewis, leading to a lengthy deterioration in his relationships with Bennett and his sucessor Miles. Another year later and Lewis was released from the club altogether and played the final season of his glorious career with the Gold Coast.
“We were focused on getting things right,” said Bennett. “Put all the ducks in order and then you can start to fire your bullets and that was part of that process.
“Wally was a great player, a huge headline player and we had to expect the worse but we were unanimous about it.
“He wasn’t bigger than the club though. He hadn’t been there long enough so that wasn’t a danger.”
Champions at last
With the Broncos less reliant on one player, a champion team began to emerge that would lift the Premiership in 1992 and 1993, beating St George in both finals, with Langer succeeding Lewis as the main man at the club.
“The difference [from our beginnings] was that Allan Langer was five years older and Kevvie Walters was five years older. Steve Renouf was emerging and our older players had retired.
“Coming into 1992, we had a really good footy team and we romped it in that year. In 1993, we had to battle a lot more as the competition had improved. We fell from second or third to fifth in the last round of the comp and left ourselves with a lot to do but they thrived on it and won four games in a row.”
The next great Broncos side came in 1998. The club had won the Super League title and the extended but farcical World Club Challenge in 1997, the year when the Super League and the ARL were separate competitions. They then won the first unified competition in 1998 – the first under the NRL banner – with Bennett admitting that that year meant a lot more to the club. On a personal level, Bennett also led Queensland and Australia to series wins. The perfect year for the coach and also Langer who captained all three sides.
“1998 was a very special year for us,” he said. “The year before, we had won the our title and Newcastle had won the ARL final. We played them in Newcastle in round eight on a Friday night. That felt like the real Grand Final from the year before. It was a cracker of a game and we came out on top after a huge battle and I knew we’d win the ’98 Premiership. It was a just a matter of waiting for the end of season to come around. We were a team in waiting.
“Talent-wise, 1998 may have been the best team. It was a new era with players like Darren Lockyer and Shane Webcke coming through.
“We also won the Origin series that year with 12 Broncos involved and then I coached Australia in the last two Tests of the series against New Zealand which we won as well. There were eight or nine Broncos involved there as well. We dominated the state and national sides.”
After such a glorious year, it was therefore incredible to see the Broncos languishing at the foot of the NRL, along with 1996 Premiers Manly, a third of the way into 1999. Amazingly, Langer then walked out of the club after a drawn game with North Queensland in which he was substituted.
“We’d done so much in 1998 and mentally we just weren’t there at the start of 1999. No one suffered more than Alf and that’s when he retired. He played in a Test match on the Friday night, then he played the Cowboys on the Saturday and that was it for him. He didn’t want to be there yet he is one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever coached.
“It was the wrong decision in the end. He didn’t want to retire – he had a lot of football left in him. He just couldn’t handle the expectation anymore but we weren’t smart enough to recognise what the problem was. We’re a bit smarter these days.”
Alf comes home
Bennett’s assertion that Langer “had a lot of football left in him” was backed up by halfback’s performances at Warrington and even more so when Bennett famously recalled him to the Queensland side for the deciding State of Origin side in 2001. The Maroons had been thrashed in the second game of the series with the Blues clear favourites to win the series. The coach had other ideas and recalled Langer to the side for one game. Sydney’s media mocked his desperation – after all, they asked, how could a player step up from England’s substandard Super League to play State of Origin? – but Langer’s performance is now firmly woven into the rich fabric of Origin history. He scored a try and set up others in an emphatic 40-14 win.
“It was hard to convince people but it was a no-brainer at the end of the day. I’d seen a few Warrington games and I spoke to Andrew Gee about him and he told me that he was playing as well as he’d seen him play. When I ‘phoned Alf he said, “what’s taken you so long to ask me?!”
“I had to call in some favours [with our selectors] and the media got on the bandwagon, especially south of the border. In the end, it was probably the greatest event in the history of Origin, maybe in the last 20 years of the game as a whole. In the build-up to the game, he was on the front pages everyday. If he sneezed they reported on it and he enjoyed the crowning glory of getting the job done for us. Champions know when their time is and he was ready to come home for us. I didn’t have to convince Alf, he’d waited for his chance and he wasn’t going to blow it.
“A mate of mine runs a newsagent and the following day he told me they couldn’t get enough newspapers in because people wanted to read about what Alf had done.”
It was a more than five years before Bennett experienced another true career high. For the Broncos, 2001 finished disappointingly and by 2005 they hadn’t reached another final. Under Bennett, they had won five Premierships, including the 1997 Super League version, but the knives were being sharpened by the media. Bennett was finished they reckoned.
“You don’t respond to it.
“I don’t worry so much about the fans but the media … they don’t understand what makes a football team and how it all comes together because they haven’t done it. They sit on the outside and look in but there’s a little bit more to it than that. It’s a work of bloody art and there’s a lot of parts to it but they don’t see that. It’s too easy to sit on the outside and criticise. They’ll report that something didn’t work without maybe asking why it didn’t work.”
Bennett points to the fact that in this decade a large Broncos contingency has been involved in international football which has, on an annual basis, affected their pre-season.
“They just have to cope with it. I’m a fan of State of Origin and I’m a fan of international football and that goes with the territory.
“The Broncos have consistently made a bigger contribution to State of Origin than other sides. It’s never been a level playing field so we don’t know what we’d have been able to do had it not been for that continual interruption season after season which has a huge impact on the club and the players involved. We have to live with it and there’s no way around it and we’ve even got less depth to cope with it now because of the Salary Cap. Origin will remain a part of the Rugby League calendar – and so it should.”
Champions against the odds
But in 2006, Bennett proved himself once again by turning over the Melbourne Storm to win the NRL title when, two months earlier, they hadn’t been able to win a game.
“The best thing about our 2006 campaign was that we hung tough during a period when it just wasn’t clicking for us. Then, all of a sudden, it clicked and we got some momentum. We played our last seven games with only 17 players available each week but we got some confidence out of each other. We won three in a row, then lost to St George in the first week of the play-offs, then won another three in a row including the final.
“Shane Webcke retiring had an effect – there’s no doubt about that. Shane’s not everybody’s cup of tea but everyone respected him so much that they dug in for him. That was part of our momentum but we also kept our players on the field without injuries.
“Melbourne are a great team as they’ve proved this season. Only we could have done what we did last year and we did it.”
This year, Bennett brought his Broncos to the UK where they lost to St Helens in the World Club Challenge before returning in October to coach the All Golds against the Northern Union, to mark the Centenary of Rugby League’s first international.
“I’m just pleased we’re playing international football and that there’s a bit of a calendar out there,” said Bennett who was instrumental in the creation of the current day Tri-Nations compition. “We’ve got a game in Australia called Australian Rules which is played in every state but the thing they’d give their right arm for is international football but they don’t have it because no one else plays it. In rugby union, they hang their hat on international football because their club game is most uncompetitive. We have the balance right in Rugby League and we’ve got State of Origin as well.
“As for the internationals, I think they’ve got things right. There’s no other time for them to be played. I’d look to having a World Cup every four years with a Tri-Nations in the Southern Hemisphere then the Northern Hemisphere and then a year off in between. We’ve got an international game and we need to grow it. I certainly wouldn’t cut it down. In a perfect world, there’d be a bit less club football.
“Next year’s World Cup looks like it will go well. It’s looks to have been well organised and well thought out. I’m really happy with the format and it’ll be a great stepping-stone for future international success.
“I watch a lot of English football too and it’s a good standard. It’s much improved. I watched the Grand Final and really enjoyed it. It was a great game of football but I think it’s a shame that 70,000 go and watch it yet in London, where I was, you wouldn’t have known it had been played.
“Then I put the [rugby union] World Cup on afterwards and there was no comparison. League is such a great product but we under-sell it and that hurts me.”
Bennett, meanwhile, doesn’t rule out coaching in England.
“I’ve got two years to go there,” said the 57-year-old. “After that, I don’t know. I’m enjoying what I’m doing but if that changes, I might coach somewhere else or walk away from coaching.
“England has always been at the back of my mind. Someone just asked me why I’ve never coached in England and I told them I’ve never been unemployed!”
“I even have very fond memories of my playing season at Huddersfield but I wish I’d played better football for them. They stuck me on the wing but I didn’t enjoy playing on the wing. I was a fullback.”
If Bennett did become available, you can rest assured that there would be Super League clubs who would move heaven and earth to get his signature.