In another life, before Wayne Bennett returned to the Broncos for his second stint as their Messiah, you never knew if he was going to pick up the phone – and what you were going to get if he did.
Sometimes you felt a true connection, falling under his spell and hanging on every word rugby league’s most successful coach cared to tell you. At other times, he gave you the one and two-word answers he was famous for in his media conferences.
Mostly, you were just happy if he picked up. Earlier this week, he phoned as soon as he read this column’s text about speculation he was negotiating a return to the Dragons, who he guided to the holy land of a premiership in 2010.
This tip came from a trusted source. Bennett had apparently met Dragons chief executive Peter Doust about replacing Paul McGregor next season ... even if both are still under contract and their seasons are still going!
“It’s Wayne …”
Sorry to bother you, supercoach, but you gotta check these things. You know how it works …
“I had lunch with Peter Doust and Craig Young before the first game of the season [in San Souci, as Fairfax Media reported at the time] and I’ve had no contact with him at all since then. Not a word. Completely not right.”
The Broncos meet the Dragons in an elimination final at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday. It’s a match they’re expected to win – and win easily.
The deeper Bennett’s side goes into September, the harder it will be for the Broncos board and chief executive Paul White to sack him at a meeting between all of the parties in the middle of October.
In fact, there’s a feeling coming out of Brisbane the Broncos will need to reach the grand final or even win it to ensure Bennett sees out the final year of his contract.
White has denied this before, but Bennett isn’t so sure after the club earlier this year started sniffing around for a replacement. Bennett told them to go after Craig Bellamy, who was coming off contract at the Storm.
Bellamy re-signed with Melbourne and Bennett started asking for an extension to 2020. He feels like the club owes him that. Let him nurture a younger coach and then, at the age of 70, he can happily slip into retirement.
The club doesn’t feel the same way. For once, Bennett isn’t getting his way.
No matter how the cards fall, it’s a chaotic set of circumstances the Broncos find themselves in. They finished sixth and play a style of footy that could see them wreck predictions the premiership is a race in four.
Wait. What? The coach is on shaky ground? They won't give him an extension? To the man who has won more premierships than anyone, including a grand final appearance just two years ago? Whaaaaat?
It went largely unnoticed but Phil Gould made the astonishing claim on Channel Nine’s 100% Footy in early April that the Broncos wouldn’t make the finals.
Bennett is proving everyone wrong. Again.
Remember round one? Hours after having lunch with Doust and Young, Bennett sat in the coach’s box at Kogarah, doing his best resting-bitch face as the Dragons trampled his side 34-12.
Bennett decided to start the game with Sam Thaiday at hooker. It was an air swing. Thaiday laboured from tackle to tackle, throwing wayward passes from dummy half that slowed the Broncos attack to a crawl.
Prop Matt Lodge missed tackles, dropped balls and conceded penalties in his first match in three years following his drunken, prescription drug-fuelled rampage in New York.
The crowd howled each time he went near the ball, angry that Lodge had been registered by the NRL to play.
Bennett’s faith in Lodge was interpreted as a sign the coach was losing the magic. Was Lodge that good? Was he really worth the trouble? The ugly headlines? The outrage?
Turns out, yes, in a football sense at least. Lodge is arguably the form prop of the competition.
Bennett did something similar with centre James Roberts, who came out of a Thai rehab facility two years ago and got straight back on the drink.
Bennett said the best thing for Roberts was to keep playing footy. It seemed selfish. He appeared more concerned about his team than the player's welfare, which conflicted with the Bennett mantra he picked up from the Broncos founding owner Paul "Porky" Morgan of making players better people ahead of better footballers. One followed the other.
Once again, Bennett was proven right: Roberts was a star in NSW’s series win in Origin earlier this year.
Bennett has the Broncos humming again without prized signing Jack Bird and international back-rower Matt Gillett, and a halves combination of Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima that’s only found each other late in the season.
After dismissing the Dragons rumours when we spoke earlier this week, Bennett started waxing about how close the season has been with the top eight not decided until the very last play of his side’s win against Manly last Sunday.
Bennett had to send out a message through trainer and former halfback Allan Langer in the final minutes to tell his side to stop scoring points.
Another try would’ve pushed the Broncos into fifth position on points differential, setting up a clash against the Warriors at Suncorp Stadium in the first week of the finals instead of the Dragons.
McGregor might want to mention it to his players before they run out on Sunday. Bennett felt the Dragons would be easier to beat than the Warriors. It's an insult that's largely gone unnoticed this week.
It was also another example of Bennett, still the master manipulator, bending and turning life his way.