Inside story of the NRL’s nastiest feud
TONIGHT Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold face off for the first time since last year's explosive coaching swap rocked the NRL. Get the inside story behind the fallout between Bennett and the Broncos with Peter Badel's five-part series.
THE END FOR BENNETT
"I AM in a fair bit of shit here".
Those words swirled through Wayne Bennett's head, consuming him, agitating him, motivating him. Most of all, Bennett's inner-voice, the moral compass that had guided him through every coaching maelstrom for two decades, was scrambled, spinning out of control.
Paranoia had set in. His own mortality at Red Hill was descending like a disturbing red mist before his eyes.
Bennett was jumping at shadows. He needed clarity about his future. The old copper in him stirred. He began the hunt for answers.
For 25 years, Bennett's great source of pride was the trust that pervaded the Broncos. He always operated with an unyielding belief Queensland football fans trusted their flagship club. He trusted the bosses to keep the ship steady. They trusted Bennett to win games and get the job done.
Now, Bennett was losing trust in the Broncos establishment.
The first internal alarm bell rang on February 21, 2018, when The Courier-Mail reported a third-party with a 20-year association to the Broncos made a phone call to North Queensland's Paul Green to sound out his interest in one day coaching the Broncos.
Bennett raised an eyebrow, but when off-contract Melbourne mentor Craig Bellamy told the same publication on April 18 that he was open to an offer from the Broncos, 24 hours before the Brisbane-Storm clash, the super coach was on edge.
Bennett was hoping Broncos bosses would move to extinguish the external chatter by providing internal re-assurances that he had a future at Red Hill. He heard nothing from Broncos CEO Paul White or new chairman Karl Morris.
Enough was enough. After weeks of waiting for high-level meetings that never came, Bennett called his own. He asked White for a face-to-face meeting.
The truth is, Bennett wasn't close to contemplating retirement. At 68, he believed he could coach the Broncos until the end of 2021, when he would be 71.
But when White, Morris and Bennett met at Brisbane's high-performance centre, the super coach copped a spear to the heart.
"Wayne, 2019 will be the end for you, I won't budge from that," White told Bennett.
On May 22, Fox Sports journalist James Hooper broke the news that the Broncos had secretly approached Craig Bellamy. There was talk of a four-year, $5.6 million offer.
Reports suggested White and Darren Lockyer had flown to Melbourne to meet with Bellamy.
The Courier-Mail can reveal White simply drove the M1 to meet Bellamy on the Gold Coast, where he was visiting his daughter.
A month later, on June 16, Bellamy rejected Brisbane, agreeing to a three-year extension with the Storm. The Broncos' succession plan was in tatters again.
Despite Brisbane's failure to land Bellamy, Bennett was not breathing easily.
Besides, Bennett now had another coaching rival to fret about. Seven days before Bellamy spurned the Broncos, Fairfax journalist Adrian Proszenko reported Brisbane had a contingency plan if the Storm super coach stayed loyal.
Enter Seibold. A Queenslander. Born and bred in Rockhampton. The rookie coach had South Sydney firing. He was being lauded as the next big thing in NRL coaching.
Bennett was offered another job at the Broncos from 2020 onwards. It was to be a prestigious position, with Bennett presiding over a Broncos development academy managing more than $1 million worth of business. But he wasn't interested.
"I didn't want another role," Bennett told The Courier-Mail.
"They wanted me for another five years sitting in the back office counting jerseys and going through the motions.
"That wasn't me. I wasn't ready for retirement. I still love to coach."
Unwanted long-term by Brisbane, Bennett began planning his future. A third-party reached out to the Gold Coast Titans. Bennett had dialogue with Penrith supremo Phil Gould. As Brisbane prepared for the finals, he received a lucrative three-year deal from the Wests Tigers, who were resigned to losing Ivan Cleary to Penrith.
When the Broncos were flogged 48-18 in the opening week of the finals by the Dragons, their season was over. And so was Bennett's desperate battle for survival.
Within weeks, Brisbane began a formal interview process for his successor.
Four men were shortlisted: Andrew Demetriou, Kevin Walters, Michael Maguire and Seibold.
Furious at Seibold's dithering, and resigned to losing him to Brisbane, South Sydney pulled a three-year extension to the rookie coach on October 24.
Sixty seconds after the 5pm deadline they had slapped on Seibold had expired, the Rabbitohs announced Bennett as their coach for the 2020-21 seasons.
As it turned out 2019 would be the end for Bennett at the Broncos and new beginning at Souths.
THE GRUDGE MATCH
As Bennett picked up the pieces from the first sacking of his 40-year career as a coach and moved the shattered shards of his rugby league soul to South Sydney, Rabbitohs chiefs feared they would have ask to Hollywood owner Russell Crowe to buy a brown lounge.
There was some counselling to do.
Like a deflated man recovering from a broken marriage, Bennett had crap on his liver. Venom poured from his tongue as he reflected on his messy divorce with the Broncos.
Such was his rage, Bennett had engaged lawyers and fired off a legal letter on December 14, seeking $400,000 from the Broncos over his termination. That was on top of the $385,000 payout he had already received from the club for his image rights, which represented a key contractual component of his Broncos deal.
But the Rabbitohs couldn't afford for Bennett to fret about legal eagles and courtroom brawls with the Broncos. The Bunnies finished one game shy of the grand final under Anthony Seibold in 2018.
The holy grail - one that has eluded Bennett since 2010 - was in sight.
"You have to get over this anger, Wayne," Bunnies boss Shane Richardson privately told Bennett. "We need your mind on the job."
As Bennett faced the media this week, he made his feelings towards the Broncos and Seibold clear.
Asked about their coach-player relationship at the Broncos in the early 1990s, Bennett snapped: "I don't think I was a mentor, I didn't see a lot of him (Seibold).
"He didn't play in the first grade squad."
When Seibold spoke this week, the now Broncos mentor instead lauded the super coach.
"There is no negativity in my mind in and around Wayne," Seibold said.
"I don't really know Wayne. I wish him all the best.
"What he did for this club is second to none. He has left a legacy wherever he has been. His longevity is second to none. We won't ever see a career like his again so I only have positive things to say. I can't compare myself to what he has done and I never would. There is no comparison there."
Whatever happens tonight won't define Bennett or Seibold's respective tenures at their new clubs. For Bennett, this was always a bigger-picture fight. It was not about Seibold. It was about earning the right to do what he loves most.
The Broncos saga has not broken him. Just reinforced his love for coaching.
"I'm in a really good place here, I'm really enjoying coaching at South Sydney," Bennett says.
"If you still have the energy, you only get smarter in coaching, you don't get dumber.
"It's simple as that. That's why I didn't want to go into another role at the Broncos.
"I love what I do. I enjoy players and seeing young men succeed. I want my guys at South Sydney to succeed.
"There's your answer. OK ... the music just hasn't died in me as a coach."