IT STARTED with a beer and a back­yard bar­be­cue at Kevvie’s house. It ended with Craig Bel­lamy join­ing the Bron­cos.

While Bel­lamy is now spo­ken of in rev­er­en­tial tones for the ruth­less dy­nasty he has built in Mel­bourne, it was fit­ting his re­mark­able ride be­gan in a way that be­fit­ted his per­son­al­ity – with hu­mil­ity.

There was noth­ing grandiose about Bel­lamy’s en­try to the big league.

“It’s pretty funny when I look back at it,” says Bel­lamy, who ar­rives in Brisbane to­day for Mel­bourne’s clash with the Bron­cos to­mor­row night at Sun­corp Sta­dium.

“I was good mates with (former team­mate) Kevin Wal­ters at Can­berra and it was early De­cem­ber (in 1997) when me and my wife went to visit Kevvie and his wife at the time.

“We stayed a few days. We went up on a Fri­day and, on the Satur­day af­ter­noon, we’re hang­ing out and sud­denly there’s a knock at the door.”

En­ter Wayne James Ben­nett.

“So Wayne turns up ... I don’t think it was planned,” Bel­lamy chuck­les, sus­pect­ing a Wal­ters-Ben­nett plot.

“Next thing he in­vites me out the back for a chat and he offers me a job to work with him at the Bron­cos.

“He never gave me a time frame, he just said there’s a job if you want it, get in touch with me.

“Wayne didn’t stay for the bar­be­cue. Me and Kevvie had a beer and I think Wayne had a diet coke and a bit of cho­co­late.

“I was sur­prised he of­fered me the job. I went back to Can- berra and talked about it with my wife. Our kids were pretty young and weren’t overly keen on mov­ing, but it was too good an op­por­tu­nity to refuse.” Within months, Ben­nett’s Bron­cos would dis­cover what an as­set they had – and the Bel­lamy drive now shin­ing through in Mel­bourne, the code’s bench­mark club. Bel­lamy will tell you it is a con­sti­tu­tion re­sid­ing deep in his DNA. His fa­ther, Norm, slogged it out for 32 years in the ce­ment works. Lit­er­ally, and trag­i­cally, he died on the job. Work­ing at a quarry in the NSW bush town of Port­land, Norm was crushed by a boul­der. He was 51. Craig was 24, his mem­o­ries of the quarry blow­ing rocks on to the school roof 1km away still vivid. Up­hold-

ing his fa­ther’s legacy, Bel­lamy helped Ben­nett win a premier­ship in his maiden year at the Bron­cos in 1998, but he was de­ter­mined to ex­plore new fron­tiers.

With the help of then foot­ball man­ager Paul Bunn, now a Storm scout, Bel­lamy con­vinced the Bron­cos board to out­lay $200,000 – a sig­nif­i­cant sum of money two decades ago – on revo­lu­tion­ary video­anal­y­sis soft­ware.

Bel­lamy be­came the first coach in rugby league to test a method now used by all 16 NRL clubs.

“Craig was al­ways writ­ing notes and game plans ... we used to joke they were love let­ters for Wayne Ben­nett,” Bunn re­called.

“He was the first coach to truly an­a­lyse the op­po­si­tion. Wayne mainly fo­cused on im­prov­ing his play­ers, but when ‘Belly­ache’ came along, he was so pedan­tic about prepa­ra­tion.

“Craig used to give his notes to Wayne on the op­po­si­tion and one day Wayne said: ‘There has to be more to this, we need to do it with video footage’.

“Craig and the Bron­cos were the first to use a pro­gram called League Anal­yser. It cost around $200,000 to de­sign.

“Once we bought the new pro­gram, the pro­gram­mers said it would keep us 12 months ahead of the pack.

“That typ­i­fied Belly­ache. He was al­ways go­ing to be a great coach. He could pick an op­po­si­tion apart like you wouldn’t be­lieve.”

Typ­i­cally, Bel­lamy down­played his in­ge­nu­ity, say­ing he was sim­ply bored at times as a trainer and needed to fill in the down­time.

“When the pre-sea­son slog was over, I thought, ‘Well what else can I do?’,” he said.

“I de­cided I would help Wayne by tak­ing notes on the op­po­si­tion. I’d give some notes to Wayne and cut up some videos.

“It was a bloody night­mare do­ing videos back then.

“Look­ing back, the amount of time it took was un­be­liev­able com­pared to the tech­nol­ogy we have to­day.

“I’m not that tech-savvy my­self, but once you got your head around the sys­tem, it be­came a real break­through.”

Bel­lamy had hoped to suc­ceed Ben­nett, but when Mel­bourne ap­proached in 2003, Wayne wasn’t ready to walk away ... so he walked in­stead.

“It was Wayne’s club at the time and still is, I guess,” he said.

“I sup­pose at some stage I would have liked to coach the Bron­cos, but it just hasn’t worked out that way.

“I must say the five years I had there, I re­ally en­joyed it. It was a great club, so pro­fes­sional. I will for­ever be grate­ful to Wayne and the Bron­cos for giv­ing me that op­por­tu­nity.

“For some rea­son, the tim­ing hasn’t worked out for me to coach the Bron­cos and Wayne will prob­a­bly out­last all the coaches, my­self in­cluded. “He just keeps hang­ing on.” Former Bron­cos chair­man and Storm di­rec­tor Den­nis Watt can­not imag­ine the club with­out Bel­lamy. “I see Craig as syn­ony­mous with Mel­bourne, their won­der­ful his­tory and what they stand for,” he said.

“The se­cret to Craig is his work ethic and care for his play­ers. He never leaves a stone un­turned. It transfers to ev­ery­one in the or­gan­i­sa­tion.”

Bel­lamy is 59 in Oc­to­ber and has the fit­ness and zest of a man a decade younger. But he ad­mits there are now days when he feels the pinch. He can­not see him­self em­u­lat­ing Ben­nett, 69 in Jan­uary.

“There are just cer­tain stages of the sea­son that are so much more hec­tic than it used to be,” he said. “It’s like any other job re­ally. There are some things I like and some I don’t par­tic­u­larly like.

“But at the end of the day, you have a role to play and you play it. But I do get tired some­times, no doubt.

“I just don’t know how Wayne has done it for so long.

“When I was there, there was never any ques­tion it was Wayne’s club. he ran a tight ship and ev­ery­one knew who was in charge.”

The same could now be said about Bel­lamy and the Mel­bourne jug­ger­naut that keeps pow­er­ing on.

BACK TO THE FU­TURE: Craig Bel­lamy in his early days at the Bron­cos and at Storm training.

FOR­EVER LINKED: Mel­bourne Storm coach Craig Bel­lamy; (far left) with Bron­cos coach Wayne Ben­nett at the 2006 grand fi­nal break­fast; (be­low) Bel­lamy and Ben­nett at Bron­cos training; (be­low left) with Kevin Wal­ters at the Storm in 2011; and (be­low right) with Cameron Smith hold­ing aloft last year’s NRL premier­ship tro­phy. Pic­tures: Michael Klein, Brett Costello, Quin Rooney

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