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Winning Starts Monday
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Never knock a champion - especially one called Bennett

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With Newcastle now on track for a top eight berth, Wayne Bennett is set to collect a reported $500,000 bonus for steering the Knights to the finals in his first year as coach.

If he does so, Bennett will maintain his remarkable record of having coached in the play-offs every season since 1992 when he took the Broncos to their first premiership.

Yet it is only a month ago that this column was being bombarded by emails and Twitter messages questioning his coaching ability after Newcastle had crashed to five successive losses.

"Can I ask why Bennett seems to be a protected species. Any other coach in his position would have been scrutinised by the media by now," one reader asked.

At least she did it politely.

Others weren't fit to print - even now - but the tone was usually about Bennett having only achieved his record as the game's most successful coach because of the star-studded line-ups under his charge at Brisbane and St George Illawarra.


Now that he didn't have the same quality of players at the Knights, they reasoned the shortcomings of the seven-times premiership winning mentor were exposed for all to see - except the media.

Given Nathan Tinkler's history of falling out with horse trainers, such as Anthony Cummings, many predicted that Bennett would not see out his four-year contract, which is believed to include bonuses of $500,000 for making the finals and $1 million for winning the premiership.

Dressing room footage shown on The Footy Show of Tinkler putting his hand into Bennett's pocket and taking the coach's hand out to shake it after Bennett had appeared to ignore him while he addressed the players following another defeat was seen as evidence that their relationship was already on the rocks.

But you don't win a grand final every three years on average during the past two decades without being a great coach, and in this business if you put the boot into someone like Bennett when he appears to be down you will soon be the one copping a kicking.

Ditto for the likes of Tim Sheens, Brian Smith and Craig Bellamy, whose teams are now struggling but have proven themselves over the years.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what Bennett has done to change around the fortunes of the Knights so dramatically but a turning point may have been their 34-14 defeat by South Sydney in round 18.

After the loss, Bennett quickly diverted attention away from his team's performance by slamming match officials for not stopping the game immediately when rookie forward Kyle O'Donnell was knocked out in a big hit by Sam Burgess.

Since then, Newcastle have won three successive games against Manly, the Warriors and the Raiders in Canberra to claim a share of equal eighth position with the Titans and Tigers.

With matches against the Bulldogs, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Rabbitohs, the Knights have arguably the toughest run home of the six teams battling for eighth spot but if Bennett's men make the finals they will be in form and full of confidence.