He’s won seven premierships across two clubs but Wayne Bennett says his 2014 season with 12th-placed Newcastle may have been the “finest hour” of his coaching career.
Bennett’s Knights gave him a strong send off with a 40-10 thrashing St George Illawarra at Hunter Stadium on Sunday, before he returns to coaching Brisbane where he won six of those titles.
The veteran’s three-year tenure didn’t produce the level of success anticipated following his big money signing by ex-owner Nathan Tinkler, with just one finals campaign – the thrilling run to the preliminary finals in 2013.
But Bennett said a 2014 season which included losing Alex McKinnon to a career-ending spinal injury, Russell Packer to a jail cell, Darius Boyd to a mental health institute and then overseas and Jeremy Smith and Kade Snowden to suspension following the ASADA scandal, could be his greatest achievement in the game.
Asked to reflect on his time at Newcastle, Bennett said: “Well maybe in my coaching career it may have been my finest hour this year.”
The remark drew a snicker from the media, but ever-stoic Bennett insisted he was serious.
“You laugh because I know I’m in a result-driven business, but no one knows what we’ve been through this year except those who have been part of that action.
“These guys who keep every week having to turn up under a lot of different situations.
“Lot’s of times I wasn’t coaching here, I was just managing situations and making sure it was holding together so we could finish the season with a bit of credibility, which we managed to do and we finished as a team which is more important to me than anything else.”
When asked if the season was proof there was more to coaching than just wins and losses Bennett replied: “It shouldn’t be, but it was here”.
Bennett said he did not feel especially emotional about his last day on the job at Newcastle.
“No,” he said. “I made the decision three months ago. It’s not my last game in the game itself. I’ll miss the guys, but I’ve done it before, it’s not new territory for me.”
The Knights did finish their season on a high, claiming their final five home games and winning seven out of their last nine.
They outplayed and out-enthused the Dragons, who were knocked out of finals contention a week earlier.
The Knights took a 24-4 lead into the break thanks to tries to Joey Leilua, Jarrod Mullen, Timana Tahu and Sione Mata’utia.
Leilua was his dominant best until a head knock forced him out with concussion.
Tahu, unwanted by the Knights in 2015, took his place and scored a try double, dunking the ball over the crossbar after his first.
The Knights ran away with the match in the second half as Mata’utia and Tahu each notched up doubles and Dane Gagai touched down following some bizarre play in the in-goals.
Dragons coach Paul McGregor said inexperience and lack of motivation may have contributed to his team’s disappointing showing.