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 III, we look at how Bennett has never been afraid to make the tough calls – even when it comes to moving a player on for the good of the team.
Wayne Bennett: The Decision Maker
When Trevor Gillmeister landed at the Broncos in 1991, he was given a clear directive by Wayne Bennett - teach these blokes how to train hard and play hard.
With 97 first-grade games and 12 Origins to his name and a reputation as one of the game’s fiercest defenders, Gilly was the perfect man for the job, and took to it in typically forthright fashion.
Having cut his teeth at the Roosters under Arthur Beetson and matched motors with the likes of Craig Young, David Gillespie and Steve Roach, the boy from Brisbane Norths had quickly become a man in the Big Smoke and he was happy to play mentor to Bennett’s posse of young firebrands.
“Wayne had coached me in Origin [in ’87 and ‘88] so he knew what I could do and when he asked me to do that, I said ‘no dramas’,” said Gillmeister.
“I had been lucky enough to have good blokes helping me out when I was younger. Arthur was like a father figure to a lot of us Queensland boys down at the Roosters.”
It’s a role Maroons legends Wally Lewis and Gene Miles played so perfectly when the Broncos entered the competition, bringing big game experience and a hard edge to the fledgling franchise. ‘The King’ and ‘Geno’ had been on Kangaroo tours together, helped Queensland dominate Origin’s early years, and were seen as the ideal figureheads in Bennett’s brave new world at Brisbane.
As captain of Queensland and Australia, Lewis was the logical choice as skipper, and he started in a blaze of glory as the new boys blew premiers Manly off the park in their debut match and won five more on the trot after that.
A fadeout in the second half of 1988 cost the Broncos a finals berth but it was clear this was a team to be reckoned with. Come 1989 and the King’s men exploded out of the blocks with nine wins in their first 10 games before losses in seven of their next eight left them teetering on the edge of the top five.
Wins over Wests, Newcastle, Parramatta and Norths in the final month got the Broncos into a play-off for fifth spot with the Sharks but a 38-14 defeat spelt the end of the campaign and the end of Lewis’ reign as skipper.
Cue the outrage.
83. Wally Lewis - Hall of Fame
“For Wayne to make that decision that he was going to take the captaincy off Wally was a huge call,” said Miles, who took over as skipper from his good mate.
“The group was very supportive of me being captain, they thought everything would be sweet with Wally if I was the captain, but he didn’t accept that at all.
“The rest of the squad accepted it totally and we’d have a bit of banter in the weights room but when Wally was in there it was pretty intense.
“The older guys like Alf [Langer] and [Bryan] Niebling and [Greg] Dowling moved on and got the place humming along but Wayne and I copped a lot of criticism because we only had three wins and a draw in our first seven games [in 1990].
“They started running polls on television about who should be captain and Wally had plenty of support. Expectations were so high because we had a team full of internationals so it was a no-brainer when we were going that badly that people were saying get rid of me and Wayne.
“That was tough for me as a first-time captain and I struggled with it but Wayne and I said we’d see it out and slowly things turned around – we won 11 in a row and finished on top of the ladder.
“Wally had a few injuries that year and didn’t play a lot of games so things cooled down a bit, and if you are winning games then you don’t get bagged.
“To his credit, Wally came around at the end. He knew he was getting moved on [at the end of the year]. We still joke about it now. I say to him, ‘You’re nearly over it, aren’t you’.”
The King provides for Miles
The decision to change skippers was vindicated as the Broncos made it all the way to the preliminary final under Miles, who was named Dally M Captain of the Year in 1990.
Boasting a lethal mix of youth and experience, Bennett’s men powered to the minor premiership soon after on the back of an 18-4 record and went on to claim the club’s maiden title with a 28-8 grand final demolition of the Dragons.
With Steve Renouf, Michael Hancock and Willie Carne running amok out wide and Glenn Lazarus, Gavin Allen and Gillmeister laying a foundation up front, the Broncos were a feared and formidable opponent, and the premiership proved just reward for Bennett’s five-year plan he had hatched on arrival at the club.
“I was so pleased for the Broncos boys. I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing them finally get to the big dance and go on the way they did,” Miles said. “And I loved seeing it happen for the coach, all those players just wanted to play for him.
Carne gets another Broncos try
“We copped enough crap during the initial transition from Wally to me so to see them fulfil what we knew they could do after five years in the competition was special.
They were all still playing for the coach because he had copped a lot of criticism along the way about having a team full of internationals and not delivering a title.Broncos legend Gene Miles
Getting down and dirty and doing whatever his coach needed him to do was Gillmeister, who would go on to play all 72 games across three seasons at Brisbane and leave his fingerprints all over the back-to-back grand final victories in 1992-93.
He had delivered big time on Bennett’s edict to ‘teach these blokes to train hard and play hard’ but in return was shown the door, heading back to Sydney to take up a deal with the Panthers under Phil Gould.
Still just 29 and seemingly with plenty of good years ahead of him, it’s fair to say Gillmeister wasn’t thrilled with Bennett’s decision. With the benefit of three decades of hindsight, he can see the method in what many considered madness at the time.
“I was dirty at the time because I fulfilled my role - I didn’t miss a game and I didn’t get suspended – but s*** happens and you just deal with it,” Gillmeister said.
A coach has to be able to make those calls and they have to back their decisions once they make it.Broncos great Trevor Gillmeister
“Everyone thought Wayne and I had a drama because most people couldn’t believe it happened but I bump into him plenty of times and say ‘How ya going, mate’. Life’s too short to hold grudges.
“Things wouldn’t have happened for me in that 1995 Origin series had I stayed in Brisbane so there’s a bit of karma there.I would never have got to captain Queensland, Alf would have been captain. And we wouldn’t have those terrific memories of ‘95 and the mateship we got through that time.
“People still stop me in the street and call out ’1995 best ever’. That’s what it means to the people of Queensland.”
Just as Bennett had been ruthless in his assessment of ‘The King’ and ‘The Axe’ in his pursuit of premierships, so too when he arrived at the Dragon in 2009 and looked to convert of near misses into a maiden title for the joint venture.
Local junior Jason Ryles had given nine years of service to St George Illawarra and been part of six finals series but Bennett did not see a place for him with Michael Weyman coming to the club.
Josh Morris, the son of Saints great Steve Morris and brother of Brett, had scored 20 tries in 46 games after debuting in 2007 but was considered surplus to requirements. He joined the Bulldogs in 2009 and went on to play 325 games in a decorated career.
Bennett knew he wanted and who the Dragons needed to make it to the top of the mountain and in 2010 that’s exactly where they found themselves after downing Ryles’ Roosters 32-8 in the decider.
Great Grand Final Moments: 2010 Mark Gasnier Try
For centre Mark Gasnier, a try-scorer in the big one, the emphatic nature of the Dragons’ triumph was vindication of Bennett’s decision to shake up the roster.
“You can’t argue with what he has done. Whether people love him or hate him, I don’t think there’s one person who doesn’t respect him and that’s the key when you think of that final messaging that is the ability to move people on and change rosters,” said Gasnier.
“People might hate you for making hard decisions but if you tell the truth and you’re honest in it then they will still respect you for it and that’s a big difference.
“You look through the history of the game and there’s only two men I’ve seen be able to have the ability to move people on and not upset the group – Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy.
“Every club Wayne has gone to he has had to tap people on the shoulder but he never loses the group. And that is a fine art that only the very experienced coaches can do.
“Players aren’t stupid, they smell a rat, so if there is inconsistency in your messaging and there’s contradiction through the messages you convey then you’ll lose the group.
“Craig and Wayne can do it consistently and go on and get results.”
Part IV of Inside Wayne's World: The Internationalist is released on Thursday.