Even at 70, Wayne Bennett is willing to reinvent himself.
Bennett has won seven premierships with Brisbane and St George Illawarra by focusing largely on defence but South Sydney are now just one win away from a grand final for the third consecutive season on the back of the Telstra Premiership’s most lethal attack.
Of the 22 grand finals played in the NRL era, 11 have been won by the team with the best defensive record that season, including the Bennett-coached Broncos of 1998, 2000 and 2006; and his 2010 Dragons outfit.
Yet many believe that the 2020 premiers could be the best attacking team and the Rabbitohs can lay claim to that mantle after amassing 605 points so far this season.
Significantly, Souths have scored 296 points in their past eight games since Bennett returned from a 14-day isolation period after breaching the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols, at an average of 35.14 points per match.
“This is a grand final that could be won 38-36 and I think that is good for the neutral supporter,” 2010 St George Illawarra five-eighth and NRL.com analyst Jamie Soward said.
“It will drive NRL coaches mad but if there is one guy who is always cool at the end of the year and has showed he can work with anything it is Wayne Bennett.”
Soward played under Bennett when the master coach introduced a secret "practice finals" run late in the 2010 season to help them cope with the pressure of overcoming the "chokers" tag associated with the Dragons before then.
Get Caught Up: Finals Week 2
That St George Illawarra premiership team ranked eighth in attack, while Bennett also coached the 2006 grand final-winning Broncos team that finished the regular season as the 12th best attacking team.
However, the Rabbitohs (sixth) could become the lowest-ranked defensive team since the Wests Tigers (10th) of 2005 to win a premiership if they can overcome minor premiers Penrith on Saturday and beat Canberra or Melbourne in the grand final.
The Panthers, Raiders and Storm have also improved their attack as the season has gone on, with Melbourne averaging 34.8 points per match in games Cameron Smith has played since the star hooker returned from a shoulder injury in round 16.
Despite the loss of England hooker Josh Hodgson, the Raiders have increasing their attacking prowess to average 24.33 points per match since John Bateman recovered from shoulder surgery in round 12.
The Panthers are averaging six points more per match since star halfback Nathan Cleary returned from suspension in round five, which coincided with their only loss of the season to Parramatta.
Penrith will create history if the grand final is their 18th consecutive win, while Souths would emulate the achievements of Canterbury in 1995 if they were to claim the premiership from sixth place.
“Wayne has got his team enjoying their football and having the most fun at the most pressured end of the season,” former Rabbitohs and Eels forward Dean Widders said.
“You can just see that they are having fun, they are throwing the ball around, they have got a system that is working for them and they are doing it really well.
“They are that lethal with their three playmakers; Cody Walker, Adam Reynolds and Damian Cook, as well as Corey Allan; that if you focus your attention on one of them one of the others steps up and does the damage.”
The best attacking team has won the Provan-Summons Trophy eight times since the NRL began in 1998 but on four of those occasions they were also ranked No.1 in defence.
Then there were four …
Warning over week off
The Panthers scored the most points in the regular season and conceded the least but have the fewest players with finals experience of the remaining four teams.
Widders believes that having last weekend off after beating Sydney Roosters 29-28 in the opening qualifying final could disrupt the rhythm of the minor premiers after experiencing similar issues at Parramatta in 2005.
The Eels were minor premiers and had the best attacking and defensive records in the competition but after thrashing Manly in the opening round of the play-offs to earn a weekend off they capitulated 29-0 to North Queensland in the grand final qualifier.
“The week off was the worst thing for us and I just think that might disrupt Penrith because for the first time this season they won’t be going into a game on a high from winning the previous weekend,” Widders said.
“We were riding a wave week-to-week but that two-week gap was too long and we just lost our momentum.
“Everyone got a little bit lost in that time off and we stuffed it up in the preliminary final against the Cowboys. That is one thing Penrith need to be careful of.”
Unlike fellow top-four teams Melbourne, Parramatta and Sydney Roosters, as well as the fifth-placed Canberra, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary did not rest players in the final round of the season.
Match: Storm v Raiders
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Nor did Bennett, whose side entered the finals full of confidence after a record 60-8 defeat of the Roosters in which five-eighth Cody Walker turned in arguably the best individual performance of the season.
“Obviously Souths would have liked to have finished in the top four and had a week off but they are in a rhythm now and guys like Damian Cook are playing their best football of the season,” Soward said.
Bennett has given his backs freedom in attack and Walker and halfback Adam Reynolds have been linking together like Allan Langer and Kevin Walters did in the first Broncos premiership-winning teams of 1991 and 1992.
Match: Panthers v Rabbitohs
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
“Once Latrell Mitchell went out, much like the Raiders with Josh Hodgson, we thought their chances would be done.
“But the way they are attacking is letting Adam Reynolds control where he needs to get the ball and Cody Walker is playing all over the field, so points-wise they are a threat at any stage because they play together.
“It is like Wayne has locked Cody Walker in a room, had dinner with him and said ‘you are going to win us this premiership’, and Cody put the Superman cape on and went to Adam Reynolds and ‘said we can do this’.”
Rabbit run perfectly timed
Bennett was renowned for increasing the training load for his teams during the period between State of Origin and the finals if they were in a good position but he has done the opposite this season with Souths.
Former St George Illawarra players revealed in NRL.com’s recently released documentary about the 2010 season, The True Believers, how they had treated consecutive matches against the Roosters, Sea Eagles, Raiders and Knights as a “pretend” finals series.
The Dragons had lost three of their four previous games and were again being labelled with the “chokers” tag.
“It was a great bit of coaching,” Dean Young says in the documentary. “He said ‘boys I want you to focus on these games like you would a finals series and I don’t care what happens for the rest of the year’.
“He spoke to us about not caring whether we won or lost, it was to focus on that pretend finals series and I think that had a big impact on it. That practice run gave us confidence that we were ready for the semis.”
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St George Illawarra won three of the four games before clinching the minor premiership in the final round against Souths and players said it helped them in their 13-12 defeat of Wests Tigers to secure a place in the grand final against the Roosters.
“Wayne has timed it perfectly with Souths this year and whether internally they had something similar to what we did in 2010 I am not sure but he is all about consistency,” Soward said.
“If you are talking about just pure believing in yourself Wayne has done if before."
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.