QUEENSLAND powerbroker Darren Lockyer has backed Wayne Bennett to dust off his 2001 Origin heroics to lead the embattled Maroons to another Blues boilover this season.
The Queensland Rugby League has turned to the Origin experience of Bennett to answer an SOS for this year’s historic November series following the forced departure of Maroons coach Kevin Walters.
The Broncos’ decision to name Walters as Anthony Seibold’s successor meant the Maroons mentor was unable to juggle both roles, opening the door for the stunning recall of Bennett.
Now aged 70, Bennett has had three previous stints with the Maroons in 1986-88, 1998 and 2001-03.
The Rabbitohs coach has won five of seven series, but it was his magical effort with the “Bennett’s Babes” side of 2001 which convinced Queensland bosses he could hit the ground running this year to snap NSW’s quest for a third consecutive crown.
Facing a fourth series defeat in 2001, Bennett blooded seven new faces for Game One, including the likes of Carl Webb, Lote Tuqiri, John Doyle and Chris Walker, who inspired a stunning 34-16 upset at Lang Park.
Then, with the series locked at 1-all, Bennett famously recalled Allan Langer from England, with the little master carving up the Blues in a 40-14 victory which sealed an epic Maroons fightback.
Now, with Queensland facing an injury crisis and a new three-quarter line without Walters, the Maroons are banking on Bennett to engineer another fairytale chapter.
Lockyer, a Maroons selector, played 36 Origin games, many under the coaching of Bennett, and says he is the perfect option to play mind games with the Blues.
“He is very good at bringing people together quickly, keeping the environment happy and getting players to believe in each other,” Lockyer said.
“I am amazed and appreciative that at age 70, Wayne has the energy and passion to take on the role.
“The competitor in Wayne never dies.
“The key to Wayne’s appointment was the timing of the series. We will only have three weeks to get this Queensland team firing and Bennett has a proven track record of extracting the best of Maroons players in the Origin arena.
“Wayne is great at articulating what it means to play for Queensland.
“It is the 40th anniversary of Origin this year, so Wayne is the one guy who can teach our younger players about what it means to play for the Queensland jersey.”
Bennett, who led Queensland to a 3-0 clean sweep in 1988, said he is thrilled to be back in Maroon.
“I love coaching Queensland,” he said.
“It’s state versus state, mate versus mate and what Origin means to Queenslanders.
“It’s the job I found most difficult of all the things I have done. It’s so tough because of the expectation.
“It’s harder than NRL coaching in my eyes. In the NRL, you get time to build a team. In Origin, you don’t have that time. And for Queensland, the pressure is all-consuming.
“I can remember nights where I didn’t want to go to an Origin game. I loved everything in the lead-up but then 6pm would come and I wasn’t keen to get on the bus because you knew your whole world could fall apart depending on what happened in the next 80 minutes.
“But when you win, it’s exhilarating.”
The Maroons will be without incumbents Corey Oates, Michael Morgan, Moses Mbye, Tim Glasby and David Fifita due to injury. Star winger Valentine Holmes will also miss the series opener on November 4 due to suspension.
Bennett admits this year’s coronavirus pandemic will test the match fitness and mental strength of Maroons players.
“The Origin series this year has a lot of challenges with COVID,” he said.
“We have to understand we are in different times. It’s easy to find fault with things this year, but this has not been a normal rugby league season.
“Some Origin guys may not have played for six weeks and some guys from the grand final will have to go into camp two days later.
“It won’t be easy to play Origin games in November, but it is what it is and we have to make the most of it.
“It will be an advantage for the state which has guys more match fit.
“If one team has a lot of players that haven’t played for five or six weeks, that will be something to overcome.
“But I love a challenge, so I can’t wait to coach these Queensland players.”