Bennett is a short-term solution for Souths – the elite of the NRL might have moved past him


There’s a joke in soccer about the guy that if you sack your coach midway through the season, you give it to Big Sam until the end of the year.

Rugby league doesn’t quite have the hire ‘em and fire ‘em approach that pervades football, but we have the archetype of the no-nonsense, back-to-basics style coach that you need when you’re at your lowest ebb.

Sam Allardyce, aka Big Sam, is one of football’s most enduring and, to some, endearing figures.

At his apex, he made it as far England manger – a position many consider second only to the Prime Minister in prestige – and boasts a 100% record in charge of the national team.

That’s because he only managed one game before being ousted in a scandal where he was offering shady businessmen advice on skirting transfer rules – while, famously, drinking a pint of wine.

The Allardyce manager was subsumed by ‘Big Sam’ the character, and many forgot that the guy who was thrown from his highest point was good enough to get to there in the first place.

You might reasonably be wondering what this has to do with Wayne Bennett, but there is a point here.

Allardyce became a parody of a bloke swilling Chardonnay like Carlsberg, but he was once the vanguard of data, and more importantly, applied data, in his sport.

Nobody proved more effective at making a bad team good by maximising the percentages.

Allardyce took Bolton Wanderers from the second tier to European football using analytics to raise the floor of the worst player on his team and recruitment of skilled veterans whom many had thought were past it to add the quality.

(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

Does this sound familiar? Squint and you can see the Dolphins.

Bennett has taken them from zero to, at time of writing, fourth in the ladder, and he has done so by wringing every ounce of talent out of the personnel available to him.

With his future the most discussed subject in rugby league, it’s worth considering what he is as a coach in 2024 and where that fits with, for example, South Sydney.

While it’s easy to remember the good times of 2021, it’s also easy to forget just how much of that success was attributable to Jason Demetriou and how much the game has changed since then.

Those two factors should greatly inform what Souths do next.

Let’s take the second part first: the on-field changes.

The NRL in 2021 was in total flux, with every norm thrown asunder by a fundamental rule change that every team was struggling to deal with.

Not for no reason is it referred to as the asterisk year among footy statisticians and anything done in 2021 needs caveating extensively.

What we have seen since is a gradual settling down of the league back to the new normal, which is highly patterned, coordinated attack based around principles of play that have a coaches’ fingerprints all over them.

The Roar covered this extensively at the end of 2023 in our dissection of tactical trends in the NRL, and it’s only blossomed more in 2024.

More expansive footy, greater emphasis on use-it-or-lose-it possession, attacking play from deeper than ever: these all play into the hands of the attacking ideologues.

Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett talks to his players during training. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Bennett, across his 1,000 games of coaching, has never been an ideologue. He hasn’t had to be, because for most of his career, nobody else was.

He’s the master man-manager, the player’s best friend and father figure, the totem in the dressing room. He knows this as well as anyone, which is why his assistants have been so prominent, first with Demetriou and now with Kristian Woolf.

With a focus squarely on lowering the floor of his squad and building culture from scratch, the on-field identity at the Dolphins has been about not getting beat more than it has been on winning.

In the NRL, that’ll get you a very long way. Lots of sides beat themselves and, when they do, the Dolphins are there to pounce.

Watch their win over the Cowboys at the weekend or the victory over Parramatta in Darwin a few weeks back.

Better still, watch their defeat to Newcastle in between and question how a side with relatively similar roster resources was able to put together enough cohesion to beat Redcliffe.

The lesson here, and the one that Souths should ponder long and hard, is whether Bennett’s style of coaching can continue to be successful at the very highest level with the NRL as it is.

The coach has confounded expectations with the Phins, but he has done so by raising their floor in a league where enough teams will let theirs dip. For Redcliffe, that’s fine, because nobody thinks that they can win the comp.

At Souths, where the expectation absolutely is to win the comp, will that style of coaching work?

When the plan is not to beat yourselves and then let your best players sort it out, will that be enough?

In Latrell Mitchell, Cody Walker, Cameron Murray and Jack Wighton, they have elite talent in spades, but everyone else at the very point end has elite talent and a highly cohesive ideology of how they think they score points week to week.

Latrell Mitchell. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Cronulla can lose their five eighth and it makes zero difference to their performances.

Penrith lost their halfback and elite front rower and the same thing happened.

The Broncos have missed their halfback, their fullback and their elite front rower at times with no change to how they played the game and little change to results.

With that in mind, let’s move onto the Demetriou point, because it’s vital to see what Bennett does with his assistants should he get the Souths gig.

At Souths previously, he had JD, who ran the famed Bunnies attack and was clearly the coach in waiting before his accession was announced.

At the Dolphins, he had Woolf, a Premiership winner with Saints and the clear next cab off the rank.

Bennett is 74 and knows what he is doing. He’ll get someone else to run the on-field like he has for years, so that hire is as important as anyone.

That might be Ben Hornby, who was also on staff the last time Wayne was in town and is the current interim, but that would beg the question of whether Souths weren’t simply repeating the process that led them to sack Demetriou.

It might be someone from left field – like Lee Briers at the Broncos was – or someone from outside the club who might be interested in a follow-up gig like Woolf.

The fear for Souths has to be that they’re going down the same path as before but in a changed environment.

Getting Bennett back would be great in ensuring that they don’t finish in the bottom four, as they well might this time around, but the trajectory of the rest of the league towards a more ideological style of football means that it might not be enough to actually win the thing anymore.

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Bennett might find himself as Big Sam: the perfect guy to get you from last to near the top, but ultimately unable to deliver among the very best.

Souths have two years to do that before they need to rebuild the roster to cover the losses of Cody Walker and Damien Cook, who will surely not get new deals given their age profile.

Putting the farm on Bennett for a two-year tilt at the title might seem the best plan to exploit an aging roster with a very limited window for success, but where does it leave the club in 2027?

This might not be the time for short-termism, which is surely what Bennett is. It might be better to use the likes of Walker and Cook as a bridge to the next generation of Bunnies stars, skipping the inevitable rebuild stage.

Souths’ age profile is terrible as they have very few players coming into the peak period of their careers and plenty going out of it.

Aiming to win in 2026, 2027 and beyond – and thus giving a new coach two seasons to work out what that looks like – might be the better option.

It could be that Bennett gets a good assistant again and it works.

It could be that it doesn’t, and instead of the 2021 Bunnies, what Souths actually get is 2014 Newcastle, when Bennett left the roster upside down and it took years to put back together.

“I believe it will take a number of years to reach an acceptable position and that is what I am unable to commit to,” he said on leaving the Knights.

“A longer term coach is crucial for future success.”

No club with pretensions of winning the Premier League ever touched Big Sam: they knew that what he did was great to get you so far, but would never cut it among the very best.  

It might be that Bennett is now in that boat. He might know that too. Whether Souths do is something that we could find out very soon.

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