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Rugby league in Australia is 114 years old. That Wayne Bennett has coached at premiership level for 46 of those is remarkable. The possibility that this weekend could be the last time he leads a team is difficult to comprehend. Rugby league without Bennett seems as foreign as a footy game with no pies or a pub with no beer.
Since taking over Ipswich at the tender age of 26 and then moving to the Brisbane Rugby League with Souths and then Brothers, Bennett has been a constant at the highest level of the game, a fixture synonymous not only with success but also with the game itself. It has been an astonishing career during which he has won seven premierships at two different clubs, built a club into a preeminent force and led teams to grand finals in four different decades. He is favoured to do so in a fifth. He has won Origin and Test series and awards and accolades.
Perhaps the biggest nod to his ability, though, is his longevity. Since getting tapped to coach Souths in the BRL in 1977, there have been just two years he has not helmed a club in either the BRL, NSWRL/ARL or NRL. The last was 1986, when he coached Queensland for the first time. He guided Canberra to their first grand final in 1987 and has not missed a season since.
Bennett has coached more consecutive seasons than the length of eight clubs’ existence. That in itself is an imprint on the game as big as any figure in history.
Across 972 games, Bennett has shown the Raiders how to win, built the Broncos from nothing, returned the Saints to their former glory, saw lows for the first time with the Knights, brought the Broncos back to the dance and then built something truly special at the Rabbitohs.
The South Sydney coach is on the doorstep of history. He is also on the doorstep of the end
Over that long and decorated career, though, no game has promised as much emotion as Friday night’s preliminary final against Manly. For the first time in his storied calling, Bennett has no job to go to. At 71, this could be it.
Coaches make their money from their ability to motivate. They know what buttons to push and when. That is the art of coaching and what separates the likes of Bennett, Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson from the scientists such as Michael Maguire, Ricky Stuart and so many others who have not found the capacity to master motivation. It is extraordinarily rare that a coach, in and of himself, will play a major role in the motivation of a premiership push.
At Souths this year, though, there is no doubt Bennett’s departure is playing a significant role in driving his team towards the title. Bennett has been at South Sydney only three seasons but is already a beloved figure at Redfern. He has always been a player’s coach; there is little question he has enjoyed the players at Souths as much as any other group. He has also bought into the history of the club, respecting its culture by bringing his style and class to an organisation with an already well-cemented identity. Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker, Benji Marshall … they all love their coach.
There is also a deep admiration for the extraordinarily rare clean transition of power Bennett has instigated as he prepares to hand the reins to assistant Jason Demetriou after this campaign. There has been no destabilisation, no untruths, no collateral damage. This should not be understated in evaluating the mindset of Souths players in the lead-up to what is not only an incredibly important game for the club but potentially a historic farewell for its coach.
Should South Sydney go on to win this competition, Bennett would become the first coach to lead three different clubs to a premiership and will equal Arthur Holloway’s record eight overall. His gap of 30 seasons between his first title and his last will also tie Holloway’s record of longevity.
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Souths, of course, have been here before. The Rabbitohs have lost at the preliminary-final stage the last three years. But this one is different. In none of the last three seasons have Souths enjoyed a week off, nor have they been favoured in betting. This year they are well rested and are favoured to down the Sea Eagles.
The value of the rest should not be understated. During the NRL era the best three coaches – Bennett, Bellamy and Robinson – are 15-3 in preliminary finals after getting the week off. Bennett is a perfect 4-0. When the elite coaches have the better team and time to prepare, they typically win.
Bennett is on the doorstep of history. He is also on the doorstep of the end. He may coach elsewhere again but for the first time in his career, his presence in the game is uncertain.