By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, Oct 1 (Reuters) – Master mentor Wayne Bennett will bid to extend his record to eight National Rugby League (NRL) titles as a coach on Sunday in his last match in charge of South Sydney when the Rabbitohs take on Penrith Panthers in the championship-deciding Grand Final.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the top flight of Australian rugby league over the past two seasons and a small outbreak in Brisbane could yet scupper the showpiece game if authorities pull the lockdown trigger.
But Bennett has risen above the chaos to steer the ‘Bunnies’ to their first Grand Final since their drought-breaking 2014 win over the Canterbury Bulldogs.
While written off several times as a coaching force since taking St George Illawarra to the 2010 title, the last of his championships, the 71-year-old is still at the top of his game.
He has had to be this season, with the Rabbitohs suffering a huge blow in the leadup to the playoffs when elite fullback Latrell Mitchell was banned for the rest of the campaign for a high hit on Sydney Roosters’ Joseph Manu.
“If I was washed up as coach, I wouldn´t coach another day because I would be letting too many people down,” Bennett told reporters after the 36-16 win over Manly last week.
It was one of a series of remarks that would have stung Brisbane Broncos fans, three years after the club fired the man who delivered them six titles and detik took them to the 2015 decider.
The Broncos have finished in the bottom three of the 16-team league the last two seasons and seen multiple coaches come and go.
While unsmiling, taciturn and prickly with the media, Bennett is loved by his players and generally gets the best out of them, as seen with 36-year-old playmaker Benji Marshall, who seemed out of options when cut by Wests Tigers last year.
“I love playing for Wayne even though he’s a bit grumpy sometimes,” Marshall told reporters this week.
“I think his biggest attribute is on game day. He expects you to know your role and gives you the confidence that if you know your role you can deliver on the day.”
While Bennett has nothing left to prove in the game, his opposite number Ivan Cleary is under pressure to deliver after the Panthers were stunned 26-20 by Melbourne Storm in last year’s Grand Final despite dominating the regular season.
Cleary also missed out in the 2011 Grand Final as coach of the New Zealand Warriors, nine years after losing the 2002 decider as a player for the team.
Cleary’s redemption bid is shared by his halfback son Nathan, who has been instrumental in the Panthers’ resurgence and bravely carried a shoulder injury through to the decider.
“Once you pull on that jersey, no one cares what niggles you have, you´ve just got to get out there and do your best for the team and show that pride in the jersey,” said the 23-year-old.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)