Steve Price was not right but timing is for push to bring Wayne Bennett back to Dragons

Wayne Bennett in 2012 when he announced he was leaving the Dragons. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO
Wayne Bennett in 2012 when he announced he was leaving the Dragons. Picture: ORLANDO CHIODO

The race to sign Wayne Bennett as coach is now on in earnest following St George Illawarra's decision to end the reign of his successor, Steve Price, just days after Nathan Tinkler's departure from Newcastle freed the seven times premiership winning mentor to join a new club.

Until Price was dramatically relieved of his duties on Monday morning and replaced by assistant Paul McGregor, those with an intimate understanding of how the Dragons operate insisted that the proud club never sacked a coach mid-season and never went back to anyone who had left.

However, Price's axing after just 10 matches this season suggest that those principles no longer apply and this columnist has been told that Dragons officials will now begin a search to find the best candidate to return the famous Red V to the top of the NRL in 2015 - including Bennett and McGregor, who was an inaugural St George Illawarra co-captain and has served a long coaching apprenticeship.

Melbourne's Craig Bellamy is expected to be approached for a third time in four seasons, while Gold Coast assistant Neil Henry and NSW coach Laurie Daley, whose staff for Wednesday night's Origin series opener includes McGregor, are other obvious contenders.

While it has been widely speculated that the Broncos will try to lure Bennett back to Brisbane, the Dragons may also face competition for his services from the cashed up Warriors - despite earlier this month appointing rookie coach Andrew McFadden to the job fulltime following the sacking of Matthew Elliott.

Bennett had been contracted to Knights until the end of next season but his deal was with Tinkler's Hunter Sports Group and the change of ownership now means he can leave or whoever takes over the club can appoint someone else in the job for less money.

Should Bennett return to St George Illawarra, it would be akin to Sir Alex Ferguson replacing the man he anointed to succeed him at Manchester United, David Moyes.

Like Moyes, who was also recently sacked, Price was installed as head coach on the recommendation of his predecessor but has never looked like replicating the success of Bennett, who oversaw the joint venture's inaugural premiership and the Dragons first grand final success since 1979 in the second of his three seasons in charge.

Besides the 2010 title, Bennett also steered the team to the minor premiership the previous season.

In Price's three seasons in charge, St George Illawarra failed to make the finals in 2012 and 2013 and are currently languishing in 13th spot after a good start to the season in which they won their opening three matches.

St George Illawarra officials believe they have shown enormous loyalty to Price over a 13-year period that stretches back to the beginning of his coaching career with the club's junior representative teams.

However, the truth is that Price has been dead man walking since before a ball was kicked in anger this season and the decision to announce his re-appointment by press release during last year's Anzac Day match against Sydney Roosters is understood to have only happened after Bellamy had again rejected the club's overtures and re-signed with the Storm.

After recruiting the likes of Gareth Widdop, Josh Dugan, Joel Thompson, Dylan Farrell and Sam Williams, it was felt that Price finally had his own team - rather than the one he inherited from Bennett - and deserved a chance with them but Fairfax Media was told early in the season that the Dragons were still eyeing possible replacements, including suspended Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan for next year.

Although 36-year-old Price was highly regarded and hugely popular at the club, the St George Illawarra board and management fast forwarded the decision to sack him in the belief that that by acting now they can still make this season's finals.

Team selections are believed to have played a role with Dragons insiders perplexed about Price's decision to use four halfbacks - Williams, Michael Witt, Adam Quinlan and Benji Marshall - in 10 matches and the fact that hooker Mitch Rein has had to regularly play 80 minutes without an experienced dummy half on the bench, while the lack of size among the forwards has been questioned all season.

The anticipated arrival of former NSW Origin frontrower Tom Learoyd-Lahrs from Canberra should immediately alleviate the size issue, while McGregor is known to be of the view that there were a lot of positive aspects to Marshall's only appearance for the club so far against Parramatta and he will only improve as teammates get used to playing with him.

McGregor will be able to draw on the experience of Illawarra Cutters coach Ian Millward. He may also call up former Blues under-20s hooker Craig Garvey from Millward's NSW Cup team as a back up to Rein for next Monday night's clash with South Sydney.


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