"Everyone gets excited on Christmas Eve but Wayne doesn't. He knows Santa is coming. It is just business as usual."
For 35 years that simple philosophy has served Wayne Bennett well, according to former Brisbane, NSW and Australian centre Chris Johns.
Bennett will confirm his status as one of the greatest coaches of any sporting code when he oversees his 10th grand final on Sunday night with four clubs, having won all but his first, with Canberra in 1987, and last with Brisbane in 2015.
While the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson (English Premier League) and Phil Jackson (NBA) have won more titles than Bennett, he can achieve the rare feat of premierships with three separate clubs by guiding South Sydney to victory over Penrith.
"He is the coach of coaches," says Chris Johns, who played under Bennett in the Broncos' 1992 and 1993 premiership-winning teams and has also been coached by Jack Gibson, Bob Fulton, Tim Sheens, Phil Gould, Roy Masters and Malcolm Reilly at club or representative level.
"The thing that sets him apart from all of them is his man management skills. He is the best at getting young men wanting to play for each and young men wanting to play for their coach.
"Forget about the tactics, forget about anything else, that is the single most important thing that makes a good coach."
Bennett v Cleary: Final face-off before decider
Players who have been involved with Bennett in his stints with the Raiders (1987), Broncos (1988-2008, 2015-2018) Dragons (2009-2011), Knights (2012-14) and Rabbitohs (2019-2021) all say that he knows what works and he sticks to it.
Almost every team Bennett has coached shares the following character traits:
- Cheeky playmakers – Allan Langer, Kevin Walters, Jamie Soward, Adam Reynolds, Benji Marshall;
- Enforcers – Alan Cann, Peter Ryan, Gorden Tallis, Tonie Carroll, Jeremy Smith, Michael Weyman, Adam Blair, Liam Knight
- Showmen – Steve Renouf, Wendell Sailor, Anthony Mundine, Mark Gasnier, Anthony Milford, Cody Walker, Latrell Mitchell
- Leaders – Glenn Lazarus, Darren Lockyer, Ben Hornby, Dean Young, Kurt Gidley, Sam Burgess
"He likes the right mix in a team," said Sailor, who played 196 matches for the Broncos from 1993 to 2001 and also had Bennett as coach at St George Illawarra in 2009.
"He will always have his Neville Costigans, Peter Ryans, Jeremy Smiths, Mick Weymans and all these hardheads, along with some characters, whether it was me, Alfie or Gordie at the Broncos, and at the Dragons he let Sowie be a bit cheeky. It's the same with Adam Reynolds at Souths.
"He knows that everyone is different, and he doesn't treat you all the same. No doubt he has got a good footy brain but his strength is man-management. He has got his Vince Lombardi speeches but he knows not to over-coach."
If Souths beat Penrith on Sunday night, Bennett will become the first coach to oversee grand final victories with three different clubs, while an eighth premiership would cement his standing as one of the greatest mentors in any sport.
In comparison, Jock McHale took Collingwood to seven AFL premierships, Ferguson won 13 Premier League titles with Manchester United, Bill Belichick won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and Jackson won 11 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls (six) and LA Lakers (five).
Panthers v Rabbitohs - Grand final
"Wayne just knows what this time of year is about," said Lockyer, the former Brisbane, Queensland and Australian captain, who played in Bennett's 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2006 premiership winning teams.
"He has obviously been here many times. He knows how to get his team ready and to believe in themselves.
"Beating the Panthers in the first weekend of the finals would have enhanced Souths' confidence ten-fold, so in terms of their mental prep they will be spot on and there are a couple of fairytales [with Bennett and Reynolds leaving].
"In 2006 we had Shane Webcke's fairytale, and that happened."
Grand final player focus: Reynolds out for winning farewell
Life of the party
After more than 850 matches in charge at the elite level, Bennett is responsible for ensuring his own fairytale ending to an unbroken 35-year stint that has also included coaching Queensland, Australia, New Zealand, England and Great Britain.
The 71-year-old – who is handing over to assistant Jason Demetriou under the terms of a succession plan agreed to when he joined the Rabbitohs three years ago, after leaving the Broncos – hopes to be involved with the second Brisbane team expected to join the competition in 2023.
Bennett has proven repeatedly that he knows how to build a competitive roster and his formula for success is similar wherever he has gone.
"I don't think he has changed too much in his principals of coaching," said Marshall, the Rabbitohs veteran whose first involvement with Bennett was with the Kiwis' 2008 World Cup-winning team.
"If anything, I think he has realised that this generation is different and he has had to get to know his players a lot better and try to find a way to get the best out of his players.
"He is still the grumpy old man to the media, but he is actually a really caring friendly guy who loves to crack jokes with the boys at the back of the bus, playing country music that we all have to listen to and some of us don't like.
"We put up with it because it is Wayne, he is the coach and he picks the team so he can play whatever he wants."
Benji's overlooked resilience his proudest trait
Johns also said the image many who only know Bennett from television have of him belied what he was really like.
"He is the life of the party. He will come to a party with four or five guys walking around laughing and drinking, and he will enjoy himself as much as anyone without needing a drop of alcohol," Johns said.
"One of his other wonderful personality traits is that he accepts everyone's little flaws. He doesn't want a polished diamond in everyone. One of his greatest mantras is 'everything in moderation as long as you are not hurting anyone else'.
"It comes back to having people want to play and fight for him. It's a fear of disappointing him."
Which grand final do you wish you played in?
Rabbitohs prop Tom Burgess, who played in all 20 Tests Bennett coached for England and Great Britain as well as under him for three years at Souths, said Bennett was a straight shooter.
"He is very diligent and he tells you how it is. He speaks pretty straight and that is one thing I love about him," Burgess said. "He tells you where you need to be and if you aren't doing it he will let you know.
"The biggest thing for me is that he has just always kept it real simple, ever since I met him. He used to get into me about thinking. He'd say, 'don't think Thomas, that's my job'.
"It's stuff like that that I really love about him and he has really helped my game, that's for sure.
The coach the players follow
Darius Boyd followed Bennett from the Broncos to the Dragons, then to the Knights and back to Brisbane, and the master coach has a long list of disciples.
Neville Costigan, who had also played under Bennett in Brisbane, reunited with him at St George Illawarra and again in Newcastle, while 2010 Dragons premiership-winning teammates Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith also joined the Knights to play under his coaching.
Michael Ennis is another who was close to Bennett after playing under him in Brisbane and when the coach left the Dragons at the end of the 2011 season he negotiated with the Rabbitohs and Broncos before going to Newcastle, and told officials of all three clubs he wanted the then Bulldogs hooker to join him.
Dane Gagai has been coached by Bennett at Brisbane, Newcastle and now Souths, while Rabbitohs team-mates Jai Arrow, Jayden Su'a and Benji Marshall previously played under him at the Broncos.
"Wayne knows he needs certain players in the squad to win big games, but he also knows how to get the best out of players," Sailor said. "Cody Walker is playing his best football at 31 years of age and that is because of Wayne. There is a certain way to coach different players and Wayne gets that.
"Look at Cameron Munster with Queensland last year. How many blokes would call Wayne and ask for an extra day off to go to Byron Bay?
"Wayne hung up on him, but he loves the scallywags and when Munster came into camp he knew he had to aim up for him – and he did. Munster got the Wally Lewis Medal [as Origin player of the series]."
Munster shares Alfie traits, says Bennett
Clearing the final hurdle
Bennett has missed the finals just twice in the past 30 years (with Newcastle in 2012 and 2014) and often uses the regular season as preparation for the play-offs, like when he devised a practice finals run for the Dragons in 2010.
Like the Rabbitohs, who had fallen one match short of the grand final for the past three seasons before this year, St George Illawarra had been considered underachievers or "chokers" and Bennett wanted to improve their mentality.
"Souths had a culture and the Dragons had a culture, but they both didn't know how to finish off," Sailor said. "The last three years Souths have got to the prelim and been knocked out so Wayne changed a few things around this year."
However, in grand final week he wants his players to relax and not play the game in their heads before the game.
"Even in our first premiership in 1992 he said, 'Boys, one thing we have got to do is make sure we enjoy this week, enjoy each other's company and enjoy what we have done to get to this stage of the season'," Johns recalled.
"You got there, all you have got to do it is just turn up and do what you have been doing."