Brown's Bennett blow-up a decade in the making

Walking out: St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust (front) with former coach Nathan Brown. Picture: Craig Golding
Walking out: St George Illawarra chief executive Peter Doust (front) with former coach Nathan Brown. Picture: Craig Golding

It’s been a decade in the making, the extraordinary blow-up from Nathan Brown directed at Wayne Bennett.

It was April Fools Day, 2008, when Peter Doust, in pinstripe suit, strode into the St George Leagues Club, Dragons coach Nathan Brown putting on a brave face behind him, wearing club issue training shirt and cap. This was all business when Doust announced Brown would stand aside, to allow Wayne Bennett to come to Wollongong and take over a premiership-starved joint venture.

Brown had coached St George Illawarra for 151 games in six seasons, making two preliminary finals.

He turned 30 the year he took on the job, but would be pushed aside without realising his dream. 

The Dragons were sitting 15th at 2-6, before winning seven straight games during and either side of the 2008 State of Origin period. 

It ended meekly, with a elimination final 38-6 loss to Manly, the image of Jason Ryles in tears in the sheds afterwards, having played his last game for the club, one of the most enduring in this columnist’s time.

Bennett was full of praise for Brown’s work when he took over, declaring he’d set the platform for success, which was realised in the delirium at ANZ Stadium in 2010.

But, as with Newcastle, Bennett’s short-term blueprint left the Dragons needing to clean up a salary cap mess. St George Illawarra, with recruitment man Ian Millward overseeing it, only put the roster back into shape last year, which is why there was a sense of satisfaction when the Dragons signed Ben Hunt from under Bennett’s nose at Brisbane.

At the Knights, there were other factors, most obviously the demise of Nathan Tinkler as billionaire and NRL club owner.

Brown, having returned from England for another chance in the NRL, arrived in Newcastle to “unbuild” and-or “rebuild”, depending on who you believe.

The statistics are remarkable. In his third season in charge at the Knights, Brown has won just nine games in 53 starts, three of them this year. They’d won three straight wooden spoons, including the year Rick Stone took over from Bennett. 

And Bennett did have a measure of success, making the preliminary final in 2013, before the full Tinkler implosion. Brown has always been capable of a public blow-up, like the day he declared Jason Nightingale should have headbutted Billy Slater harder in the aftermath of a spiteful trip to Melbourne.

Bennett is revered by Dragons fans for the 2010 title, his coaching record speaks for itself.

But the extraordinary “big head, little head” jibe Brown, who later called to apologise to the veteran coach, reflects the long-term pain which comes after Bennett’s short-term gain.