MASTER coach Wayne Bennett dropped a bombshell yesterday by announcing he would leave the Newcastle Knights at season’s end after accepting responsibility for performances he said had ‘‘embarrassed’’ him.
The seven-time premiership winner said he still had the passion to coach and was open to offers from rival clubs but accepted that, after three tumultuous and largely unsuccessful years, the Knights needed a fresh voice.
‘‘If I was in my first year here, or my second year, it might have been different,’’ Bennett said at a press conference after training yesterday.
‘‘But it’s my third year now and I’m most disappointed in what we’ve done.
‘‘I think it’s time to give someone else an opportunity to come in and show what they can do.
‘‘The end result is we haven’t played like I think we’re capable of playing, and the buck stops with me ... you can’t keep passing the buck and blaming other people. It does stop with me. I’ve always accepted that as a coach.’’
Bennett’s star-studded team are 14th on the NRL ladder after four wins from 15 matches and, barring a belated miracle, will miss the finals for the second time in three seasons under his guidance.
In 2012, his first campaign after being lured to Newcastle by former owner Nathan Tinkler, the Knights finished a disappointing 12th.
Last season, they qualified seventh and won two playoffs before being eliminated by eventual premiers the Roosters in the grand final qualifier.
Hopes that would prove a springboard to further success have not been realised and, after an unprecedented series of disasters on and off the field, 2014 is shaping as the worst season of Bennett’s top-grade career, which started at Canberra in 1987.
‘‘Our overall performance this year has been the catalyst,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m extremely disappointed. I’m embarrassed by it. It’s time to move on. I’ve spent 12 months, this season, trying to rectify it.
‘‘And I won’t quit trying to rectify it, but I think it’s up to someone else to take it forward from here.’’
Asked if he felt his players had let him down, Bennett replied: ‘‘That’s not my choice of words, being let down.
‘‘It’s just the performances, what we have done, what we haven’t done. I mean, I don’t throw the passes, I don’t miss the tackles. But I employ the people that do.’’
Bennett said Knights management and the NRL, which is interim owner of the franchise after Tinkler’s departure last month, were ‘‘keen for me to stay’’ but had not started contract negotiations.
NRL chief executive Dave Smith said he would ‘‘have loved to see Wayne stay at the Knights’’. ‘‘Wayne’s a phenomenal coach and he’s been a real asset to that club ... this is a bit of a speed bump, but it’s nothing more than that,’’ Smith said.
Knights chief executive Matt Gidley said the club would not need to wait to appoint a new seven-person board before starting the search for a coach.
Gidley, incumbent chairman Paul Harragon, two NRL directors and possibly adviser John Quayle will be involved in signing Bennett’s replacement.
Gidley said 64-year-old Bennett was a ‘‘remarkable man’’ and he had mixed emotions about his decision to move on.
‘‘It’s a relief that the speculation is now over,’’ Gidley said. ‘‘It seems like there has been speculation around Wayne’s role from the moment he arrived ... it’s a relief now that we can focus on the final third of the season.’’
Gidley expected ‘‘a number of candidates’’ would express interest in the vacant position.
Home-grown Rick Stone, who coached the Knights in 54 NRL games and two finals series between 2009 and 2011 and has been Bennett’s assistant for the past three years, shapes as an obvious contender.
There is speculation that former Canberra and North Queensland coach Neil Henry is in the running, and Penrith’s NSW Cup coach Garth Brennan, who learnt his trade at the Knights, is rated a dark horse.
As for Bennett, he said he would consider all offers.
‘‘I’m unemployed at the end of October, so I’m interested in any job,’’ he said.
The future of his star protege, Darius Boyd, is also under a cloud after Bennett confirmed the representative fullback ‘‘has a lot of flexibility in that contract’’.
ANALYSIS: Season too challenging even for man with mystical record
By ROBERT DILLON
WAYNE Bennett’s 2008 autobiography opens with a favourite poem that advocates honest self-appraisal.
‘‘Go to the mirror and take a look at yourself, and see what that man has to say,’’ are the last two lines of the first verse, and there seems little doubt Bennett pondered that advice before announcing yesterday he will leave the Knights at season’s end.
Others, including his employers, may have been happy to judge Bennett on his reputation and unmatched career record, dating back to Ipswich in 1976.
His seven premierships, 23finals series and 699 top-grade games – all of which are records – buy serious cred and respect.
But when Bennett looked in the mirror, he did not see the mystical master coach who has written so many chapters in rugby league’s folklore.
Rather, he saw a mere mortal who had to take responsibility for Newcastle’s on-field performances, which have generally been underwhelming since his much-celebrated arrival in the 2012 pre-season.
After 15 games of this campaign, the team Bennett built are languishing in 14th position, equal-last but boasting superior for-and-against statistics than Canberra and Cronulla.
This is shaping as the worst season of Bennett’s illustrious career.
‘‘For me, it’s about the high standards that I set myself, and I don’t feel the team has come up to those standards,’’ Bennett explained, adding that ‘‘the buck stops with me’’.
If we take the 64-year-old at his word, he has made a noble decision, recognising that a fresh start would be in the club’s best interests.
The cynics might argue that Bennett was lured to Newcastle by Nathan Tinkler’s millions and had little interest in staying once the gravy train ground to a halt.
Whatever the case, nobody can argue with Bennett’s claim that: ‘‘I can’t do any more than my best here and I’ve been challenged in so many ways.’’
From the Tinkler turmoil to the Russell Packer scandal, to the heart-breaking incident involving Alex McKinnon, no coach in history has had to deal with as many setbacks as Bennett this season.
Other opinions he expressed yesterday were, to say the least, debatable.
‘‘Where the club was when I came here and where the club is now, there’s no comparison,’’ he said, describing the Knights when he arrived as ‘‘a mess – a basket case in many ways’’.
Yet, given that Newcastle made the finals in every grade in 2011 – and were national under-18 champions – was the club really in such poor shape? And other than this season’s high-flying under-20s and national champion under-16s, what tangible evidence is there of progress?
As for Bennett’s declaration that ‘‘you can’t just keep buying players in ... you just become a transit lounge’’, perhaps if he had been more inclined to sign players under the age of 30, tyros with their best days ahead of them, the window of opportunity might have stayed open longer.
That is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, which usually offers 20-20 vision.
Taking a long, hard gaze in the mirror is another matter altogether. Bennett’s decision means he can continue to look himself in the eye.