IF you think a 24-hour flight to England is uncomfortable, imagine spending it trying to strike up conversation with Wayne Bennett.
Most mere mortals would cower in their seats, pretending to be asleep. But for Danny Buderus, he put to good use his first opportunity to have one-on-one time with the supercoach.
“It wasn’t until I got picked for an Australian team that he was coaching that I had the chance to sit next to him all the way to England, just through an alphabetical chart that had Bennett next to Buderus,” the Knights veteran laughs.
“Wayne loves a laugh. His humour is right up there and everyone gets along with it. I was just getting into his head about footy and we talked about life a lot as well. It was a great opportunity to pick the brain of someone I really respected.”
This weekend, Bennett will break the all-time premiership record for games coached, surpassing Tim Sheens. In a career spanning more than 25 years, people who aren’t in the inner sanctum still see Bennett as somewhat of an enigma. With 872 games of first grade experience between them, we figured Buderus, Darren Lockyer (both pictured with Bennett) and Ben Hornby, would know what makes the man so special.
“In ’03 I was handed the Australian captaincy, which was premature because of injury,” remembers Lockyer. “We were going to play the Ashes series over in England and everyone was talking about how we were going to be the first team to lose a series over there, the first time I was captain.
“The first guy you ring in those situations, when you have your doubts about things, is Wayne. We had 18 guys pull out of that squad through injury and I felt like the pressure was on. But Wayne talked to me and I think just with the way he is and the experience he’s had you take it as gospel.
“After I had spoken to him, I knew where I was going and what I needed to do. We won that series 3-0 and it was a special time in my life. I don’t know if I believed I could’ve done it without his words.”
Bennett’s record speaks for itself. After 21 years and six premierships at the Broncos, Hornby still remembers the excitement surrounding his move to St George Illawarra in 2009.
“Any time a new coach comes to the club, let alone Wayne Bennett, you want to do your best. It had an effect on us… and the results are there for everyone to see,” he says. “When he came to the club I was injured so I didn’t get to do a whole pre-season, so for him to show the faith in me to appoint me captain was a huge confidence boost.
“He came at a time when I was just starting to learn to play halfback and he had a huge influence on me. I don’t know if you could put the importance for what he did to my career in words.”
Bennett, of course, went on to win another premiership at the Dragons and his move to the Knights immediately had bookmakers firm the club as favourites for 2012. (“That was amazing, and that was all Wayne,” says Buderus.) Though it’s still a work in progress at the Hunter, all three legends are on the same page as to what Bennett does so well.
“It’s the little attention to detail that Wayne’s been big on. In tight and big games, that’s the key,” Lockyer says. “He’s always had a good record when it comes to big games because he’s kept it simple.”
“You could call it methodical,” agrees Hornby. “He just tries to keep it as simple as possible. He knows what plays work and you stick to those, and that was the theme we had.”
As far as Bennett’s presence, Buderus felt it the first time he had a conversation with his coach. That, is what he says, makes him such a great man.
“He’s the kind of guy who had an aura when he walked into a room,” he says. “Then he cracked on with his stories. The way he delivers a message is amazing and he gets his point across really well. He has the utmost respect of the whole room, and that’s a sign of someone who is a real leader in their field.”