Bennett: ‘Gutless’ Broncos went behind my back
In part two of Peter Badel's series on the fallout between Wayne Bennett and the Broncos, the mastercoach exclusively reveals how he suspected his career at Red Hill was almost over as club powerbrokers secretly sounded out replacements.
"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.
● CHAPTER ONE: White and Bennett go from brothers to enemies
Paranoia had set in. The Kevin Walters quitting bombshell was one thing. But now 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. New chairman Karl Morris, a superannuation heavy-hitter not imbued in rugby league culture, was as visible as a Yowie.
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.
"Let's go for a run," White replied.
For six decades, running was part of Bennett's soul. It kept him fit. Young. Sharp. He once ran 5km in 18 minutes. Running was his thing. But as the pair laced up the joggers and began trotting along a bike path that hugs Brisbane's training base at Red Hill, Bennett feared he might be running into a dead-end.
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 and Bennett retreated to Brisbane's high-performance centre, to be joined by Morris, 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.
Morris sat in silence.
Losing the battle, Bennett formulated another exit strategy.
"Well let's do 2020," he replied to White.
"I just want to leave on my terms. I know this team better than anybody else."
As part of his proposed one-year extension, Bennett made a further offer. He would work hand-in-hand with whoever White and Morris chose to appoint as coach. Green, Bellamy, Kevin Walters, Jason Demetriou. Heck, even Anthony Seibold, who was in his rookie year at Souths, and at that point wasn't even on Brisbane's coaching radar.
"I will co-coach like I did with Don Furner at Canberra in 1987," Bennett told White.
The Broncos CEO shook his head. Their Police Academy roles had been reversed. White was now sergeant. Bennett taking orders.
It must have been a confronting experience for Bennett, a man accustomed to walking to the beat of his drum, but with an 18-month death march about to commence, the Broncos coach would go down swinging.
"Well, what do you want for the Broncos then," Bennett asked White.
"I want the best coach," White said.
"Well, get Craig Bellamy," Bennett said.
Bennett then asked White for one scintilla of courtesy. He asked to be kept in the loop if White chose to proceed by contacting Bellamy.
"You won't f---ing believe it"
For a month, all was quiet in the Red Hill bunker. White and Bennett exchanged uneasy glares walking the corridors of Red Hill. Their 35-year friendship was beginning to feel the strain of a confluence of forces, chiefly the conflicting philosophies of White's determination to enact a succession plan against Bennett's dream to coach on.
The flame flickering, Bennett fired one last bullet.
In May, he called another meeting, this time with the entire Brisbane board.
White, who routinely addressed the board on all matters, offered to speak on Bennett's behalf. The coach declined. The trust was gone. He would take the ball up himself.
Bennett spoke for around 10 minutes. He pitched his vision for the club, his wish for a one-year extension and his belief that Demetriou, his current assistant, would be tailormade to succeed him in 2021.
The board didn't ask one question.
One member of the panel then thanked Bennett for his time and spoke of his wonderful contribution to the Broncos.
Bennett left the room enraged. Incandescent at his treatment, the man who had delivered all six of the club's premierships needed to vent. He rang a personal friend.
"You won't f---ing believe it," he said on the phone. "I'm f---ed. The board has just given me my farewell speech."
Worse for Bennett and Broncos stakeholders, the internal firestorm was about to become a public inferno.
A Storm brews as Broncs meet Bellamy
On May 22, senior Fox Sports journalist James Hooper broke the news that the Broncos had secretly approached Bellamy. There was talk of a four-year, $5.6 million offer.
At a press conference the following day, White confirmed he had spoken to Bellamy.
Bennett felt blindsided. He had asked White to keep him in the loop, yet had heard nothing since.
A gentlemen's agreement had been broken. White argues he believed Bennett's suggestion to "get Bellamy" was tantamount to a green light to kickstart the poaching bid immediately.
Reports suggested White and 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.
Today, White goes into detail for the first time about his pursuit of Bellamy ... and why Bennett was not offered another contract.
"The reality is we wanted a long-term outlook," White said.
"Wayne's proposal did not work for us as a club.
"I had to act in the best interests of the club. We needed the ability to plan beyond one season. A one-year extension wasn't a robust plan in our eyes."
Asked if he dudded Bennett by failing to inform him he had met with Bellamy, White said: "I felt Wayne very much knew that my job was to contact Craig.
"He hadn't signed with Melbourne and to me there was an indication from Wayne that we should sign him. It was part of my role at the Broncos to reach out to Craig.
"The truth is this - I had one single meeting with him. I didn't want to invest too heavily in the process and fly to Melbourne, which I never did, but had things progressed after our first meeting, I would have got on planes."
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. Suddenly, there seemed a sliver of hope for Bennett.
White was back on the hunt, buffeted by public brickbats that Bellamy had deliberately used and abused the Broncos to drive up his asking price with the Storm.
"Craig was genuine, I have no doubt," he counters.
"I asked him to be honest and he said, 'Paul, I'm genuinely considering this'. Craig Bellamy is a stand-up guy. He could see what we were building at the Broncos and the way the club had been set-up.
"Ultimately, the decisive factor for Craig was his history with the Storm. He wanted to finish his career as a one-club coach."
Broncos' Sei-bold as brass move
Despite Brisbane's failure to land Bellamy, Bennett was not breathing easily.
If he was to receive a stay of execution, there was a caveat: Bennett had to take the Broncos to the 2018 premiership to save his bacon, an unlikely scenario for a Brisbane squad whose formline was fluctuating like share prices.
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.
Having lost the faith of the board, Bennett was on a slippery slope to the coaching scrapheap.
Then, on July 12, came the first formal correspondence that he was being moved on.
A 97-word letter from chairman Karl D. Morris, on Broncos letterhead, offering Bennett another job at the club from 2020 onwards.
"You have been instrumental in the Broncos' success," he wrote.
"The relationship with you should be an enduring one. It is my priority to ensure an elegant transition which would include an ongoing role commensurate to your status."
It was to be a prestigious position, with Bennett presiding over a Broncos development academy managing more than $1 million worth of business.
Either way, Bennett wasn't interested in a job he feared was a public-relations exercise designed to pension him off.
"I didn't want another role," Bennett tells 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."
The other clubs come knocking
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: Demetriou, 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.
Souths sucker-punched Seibold. Now there was talk of an immediate swap. Bennett dug his heels in. He had a legally binding contract for 2019 ... and a letter from Morris reinforcing Brisbane's intention to honour that deal.
"The 2019 year will be one that celebrates your success," Morris wrote.
"It should be your most enjoyable year."
Today, Bennett finds himself wearing red and green, 12 months early, forced out of a Brisbane club he was not contractually, and spiritually, ready to leave.
"To this day, no-one at the Broncos told me to my face that I wasn't wanted for 2019," Bennett said.
"Not Paul White. Not the chairman.
"Where it all broke down was they never told me they didn't want me for 2019.
"It was long finished the argument about whether I would be at the Broncos for 2020. We had both accepted that.
"But I had given my word to people at the Broncos. I always intended to fulfil my contract to that club."
As the high-level wheeling and dealing began, much of it behind his back, Bennett thought: "You gutless bastards".
His credibility was now on the line. To his Broncos players. To his Broncos staff. They trusted he would honour his deal.
Bennett had lost the battle to coach on at the Broncos, but he was ready to go to war for the sanctity of his word ... and pride.