Sentiment for close friend and former protégé Darren Lockyer will be pushed to one side this Saturday night as St George Illawarra coach Wayne Bennett attempts to fill a nagging void in his coaching career – he has never won a finals match at Suncorp Stadium.
Widely considered the doyen of modern day coaches, Bennett has won seven premierships – six of them with the Broncos – but his finals record at Suncorp stands at seven losses from seven attempts.
He lost all six finals matches at Brisbane’s showpiece arena while in charge of the Broncos and then returned to Suncorp with St George Illawarra in 2009, only to go down again.
The losing run began in 1995 when Suncorp made history by hosting the first finals match outside Sydney in the 87-year history of the premiership. More than 40,000 turned out for a highly anticipated duel between Brisbane and Canberra and although the home team went down 14-8, few left disappointed after a classic encounter between the heavyweight clubs.
The Broncos’ team featured Test stars Michael Hancock, Steve Renouf, Kevin Walters, Allan Langer, Glenn Lazarus, Kerrod Walters and Wendell Sailor (playing second row!), while 18-year-old Darren Lockyer came off the interchange bench. Canberra’s line-up included Brett Mullins, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Steve Walters, David Furner and Bradley Clyde.
Brisbane led early but were handicapped by the loss of playmaker Langer early in the second half with an aggravated quadriceps injury. Bennett was far from disconsolate at fulltime and told his players they had been magnificent in defeat.
Another narrow defeat followed a year later when the Broncos fell 21-16 to North Sydney. It was eight years before finals football returned to Suncorp, following the use of QEII Stadium at Mt Gravatt (then known as ANZ Stadium). Bennett enjoyed a near perfect run at ANZ of four finals victories from five starts which included the Super League grand final win over Cronulla in 1997.
The return to Suncorp in 2004 coincided with a demoralising 31-14 qualifying final loss to the Melbourne Storm. It was Gorden Tallis’ final appearance on home soil for the Broncos but sentiment counted for little as the Storm recovered from an 8-0 halftime deficit to run roughshod in the second term.
The loss was one of three finals defeats that the Broncos suffered at Suncorp at the hands of the Craig Bellamy-coached Melbourne Storm during Bennett’s time with the club. In 2005 the Storm returned to Suncorp to play the 3 v 6 qualifying final and for the second successive season they emerged with a victory.
“Same game, same night, same result,” Bennett noted wryly after watching the Storm claim a 24-18 win.
If there was disappointment in the 2004 and 2005 losses to the Storm, they paled in comparison to the 2008 defeat which brought Bennett’s association with the Broncos to an end after 21 seasons.
In one of the greatest finals matches of them all, the Broncos overcame intense media scrutiny leading into the game over an off-field misdemeanour to lead 12-0 at the break but the Storm came surging back in the second period to trail by two points with time running short. The tension in the packed stadium was palpable and when Brisbane prop Ben Hannant powered across the line to score an apparent match-winning try, Bennett leapt to his feet in a rare display of emotion and let out a cheer, only for the four-pointer to be denied. Less than 60 seconds from fulltime, Melbourne centre Greg Inglis crossed for the match-winning try and Bennett was finished as a Bronco.
The Broncos finally broke their finals duck at Suncorp in 2009 but victory arrived dripping with irony at Bennett’s expense. Bennett returned to his home city as coach of minor premiers St George Illawarra, following their shock loss to Parramatta in the 1 v 8 qualifying final. But his hope of a change of luck at Suncorp was extinguished by Lockyer and his young Broncos’ team-mates who scored a convincing 24-10 win.
It’s “same game, same night” for the Broncos and the Dragons this Saturday, only Bennett will be praying that this time it’s not “same result”.