Talking Rugby League: Wayne Bennett’s remarkable longevity

Talking Rugby League with League Express editor Martyn Sadler

Wayne Bennett’s remarkable longevity

Wayne Bennett was the England and Great Britain coach until that disastrous tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2019, when we lost all four games to New Zealand (twice), Tonga and PNG.

That was clearly a disastrous series of results and as a result of that tour the RFL decided to part company with Bennett and it turned to Shaun Wane.

As it turned out, to leave the job in early 2020 wasn’t a bad move for Wayne, with international matches being put on the back burner during the Covid pandemic.

But whatever you think of Bennett, you have to admire both his longevity and his record of success in Australia.

He began coaching in the Queensland town of Ipswich in 1976, before moving to Brisbane Rugby League Premiership sides, Souths and Brothers.

Since then Bennett has coached his sides to seven Premierships and he came close to adding an eighth this season, when South Sydney lost in the Grand Final to the Penrith Panthers.

He has also coached Queensland to numerous State of Origin triumphs.

Now aged 71, his name was at the forefront of Rugby League in Australia once again last week, then the Redcliffe club, based in Queensland, won the battle to become the seventeenth NRL club, when they will be known as The Dolphins. They have immediately appointed Bennett as their inaugural coach when they enter the competition in 2023.

I find it hard to believe that a man who will be, by then, 73 years old, will be an active coach as opposed to a director of rugby type figure whose presence encourages leading players to join the new club.

People used to talk about Alex Ferguson having a long career as the manager of Manchester United. But he retired at the age of 71.

Wayne Bennett, on the other hand, looks as though he will never stop.

That a new club will place its destiny in his hands demonstrates what an extraordinary figure he is.

England’s French trip eagerly awaited

In the last couple of years, I would guess that the most frustrated man in Rugby League must have been England coach Shaun Wane.

Shaun was appointed in early February 2020 to take over from Wayne Bennett, after the disappointing Lions tour of 2019 to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

When he was appointed, Shaun was given a two-year contract and he was expecting to coach England in an Ashes series against Australia last year and in the World Cup this year.

Neither has taken place, and Shaun’s only game in charge so far was against the Combined Nations All Stars in June this year, which England narrowly lost.

In August last year, after the pandemic had forced the postponement of the Ashes series, his contract was extended by a year, and now runs to the end of 2022, so it will take in the World Cup.

And on Saturday Shaun will coach England for the first time against another nation, when his team takes on France in Perpignan.

The England squad is shown on page 3 of this issue, while the French squad is shown on page 19. Laurent Frayssinous’ side includes ten players from the Catalans, nine players from Toulouse plus Morgan Escaré from Salford Red Devils.

If you look at the two squads, it’s great to see so many young French players who could be set to make their international debuts, but it’s extremely hard to imagine anything other than a convincing England victory.

“Shaun’s passion for England Rugby League is matched by meticulous planning and preparation and come autumn 2021 there will not be a better-prepared international side at the World Cup,” RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer said at the time of Shaun’s contract extension.

Let’s hope that’s even more true in 2022.

As I said to Shaun at the weekend, we launched League Express in 1990 and I would never have imagined that 31 years later we would never have been able to report on a World Cup success.

I hope I don’t have to wait much longer.

Knights’ triumph emblematic of rude health

On Friday night the England Knights were far too good for Jamaica at Castleford, showing that there is some significant talent coming through the Super League ranks, which is a good omen for the 2025 World Cup, which will hopefully be held in France.

Despite the usual doomsayers in our sport, I’m convinced that the health of the game isn’t too bad at the moment.

With the revivals in France and Cumbria, some thrilling play-off games in all the competitions, and the apparent improvement in Sky viewing figures this year, my impression is that Rugby League has survived the pandemic in reasonable condition.

Over the next two years, the job facing everyone in the game is to improve even further to reverse the decline in broadcasting income that we will see in 2022 and 2023.

Rob Burrow and the NFL

On Sunday Rob Burrow, who is a strong NFL fan, was a guest at the NFL game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins.

He was introduced to the crowd and featured on the big screen, with the American announcer explaining his battle against motor neurone disease and telling the fans what a Rugby League legend he is.

It was great to see the fans rising as one to acknowledge Rob, coming a week after he presented the Harry Sunderland Trophy to Kevin Naiqama at Old Trafford.

They all knew who he was and his significance as a great sportsman, which was heartwarming to see.

Neil Hudgell’s success

Hudgell Solicitors owner and executive chairman Neil Hudgell, who is of course also the owner of Hull Kingston Rovers, has collected two prestigious legal awards as the Legal Personality of the Year and Yorkshire Lawyer of the Year.

Both awards came on the same day as the work of Hudgell Solicitors was hailed at the national Law Society Excellence Awards and the Yorkshire Legal Awards.

It follows a year in the media spotlight for Neil and his firm, given its role representing former subpostmasters across England and Wales who were victims of the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK legal history, the Post Office Horizon Scandal.

Wrongfully convicted of crimes relating to financial shortfalls at the branches they ran, lives and reputations were ruined – many were jailed – in a scandal running almost 20 years. The victims were innocent, hard-working, law-abiding members of communities.

The legal battle, led by Neil’s firm, led to the highest ever number of appellants to go to the Court of Appeal in one case in April 2021.

In summarising his success at the Yorkshire Legal Awards, the judges said: “Neil’s work was vital, superb and incredibly impressive. Neil is also well thought of by the profession.”

They might also have added that he hasn’t done a bad job with Hull Kingston Rovers this year too.

Congratulations to Neil and his colleagues, both at his legal firm and at Hull KR.

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