‘Let’s hope this meeting goes better than the last one’: Inside the Bennett-Cleary feud

When Wayne Bennett isn’t watching the share market, or the cattle market, or a TV cop show, or young men preparing for a game of rugby league, there’s every chance he’s running.

On an early summer morning in 2019, he was running laps of Redfern Oval as South Sydney directors gathered in the boardroom across the road.

For four months, head of football Shane Richardson had been trying to convince the new coach to front the people who appointed him.

The meeting was due to start at 8am but, as the minutes ticked down, Bennett was nowhere to be seen.

Right on the hour, the lanky frame of the most successful coach of the modern era stood in the doorway, wearing a singlet and running shoes and sweating bullets.

“Let’s hope this board meeting goes better than the last one,” Bennett drawled, referring to his ugly exit from the Brisbane Broncos which saw him swap jobs with Anthony Seibold.

Ivan Cleary and Wayne Bennett.Credit:Getty/NRL Photos

Eight months earlier, Bennett had been sitting in the Woollahra loungeroom of veteran agent Wayne Beavis, talking to Penrith general manager of football Phil Gould about replacing Anthony Griffin.

Bennett, who was warring with the Broncos about his future, had arranged the meeting through Fox Sports boss Steve Crawley, who has shared a close relationship with Bennett for decades and also worked intimately with Gould when head of sport at Channel Nine.

Gould thought Bennett could do what Griffin could not: harness an untamed group of abundantly talented young players and deliver a premiership, just as he had with the Broncos and Dragons.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city at Penrith’s exquisitely named Cafe Lattetude, Panthers chairman Dave O’Neill was having lunch with Wests Tigers coach Ivan Cleary, whom Gould had sacked at Penrith three years earlier.

The topic of discussion: Cleary returning to Penrith to coach his son, Nathan, at a time to be determined.

Just what happened next depends on whom you talk to.

Last year, O’Neill said his board “unanimously” rejected the idea of signing Bennett, who then blasted the Penrith chairman, claiming he’d never spoken to Penrith nor Gould and that no meeting even took place, including a handshake agreement to join them in 2019.

Gould has never spoken publicly about meeting Bennett and has been particularly tight-lipped on the subject this week. The Panthers continue to run the line that the board rejected Bennett, although some directors say they can’t recall taking a vote.

What we do know is Griffin was sacked in August that year, Nathan Cleary signed a five-year contract extension in September, Ivan Cleary quit the Tigers and was appointed coach in October, Seibold signed with the Broncos a few days later and, a handful of weeks after that, Bennett was running laps around his new home at Redfern Oval.

It’s not difficult to work out who won this real-life game of Kerplunk: the Tigers and Broncos were left in ruin while Bennett and Cleary will face off in the grand final at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday night.

Sprinkle the added seasoning of the coaches trading insults in the media over the past few weeks, as well as gripping contests the last two times their sides have met, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a grand final storyline. Tarantino couldn’t have scripted it better.

The Bennett legend grows by the day. When he first arrived at Redfern, he predicted to some senior figures he expected to make two preliminary finals before winning a premiership. That’s Cummings-esque.

He’s one victory away from his eighth title, just weeks after star fullback Latrell Mitchell was suspended for the rest of the year and every expert this side of Chalmers Street wrote off his team.

The evergreen Bennett casts his eye over Rabbitohs training on the Gold Coast this week.Credit:Getty

For years, critics and even other coaches have dismissed his football nous, claiming he’s more “man manager” than “supercoach” — something he laughed at when contacted this week.

“It’s a myth, but it’s one I’ve been prepared to play along with,” he says. “You can’t do what I’ve done and not know about football. Man management is a part of it, but you’ve still got to have tactics, still know how to play footy. I buy into the men that I coach. Why would I complicate something they can’t handle? The people I’m preaching to have to understand what they’re being given, so I simplify it as much as I possibly can so everyone in that room is on the same page.”

Some coaches wither with time, unable to connect with younger players. Bennett resembles an ageing rock star in complete command of his skills. Just as Keith Richards could still wield a Fender in his sleep, you sense the 71-year-old Bennett could coach a football team in his lunch break.

“Coaching changed when the video came in,” he says. “It made some guys a lot smarter than they ever were. It’s been their undoing as well. When I started, it was the naked eye; the feel, the touch, that’s all you had to rely on. With laptops now, you dig up any stat you want. That’s manufactured. That’s not coaching to me. That’s not being in the game. We had to do it on eye and teach it straight away. With the naked eye. It made you sharper and made you a better coach.”

As for the growing age difference between himself and the young men he coaches, he says this: “Coaches are bright, but they don’t want to discipline their players. You can’t run a footy team without tough love. I only wanted to be a head coach. I didn’t want to be the policeman, the father, the mother, but you play whatever role you have to play to get that person to play to their ability.”

On that score, Cleary, 50, deserves praise, too, even though he’s unlikely to ever receive it.

He’s reached his second grand final in three seasons, restarting a team that first lost their halfback and leader to a shoulder injury, then further injuries to key players, then a loss to Souths in the first week of the finals.

If Bennett had orchestrated last Saturday’s against-the-odds win over the Melbourne Storm in the preliminary final, we’d still be penning flowery pieces about his “aura”.

Not a single person credited the stunning victory to Cleary, including the trick shot for the first try when Nathan jumped into dummy-half and kicked to the corner for Stephen Crichton, a play that’s been in their back pocket since round six when the Roosters did the same thing in the final minute against Melbourne while down 20-0.

Last year, the Panthers’ unrestrained attack was attributed to assistant coach Trent Barrett. This year, their near-impenetrable defence is credited to Cameron Ciraldo.

Those close to Cleary believe he doesn’t receive the accolades he deserves because he doesn’t play the media game like other coaches. He doesn’t have cheerleaders in the press box, nor does he trade in the economy of favours that others might. His only agenda is what’s best for his side.

“Yeah, that’s definitely the case,” Ciraldo chuckles cautiously when I raise the issue with him. “I don’t want to say too much. I’m not sure why that is …”

After playing under Cleary at Penrith in 2012-13, Ciraldo became an assistant coach to him. He didn’t follow him to the Tigers but stayed around long enough to become a fundamental part of the Panthers machine.

“I really enjoyed Ivan’s coaching style when I was a player,” Ciraldo says. “He allowed you to be yourself. I liked that as a player, and the same as a coach. You implement what you believe. He leads differently to others, but it allows people to be their own person. He puts an enormous amount of trust in everyone to do their job; they create their own style because he doesn’t pigeon-hole them.”

After the loss to Souths in the first week of the finals, Cleary remained calm even if those on the outside saw panic and chaos.

Before that match, he complained to the Herald about the unfair pressure being put on his son when kicking. The same story raised concerns about Bennett complaining to the NRL about the Panthers’ use of illegal blockers.

Whether it was a ploy to put pressure on the match officials, or a coach just being candid, it backfired.

Apart from Nathan trying to confuse rookie Souths fullback Blake Taaffe with a barrage of his floating bombs, the Panthers were bereft of attacking options.

Ivan Cleary and his dejected troops after Penrith’s loss to Melbourne in last year’s grand final.Credit:Getty

It was also the type of coaching misstep Bennett pounces on and plants in the heads of his men. This was an attack on the players! The coach! The whole of South Sydney!

Souths won 16-10 and Cleary was snappy in the post-match media conference, especially when told it was “impossible” to win the premiership after losing in the first week of the finals, something only the 2015 Cowboys have done under the current format.

If his players don’t cash in on the last two years of dominance, we all know where the fingers of blame will be pointed.

Indeed, Cleary is starting to draw comparisons with Brian Smith, who couldn’t land a premiership in 601 matches over 25 seasons and four grand final appearances at three clubs. While the two coaches are different men, and different coaches, the numbers don’t lie: Cleary has coached 368 matches over 15 seasons at three clubs and failed to win the two grand finals in which he’s been involved.

The comparisons with Brian Smith have already begun for Ivan Cleary.Credit:Getty

Normally, he will take a reporter’s phone call. Asked for comment this week, though, he replied by text: “Sorry mate but I am not doing anything other than presser this week. I appreciate your intentions. I hope you understand.”

Probably a smart move. The last thing he and his players need is Bennett getting inside their heads.

A week out from the 2010 NRL grand final, when Bennett won his last premiership, I sat in the sun outside a Coogee cafe across from Smith and asked him about the big, fat asterisk next to his coaching record.

He’d done an extraordinary job getting the Roosters into the decider against Bennett’s St George Illawarra.

“I don’t gauge my success in terms of premierships,” Smith replied.

After the Dragons won the grand final, I mentioned Smith’s remark to Bennett and his response, like almost everything that comes out of the corner of his mouth, whether it’s true or not, was worth bottling.

“I’d say the same thing if I’d never won one.”

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