He's no longer Mr Untouchable
WHEN Wayne Bennett hung up the phone on July 20, 2014 after agreeing to return to the Broncos, the supercoach understood the furnace he was walking into at Red Hill.
"The Broncos are under more scrutiny, more expectation than anywhere I've ever been," he said as the ink dried on his rich three-year deal.
"Coming back to that I know what I've got myself into. You are more on your guard at the Broncos than I was at the other clubs."
Fast forward almost four years and Bennett's words are chillingly prophetic.
He was warned about the fervid mania of fans at the two other NRL clubs he has coached - the Dragons and the Knights - but he is adamant there no is pressure like the high-octane demands of calling the shots at the Broncos.
In his initial 21-season stint at the Broncos, Wayne James Bennett was revered as Mr Untouchable.
Now, four seasons into his second term at Brisbane, Bennett is Mr Vulnerable.
Once considered the talismanic coach who was so good he was impervious to the sack, Bennett is now on shaky soil at Red Hill following the bombshell revelation on Tuesday that Broncos boss Paul White, his friend of 34 years, had secretly met with Storm rival Craig Bellamy.
Rugby league thrives on feuds, wild whispers and combat and few NRL narratives feature the twists and turns and political implications of a Bennett-Bellamy chapter that has spanned 20 years.
It was Bennett who first brought Bellamy to the Broncos way back in 1998, employing him as Brisbane's head trainer after ambushing him while Bellamy was at a barbecue at the home of then-Broncos playmaker Kevin Walters.
Now Bellamy's possible return to Red Hill on a rich $5.6 million deal threatens to deliver a painful coup de grace to Bennett - the greatest coach in NRL history.
WHAT GOES AROUND
Bennett's critics will chuckle at a sense of poetic justice, as Brisbane's current pursuit of Bellamy has the shadowy undertones of secrecy that marked Bennett's return to the Broncos after the shock sacking of Anthony Griffin in 2014.
As Bellamy weighs up the biggest decision of his coaching career, it is one word - trust - that crystallises Bennett's legacy to the Broncos and whether he survives at the Queensland flagship club he helped make famous.
"One thing I've felt coming back is that a lot of people are happy that I'm back," Bennett said in February 2015. "That's nice because it means they (Broncos fans) trust me and they've always trusted me and they know we'll get it right.
"A lot people in public life these days we don't trust as much as we should. I've been the public face of the Broncos for 21 years, I'm in my 22nd year now and I've been an NRL coach for 29. I'm pleased they trust me."
Today, as Bennett savours Thursday night's victory over Parramatta in his 800th game as an NRL coach, the reality is that Brisbane's only premiership coach is losing trust in the Broncos system.
Bennett's veneer of vulnerability at his press conference on Wednesday - just 12 hours after reports surfaced of White's approach to Bellamy - was an emphatic public sign that he no longer knows where he truly stands in the eyes of Broncos powerbrokers.
Do the Broncos want him in 2020? Will White offer him a contract extension? Do the Broncos think he is past it? Is he too old at 68? Is Bellamy coming? Why have the Broncos pursued Bellamy in the first place? These are the questions Bennett is privately asking, an internal inquisition which recently prompted him to seek some clarity from his Red Hill superiors.
While Bennett probes for answers, White, the highest-paid NRL club chief executive on a $915,000 salary, continues to talk in riddles, fuelling the confusion.
In February, after The Courier-Mail reported that a third-party had sounded out Cowboys mentor Paul Green about his interest in coaching the Broncos, White slammed suggestions the club had a succession plan for Bennett.
"There is no talk from me (about a succession plan)," he said. "If you want an exclamation mark to that sentence, there are six premierships out there and he (Bennett) has delivered all of them - I would say that is a fair CV."
Yet at Red Hill on Wednesday, just 12 weeks after hosing down succession-plan talk as a fiction, White explained why he reached out to Bellamy.
"Part of my role is not only planning for today, but planning for the future," he said.
"We do need to have a long-term view always. We won't sit on our hands and hope the future plans itself."
White then added: "Wayne is aware of all my conversations (with Bellamy)".
Bennett feels otherwise.
RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
A month earlier, the Broncos coach had decided to act. He had brushed off the Green whispers, but when Bellamy exclusively told The Courier-Mail he was open to a Broncos offer, Bennett upped the ante.
He called a meeting with White and Broncos chairman Karl Morris. At the gathering, Bennett, off-contract at the end of 2019, drew a line in the sand, telling White and Morris he wanted to stay on in 2020.
The response was hardly reminiscent of a gold-medal style celebration. Bennett's radar, honed by 30 years in the cut-throat jungle of NRL coaching, lit up.
The super coach sensed he was being moved on.
Bennett told White he could understand if Brisbane wanted to begin planning ahead, but implored the Broncos chief to give him the courtesy of a heads-up if he contacted Bellamy. For three weeks, Bennett heard nothing.
Last week, a Broncos staffer gave Bennett a "tip-off" that White was talking to Bellamy behind his back. When Bennett rang White, the Broncos boss confirmed they had held talks.
Bennett, savvy enough to know internal matters which explode publicly have the potential to destroy seasons, has adopted a pragmatic stance.
White's handling of the Bellamy pursuit comes secondary to protecting his players and ensuring Brisbane's 2018 campaign is not shot down by toxic friendly fire.
When the Broncos beat the Eels 18-10 on Thursday, Brisbane players approached Bennett in the sheds and told him: "We won that game for you".
If succession plans are supposed to prevent turbulence, it has done the opposite at the Broncos this season, with the tentacles of treachery extending to Bennett's former assistant, Kevin Walters.
In early April, Walters sensationally quit the club, just five months after seeking a return to the Broncos to help build on his skill set as Queensland Origin coach.
Uncertainty still pervades Walters' shock departure.
Publicly, Walters claimed the pressures of juggling club and Origin commitments were overwhelming. But he would have known that from the outset. Privately, Walters met resistance when he attempted to overhaul Brisbane's attacking game plans.
He also wanted Broncos players training with the ruthless edge made famous, ironically, by Bellamy at the Storm.
There is also a sense that Walters was getting mixed messages about his place in the succession-plan puzzle.
Hearing whispers he was in the box seat to succeed Bennett, Walters passed up other opportunities, including the head coach's role at the Gold Coast Titans.
Walters, a Brisbane legend who loves the club, is too loyal to speak out but former Bronco Chris Johns, one of his closest mates, came out swinging.
"The person I also feel sorry for (apart from Bennett), is Kevvie Walters," Johns said. "He has been led around like an idiot. He could have taken the Titans job but I'm sure he was under the impression he was being looked at in Brisbane's succession plan.
"I know for a fact that he didn't go for the Titans position because he felt there was life at the Broncos for him."
Should Bellamy reject Brisbane's approach, there remains a chance the door of opportunity could again swing open for Walters.
"I believe he has earned the right to coach the Broncos," says Walters' brother Kerrod, the former Queensland Origin hooker.
"You can understand my bias towards Kevvie, but he is ready to take on the job. He has done his apprenticeship.
"He knows what the Broncos culture is all about. It's a special job to coach the Broncos and should go to someone who deserves it. Kevvie deserves it."
Broncos try-scoring legend Steve Renouf underlined the rising tide against Bennett in February when he urged him to retire when his contract expires next season.
"I think he should look at ending it there and passing the baton on," Renouf wrote in his NRL.com column.
"He has been great for the club. He turned around a culture that was faltering.
"But I think the Broncos are at the point where they will soon need a younger, fresher mind in there.
"Hopefully he doesn't get the tap on the shoulder and chooses to step aside at the end of next year. His contribution to the Broncos' success will stand forever, but you also can't go on forever."
Brisbane's pursuit of Bellamy has always been a source of intrigue and fascination.
There seemed an inevitability that Bellamy would succeed Bennett but since Brisbane's first attempt to lure him 10 years ago, a confluence of forces has ensured the planets have never quite aligned.
When Bennett announced he was quitting the Broncos in April 2008 to join the Dragons the following year, Bellamy was their No.1 target.
Former Broncos chief executive Bruno Cullen and ex-chairman Darryl Somerville held at least two meetings over a fortnight with Bellamy.
The Storm coach had a huge incentive to sign, with his wife and children, living in Brisbane at the time, wanting him to return home. After five years living alone in Melbourne, he was leaning towards a multimillion-dollar deal with the Broncos before things went sour.
"The Broncos didn't handle the talks well - they botched it," a Storm insider recalled.
"Brisbane felt they were a better club than Melbourne and that pissed Craig off. He left the meeting annoyed at their attitude and that's why he didn't go … Craig felt they had this snobby, smugness and arrogance about them.
"They were pressuring him for an answer and he thought, 'Hold on, if that's how you are, I'm staying'.
"The Broncos could have had him but they treated Craig like it should be a privilege to coach their club.
"He felt, 'stuff that, we can be the best in Melbourne'."
Now the Broncos have returned to finish the job. It is White's task to deliver the prized scalp. Should he fail to get Bellamy, it would leave Bennett standing amid the carnage with his trademark crooked wry grin, perhaps Mr Untouchable once again.