TONY BUTTERFIELD: Wayne Bennett polarises opinion

BOOKENDS: Tony and Isaac Butterfield. Pic: Bonnie CorriganDEBATE has raged across all forms of media since Wayne Bennett announced his intention this week to return to his spiritual Brisbane base to continue his coaching career.
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Some feel he has let the club down by leaving a year before his contract expires. Others say he has no contract and is free to do as he sees fit.

Proof positive that professional rugby league is played as hard off the field as it is on.

Coaching appointments are often the source of great acrimony – particularly when a departing coach may impact on and confuse retention and recruitment for next year and beyond.

The situation Bennett finds himself in is not unique but every time it happens it seems no less polarising.

He has indicated he will see out the season, such was his commitment to his players.

Management have supported that.

His players, for their part, want him to stay and finish the season they started together.

On that basis there should be no issue. Finish the season and we’ll thank you for your contribution and part company. Nothing really to see here.

Or is there?

Apart from the sour taste left in supporters’ mouths as a result of a season from hell, many good judges feel Wayne’s position at the Knights is now untenable.

He should do the right thing and move on and allow a newly appointed coach to pick up the reins, they say.

But who will be that coach? If he is not yet selected, how can Wayne move on? Would it not be poor form if he did leave before a coach was selected?

Such is the media’s interest in Bennett, his every move or statement is scrutinised. I’d venture that one of the reasons Bennett has been elusive when it comes to media comments over the years stems from his days as a policeman. He knows that comments you make can and will be used against you.

And so it’s proven. Take for example his comments made regarding his inability to find a solution to the team’s poor form. These comments are resurrected to make the point that Wayne has somehow lost interest in the fortunes of the Knights.

Muddying the waters further are his previously expressed views around players who had committed to another club mid-season only to find they are relegated to a feeder competition because they are now not part of the plans.

Hypocrisy you say? Probably. All relevant and all good points for the anti-Bennett brigade.

Now, I have known and respected Wayne for over 25 years. He is his own man and marches to the beat of his own drum. His single-mindedness and perceived indifference to the views of others is part of what has made him a success.

It has also at times isolated him and drawn calls of arrogance. Right or wrong, this may be one of those times.

But for what it’s worth, my view would be that if Rick Stone is reappointed to the top job for next year, Wayne should exit, stage left, as soon as practical.

This will allow him to focus on his new challenge and allow Stone to do likewise.

If not Stoney, then Wayne should stay and see through the responsibility entrusted to him with much fanfare and hope three years ago.

But while this is playing out, let’s hope management are taking notes and learning from the disastrous last decade.

This is the real long-term challenge. For over a decade, a couple of parties have had their fingerprints all over fundamental tactical and strategic shortcomings in the Knights development.

Well-intentioned though many have been, those errors of judgment have placed the club in the position it finds itself in. Of that there should be little argument.

Club coaches come and go but the secret to sustainable growth lies in the quality of the people appointed to steer the ship over the long term.

Since the days of the ill-fated decision to give Brian Smith the keys to the bus, we have gone backwards. We have lost the investment of a generation of players, coaches and administrators and it appears we are to now accept we must start again – again.

Whatever you may say about Bennett, he has been nothing if not accountable for the lack of success on the field.

For the future of our club we can only hope that accountability extends to the Knights front office.

■ In late September 1997, the 10-year-old Knights earned themselves a place in the history books.

Many still remember where they were and who they were with when Darren Albert scored that grand final try that sent the Hunter into a frenzy.

One such individual was our eldest son, Isaac. A very clever and engaging four-year-old, Isaac was the envy of every kid in his preschool class when he found himself on the team bus for the ride home from the SFS.

The events of that ride, the singing, the laughter, the crowds to greet us at Wallsend, Jesmond and the ISC, have lived with him since.

This seminal moment for the only kid on the bus sparked a passion for the game that continues to this day.

As he celebrated his 21st birthday last week I thought it timely to tick a box that I have long dreamed about – to play a game with him.

That dream came true against East Maitland last Saturday, when due to injuries and work, the Dudley Magpies were short on players.

“You’re on, Butts.”

He told me after the match that he was worried for my safety as I entered the field of play. The call went up from the opposition: “Here he is”, “give it to the old fossil”.

And give it to me they did.

But with the support of my son and our teammates I pushed through. Something re-emerged from the deep recesses of my comfortable, late-forties mind. Compete or perish. What an amazing, cleansing and confronting experience.

The day was capped by the two Buttsy front-rowers, dismissive of the chance for a two-point penalty goal, charging at the line in the closing stages to score the go-ahead try. My role was minimal in hitting it up from the tap.

I played the ball within inches of the line only to see the young bloke tear onto the ball and score a memorable four-pointer.

The little skirmish that resulted saw father and son in the thick of the pushing and shoving. As they say, you had to be there.

The East Maitland guys were gracious in defeat and offered warm congratulations for our tough win.

Back in the dressing room I joined in on the victory song – something I didn’t get to do in my last game in 2000, and it was satisfying indeed.

As parents, we all want to be involved in the lives of our kids. This was our moment and will be cherished. The only problem though is we have four other sons.

Whether I will be in condition to play with all of them remains to be seen, but hope, if not youth, springs eternal.