Battle of the coaches will equal what plays out on field in final contest
September 20, 2010
It will pay to watch the sidelines no matter who makes the grand final, writes Greg Prichard.
It will be the greatest meeting of minds in the history of finals football when Wayne Bennett and Tim Sheens go head-to-head for a place in the grand final on Saturday.
Bennett’s six premierships, all with Brisbane, and Sheens’s four - three with Canberra and one with the Tigers - ensure that.
League historian David Middleton has confirmed there is no previous example of two coaches with a combined 10 premierships squaring off in a finals encounter.
In fact, Bennett and Sheens surpass themselves, because they are also next-best on that list. They had won eight titles between them when they met in the second week of the 2005 finals series. The Tigers won that game 34-6 at the SFS and went on to win the premiership. The Broncos won it the following year.
According to Middleton, Norm Provan, coaching St George, and Ken Kearney (Parramatta) had seven premierships between them - including five to Kearney - when their teams met in the 1964 major semi-final.
Bennett and Sheens have each established themselves as great man managers, as well as coaches. Despite their age - Bennett is 60 and Sheens 59 - they are able to relate to players 30 to 40 years younger and who, in many cases, come from different cultures, simply because they treat them as more than just footballers.
They are readily adaptable, which is why they have had success with different styles of players at different clubs.
Sheens didn’t have a team full of stars when he began coaching at Penrith, but he did have a young Greg Alexander. He moulded the attack around his emerging brilliance but still had the team playing a mainly percentages-based game compared with the spectacular qualities he later drew out of the Raiders.
Bennett had a terrific playing roster for much of the time at the Broncos. Their attack was, for the most part, awesome. But when he won his last premiership with them they weren’t a high-scoring team. Their defence, however, was the best. The Dragons are good, rather than great, in attack, but have the best defence as well.
Both coaches are experts at moulding a team’s style according to the type of players available, rather than try to force a style on them, and giving them the best chance to realise their potential that way.
Bennett and Sheens, the two oldest and most experienced coaches in the NRL, have been duelling since 1987, when Bennett, who had previously coached in the Brisbane competition, became co-coach of Canberra and Sheens was in his fourth year at Penrith. They have coached against each other 37 times, and Bennett is well ahead on the win count with 25. Sheens has 10 and there have been two draws.
But while Bennett with the Broncos won more often than not against Sheens when he was at the helm of North Queensland and the Tigers, there was virtually nothing between them when they were pitted against each other with the star-studded Brisbane and Canberra sides from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. It was 8-7 to Bennett in Broncos-Raiders clashes.
But perhaps the key statistic when it comes to the two most successful coaches of their era is this - while Sheens is well down overall, he has a 3-1 edge over Bennett in finals games. That will be the stat Tigers fans hope matters most when the Tigers and Dragons meet in a clash that should attract a huge crowd to the same venue that will host the grand final eight days later, particularly since a Sheens-coached side hasn’t beaten a Bennett-coached side since 2006, when the Tigers knocked over Brisbane 20-6 in a regular-season game at Suncorp Stadium.
Bennett has won five straight games against Sheens and the Tigers since then - three with Brisbane and two with the Dragons. Their most recent clash was on June 25 at WIN Jubilee Stadium, when the Dragons won 34-10.
The double-figure title haul between Bennett and Sheens stands in stark contrast to the coaches heading into this week’s other preliminary final between the Gold Coast and Roosters - John Cartwright-and Brian Smith. Neither Smith nor Cartwright have won a premiership as a coach, but the title would not be out of place with either of them.
Whichever way next weekend’s games go, we’re going to be left with a fascinating coaching match-up in the grand final.
It could be Bennett versus Smith, nearly two decades after Bennett twice thwarted Smith at the beginning of one of the great coaching rivalries. Or Sheens versus Cartwright. It was Sheens who introduced Cartwright, the player, to first grade at Penrith in 1985, the year the Panthers made the finals for the first time. Bennett v Cartwright, or Sheens v Smith: they’ve all got appeal.
We’re going to have one coach with multiple titles and the other with none, and each as desperate as the other to succeed. They never get sick of winning, or trying.