As Wayne Bennett prepares to coach his 900th game this weekend at Magic Round, NRL.com 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.
In Part IV, we look at how Bennett has been a passionate and influential figure in shaping international rugby league since he first took charge of the Kangaroos in 1998 to now.
- Part I - Wayne Bennett: The Super Coach
- Part II - Wayne Bennett: The Father Figure
- Part III - Wayne Bennet: The Decision Maker
Wayne Bennett: The Internationalist
Wayne Bennett planted the seed for France to host the 2025 World Cup, and the 73-year-old hasn’t given up on the possibility of coaching at international level again.
Bennett will this weekend take charge of his 900th premiership match but he has also overseen 36 Tests with Australia (16), England (16) and Great Britain (4), while helping to guide New Zealand to World Cup glory in 2008.
Since stepping into the Kangaroos job at short notice in 1998 for two end-of-season Tests against the Kiwis, Bennett has proven a passionate and influential supporter of the international game.
He was a driving force behind the Tri-Nations concept when there was no World Cup organised in 2004, proposed to the NZRL that he work with Stephen Kearney in 2008, and inspired the idea of France hosting the 2025 tournament.
Bennett was coaching South Sydney when International Rugby League chair Troy Grant joined the IRL board in 2020 and began meeting with NRL clubs in a bid to build relationships and improve communications with them.
“Souths were the first club I met with, and Wayne impressed upon me that I must do something to help France and rebuild France - that was critical to the international game,” Grant said.
“On the back of that I came up with the concept of the World Cup as part of a triple treat (2023 Rugby World Cup, 2024 Paris Olympics and 2025 Rugby League World Cup), and I phoned Wayne and told him the idea.
“I said ‘as you are the one who first put it in my head, would you come with me to meet the French consul-general, Anne Boillon,’ so we went along and pitched the idea together.”
Bennett, who took England to the 2017 World Cup final, turned down a role with France to focus on preparing the Dolphins for their entry to the NRL this season but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of coaching at international level again.
As the NRL’s newest club, the Dolphins were the most impacted by the World Cup in England at the end of last season as they were unable to assemble their squad until mid-January, but Bennett remained a strong advocate for the tournament.
“In all of our consultations, because of Wayne, the Dolphins were probably the most supportive,” Grant said.
“Despite him trying to build a whole new franchise, and the grilling he got about who he didn’t sign, Wayne felt the World Cup was too important and the Dolphins have never looked to blame the World Cup for how they were impacted.
“In fact, he couldn’t have been more excited about the success of the World Cup in England. He was straight on the phone to me about the broadcast numbers in Australia, and he is just a wonderful mentor and sounding board.
His vision for the greater good of the game is unparalleled internationally.
Former ARL CEO Geoff Carr also hailed Bennett’s support of the international game, which includes pushing for an annual Tri-Nations tournament involving Australia, England and New Zealand to fill the void left after no World Cup was scheduled in 2004.
“Wayne has had a massive influence on international rugby league for the right reasons, because he wants to see it succeed,” former ARL CEO Geoff Carr said.
“He was always the first to have his players available when some other clubs would play ducks and drakes.
“The fact that he coached Australia and England, and he was assistant coach with New Zealand when they won the 2008 World Cup is an achievement in itself.”
The Kiwis had won the 2005 Tri-Series in England, leading to Bennett’s resignation from the Australian job after overseeing the first loss by the Kangaroos in a series or tournament since losing 2-0 to France in 1978.
“That was when he did the famous backdoor [at Brisbane airport after the team’s return home],” Carr said.
“Wayne was never going to lose his job over that and from memory I had spoken to him about that before the team returned home.
“I know that he has said publicly that he wished he hadn’t done that, because you have got to stand up for your wins and your losses.
The two wins that New Zealand had in Leeds in 2005, and the World Cup in 2008, created a lot of interest in international rugby league.
After a disappointing 2007 Kiwis tour to England, the NZRL decided to look for a new coach and approached Bennett.
He wanted to be involved but recommended that Stephen Kearney, the Kiwis great who was considered an NRL coach in waiting under Craig Bellamy at the Storm, be the New Zealand coach.
“I went to Sydney for the annual NRL coaches meeting and Wayne was there,” Kearney recalls.
“He said, ‘I think the New Zealand Rugby League are going to give you a ring tomorrow. I think they might be interested in you coaching the Kiwis, so make sure you are close to your phone.
“The next day I got the call and they said, ‘there is a condition, Wayne has to be part of your coaching staff’.
“I said that 'sounds exciting if I accept the role' but, in my mind, I was thinking why not just have Wayne as coach and I will be the assistant.”
However, Bennett insisted on their roles and the pair worked well together as they guided a team, which included Benji Marshall, Nathan Fien, Nathan Cayless, Adam Blair and Issac Luke, to a 34-20 defeat of Australia in the World Cup final.
“We had seven odd weeks together and our relationship grew as the campaign went on,” Kearney said.
“We would go out for runs just so he could prove to himself that he could beat someone a bit younger.
“For me, the everlasting thought I have of Wayne is the energy, experience and confidence he bought to that campaign.
“He bought to the group a real sense of confidence about what we were capable of, beyond what the group thought they could achieve. That is the real strength of him.
"We were down at halftime but he still gave the lads a level of confidence that we were able to get the job done.”
Bennett revelled in the role of assistant coach, sitting with the players at the back of the team bus and developing a close bond with the likes of Marshall, Luke and Fien, who has joined his coaching staff at the Dolphins.
In the lead up to their final group game against England in Newcastle, the Kiwis attended a Melbourne Cup function in fancy dress and Marshall organised Bennett’s costume – a leopard-skin mini skirt, high heels and a crop top.
“We were walking along the waterfront to go to this restaurant in the middle of the day and Wayne is wearing his mini skirt with his long skinny legs and everyone driving past was tooting at him,” Kearney said.
It was hilarious, but he played along, and all of the lads loved it.
“Apart from what he bought to us from a footy sense, he was a real team player and that sort of interaction and energy had a real positive impact on the group.”
Bennett had a similar influence on the England team when he took charge ahead of the 2017 World Cup.
While Tony Smith had previously coached England, he became a British citizen ahead of the 2008 World Cup and not all - including some players - were convinced about the appointment of an NRL-based Australian.
However, Bennett immediately won the nervous England players over with a simple address about his coaching philosophies at their first team meeting.
“We were almost in awe. He was a person everyone had heard about but not too many of the English lads had met Wayne, so it was huge,” former England captain James Graham said.
“There wasn’t a great deal of talking, it was just, ‘this is who I am, this is what I expect from you and here’s some simple rules’. That was it.
“I think there was a bit of shock because most players anticipated an information overload, but it was the exact opposite and in an international series in short time frame he knew what was needed.
“It was just very simple, and his methods were just about getting us to play for one another and enjoying ourselves at the right time.”
Graham describes the 2017 campaign, in which England overcame Tonga 20-18 in an epic semi-final clash in Auckland and lost 6-0 to Australia in a gripping final at Suncorp Stadium, as the best he has been involved with at representative level.
“I have never been involved with a group of men who have been as close as during that World Cup, and that is down to Wayne setting the environment and setting the tone,” Graham said.
“We had some great times together and some magnificent performances in some magnificent games of rugby league.
“I still get anxious thinking about the end of that semi-final against Tonga and the final would have to be the closest contest I have ever played in.
Wayne summed it up perfectly at the end of the game when he said, ‘we didn’t lose today lads, we just ran out of time’.
“Wayne was absolutely fantastic for me personally but speaking to the entire group I guess one thing that really stood out was how the non-players reacted because when you have got the best of the best all 24 members of the squad are used to being the key players in their respective club sides.
“In other camps I have seen it where the guys who aren’t playing can be down in the dumps and questioning ‘why not me’, so it can get toxic and affect, the overall mood of the camp but Wayne got that right better than I have ever seen before.
“I think that is part of the reason Wayne has been so successful, especially with Queensland Origin camps and New Zealand, England and Australia teams. It is different to a usual season, and he has that knack of bring people together.
“Wayne is just the perfect, ultimate people manager. He gets people to buy into a cause and makes you want to go to the edge of the earth for him and for your team-mates.”
Part V of Inside Wayne's World: The Coaching Mentor is released on Friday.