For a young sports writer, there are few more daunting experiences than an audience with Wayne Bennett.
Accurately describing the intimidating aura cast by Bennett’s gruff countenance and legendary standing isn’t easy. Shit scary is probably fairly close to the mark.
If an ability to make people feel like a dick was an Olympic sport, Bennett would make Michael Phelps and Sir Steve Redgrave look like losers who turned up to a goldrush 10 years after the last scraps of precious ore were scraped from the ground.
And if Bennett thinks you’re a dick, you probably are. Or at least that’s the way it will seem when your brain weighs the former international winger-turned-supercoach’s level of success in life against your own meagre achievements while he processes his one word answer to your 45-word question.
It pays to think through questions before lobbing them in Bennett’s direction.
Factoring in all of that, back in 2009, shortly after After his soon-to-be NRL champion St George Illawarra Dragons had smashed the Warriors 29-4 at Mt Smart Stadium – thanks in part to a blazing start where they shredded the Warriors’ woeful fringe defence – it seemed reasonable to ask Bennett whether it was part of the game plan to attack wide early.
“No,” replied Bennett.
“Shit,” went my brain as my self-esteem made a bee-line for the Mt Smart carpark.
But the thing with Bennett is it pays not to rush him. After what seemed like back-to-back ice ages, he elaborated: “It’s never the plan to go wide,” he said. “It’s the plan to go forward.”
Rugby league, he observed, was a game about running harder and tackling harder that your opponents. It’s played north to south, not east to west.
Eight years later, it’s pretty clear the Bennett philosophy remains unchanged.
“We’ve just got to play tougher,” was Broncos assistant coach Jason Demetriou’s assessment of things at half time during Saturday night’s defeat by the Warriors.
There was no need to guess where that assessment originated. It was bang on point, too. The Warriors owed their 16-0 half time lead to their physical dominance – a trait that eluded them in recent painful defeats by the Panthers and Dragons.
Plenty will ascribe Saturday’s victory to a bog standard Origin period Warriors surge. They might be right; their suspicion and cynicism has been well earned. Until the Warriors prove otherwise, such victories will remain viewed as a case of flat track bullies snatching scarcely deserved NRL points from teams they would be unlikely to compete with were they at full strength.
Fair enough. Would the Warriors have beaten a Broncos team that had won its last six straight matches if Darius Boyd, Corey Oates and Anthony Milford made the trip? Probably not.
But were the Warriors capable of losing that match to a Broncos team boasting some pretty handy second stringers? Had they played with the lack of intensity they displayed against the Dragons a week earlier, they most certainly would have.
There are plenty of schools of thought as to why a Warriors squad stacked with talented players – many of whom tasted success at other clubs – isn’t playing up to its potential. Top of the list is an under-strength forward pack, followed closely by Shaun Johnson not being up to it, and bad coaching.
I don’t buy any of those. The reason the Warriors underperform is that they don’t consistently produce the requisite level of intensity to succeed. Too often, the plan isn’t to run harder and tackle harder than their opponents – or, if it is, the plan is not executed. That comes down to attitude.
As the country’s sporting eyes turn to the looming Lions series and the compelling, compulsive America’s Cup, the Warriors will plug away under the radar for the next six weeks or so. They’ll likely climb an NRL ladder that currently sees them just two points outside of the playoff picture. But they won’t fool anyone this year. The flaccid display against the Dragons in a match when they should have been truly furious has seen to that. The Warriors won’t convince anyone they have a spine until they win some games in August.
Having co-coached the Kiwis to a world cup triumph with Bennett and served as his assistant as recently as last season, Warriors coach Stephen Kearney knows exactly what is required to transform the club’s fortunes. The only real question is whether he can get the message through to his players.
Bennett in a playful mood
He can be a gruff bugger but Wayne Bennett isn’t just a dude who can turn journalists to stone with an icy glare. Like Yeti sightings – Bennett charm offensives are incredibly rare, their existence is doubted by many and they leave those who witness them wondering if they did really sight such a contorted beast at all.
They’re also a bit like rare comets in that they pass by our orbit at predictable intervals – typically around about the time international rugby league needs a bit of a plug. In 2004, as coach of Australia, Bennett made a round trip to England to attend a press conference promoting the new Tri Nations concept. That sort of titanic effort is usually reserved for fans of crap football teams that have somehow made a cup final for the first time in forty years. But Bennett’s passion for the international game is genuine and intense. And so he boarded the big jet plane and flew for twenty hours to grace a grateful British press pack with his presence.
Fourteen years later, Bennett, now wearing the team issue polo of England, performed the same duty in Auckland to help promote Rugby League World Cup 2017.
While Bennett’s personal sacrifice wasn’t quite as great (he was in town with the Broncos so just had to turn up for the captain’s run early), his contribution was no less well received.
His observations included:
The international game is much stronger than when he helped the Kiwis win in 2008 and the new eligibility rules that help the Island nations field strong teams are terrific
The Kiwis won in 2008 because by the end of the tournament they had forged a genuine belief they could do so
He came close to coaching France but didn’t because of the language barrier and the fact he couldn’t be arsed dealing with the media accusing him of lacking focus if his Knights side struggled (they didn’t)
Adam Blair would make a great Kiwis captain because he’s a good dude and a consummate pro – but the right man for the job was whomever David Kidwell wanted
And there was a also a classic zinger – he hadn’t heard that Jesse Bromwich had been sacked for taking cocaine after the Anzac Test and was “hearing about it here for the first time today”. That doozy was delivered with a playful smile on his face that said: “I dare you to call bullshit.”
No one did.