Bunnies lost in the bush: Inside Wayne's brutal intro to Redfern

In November last year, amid Machiavellian moves made all the way from Redfern to Red Hill and back, Wayne Bennett cancelled an AIS pre-season training camp organised by Anthony Seibold.

It proved one of the key grounds for Brisbane to sack the seven-time title-winning coach, finally fast-tracking the most-drawn out of coaching swaps.

Instead of the $200 million Olympic facilities in the nation's capital, Bennett bussed the entire Rabbitohs playing squad to a patch of remote bush on the NSW south coast.

For 48 hours they had no phones. Next to no sleep.

George Burgess endured every backpacker's worst nightmare.

John Sutton lost his teammates. Sam Burgess his marbles.

And within a month of meeting rugby league's most decorated coach, South Sydney forged an enduring bond ahead of another red-hot crack at a cardinal and myrtle premiership.

Welcome to Wayne's World

When Bennett finally arrived at Rabbitohs HQ in the first few days of December last year, Souths players were told to keep that last week before Christmas free.

NSW Origin gun Cameron Murray wasn't the only one edge.

"It was a bit frightening. I'd never met Wayne and this was one of the first things we did with him when he arrived," Murray tells NRL.com.

"I'd heard a few stories that made me a bit nervous about him."

Wayne Bennett at his first media conference as Rabbitohs coach.
Wayne Bennett at his first media conference as Rabbitohs coach. ©NRL Photos

Sunday's blockbuster opponents Melbourne have long used Craig Bellamy's infamous pre-season boot camps to size up his latest recruits and rising stars.

Bennett used this summer jaunt to gauge exactly what he was working with at Redfern.

After two weeks of standard pre-season training, the Rabbitohs were piled onto a bus one morning, bound for a nondescript stretch of bush past Nowra, two and a half hours south.

Cue Bennett "and his old army connections" settling in for some fun.

'And then Wayne ditched us'

Souths are split into three teams. Red (little fellas led by Adam Reynolds and Damien Cook), black (forwards skippered by Sam Burgess) and yellow (featuring Cody Walker and John Sutton among others).

And the physical punishment fires up.

Paul Bunyon-style logs are lugged up and down bush tracks.

Hundreds of litres of water are hauled too.

"Those water tubs, such a punish," Junior Tatola recalls.

"It's this huge container, you're trying to work out how to actually carry it and you don't know where you're walking. It's just torture man."

Push-ups, crunches, backwards bear crawls and fireman's carries follow.

And running. Always running. Bennett too.

The now 69-year-old coach, who used to beat all but the Broncos' fittest in eight-kilometre bush runs, taking off and leaving Walker's group to their own devices.

"Wayne actually ditched us, left our yellow group at one point and we got lost," Walker laughs.

"We didn't have any of the army staff with us but Wayne was plugging along with us.

"Then he's just jogged off and said 'follow the white tape on the trees, that'll take you where you need to go'.

"It was the second day so it's really starting to hurt, and the black team's taken off with Sammy leading them.

"We've seen a white marker and turned left, gone the wrong way and Sutto's just kept us going.

"We were pushing a bloody huge truck tire on this wet track. There's no tracks in the ground, no signs of life, but Sutto's said 'keep effing going, we're not effing stopping'.

"Then we're getting yelled at after half an hour, 'you're going the wrong way, turn around and come back'."

Burgess and his team of forwards meanwhile are exhausted.

But somehow, just like in a recent run of consecutive clutch wins over the Cowboys, Manly and Dragons, the competitive fires still burn.

"They made us sit there and wait for that lot for 30 minutes," Mark Nicholls says.

"We were filthy because it's a race and we've just lost our advantage that we put all this effort in to get.

"The competitive spirits kicking in as the other team's coming down the hill and boys are starting to argue with the army fella.

"Sammy Burgess is fuming, and we're all wanting to give up our rest to go again, but in the meantime we've all cooled down and starting cramping up and struggling."

'A f---ing funnel-web's bit me'

When the sun drops below the horizon, the running doesn't stop.

Souths players are given a 'tarp and a couple of star-picket posts' to create a campsite, and scant time to enjoy the creature comforts.

"Most blokes are just lying on the ground in the leaves, waiting to get the tap on the shoulder to go and start running again," Nicholls says.

"And of course that's what happens."

Wayne actually ditched us, left our yellow group at one point and we got lost.

Cody Walker

Except George Burgess.

"The first day we've been flogged with physical stuff, a thousand push-ups.

"Then as we're setting up camp they've said 'look out for spiders and snakes'," Nicholls – a country boy raised in the Riverina – grins.

"Everyone's on edge and we've seen three snakes on the first trek.

"Then middle of the night George Burgess flips out. He's carrying on, screaming in that big English accent.

"'A funnel-web, a f---ing funnel-web's bit me'.

"Everyone's a bit lost, freaking out because it's 3am and George has been bitten, we've all gotten up and realise nothing's touched him.

"He's still sitting there two hours later wide awake and I don't think he slept at all the rest of the trip."

Campfire confessions

Both Walker and Nicholls enjoyed stints at the Storm before joining the Rabbitohs, coming out the other side of Bellamy's own pre-season boot camps.

In the Victorian hinterland they learnt plenty about themselves.

On Bennett's boot camp the focus shifted to their teammates.

"At night, amongst all the drills and what not, we’re talking about goal-setting and individuals are standing up to talk about themselves," Walker says.

"Who inspires you, why you play rugby league, why you're going through something like this.

"Emotions came out at that stage.

"When you're shattered physically and then looking back, looking forward, talking about regrets and changes you make, things you sacrifice for family and footy, it does get emotional.

"And you see a side to some guys you haven't seen too often, guys who you've trained and slogged with for six, seven weeks of pre-season."

Bennett sees it too. Exactly what this Rabbitohs team is made of.