England coach Wayne Bennett.

Bennett a Bronco in Denver igniting interest in rugby league

Wayne Bennett remembers the reaction of the Denver Broncos coaching staff, when he played them video tapes of rugby league during regular visits to the NFL franchise after which the Brisbane Broncos were named.

"They'd yell out, 'Come and have a look at these mad guys'," Bennett said. "Everyone would come into the room and they'd be yelling and screaming. They couldn't believe guys could hit so hard and tackle so hard. They loved the game."

It's why Bennett is back in Denver as England coach for the historic Test against New Zealand on Saturday (Sunday, 6am AEST) more than 30 years after his first visit to Mile High Stadium with Brisbane founders Paul Morgan, John Ribot, Barry Maranta, Steve Williams and Gary Balkin.

They decided to model the new Brisbane franchise, which was founded in 1988, on the Denver Broncos and adopted marketing ideas and the establishment of a charities fund from the three-times Super Bowl champions, as well as their name.

"We built a relationship with them and it was a very strong relationship there for a long period of time," Bennett said.

"We knew their owner Pat Bowlen and Fred Fleming was a guy who was very good to us. John Beak was the CEO and John Elway was the star player.

"We'd bring a couple of players with us from time to time. The relationship has waned a bit now but John Ribot and Chris Johns have stayed in touch with them."

Bennett spoke to NRL.com on the condition he discussed Test football and not face questions about his coaching future at Brisbane, or his prop Matt Lodge resolving the financial compensation issue with an American family he terrorised in 2015. 

Bennett regularly visited Denver in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while former NFL Broncos head coach Wade Phillips attended a State of Origin match as a guest of the NRL club.

"He stayed in Brisbane and came to my place for dinner," Bennett said. "He absolutely loved the Origin game. He hadn’t been to a rugby league game before.

"We would bring videos over to show the coaches who we were and how we played. I remember the coach saying to me, ‘That guy there is a great decision maker’ and it was Wally Lewis.

"They didn't know who Wally was, they were just watching highlights of stuff we bought over.

"I said, ‘Yep, he is, how did you work that out?’. He said, 'Just by watching what he is doing there' and I said, 'Well he is one of the stars of our game'."

The similarities between rugby league and American football are a reason Bennett believes the United States is a market the game needs to make a genuine attempt to capture.

He has previously coached Queensland in the 1987 State of Origin at Long Beach, California, and Australia in a match against the USA at Philadelphia in 2004.

"We have been dipping our toe in the water for a long time here but we don't do anything more and it disappoints me," said Bennett, who believes the game needs staff in North America to pursue sponsorship revenue and develop rugby league in schools. 

England half Gareth Widdop.
England half Gareth Widdop. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"We were here in 1987, we took the best product we had in the game, State of Origin, and nothing ever happened. We walk in and we walk out. We have got to back it up and we have got to take a long-term view of the international game.

"There are 250 million people in this country, they speak the language that we speak. It is a great market for us. They are going to have a World Cup here in 2025 and we need to promote that World Cup."

Bennett was responsible for the Tri-Nations concept - later expanded to Four Nations - after Kangaroo tours were no longer possible because the British competition moved to summer during the Super League war.

He also helped New Zealand to win the 2008 World Cup as assistant coach to Stephen Kearney and has revived the fortunes of England, who qualified for their first World Cup final since 1995 at last year’s tournament.

"International football makes our game stronger and right now it is the strongest I have ever seen it," Bennett said.

"I have had so many wonderful experiences in the game but the Tonga-England semi-final in New Zealand during last year’s World Cup was as good as you are ever going to get.

"The stadium was packed out and to see the colours and the singing … we didn’t leave the ground for two hours after fulltime and they were still in the streets, happy and singing and showing what the game means to them."

Bennett said there had been a shift in attitude by the players and they were now demanding to play  representative matches.

Of his top 20 players at the Broncos, Bennett said 16 were playing for their nations or in Origin this weekend and he revealed that centre Tom Opacic was also keen to represent Serbia. 

Tonga lock Jason Taumalolo.
Tonga lock Jason Taumalolo. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"Jason Taumalolo's decision last year to play with Tonga has been a game changer," Bennett said.

"I didn’t believe that what he did was right in the sense that the game allowed that to happen when he had played for New Zealand, but I respected his decision and through that decision he has bought a lot of other young men with him.

"At the moment, you have got Tevita Pangai, who is going to be one of the stars of the game and he doesn’t want to play for Australia. He is an Australian-born kid but he wants to play for Tonga.

"I am all for it but the game has to support them now by having more internationals for them because they want to play and they want to tour. Tevita was at me saying, 'Why don't England play Tonga in America next year, coach?'."

With NRL clubs opposed to the Denver Test, there are doubts about whether England and New Zealand will be able to honour their agreement to play in the United States next year next season and in 2020.

However, Bennett implored RLPA general manager Clint Newton, who played for the USA at the 2013 World Cup and is also in Denver for the Test, to support the growth of the international game.

"We are only here today because of the English players. They had a fair bit of pressure put on them not to come but I am telling you that to a man they stood tall," Bennett said.

England forward Sam Burgess.
England forward Sam Burgess. ©NRL Photos