As Time Goes By

Filed in Other by on December 6, 2010

I wish I had your scarf still, that once embraced and kept me warm
I wish you could be with me, in these last days when I am hopelessly poor”
Stay Out of Trouble, Kings of Convenience

Rain beats down with seemingly terminal melancholy today and the grey summer sky is filled with worry and loneliness and fear and profound sadness. It is apt that on the day Wayne Bennett will announce his departure from the Brisbane Broncos after twenty-one seasons in charge that Mother Nature cries. The sky is a stark canvas of the feelings that all Good Men bleed when a pillar of strength is lost, crushed and beaten to the ground by the inevitability of progress for time immemorial. Nothing can stay the same and time waits for no man. Hemmingway will tell you that and so will Fitzgerald. Even that which seems forever will die. This is a world of mortality and progress, where men grow old and spring breathes new life and the opportunity to hold a piece of time motionless never arises and never will. We travel through a labyrinth of one-way streets and there is no room for parking.

Wayne Bennett has been the Broncos, the father and mentor and face and heart of a club and an organisation and a team. From the doting days of infancy through to this very moment and all the peaks and valleys in between, Wayne Bennett has been there. Wayne Bennett was there when the Broncos stunned Manly, the reigning premiers, in their first premiership game on a warm March Brisbane Sunday nearly twenty years ago. Wayne Bennett was there moving rugby league icon Wally Lewis on in 1991 as many Queenslanders called for him to be stoned at high noon. Wayne Bennett was there on that overcast September afternoon in 1992 when all the hard work finally paid off and the Broncos raised the Winfield Cup for the very first time. Wayne Bennett was there for every Broncos Grand Final, guiding his team to victory on every occasion. Wayne Bennett was there during the Super League war, fighting for what he believed in. Wayne Bennett was there after Alan Langer and before Darren Lockyer and on both sides of Shane Webcke.

For your wistful writer, Wayne Bennett coaching the Broncos was a much-needed constant. He was there in the simple days of childhood, he was there in the confusion of adolescence and he was there in adulthood, a remnant of yesterday and an emblem of tomorrow. Those who transcend personal eras tend to hold a special place in one’s heart and when they finally move on, it creates an irreplaceable void.

With stern face and self-assuredness, Wayne Bennett has always been the Brisbane Broncos. It is impossible to extrapolate any Bronco memory without thinking of Wayne Bennett. He was a pillar and a rock, a constant in a world of chaos. As time rolled on and the world changed, wars and politics and games and people all different, Wayne Bennett remained the one and only coach the Brisbane Broncos had ever known. He was a man that defined an era and provided security in a world and an age without guarantees. In these times, where individualism is the dominating characteristic of the world and social disconnect has become increasingly prevalent, pillars of strength and loyalty are important. They provide hope and inspiration and sanity.

In terms of rugby league, Wayne Bennett is nearly without peer. By any measure of triumph, he is the most successful rugby league coach in history. In twenty years in charge of Brisbane, the Broncos have won six premierships. They have never lost a Grand Final and they have not missed the finals since 1991. Such sustained success is nearly unheard of in modern sport, particularly those where the tools of talent equalisation are feverishly at work.

It was, however, more than game-plans and defensive patterns that made the Broncos such a force for nearly the entire Bennett-era. With little argument, Bennett was one of the great tacticians of the sport, a Plato-like character who could win in the trenches or on the highlight reels. It was Bennett the man, however, that ensured the Brisbane Broncos have personified success for two decades. To maintain such levels of excellence requires a respected father-figure and a hard taskmaster, loyal and harsh and always fair, a mentor who teaches not only sport but life. It requires a man committed to the team and committed to winning, somebody prepared to sacrifice populism and short-term thinking for the greater good. Bennett did that and was rewarded with players who he got the best out of, players who would follow him blindly into war. Those without commitment don’t last very long under Bennett and nor do those with under-utilized potential. Hard work turns potential into a usable asset and those who were under-performing were not putting in the effort necessary. Bennett instilled a culture of brilliance at the Broncos that will ensure the team remains successful long after he leaves.

A measure of Wayne Bennett as a man, and in some way an explanation of the ethos he installed in the Broncos organisation, comes from a tale that did not fill the newspapers and did not occur in front of television cameras. Many winters ago, a young prospect ran the fields of the Central West with talk of a first grade career following his every move. A tall and lanky centre with speed to burn and tremendous strength, the future looked bright for Ian Maher. Clubs came knocking and many a respected scout saw him as a top prospect. Many scouts rated him an equal or better player than Garrett Crossman, who has since forged a decent first grade career. The future, however, did not involve rugby league for Maher, who was diagnosed with cancer. While stuck in a Brisbane hospital, sick from treatment and disease, Bennett paid Maher a visit. The purpose was not recruitment but encouragement. Word had gone down the wire to Bennett that a young rugby league fan was sick and Bennett thought it may lift his spirits to pay him a visit. Bennett talked about life and challenges and will and invited Maher to training when he was well enough. On the mend, Maher went to training and again he and Bennett spoke privately. It was the behaviour of a man who had his priorities right. Rugby league is a game. Life is life.

His time in Brisbane, however, is drawing to a close, the dark days of death set to fill 2008. We have one less scarf to keep us warm today, one less lighthouse to guide the way.  

Many rugby league circles, full of colourful identities and itinerant gamblers and high ranking officials and grizzled former backrowers, have Bennett moving to Belmore. There would be nobody involved in rugby league, with the one exception of Chris Anderson, your well-informed writer would prefer lead Canterbury-Bankstown. Current Chief Executive Malcolm Noad has reportedly told club insiders that Bennett will not be appointed on his watch but that should not prove too much of a hindrance as Noad has less than a fortnight left in charge. The current board will be overthrown in a week by a ticket led by club legends Graeme Hughes, Andrew Farrar and Barry Ward and Noad will be shown the door not long after. Noad’s failure to recognise his own failings as well as the talents of Bennett has left me with no option but to offer a full Making The Nut endorsement of the new ticket. Noad and I have a somewhat cordial relationship but that will end now. The hour has come and so has the time for winning.

While there is little doubt that Bennett would have a profoundly beneficial influence on the Bulldogs, your historical writer cannot help but get moist-eyed at the prospect of Bennett no longer being a Bronco. A grand era has ended and The Great Record will remember it with fondness. And now we forge on, with a little less certainty and a little less of yesterday.

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