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Power play: The drama behind Bennett-Seibold coaching swap

In part two of a special investigation into the unprecedented off-season of coaching upheavel, NRL.com chief reporter Michael Chammas reveals the full intrigue behind the swap between Wayne Bennett and Anthony Seibold.

Part I: Why Panthers said no to Bennett and yes to Cleary

"Richo, it’s Wayne."

It was the phone call that would prove the catalyst for the Rabbitohs to enter a marriage with the master coach, seven years after they were left at the altar when Wayne Bennett chose Nathan Tinkler’s millions over his desire to coach the foundation club.

Brisbane will tell you the deterioration in the relationship between club and coach was the result of Bennett’s refusal to swallow his pride.

However, the ability of Bennett to swallow said pride, was why Rabbitohs general manager Shane Richardson received a phone call while waiting for his flight to Fiji in October.

The call came from one of Bennett’s confidants enquiring about the club’s interest in the coach. However, Richardson refused to initiate dialogue.

How the great coaching shake-up unfolded

"I hadn’t thought about Wayne since 2012 when we thought he was coming here and pulled out to go to Newcastle at the last minute," Richardson said.

"That’s why I wasn’t going to initiate the conversation. We weren’t going to chase him. I told the bloke who called me that if Wayne Bennett wants to come to South Sydney, he could ring me.

"Plus, my wife [Kate] hadn’t forgiven him the first time he came over for a meeting and complained that there was no parking and didn’t eat her scones."

Rabbitohs general manager Shane Richardson.
Rabbitohs general manager Shane Richardson. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Five minutes after Bennett's confidant quizzed Richardson about his potential interest in Bennett, the Rabbitohs general manager's phone rang.

It was Bennett.

However the chain of events that would lead Bennett to the Bunnies begun about an hour earlier when Richardson received a phone call that would turn two football clubs on their head.

It was Isaac Moses – Anthony Seibold’s manager - ringing to inform him that Seibold was going for an interview with the Broncos.

"I said: ‘what do you mean?’," Richardson recalled.

"I told him I didn’t feel good about this anymore. I could see a game of musical chairs unfolding and I wasn’t about to be left without a chair. I got off the phone and turned to my wife and said ‘it’s all over, he’s gone’."

Fractured relationships

In the six months leading up to those phone calls, many lies were told.

Friendships ended, egos were bruised and reputations damaged.

It began when Bennett, fed up with all the questions about his future, called a meeting with Broncos chief executive Paul White and chairman Karl Morris last April.

Bennett wanted clarity around the future of the club, but it became clear he was unlikely to be at the helm beyond 2019.

He asked them, if not him, then who?

Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

The Broncos wanted the best in the business, with Bennett pushing them to pursue Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy. He gave the club his blessing, albeit bitter about the fact his chances of earning an extension had been virtually knocked on the head.

That was the last Bennett heard of it until he found out board member Darren Lockyer had flown to Melbourne after White initiated conversations with the Storm coach over the phone.

The Broncos felt they had gone above and beyond in their obligations to Bennett by notifying him of their intent in the first place, and any further update would only jeopardise their chances of landing one of the biggest coups in the sport’s history.

Bennett was under the impression they had an agreement that the club would keep him in the loop. He felt he had been blindsided.

When Bennett confronted White about it, the chief executive said he had not personally met with Bellamy.

That didn’t sit well with Bennett, who had been told otherwise.

Wayne Bennett at England training last November.
Wayne Bennett at England training last November. ©NRL Photos

Brisbane’s four-year, $5.5 million offer to Bellamy was leaked to the media. Some believed Bennett leaked it to upset the apple cart, something he has always denied.

Others believe it was a calculated move from Bellamy’s management to get more out of the Storm.

In the end Bellamy did what most expected he would do, signing the biggest coaching contract in NRL history to remain at the Storm.

The new heir apparent

Seibold - a name not too familiar with many people 12 months earlier, was suddenly being spoken about as the heir apparent in Brisbane.

South Sydney, who only a few months earlier had parted ways with their premiership-winning coach Michael Maguire to give Seibold his start in the NRL, were assured there was no cause for concern.

"When that story came out, we spoke to Seibs straight away," Richardson said.

"He told us that no contact had been made whatsoever. At that point we’d already started negotiations with him to extend his contract beyond 2019 on a three-year deal, but we were hearing from people that he was a done deal with the Broncos. That’s not what he was telling us though.

"At that stage [Souths co-owner] Russell Crowe and [chairman] Nick Pappas had made contact with him directly to make sure we were all comfortable with the situation. He told them that he loved the club but he wanted to focus on the job at hand and would wait until the end of the season before negotiating an extension."

Brisbane never made a formal approach to Seibold during last season.

They were in frequent dialogue with Seibold's manager, Isaac Moses, throughout the season as he has one of the large contingent of players at the Broncos of all accredited agents.

Queensland coach Kevin Walters.
Queensland coach Kevin Walters. ©NRL Photos

Moses also manages Kevin Walters, who many of the Broncos' old boys believed had a blood claim to the throne.

But the manner in which Walters walked out of the club’s coaching staff last season didn’t bode well with those in power when he interviewed for Bennett’s job later in the year.

Walters had fallen out with Bennett, but club officials were aware of the power struggle between the Maroons coach and fellow assistant Jason Demetriou.

Wayne's Hail Mary play

Once the Bellamy deal fell over, Bennett went about trying to extend his tenure beyond 2019.

He presented a proposal to the club outlining his desire to coach in 2020 while also highlighting a succession plan that would result in him helping Demetriou, or a coach of their choice, take over when he left.

Broncos CEO Paul White.
Broncos CEO Paul White. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

Bennett wanted to go out on his terms. He felt he’d earned the right to do so.

In Bennett’s mind, his pitch was the plan. To the board, it was just a proposal.

The chairman, Morris, wasn’t Bennett’s cup of tea. 

But the appointment of Morris to replace Dennis Watt at the end of 2017 put him on a collision course with the coach.

From the outset Bennett was wary. Morris was different. In Bennett’s mind, he wasn’t football enough.

Morris wasn’t a believer in the "give ‘em nothing" approach that has served Bennett so well throughout his illustrious career.

The club had its concerns. It believed Bennett’s plans raised more questions than answers.

Was he spending too much time at the farm and not enough at the club? Did he develop leaders within? Was he encouraging his players to engage with the fans, corporates and the media that in turn would increase the club’s profitability?

Was it dysfunctional for a football club to have to run everything through the head coach? Why were they beating the good teams and losing to average teams? Was he still the father figure he once was to so many players?

We were hearing from people that he was a done deal with the Broncos.

Shane Richardson on Anthony Seibold

One of Bennett’s main gripes was these questions were never put to him.

Suddenly the town wasn’t big enough for the two of them.

What became apparent was the club’s willingness to move away from what had worked for so long. No premierships in 12 years gave them the reason to believe it was time for a change.

And it came at a price. The club’s old boys, led by a vocal Chris Johns, turned on them, questioning the method of madness from those in charge.

The same old boys who were adamant a backroom deal was done with Seibold that ensured Walters was given just a token interview.

Bennett thought it, too.

Slap in the face

A month after Bennett’s proposal to coach in 2020, Morris sent a letter offering him a senior administrative role.

It was meant as a sign of respect, but it was received as a slap in the face.

Former Broncos assistant coach Jason Demetriou.
Former Broncos assistant coach Jason Demetriou. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

To Bennett, it was the most insulting thing that happened to him throughout his tenure at the club.

He saw it as a play to buy him out, stick him in a back office for five years to count jerseys and pump footballs.

Bennett echoed that sentiment when he told club officials in a heated exchange they weren’t going to retire him. Bennett was adamant he still had the fire and the ability to keep going, whether that was at Brisbane or somewhere else.

He didn’t think White was qualified to tell him when to call it a day, causing friction in the once-strong relationship even further.

By this stage things began to play out publicly. The Broncos suspected Bennett was using select journalists to strategically leak information.

They also suspected Bennett was planting questions with the local media to ask in White’s press conferences, suspicions that were qualified when Bennett privately apologised for his error in judgement days later.

Barbecue drama galore

Tension would only intensify when they woke up to a story on the front page of The Courier-Mail on August 14, highlighting how Bennett and skipper Darius Boyd snubbed an official club barbecue at White’s house.

It was the day after the match against the Cowboys, and Bennett had flown home earlier than his players to attend a function.

Bennett had already decided he wasn’t going to attend White’s barbecue out of principle but insisted he never organised a rival gathering.

At 1pm that day, before the team boarded the flight from Townsville to Brisbane, he received a phone call from one of his players inviting himself and other teammates over for a barbecue.

Bennett didn’t even have a barbecue at his house, but he told the player to ring him when he got back to Brisbane if he still felt strongly about coming over.

Anthony Seibold talks to Rabbitohs players during the 2018 season.
Anthony Seibold talks to Rabbitohs players during the 2018 season. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

When another player called as they touched down in Brisbane, he ordered some spare ribs from Ribbets in Buranda, as his players began to file in one by one, many leaving White’s gathering to attend.

White and Bennett’s long-standing relationship had already broken down by then, to the point where they weren’t talking.

Those closest to White say he was genuinely hurt by BBQ-gate after opening up his home to unite the club, only for it to be turned into a political stunt.

Seibold and the dutiful

A few days later, on the morning after Bennett’s Broncos dismantled Seibold’s Bunnies at Suncorp Stadium, White fronted the media and refused to guarantee Bennett’s future at the club beyond 2019.

That night Seibold showed the first signs he was struggling to deal with the relentless media circus surrounding the speculation of his own future with an unprompted attack on the fourth estate.

At the time, South Sydney brushed it off as a side effect of the team limping into the finals.

"I never really thought we’d lose him, to be honest," Richardson said.

"I was feeling comfortable that he was going to stay, but the first time I had an inkling was when Leeds approached David Furner about going over to the Super League. As a club we’d made a decision that we’d like to promote within – we did that when we replaced Madge [Michael Maguire] with Seibs.

David Furner.
David Furner. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

"So if Seibs was going to go to Brisbane, David Furner would have been our coach. I spoke to Seibs then, and Dave did too -  he indicated to us that he was staying, so Dave Furner took the Leeds job."

In the coming weeks, Brisbane would fizzle out of the playoffs in a surprising loss to the Dragons that would prove to be the final of many nails in the coffin of Bennett’s tenure at the Broncos.

South Sydney would bow out in the preliminary finals, not before the club increased its original three-year offer to Seibold.

Wayne Bennett was in the UK when his Rabbitohs deal was done.
Wayne Bennett was in the UK when his Rabbitohs deal was done. ©Alex Whitehead/www.photosport.nz

On hold for 36 hours

Back to that fateful phone call Richardson received at Sydney airport from Bennett while the coach was in Manchester with the England team.

"Richo, it’s Wayne," Bennett said.

The phone call didn’t last much longer than that, with Richardson cutting the conversation short to avoid missing his flight.

Richardson intended to call him back when he landed, but when his luggage went missing upon arrival, it meant the time difference would prevent him from calling Bennett.

The next morning, while waiting for the appropriate time to call him back, Richardson fell and broke his foot in five places, while also dislocating the bones.

"I didn’t call him back for 36 hours," he said.

It was a trialling time, but we had a side that was perfect to bring Wayne Bennett in.

Shane Richardson

Then they finally talked about the prospect of Bennett linking with the Rabbitohs in 2020.

It was a different conversation to the the last one they had seven years previously. This time it was on South Sydney's terms. It was about the way Souths do things – "the Rabbitohs way".

Bennett was told if he came, he would have to work with the staff the Rabbitohs provided him. He didn’t baulk.

"He had no problems with all that," Richardson. "But I told him 'at the moment we’ve given a commitment to Seibold with an offer to coach our club'. I told him we’d be in touch.

"It was a trialling time, but we had a side that was perfect to bring Wayne Bennett in. We were ready to win a premiership and if he came he would add the polish to do it. It was too good of an opportunity to knock back."

Until Richardson met with the board a week later, only chairman Pappas and Crowe knew of Bennett’s interest.

Deadline day

The club was growing increasingly sceptical of Seibold’s intentions and decided they would impose a deadline on him to make a decision.

"We weren’t about to be someone’s second option," Richardson said.

"This is a great club, and the board was sick to death of not being treated that way. So I emailed Seibold’s manager and said he had until 5pm on Thursday to agree to the offer otherwise we would be signing a new coach."

Seibold was in England on a study tour on deadline day. The Broncos still hadn’t made a decision between him, Maguire, Walters and Demetriou to replace Wayne in 2020.

"Five o’clock rolled around and they didn’t get back to me," Richardson said.

Adam Reynolds and his 'special' bond with Wayne Bennett

"At 5.01 I rang Wayne and said 'we’re offering you a three-year deal. This is the money we’re offering you'. The deal was done. If we were going to play musical chairs, we wanted to take the king’s seat when it came around."

Richardson, still needing an operation on his broken foot, boarded a plane the next day bound for Liverpool on a secret mission to sign the seven-time premiership-winning coach on a deal from 2020.

Hoping to remain incognito, he booked a different hotel to where Bennett was staying.

But his cover was blown when he bumped into Maguire and the New Zealand team in the lobby of his Liverpool hotel room while checking in.

Brisbane's interview process

While Brisbane hadn’t publicly announced Seibold had won the race to the job for 2020, it had become obvious throughout the interview process that he was the right man for the job

Lockyer, White and Morris flew to Sydney for a three-hour meeting with Seibold, where he provide a detailed analysis of how he believed he could be successful with the Broncos.

He highlighted a weakness in the club’s speed off the ground, highlighted problems with their right-side defence. But more importantly, he backed it all up with statistics and solutions.

His mantra was based on training people at 125% of game speed, so that when scenarios arrived on match day they were mentally and physically equipped to cope.

All the candidates underwent psychological testing. Seibold finished atop the list.

Match Highlights: Rabbitohs v Titans

Maguire, who at the time was weighing up discussions with the Wests Tigers, finished second for the job.

The process angered Brisbane's Old Boys brigade, who felt Walters hadn’t been respected, nor considered.

The fact Lockyer – who had also fallen out with Bennett - was unable to attend the interview only riled Walters’s backers.

Demetriou’s perceived shortcoming was his relationship with Bennett. The club was wary of appointing another of Bennett’s acolytes, especially after appointing Ivan Henjak in 2009 at the advice of their coach before he linked with St George Illawarra.

Strange days indeed 

By the time Bennett had returned from international duties in the United Kingdom, Seibold had been announced as Broncos coach for 2020.

Bennett came back to training adamant he would see out his deal as coach of the Broncos for 2019, but the games didn’t stop.

It became comical. In his first session back, Bennett decided to watch training through windows in the offices of Broncos HQ. He also hid in the back seat of trainer Tony Spencer’s car to avoid the media waiting outside the club’s Red Hill headquarters.

Souths co-owner Russell Crowe.
Souths co-owner Russell Crowe. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

By this stage, players began calling for a quick resolution.

Two days after Bennett fled Red Hill like a Hollywood celebrity dodging the paparazzi, he met Morris at a Buranda coffee shop.

It took but three minutes, but the pair agreed he would continue as coach in 2019. But the narrative that Bennett was at loggerheads with the club continued as he hid in the toilet of the coffee shop for an hour to avoid a Channel 7 cameraman and a NewsCorp photographer.

Email leads to sacking by voicemail

In the following days, Seibold - who claims he had been cut out of planning for 2019 by the Rabbitohs - sent an email to Souths chief executive Blake Solly.

The email, notifying them Bennett had been in contact with some of his players, would be what would eventually lead to the immediate sacking of the master coach from the Broncos when it was obtained by Phil Rothfield and published in The Daily Telegraph.

"I have had a gutful," Seibold told The Daily Telegraph after sending the email.

"I’ve been sitting here for four weeks and feeling like a punching bag. It’s not acceptable and it’s not fair. I told my wife and three daughters we’re leaving.

"We’ve told the kids twice we’re moving and then twice that we’re staying. They’ve been in tears. We’re trying to sort out their schools. It’s really taking its toll on them."

By this stage the South Sydney players wanted Seibold to move on immediately. His position had become untenable.

But Bennett wouldn’t jump. He wanted to be pushed. It was said all he cared about was his pay-out, but the coach never once discussed a pay-out with the club, reiterating his primary concern was that his football staff wouldn’t be left unemployed.

Privately, the coach maintains that never once had he been told by anyone at the club that he wasn’t wanted for 2019.

In his discussions with the Panthers, Tigers and Rabbitohs – Bennett never once indicated he was available in 2019.

Match Highlights: Broncos v Dragons

He wanted to continue at the Broncos, even calling his own press conference by ringing the journalists himself – much to the anger of White.

In the end, Seibold's email ultimately handed the Broncos the ammunition to remove Bennett from his kingdom.

That day, Bennett would be sacked via voicemail, and later by email.

"I made multiple phone calls and I unfortunately had to communicate that decision via voice message and over email," White said at the time.

Broncos sack Bennett

"You might ask was that disappointing? Yes it was. But such was the nature of this whole issue that it was important that we had it resolved, particularly before the players returned tomorrow. I wasn't in a position to speak to him directly."

It was assumed Bennett screened White’s, which came in just five minutes before the planned press conference.

However Bennett had taken his son to Southbank and had left his phone at home, later returning to be told by his partner that he had been sacked.

Richardson’s phone rang again.

"Richo, it’s Wayne."

"I’ll see you tomorrow."