Wayne Bennett should be at the top of the New Zealand Rugby League’s shortlist of one when they draw up candidates to replace Michael Maguire.
The Kiwis have put the jersey before results by telling Maguire that he would have to fall on his sword if he wanted to take up the NSW State of Origin gig.
And that’s fair enough – in the dubious world of rugby league eligibility, it would be an extremely amateur look for the international game to have the same coach in charge of a provincial side as well as one of the main Test nations.
If there was a Kiwi version of Victor Radley who came to Maguire before his first representative match to ask whether he should choose his state or country, it would put the coach in an extremely awkward situation.
“We believe with the status and mana in the Kiwis shirt that we want someone who is 100% focused on that,” said NZRL boss Greg Peters. “Michael always was that and still is, but we don’t see that the dual roles work.”
With mid-season Tests now a thing of the past, the Kiwis won’t return to the playing field until after the 2024 NRL season.
Which just happens to be when Bennett is coming to the end of his set-up stint as the Dolphins’ inaugural coach before handing the Redcliffe clipboard to Kristian Woolf.
Bennett has history with the Kiwis – he was an assistant/consultant to Stephen Kearney when they shocked the world (well, the rugby league parts of the globe) in 2008 by beating the Kangaroos in the World Cup final.
The record-breaking veteran is adamant he’s not contemplating retiring even though he will be turning 74 to kick off 2024.
He is a chance to be snapped up by an NRL club for the following season but the Kiwis could get in early to convince him that his final challenge as a coach would be to take NZ to a second World Cup crown in 2026.
Bennett vs Mal Meninga, two Queensland icons who have had a tempestuous relationship over the years so those two going head to head in the Test arena would add extra spice to the repetitive nature of rugby league’s international fixtures.
Who can forget Meninga’s newspaper column a few years back when he revealed he and Bennett were “not enemies, but we’re not friends either … There’s no bad blood, there’s just no blood at all. There is no relationship there. We don’t talk”.
He accused Bennett, someone he had known since they were young police officers in the 1970s, of undermining him after Meninga got the nod ahead of him for the Kangaroos gig, which he’s kept ever since.
They’ve since brokered an uneasy truce and Meninga ended up helping Bennett after he stepped in late to coach the Maroons in the unprecedented end-of-season 2020 Origin series.
Bennett’s strength as a coach over many decades has been his ability to make the sum of a team’s talents greater than its individuals.
And that’s the kind of coaching which translates well to Test footy where squads form a special bond in small windows that need to last long periods apart before they regroup again, often nearly 12 months later.
The Kiwis have bounced back under Maguire since he took over from David Kidwell five years ago – they won 13 of 19 matches under the former Rabbitohs mentor with only three of them gimmes from the World Cup pool games.
They beat the Aussies twice under Maguire – his first encounter with them in 2018 and the 30-0 shellacking dished out at Waikato at the start of this month in the Pacific Championships final.
Maguire finishes his stint as the most successful Kiwis coach in terms of winning percentage at 68.4%, ahead of Kearney (55.8) and Tony Gordon’s 13-match stint in the late 1980s when he won seven Tests, the only three to win more than they lost.
Bringing Maguire in to coach was a departure from tradition with Daniel Anderson the only other foreigner given the prestigious gig.
If the Kiwis opt not to go down the trans-Tasman path again to chase Bennett or he is not interested, there is a deficiency in their own production line.
The only New Zealander coaching in the NRL is Benji Marshall, who is just about to embark on his first full season after he was parachuted into the Wests Tigers’ hot seat a few rounds out from their second successive wooden spoon.
Kiwi league icon Stacey Jones is a potential option after serving a lengthy apprenticeship as an assistant (and briefly caretaker head coach) at the Warriors while Nathan Cayless is earning a reputation as a future NRL mentor after cutting his teeth at the Roosters and Tigers.
He is returning next season to Parramatta, where he captained the club with distinction, as their NSW Cup coach and with Brad Arthur under the pump to deliver a trophy after a decade of fluctuating fortunes, Cayless could be the next in line.