The friendship behind Bellamy choosing Storm over Broncos

Cameron Smith admits he once feared it. Cameron Munster initially put contract talks on hold because of it.

Dave Donaghy just inches slightly forward across the AAMI Park cafe table and grins.

Four months on, how do you look back at Brisbane's audacious bid for Craig Bellamy to usurp Wayne Bennett's throne at the Broncos kingdom he built from the ground up?

"With satisfaction".

House of Cards has nothing on this. In Donaghy's eyes, neither did the mid-season raid from Red Hill.

Not with Bellamy's standing at the Storm, and in turn their standing in Australian sport. Not with Melbourne's inevitable regeneration under way and NRL rivals under foot.

And not with their own decade of shared history.

"Craig and I go back a long way and we've been through a lot together," Donaghy begins his recollection of those seismic negotiations four months ago.

"I class him as a friend, [Bellamy's wife] Wendy and he came to my wedding.

Billy Slater, Dave Donaghy and Craig Bellamy at Rugby League Central for the fullback's judiciary hearing on Tuesday.
Billy Slater, Dave Donaghy and Craig Bellamy at Rugby League Central for the fullback's judiciary hearing on Tuesday. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"When I came back from Brisbane to Melbourne, I initially came back without my family and I think I spent about two or three months living with them. Thankfully they've got a big house.

"We were pretty candid with each other in that period, on our thoughts and what was best for the footy club and Craig personally.

"... There were certain points where others on the periphery were telling me we were going to lose him. Did I personally feel that that was the case? To be honest, no."

Donaghy and Bellamy have known where each other stand for some time, but not always.

That changed when the one-time Herald Sun league reporter was brought into the Storm's inner sanctum as media manager in 2008.

As a result it was Donaghy who fielded calls from journalists tugging the first strings of the club's salary cap scandal in 2010, at half-time during a clash with Penrith.

It was Donaghy that polished up Bellamy's stoic public address a month later, when he fronted the media flanked by his entire playing squad, 48 hours after their premierships had been stripped by the NRL.

His 2013 return from a stint with the Brisbane Lions landed him in Bellamy's spare room, en route to Melbourne's CEO gig two years later at just 32.

Donaghy was the first to field Bellamy's late-night call on a Friday in mid-June, the best coach in the Telstra Premiership confirming he would stay at its best club for another three years.

A month earlier though when news of Brisbane's own clandestine calls broke, you get the sense Donaghy found out like the rest of the rugby league world.

"All I'll say is we were always very honest with each other," Donaghy says of the night a proverbial storm broke over his coach's future.

"I won't go into the individual conversations. But we were always very up front and honest with what's happening".

Brisbane's mid-season approach to Bennett's one-time assistant, long-time adversary, eventually amounted to nought.

But not without serious thought. Not without head spinning, seven-figure salaries being floated. And not without Bennett storming out of one press conference and rarely for him, Bellamy intriguingly uncomfortable in several others.

Still, any strain between the coach and Donaghy as Bellamy agonised over his decision was fleeting. Any doubts, dismissed outright.  

"I was really comfortable with the whole situation all the way through," Donaghy says.

"I was always comfortable, going back to that relationship, where we stood with each other.

"I think for Craig it was more the location than anything to do with the club or the roster or the personnel.

"He has family up there and I think that was more the consideration. Pleasingly we were able to work through that, talk through that.

"I understand there's this appeal about the Broncos. But we run a pretty good program here, a pretty big and successful football club. And I think too often that's understated because we're in AFL heartland.

"Our membership base is at 25,000 which is at the moment third or fourth in the league and growing.

"The reality is we live in a city of 4.5 million people and everyone gets behind their rugby league team - it's the Storm. It's a really great position to be in… for Craig you can see there's still a hunger in him.

"He's still got so much more to offer. He's got the opportunity now to bring through the next generation."

Bellamy is now contracted to the Storm until the end of 2021, which will be his 19th season in the Victorian capital.

His 60th birthday falls the Wednesday after Sunday's grand final, the same night as the club's presentation night. He's apparently not all that happy about the clash.

Most assume this will be his last deal in the game, with a successor to come from within the coaching production line that now dominates the NRL ranks.

But like the mooted Brisbane move, Donaghy's thoughts go against the grain.

"Three years is a long time in life, three years is an eternity in rugby league," he says.

There were certain points where others on the periphery were telling me we were going to lose him.

Dave Donaghy

"I'm not convinced that after three years Craig would have extinguished the fire in the belly. He's a career coach, he's a lifelong coach. He's a very successful coach.

"He's all that because he's continued to challenge himself and learn. He's not a closed book. He wants to challenge himself and learn. He provides a level of autonomy to his staff for them to do their job and do the same.

"For us his legacy is unquestioned and he can add to that on Sunday again. He's put Melbourne on the map in the toughest sporting market in the world.

"He's certainly one of a kind."

 

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