Sunday Territorian

ART OF BEING A PLAYER

As Souths coach Wayne Bennett prepares for today’s NRL grand final, Nick Walshaw examines the man’s enigmatic traits before going for his eighth title win

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WAYNE Bennett’s brilliance lives in that mullet of the only player whose hair he lets grow long.

Specifical­ly, Keaon Koloamatan­gi. That rising South Sydney tough who, this year, Bennett has allowed to buck a trend in which he usually treats all lengthenin­g locks like Monty Burns does Don Mattingly’s sideburns, or whatever he thinks sideburns are, in that wonderful episode of The Simpsons.

Koloamatan­gi, see, is playing well. So coach says the mullet can stay. Which goes right to the heart of Bennett making another NRL decider.

Understand­ing that for all his strengths as an innovator, teetotalle­r, even spotter of talent – and there are plenty – Bennett’s greatest asset is his ability to continuall­y get the best from young men confronted by so many reasons to do just the opposite.

Booze, baggies, groupies, injuries, form dumps, even KFC, young leaguies have an infinite number of ways to go bad. Yet for 24 years and counting, Bennett has continuall­y squeezed the best out of so many young players under his care, not to mention plenty more deemed washed up, burned out or simply unwanted.

Just ask Benji Marshall.

Or the 2020 Queensland Origin side. Hell, ask any of these Rabbitohs who, only a few weeks back, had a big red line ruled through their season after superstar No.1 Latrell Mitchell was rubbed out for the year.

Yet now, here they are anyway. Ditto Bennett. Which is an incredible yarn, sure.

Although still not one that has all of League Land tossing its panties at rugby league’s very own Mick Jagger.

Sure, if Bennett takes South Sydney to an NRL title, it will not only extend his premiershi­p streak to eight – or three more than even the inaugural supercoach, Jack Gibson – but also make him the first to lead three separate clubs to titles.

Which, put another way, is like boasting more magic than even Ronnie Palmer’s box of “energy”.

Yet despite all this, Bennett remains more than slightly polarising.

A fella whose innate ability to piss others off spreads across topics, and decades, so diverse as to include cutting Wally Lewis, benching Gorden Tallis, standing through pressers, arguing with peers, and the Broncos board, more than once, while also being criticised for the way he left St George Illawarra, then Newcastle and finally Grappa restaurant in the midst of a pandemic.

Elsewhere, Bennett’s list of feuds in recent years alone includes not only Sunday’s rival, Penrith coach Ivan Cleary, but many others such as Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart, Darren Lockyer, Anthony Seibold, Tallis, the Broncos board, Nathan Tinkler, more than a couple of Knights fans, and Nathan Brown.

All this too before we get to the media, which Bennett has dodged at airports, press conference­s and, most famously, when things were winding up in Brisbane, even avoided by leaving Broncos HQ one day hidden in the back seat of trainer Tony Spencer’s car.

Which has, more than once, brought headlines that argued his aura had been lost. But lose a dressing room?

No, the 71-year-old has never done that.

Which is no small thing given those of us 25 years younger can’t even go five minutes without losing our car keys. So again we come back to Koloamatan­gi’s mullet. Or a reward from Bennett for playing well.

Tallis himself tells a great story about how, when playing at Brisbane, a win against the Roosters in their traditiona­l Easter weekend battle would result in Bennett allowing the Broncos to stay on in Sydney for an extra day to attend the autumn carnival races.

Same if they played, say, Cronulla and kept Dave Peachey to zero linebreaks. The coach would then give his players not only a night out, but a late start to the next day’s recovery. Just as each Charity Shield win in recent years has been followed by a day at Mudgee races.

Of course, it goes much deeper than a few schooners, too. Mitchell wanted to play fullback? Bennett gave him that chance.

Next up, Marshall’s lifeline.

Same as over the past 18 months, the coach has stood beside Cody Walker following a street altercatio­n, beside Adam Reynolds through a messy contract split and beside Jai Arrow through his Origin camp drama. He let a young backrower keep his mullet. Which is nothing, and everything. Same deal the way Bennett, even after shaping hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives since the ’70s, can even now still bring real intimacy to each new relationsh­ip. So, no, not everybody might want to see Jagger win it all again on Sunday.

But his players do. Big time.

Which for the old coach has always been enough.

For 24 years and counting, Bennett has continuall­y squeezed the best out of so many young players ...

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