It’s official: Wayne Bennett will return as head coach of the Brisbane Broncos in 2015, inking a three-year deal believed to be worth around $4 million. Broncos CEO Paul White and current coach Anthony Griffin fronted a media conference this afternoon to confirm the change at the helm of the NRL’s highest-profile club.
But contrary to some reports, ‘Hook’ Griffin – who was told on Sunday he would not be retained as coach – will remain in the post until the end of the season, believing his squad still has a great opportunity to make an imprint on the 2014 premiership.
It caps a rollercoaster period for the two coaches. After announcing on July 10 that he would be departing Newcastle at the end of the season, Bennett and his future became the source of feverish speculation. A deal to return to St George Illawarra, the club he steered to a drought-breaking title in 2010, appeared to be over the line – but the Broncos option gathered media momentum late last week.
While dealing with the extraordinary emotion and ramped up public appearances associated with the inspiring ‘Rise for Alex’ round, Bennett still found time to stitch up a comeback to the club he helped build from the ground up into the most successful franchise of the modern era.
For Griffin, it is a bitterly disappointing outcome. He is coming off one of the finest wins of his four-season tenure, sticking to the high standards he expects of his players by dumping three top-liners on match eve after revelations of a mid-week drinking session. The Broncos responded with a courageous 28-22 defeat of the in-form Warriors – despite falling behind 12-0 early on. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and lifted them to sixth spot.
Less than a day later, he was without a job.
After a preliminary final appearance in 2011, his first season in charge, back-to-back disappointing campaigns saw the blowtorch applied to Griffin. He survived, but the Broncos’ vastly-improved 2014 campaign was not enough to save him from Bennett’s ever-present shadow. The club needed to act fast if they were to secure Bennett’s services – and the board decided the veteran was the man to restore the Broncos’ credibility long-term.
The laconic Griffin, a renowned straight shooter, handled the press conference with typical dignity and good humour. He also emphasised that he believes the club is in a good place and his charges are a great chance of making a run for the title.
“I’ve done everything in my power to get the club to this point. It’s in a position where it’s going to succeed,” Griffin said.
“I could walk out now but I’m not going to do that.
“We’ve got the team into a very good position this year, and we’ve got a fantastic opportunity over the next 10 to 12 weeks.”
The playing group was reportedly split on who they wanted to guide them into the future, with co-captain Corey Parker publicly backing Griffin last week and declaring they’d moved on from the Bennett era. Griffin said after he told the Broncos squad he’d “got the arse”, he had to give some of them “a bit of a cuddle”.
But just as many of the current crop will relish the opportunity to be coached by Bennett; for a number of players it will be their second stint under the master mentor.
Former Bronco greats were also split about a Bennett return. Gorden Tallis – apparently motivated by a personal agenda – spoke out against Bennett taking the reins again at the Broncos in an explosive newspaper column. Steve Renouf spoke just as vehemently about his beloved club’s need to bring the father figure back into the fold. Meanwhile, Darren Lockyer, a current board member, no doubt played a major role in the coup.
Rumours White, who is extremely close with Griffin, would relinquish his post have proved unfounded – he expressed his desire to remain as CEO beyond the end of 2014.
In stark contrast to his charmed run with the Broncos and Dragons, which garnered 20 straight finals series and seven Grand Finals for seven wins, Bennett comes back to Brisbane after a largely disappointing three seasons with the Knights. He was touted as the messiah in Newcastle, but ultimately failed to deliver results.
He will undoubtedly bring in his own staff and, where possible, make playing roster changes, leading to a cleanout to rival those of 1996 and 2005 that ultimately delivered premierships in the seasons that followed. Several of the current squad – even those under contract – are playing for their Broncos futures in the coming months, because the players who Bennett believes can’t do the job for him will be given short shrift.
Many intriguing questions will need to be answered. For example, will Bennett hang on to Griffin’s assistant Stephen Kearney, who he helped to steer New Zealand to World Cup glory in 2008?
The Broncos’ diabolical recruitment and retention policy since Bennett left in 2008 surely played a role in Griffin’s demise; the club’s current roster is embarrassingly lopsided and thin in a number of areas.
So where to now for Griffin? Much of that depends on the remainder of the Broncos’ 2014 campaign. A charge into the top-four or deep into the finals will leave egg on the faces of the board to some degree, but it will also give ‘Hook’ a much better chance of securing a head coach gig elsewhere in the NRL some time down the track. But if Brisbane’s season peters out under these difficult circumstances, the best he can hope for in the foreseeable future is an assistant role.
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