Negotiations between St George Illawarra and Wayne Bennett were so advanced that changes to the Dragons' player roster and the make-up of his coaching staff for next season had been discussed.
However, after being gazumped by a $4 million, three-year offer from the Broncos, shocked St George Illawarra officials now wonder whether Bennett harboured any real desire to return to the club he coached to the 2010 premiership.
The Dragons thought they had secured Bennett for next season after prolonged discussions, which heightened when the 64-year-old announced he would be leaving Newcastle earlier this month.
But, as he has done when deciding his coaching future in the past, Bennett had a dramatic change of heart over the weekend before opting to return to Brisbane, where he coached for 21 years before joining St George Illawarra in 2009.
Fairfax Media revealed on Monday that a phone call between Bennett and News Corporation boss Lachlan Murdoch proved decisive on Sunday. It was that call which resulted in Bennett's return to Brisbane.
While the Dragons had not tabled a formal offer to Bennett, it is understood that they were planning to entice him back to the club for about $800,000 per season for the next three years.
That offer was blown out of the water by the Broncos' deal for the same period. Now the Dragons fear they may have been used as a fallback option by Bennett.
It is understood that Dragons boss Peter Doust met with Bennett as recently as last week.
Paul McGregor has now firmed as St George Illawarra’s long-term coaching option but had Bennett returned it almost certainly would have ended the former Test centre’s stay at the club as he planned to bring his own staff.
Bennett had also spoken with Doust about the playing roster for next year.
The Dragons won’t rush their decision to appoint a long-term replacement for Steve Price, who was sacked in May, with a resolution believed to be about a month away.
However, Bennett’s decision leaves the position open for McGregor to take the reins full-time after stepping in to replace Price.
McGregor and Neil Henry loom as the Dragons’ options for next season after Blues coach Laurie Daley rejected any desire to become a full-time NRL mentor.
McGregor, who captained the club to the 1999 grand final, will have at least a month to show his head coaching credentials. Before Monday night’s match against Manly, St George Illawarra had won four of their previous five matches under McGregor, who enjoys strong support from the senior playing group and the Illawarra faction of the joint-venture entity.
The former Test centre has the side on the cusp of returning to the finals for the first time since Bennett’s departure at the end of the 2011 season.
A tough draw for the Dragons that includes the Tigers, Roosters, Panthers and the infamous Canberra “hoodoo” road trip will help test McGregor’s qualifications.
The Dragons, Newcastle, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast are all unsettled on their coaching structure for next season with the Titans launching a report into their football operations despite John Cartwright having two seasons remaining on his contract. Should the Titans sack Cartwright, Henry would firm as their next head coach, having joined the club as an assistant this year.
Mick Potter’s future at the Tigers is expected to be discussed at the club’s next board meeting on July 31, with the former St George captain battling to retain his position.
Broncos coach Anthony Griffin will see out the remainder of the 2014 season before searching for an alternative, ending his four-year stint as head coach.