How Wayne Bennett shaped the Canberra Raiders dynasty

The Sydney media? "They bagged the shit out of us".

So says former club chief John McIntyre of the backlash directed at the Canberra Raiders when they appointed co-coaches for the 1987 NSWRL season.

Wayne Bennett's arrival in Canberra signalled the start of a new era as he combined with Don Furner to lead the first grade side to the grand final.

Wayne Bennett's arrival in Canberra signalled the start of a new era as he combined with Don Furner to lead the first grade side to the grand final.

Don Furner had done a great job in building the Raiders from the ground up, but club officials went looking for an edge to build on Canberra's lone finals appearance - a playoff in 1984.

The edge they found came in Wayne Bennett. A lanky fellow from Brisbane that would lay the platform for one of the greatest dynasties of the modern era.

"Would you believe, we won the Dally M coach of the year?," McIntyre says.

"We took a great deal of benefit out of Wayne Bennett. When I originally had spoken to him before he came down, I said 'I want to talk to you about coaching a football team for the rest of your life'."

Bennett would last just one year in Canberra before heading back to Queensland to take control of a new expansion club out of Brisbane dubbed the Broncos.

Wayne Bennett has taken charge of a competition heavyweight in South Sydney.

Wayne Bennett has taken charge of a competition heavyweight in South Sydney.

But that year was crucial to a run of success the Raiders are yearning to replicate. He oversaw a strength and conditioning overhaul and brought "wonderful people into the place". Think Kelvin Giles and Shaun McRae.

The Green Machine got a taste of the big stage. They built on their lone finals appearance. They reached their first grand final - the last to be played on the hallowed turf of the SCG.

They would finish on the wrong side of the scoreline against Manly Warringah. But the foundations were there - Bennett had helped Canberra light the fuse for something special.

But his handshake agreement to coach Canberra for longer went out the window - Wayne's world was taking shape in Brisbane.

Bennett reached the summit at Red Hill six times as he helped Brisbane become one of the competition's most formidable teams.

Success has followed every move.

Success has followed every move.

Canberra were left to go in another direction. One option stood out.

Sure, he had just coached Penrith to six wins and they had avoided the wooden spoon by a solitary point - but Tim Sheens was the man for the job in Canberra. If Bennett had laid the foundations, Sheens would build the skyscraper.

"I spoke to Jack Gibson about the other coaches because he mentored plenty in his time, and I was just impressed with the way Tim had got a very young Penrith Panthers into the semi-finals [two years earlier]," McIntyre says.

"It was only his second year of coaching at that level. I thought 'this is the sort of fella we need here in Canberra'. He was in Canberra for nine years, and look at the legacy he has left, not just for Canberra but for the game."

Sheens took the reins in 1988 and, in McIntyre's eyes, was unlucky not to clinch the title in his first year at the helm because "that team we fielded in 1988 was probably the best team we ever had on the paddock."

If Wayne Bennett laid the foundations, Tim Sheens built the skyscraper. Picture: Craig Golding

If Wayne Bennett laid the foundations, Tim Sheens built the skyscraper. Picture: Craig Golding

Steve Walters feels just about the same. If 1987 was a small step towards the future, what came next was one giant leap.

"That was the first full season Laurie [Daley] had in '88. When he was a young fella he had a couple of injuries and missed a few games. That's when Clydey [Brad Clyde] came into the team, and it may well have been Ricky's [Stuart] first year too," Walters says.

"I only played a couple of games in '86, but I know it was a bit of a disappointment. Then of course Wayne came in '87. But I think 1988 would have been more building towards 1989."

There they were, in 1989 with their backs to the wall, scraping into the finals. They toppled Cronulla and Penrith. Then came the preliminary final.

It was Mario Fenech, Les Davidson and boom rookie Jim Serdaris leading the minor premiership-winning South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The face of aggression: Former Souths captain Mario Fenech. Picture: Quentin Jones

The face of aggression: Former Souths captain Mario Fenech. Picture: Quentin Jones

On the other side of the halfway line at the opening whistle stood Mal Meninga, Daley and Stuart.

The underdog Raiders punching above their weight in search of a maiden title, the hot shot Rabbitohs looking to end a drought.

Canberra would prevail in one of their finest performances of the year - one which proved they truly deserved to be there on that fateful grand final day a week later.

Thirty years later, not much has changed - and Stuart would love to replicate the result when the two clubs meet at Canberra Stadium on Saturday night.

On the other side of the fence? South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart. Picture: Karleen Minney

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart. Picture: Karleen Minney

But he will have no say on Canberra's future. Instead, Stuart is looking to lay the platform for a new era. It is a chance to prove they can knock over a top four side.

Long gone are Fenech, Davidson and Serdaris. In their places are the Burgess brothers and Damien Cook. Opposite them stand Jarrod Croker, Josh Hodgson and Josh Papalii.

There will always be a place for that grainy old footage - as McIntyre says, "my father Les, who was the founder of the Raiders, every time he felt a little bit down, he would sit down and replay the last half hour of the '89 grand final".

If the Raiders are to add more to the highlight reel this year, here is a chance to prove they can.