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Inside Wayne's World: Part II, The Father Figure

As Wayne Bennett prepares to coach his 900th game this weekend at Magic Round, takes a look inside Wayne's world by speaking to the players, coaches, officials and rugby league legends that know him best as part of an exclusive series.

Wayne Bennett is more than a coach to many of the 378 players who have played under him and the likes of Darius Boyd, Allan Langer, Steve Renouf and Wendell Sailor still regularly seek advice from the man they consider a father figure.

Wayne Bennett: The Father Figure

Darius Boyd was in a mental health facility and unsure whether he would play again when Wayne Bennett phoned to ask the former international to make the move with him from Newcastle to Brisbane in 2015.

“My future was uncertain - I was going through some troubles with my mental health and wellbeing, and I didn’t play the last eight rounds of the season – but Wayne still wanted me, and still believed in me,” Boyd recalled.

The now 35-year-old played 292 NRL games under Bennett – a record he shares with Darren Lockyer – and followed the seven times premiership winning coach from the Broncos to the Dragons to the Knights and back to the Broncos again.

Boyd won premierships under Bennett at the Broncos in 2006 and Dragons in 2010
Boyd won premierships under Bennett at the Broncos in 2006 and Dragons in 2010 ©NRL Photos

It was a unique relationship, but Boyd is far from the only player among the 378 coached by Bennett during a remarkable 900-match career to consider him a mentor or father figure.

“I know he still keeps in contact with a lot of players that he has coached, and it is not just a transactional thing, like ‘I need you to play well for me, so I am going to show an interest’,” Boyd said.

“There are blokes over the years from different clubs who he might have only had one or two years with, that I know still reach out for advice or seek his knowledge and wisdom. That shows that there is a genuineness about him, and it is not just while you are playing under him.

“He really cares about the person first and foremost, and I think that is what makes him so great and is what makes his teams play well - and play for him.”

Wendell Sailor, Steve Renouf and Allan Langer are among the many other former players who regularly phone Bennett or receive calls from him, checking in on them and their families.

Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri after Brisbane's 2000 grand final win
Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri after Brisbane's 2000 grand final win ©NRL Photos

They include players Bennett has sacked, dropped, berated or retired during 35 seasons with the Raiders (1987), Broncos (1988-2008, 2015-2018), Dragons (2009-2011, Knights (2012-2014) Rabbitohs (2019-2021) and Dolphins (2023).

“Sometimes he says, ‘I’ve got another group of 20 young blokes I’m looking after now but I’m still looking after you boys’,” Renouf said. “I say ‘that’s just the way it goes, Wayne’. He gets back to all of us.”

Mark Gasnier, who was in Bennett’s 2010 St George Illawarra premiership winning team, added: “He’s the sort of bloke you could ring at 2am and he would answer the phone”.

Mark Gasnier and Wayne Bennett after the Dragons clinched the 2010 minor premiership
Mark Gasnier and Wayne Bennett after the Dragons clinched the 2010 minor premiership ©NRL Photos

Like Renouf and Boyd, Sailor’s relationship with Bennett began as a teenager when he joined the Broncos from Sarina, near Mackay.

The dual international, who was lured from Brisbane by Wallabies coach Eddie Jones in 2002 and re-united with Bennett at the Dragons in 2009, said the super coach had stood by him through thick and thin.

Bennett and the Broncos salute the crowd after the 1993 grand final
Bennett and the Broncos salute the crowd after the 1993 grand final ©NRL Photos

“For him we are not just part of his football family, he sees us as sons,” Sailor said. “If we are going good, he is happy for us. If we are going bad, he wants to help us get back on track.

“When I was in rugby union, he would always check in on me, and I love the bloke because he makes you better. You can’t lie to him. If you don’t have honest conversations, how can he help you, so you end up pouring your heart out to him.

“He doesn’t know all the answers and he is not perfect, but the tools he does give you to get back on track, bloody hell it works.”

Gasnier said the advice Bennett offered former players was similar to the philosophy he shared with them during their playing careers.

Bennett’s 2010 finals advice for ‘choking’ Dragons

“I saw first-hand the belief he gave them, and the simple messaging and the simple principles in life that he allowed them to follow, and they walked around 10-foot tall - not arrogant, not up themselves, just confident and believing in their direction,” Gasnier said.

“He has been amazing with people I know that retired and who got lost every now and then, and went and sought Wayne’s advice, and he broke down simple little principles that were used in football that he reminded them of, that will put them in good stead in life as well.”

Boyd was raised by his grandmother and didn’t really have a father-figure in his life until he joined Brisbane and won a premiership under Bennett in his first season at the club in 2006.

However, the Kangaroos winger was devastated after being advised that there was no room for him at Broncos in 2009 and he spoke to Bennett, who had earlier announced that he was leaving to coach St George Illawarra.

Wayne Bennett and Darius Boyd: Inside the NRL E8

“I told Wayne and he said, ‘you can come with me’,” Boyd said. “As soon as I went to the Dragons, I knew that I wanted to stay under Wayne and if he wanted me, I would happily follow him wherever he was going to go.

“I didn’t have a lot of mentors or role models in my life so when someone like Wayne Bennett, who I thought was not only the best coach but could make me a better person, as well, wanted me to a part of his team and showed me that loyalty, trust and belief, I wanted to repay the favour.

“I was pretty quiet, as well, especially in my younger years, so we probably didn’t say a lot to each other, but I think he knew that I wanted to be involved with him and I needed that mentorship.

“He knows that you are your best on the field when you are grounded off it, but I think he genuinely does have a care and interest.

“I think he just wants to see young boys turn into good men and actually leave the game with a family or a house or something to show for it, because a lot of players in rugby league come from low socio-economic backgrounds or from challenges and struggles.

He really cares about the person first and foremost, and I think that is what makes him so great and is what makes his teams play well - and play for him.

Many coaches can be hard on a player after a bad performance, but Bennett believes that is usually when they need a cuddle rather than a kick up the backside.

Conversely, he rarely hands out plaudits for a five-star performance.

Renouf feared the worst after a loss in 1992 against Canterbury at Belmore, in which the star centre believes he costs Brisbane a win because of his poor defence.

Renouf gets a grand final hat-trick

“I had a shocker and Darren Smith carved us up,” Renouf recalled. “At Sydney airport I was sitting by myself, sulking, and Wayne came over, so I apologised to him.

He put his arm around me and said ‘mate, you will win us more games than you’ll lose. You’ll be OK'.

“I thought I was going to be dropped but he just reassured me. I had a blinder the next week against Norths, and we won the next four games in a row.”

However, Bennett accepts that not all players are the same, and he had a pact with Sailor at the Broncos that the winger wouldn’t play two bad games in a row.

“That was my bond to him, that was my respect for him,” Sailor said. “He knew that I could score a hat-trick in a game and then pat myself on the back so he would say to me, ‘you went alright today’, but he wouldn’t give me massive wraps.

“When I had a shocker, he would wait for the team meeting and say, ‘boys, what do you reckon about Big Del. Is he too worried about his photo shoot, too worried about his next promo. He didn’t really bring much to the team this week, let’s see if he aims up the next week’.

“He knew that to expose me would make me more accountable to the team, but he wouldn’t do it to someone like Darren Lockyer. He would probably say, ‘it wasn’t the start we needed, was it, Locky,” and leave it at that.

With personalities like me and Gordie [Tallis], he knew who he could prod.

The 73-year-old is hugely loyal to his players, but he can also be brutally honest with them.

When he joined the Dragons in 2009, Sailor was already at the club and Bennett phoned him to outline his expectations.  

Sailor sprints away from the Magpies

“He said, ‘I know you aren’t the winger that you used to be, but I know what you have got and what you can bring to the club for me’,” Sailor recounted.

“My job was to help Jason Nightingale, Darius Boyd and Brett Morris, and if I was playing alright they would extend me for another year.

“I started off really well, and Wayne was happy with me, but by the end of the year I just got a bit tired, and the game was catching up with me.

“Wayne never doubted me but at the end of that year, he said, ‘how do you think you are going’, and I said, ‘Wayne, I could play another year’. Wayne said, ‘if you play next year, you will be playing reserve grade’.

“He wanted Nightingale there and he realised I was getting too old. He said, ‘how about an ambassador role at the club, I saw how you helped the players, and with your work in the media you are flying.

He virtually retired me, and it was the right decision.

“Wayne could see that things were in place for me to be the best version of myself, and the next year the Dragons won the grand final."

Looking back at the 2010 Grand Final

As he contemplated Bennett's call on his future, Sailor reflected on a conversation they'd had in Brisbane a decade earlier as the master coach outlined his motivation as a mentor to so many players.   

“I remember after the 2000 grand final, we were about three days in [to celebrations] and I had my shirt off, and I said to Wayne, ‘you must get an ego with all these blokes you have taken from country football or who other clubs didn’t want to sign and now we have won a premiership’.

“Wayne looked at me and said, ‘Dell, my job as a coach and a mentor is about what sort of men you become when you finish playing football’.

"I've never forgotten that and it resonated with me."

Part III of Inside Wayne's World: The Tough Calls is released on Wednesday.

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