CONSIDERING he started coaching more than 40 years ago, it would be understandable if England chief Wayne Bennett struggled to pinpoint the three best players with whom he has worked.
The list of those the revered Queenslander has encountered during his five decades in charge of teams reads like a Who’s Who of Rugby League.
Allan Langer was the biggest larrikin I ever coachedWayne Bennett
All-time legends Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga and Andrew Johns are just three that spring to mind – a trio of Australia’s ‘Immortals’ as their nation’s greatest – while Kiwi superstar Benji Marshall and, more recently, Yorkshireman Sam Burgess have all come under his watch as well.
However, when it comes to those with whom he feels he has the biggest affinity in terms of the talent they gave him, the first player Bennett mentions is perhaps surprising.
“It’s a difficult one for me as I’ve coached so many wonderful players,” explained Bennett, who won six Grand Finals as the inaugural coach of Brisbane Broncos and dominated State of Origin with Queensland.
“But in terms of toughness one has to go to Shane Webcke.
“The way he trained, the way he acquitted himself, his whole being…
“He came from a farm, (his family) didn’t have a lot of money in their life and they had quite a battle.
“His father died at a young age in an industrial accident and he never forgot what the (Brisbane) Broncos did for him.
“He was working in a bank and they gave him an opportunity, brought him to the club and he went on to be a great player in our game and earned a s*it load of money he never thought he’d have.
“Every time he trained and played, first and foremost he felt he owed Broncos so much for giving him that opportunity.”
After being scouted by Bennett, the formidable prop made his first-grade debut with Brisbane in 1995 and went on to make more than 250 appearances as a one-club man.
He represented Queensland on 21 occasions, captaining the State at times, and earned a reputation as one of the world’s greatest front-rows during 26 Test appearances for Australia before retiring in 2006.
Yet, at the age of 19, Webcke nearly quit before it all truly began when his father died in a freak accident, crushed in a wool press at the mill at which he worked.
He cites Bennett – who presided over England’s series win over New Zealand this autumn and has just taken over at South Sydney for 2019 – as being the biggest influence on his career.
It is another Broncos hero and one-club man, meanwhile, who the coach next discusses.
“Darren Lockyer was a great athlete,” said Bennett, about the brilliant, record-breaking former Australia captain who won the Golden Boot as a full-back (2003) but also – after being asked to switch positions by Bennett – then as a stand-off (2006) as well.
“When people came to the Broncos to watch us train they’d always ask who that bloke is?
“They’d want to know who he was. He stood out as an athlete.”
England fans know that only too well after the supremely-gifted Queenslander tormented them time after time during a garlanded international career that reaped a Kangaroos record 35 tries.
Bennett reveals Allan ‘Alfie’ Langer as the final name in his top three, the impish scrum-half who starred so often alongside Webcke and Lockyer for club, state and – in his final year of Test football under Bennett – country as well.
“Allan Langer was the biggest larrikin I ever coached,” said the coach, who turns 69 on New Year’s Day.
“He was a fun guy and we all loved him. He was the best player in the NRL for 10 years.
“At his heaviest, he weighed 72 kilograms and during the 90s was the best player in the NRL, week in, week out.
“No-one played through him and he weighed 72 kilograms; we don’t put players out on the field now unless they’re 84-plus.”
Most famously, Bennett selected Langer for the third and deciding State of Origin match in 2001 despite the veteran schemer being almost 35 and playing on the other side of the world in Super League.
His inclusion, even with inspirational captain Gordon Tallis injured and Bennett bereft of an established half-pairing, was questioned by so many but Langer flew in under a shroud of secrecy to set-up two tries, scoring one himself, to memorably clinch the series.
“It’s still probably the biggest moment in Origin history what we did that night,” said Bennett, who loves to pull off a surprise move.
“He was at Warrington (Wolves) at the time and we brought him home to Australia to play. I remember taking him back to the airport the next day to fly him back to England and he cried.
“He’s not the sort but he just cried. He said ‘Coach, that’s the greatest moment in my life what we did last night. We beat New South Wales to win the series 2-1. How good was that?’”