Wayne Bennett has revealed his role as a mentor for Des Hasler but the seven-time premiership-winning coach is determined not to let his Manly counterpart deny him a shot at history by taking his "undersold" Rabbitohs to a farewell grand final appearance.
Bennett, who hopes to become the first coach to win premierships with three clubs before departing South Sydney at the end of the season, has a relationship with Hasler that dates back more than 30 years to the Sea Eagles mentor's playing days.
The pair attended annual clinics at Armidale in the 1990s, where the likes of Hasler and Tom Raudonikis attained their coaching qualifications under the guidance of esteemed coaches such as Bennett and Roy Masters, while overseeing training sessions for talented juniors from around NSW.
After making the transition to coaching with Manly in 2004, Hasler regularly sought Bennett out for advice but the only tip the 71-year-old was willing to offer on the eve of Friday night's preliminary final was that Souths have been a better team over the past four seasons than they are given credit for.
"We have been friends for a long time, Des and myself," Bennett said. "We have a wonderful relationship and I have admired what he has done. We used to go to Armidale camps together – he was a player and I was a coach – back in the 1990s.
Hasler confirms Manly 1-17, praises Souths' 'underrated' pack
"I coached against him in the 1987 grand final [with Canberra], when he was playing for Manly. When he came into coaching he used to come and visit me every so often just to get a few ideas and so forth."
Bennett said he had enjoyed watching Hasler revive the fortunes of the Sea Eagles after returning for his second coaching stint with the club he played 256 matches for and won four premierships with – two as a player in 1987 and 1996 and two as a coach in 2008 and 2011.
"I love what he has done this year. It is wonderful," Bennett said. "Certain coaches are made for certain clubs and clubs get it wrong sometimes, they get the wrong guy there.
"Des is made for Manly, he played there and he understands it better than anyone else. Going back there for him was easy."
The Sea Eagles won 16 matches before the play-offs to finish fourth after recovering from a 0-4 start to the season but their record in recent years does not compare with the other remaining teams – Melbourne, Penrith and Souths – or Sydney Roosters, who they beat 42-6 last weekend.
The Rabbitohs have qualified for the preliminary final for the past four years – three of which were under Bennett – and their record during that period is similar to the Roosters and Panthers without playing in a grand final.
"We have just got to get past this point, that's the challenge tomorrow," Bennett said. "They have been a wonderful team to work with and to their credit they have found themselves back here again this year, which makes it four years in a row. It is quite an achievement.
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles - Preliminary Final
"There has been a lot of talk about how the Roosters are a tremendous team, how the Storm are a tremendous team or Penrith is a tremendous team but if you look at all the stats over the last four years, South Sydney … have won as many games as those three."
Melbourne, who beat Penrith in last year's grand final and edged their preliminary final opponents for this season's minor premiership on for-and-against, have won 73 of their 92 regular season matches since 2018.
The number of regular-season wins for the other leading clubs during the same period were:
- Panthers – 65
- Rabbitohs – 64
- Roosters – 63
Asked if he believed the achievements of Souths, who have played in the preliminary final in seven of the last 10 seasons, did not attract the credit they deserve, Bennett said: "We are not the one's giving the credit out. We just play it and do it".
"I just know what they have achieved but it suits us to be undersold," he said. "If that is the way it has be it is no drama. We don't write the stories and we don't get out there and pump ourselves up so that is for someone else."
If the Rabbitohs were to claim the premiership, they would become the first grand final-winning team to concede more than 50 points in a match during the same season following a 50-0 defeat by Melbourne in round 9 and a 56-12 loss to Penrith in round 11.
Bennett made adjustments to the team's playing style after those losses but he refused to specify what they were, saying: "Maybe you will never find out".
However, he is confident that Souths can beat Manly and triumph in the grand final – a result that would enable him to walk away from Redfern as the first coach to win premierships at three clubs after his 2010 success with the Dragons and Broncos titles in 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2006.
"Just the way we have prepared in the last couple of days, the way we have prepared all season, the way we have played our football and the position we found ourselves in at the end of the season – they are all things to give us confidence about taking the next step," he said.
Bennett is returning home to Brisbane at the end of the season but has made no secret that he wants to continue coaching with one of the franchises bidding for the NRL's 17th licence – the Dolphins, Firehawks or Jets.
A decision on whether the NRL introduces a second team in Brisbane is expected to be made after the October 2 grand final at Suncorp Stadium.
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