First published in League Express, Mon 23rd Sept 2013
You don’t coach sides to win seven Premierships if you are a dunce.
That’s what Wayne Bennett’s résumé shows only too clearly. Six titles with the Brisbane Broncos and another with St George Illawarra Dragons.
So that’s why I could not understand the thinking of some Sydney Rugby League journalists when, midway through the season, they sarcastically dubbed the Newcastle Knights ‘Dad’s Army’.
They even thought they were being very clever by changing the Knights hometown from Newcastle to Oldcastle in the social media shorthand of the younger generation …lol!
Lol? You betcha. As the adage tells us: “He laughs best, who laughs last.”
And surely Bennett must be laughing now. Obviously it would be in private, because he keeps his emotions secret when facing the media.
You see, the Sydney journalists have never forgiven him for a press conference many years ago when he put one of their number firmly in his place, after the veteran writer had asked a stupid question.
“Paul [name changed], you have been covering Rugby League for about 40 years. And it is obvious that you have learned nothing about the game in that time.” Or Bennett uttered words to that effect.
The journos were livid. Bloody Queenslander! From then on Bennett was persona non grata as far as the Sydneysiders were concerned.
However, Bennett always holds the respect of his players. That’s because he earns it.
Many a time, he has shown a young star the door because of off-field misdemeanours or a failure to give 100 per cent on the pitch. But many of these rejects have been welcomed back to the fold once they modified their behaviour.
I should stress than none of the following have suffered such treatment at the hands of Bennett.
However, it is intriguing to note that in the past two weekends five of the Newcastle stars who helped their club beat the two sides who fought out last year’s NRL Grand Final, Canterbury and Melbourne, have passed the age of 30. And a couple of others are nudging 30.
All have shocked the fans by turning back the clock to play like kids in their early 20s.
Danny Buderus (35) was lured back from Leeds Rhinos.
Bennett gave Willie Mason (33) a chance when he returned from rugby union in France and no other club wanted him.
Kiwi Test man Jeremy Smith (33), was eager to move to Newcastle as he had played under Bennett at St George Illawarra and won a Grand Final with the Dragons.
And David Fa’alogo (33), who returned from Huddersfield, and Matt Hilder (31) were thought by other sides to be not worth pursuing.
Former Test men Timana Tahu (33) and Craig Gower (35), the latter returning from London Broncos, have also played under Bennett this year.
Then there is classy utility and 2013 captain Kurt Gidley (31), who would have been playing in the finals but for injury.
Bennett admitted he used the remarks about Dad’s Army, Oldcastle and an NRL retirement village as a motivational tool.
“That week, it all changed for us,” he said.
“I kept referring to it. And that’s when it all turned around. The players started to get some confidence and belief.
“We played Melbourne in Melbourne and they beat us 16-14. Sometimes you win when you lose. And I made a point of telling them that afterwards, because it felt like a win.
“They didn’t win on the night, but they realised what you’ve got to give to be a top team. Since then they’ve been doing that consistently.”
And he’s not averse to poking fun at himself over the situation.
“I’m revving up the wheelchair,” he chuckles.
Do you reckon he’s not pleased!
He’s pleased that Danny Buderus will finish his career, not as a loser down among the also-rans but in a team near the top of the competition – if not the 2013 NRL Premiers.
He’s similarly pleased for Willie Mason – born in New Zealand but schooled in one of the roughest parts of Newcastle.
“Willie was made for here,” Bennett told the Sydney Daily Telegraph last week.
“We were in dire straits last year before we got him. We needed a personality in the place. Not someone that mouths off and says stupid things. He doesn’t do that … he is articulate … he’s a smart guy.
“I’m telling you, he’s endless entertainment. All the players tell me 20 minutes on the bench with Willie is the funniest 20 minutes of your life. He’s into the crowd, the crowd are into him. He has been wonderful value for us.
“But the bottom line is you’ve got to play football. He has done a great job for us and … forget about all the other stuff … he is in the team for how he plays.”
There was even talk about him getting back into the NSW Origin side earlier this year.
It’s a case of here’s to the oldies. Like Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies, who called it a day when Catalan Dragons were knocked out of the Super League finals. He was just short of his 40th birthday.
By all accounts he would not have disgraced himself by having just one more season. But it is better to retire one year too early than one year too late.
Of course, in the past many a British star played into his 40s. Two notable cases were the great fullbacks Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman.
“The game is a lot faster these days,” I hear you say.
Maybe, but remember what Jack Gibson, the super-coach famous for his pithy one-liners, noted about one evergreen player: “His legs may be getting slower, but he’s still very quick between the ears!”