The King: ‘Why Bennett sacked me’
Emboldened by Fortitude Valley's grand final thrashing of Souths, a teenage Wally Lewis made a drunken prank call egged on by his teammates.
As this exclusive extract from his Wally Lewis: My Life reveals, he had no idea the silently enraged coach on the end of the line would end up being one of the most influential men on his professional rugby league career.
1979 PRANK CALL
I knew little about (Wayne) Bennett but one thing I did know was The Rat (The Valleys captain-coach Ross Strudwick) got under his skin. He aggravated Bennett.
On the night of the grand final, full of drink, Struddy and I, with a big crowd gathered around us, decided to phone Bennett at Davies Park.
"It's an important police matter," I told the person who answered the call at Souths.
Regrettably, I used the name of BRL judiciary head, Detective Sergeant Merv Hoppner to give the call some credibility. His son Glenn was a good mate of mine. Merv would've skinned me alive.
After some time Bennett reached the phone. "Hello."
"Gidday Wayne, Wally Lewis here from Valleys. I've just got a couple of questions for you. When we left the ground today it was 26-0. Have you blokes scored yet?"
He hung up.
We rang back a few times and he kept coming to the phone.
In the years that followed, as our lives overlapped on many occasions, I realised what a ridiculous thing I'd done, 19 years of age and full of piss.
When I tried to make amends, Wayne said he didn't remember it ever happening, but he did.
Wayne has a long memory.
I certainly blotted my copybook that night and I know it affected how he felt about me. You live and learn.
1986 QUEENSLAND'S NEW COACH
When Wayne was named Queensland coach at the start of 1986, he told me, "We have to work together. We might not like each other much, but we have to work together."
"I don't hate you, Wayne," I said.
"And I don't imagine you hate me. We have different opinions and I'm not about to cross town, so that we can cross paths."
He smiled and said we'd leave it at that.
I smiled and said that was good.
1989 'HIT LIKE A SLEDGEHAMMER'
Sitting opposite Wayne Bennett, I couldn't possibly have imagined what was coming.
"I'm taking the captaincy off you."
Silence. The news hit me like a sledgehammer.
You could hear the clock ticking on the wall. I said nothing. I had nothing to say. I had no inkling at all this would be Wayne's way of dealing with another end-of-season fadeout by the Broncos.
We'd once been thick as thieves. Faced with such confronting news, I couldn't think clearly.
From the moment I'd first laced on a boot, my football career had been on this fantastic trajectory.
A clean sweep of the Origin series and the Kiwis were my most recent accomplishments. Now the rug had been pulled from under me. Cop that! Wayne appeared to be saying. A former policeman, he was better at this sort of conversation than I was and there was only ever going to be one winner.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"Well, Wayne," I replied. "I don't know if what I think matters. It seems you've already made your decision."
The meeting took maybe 15 minutes. I had too much on my plate, was away from the club during rep duties, occasionally turned up late to training, didn't talk to the young players, teammates thought I was a dud captain. The list went on.
What he wanted was a full-time Broncos' skipper, with no representative commitments, who could lead all season.
"The only players in that category are Greg Dowling (who quit rep footy at the end of '87) and Brett Le Man," I told him.
"I haven't picked your replacement yet," he said.
There were no first warnings or talking it through or defending my position. It was all over red rover.
It wasn't until 2008, in his book The Man in the Mirror, that Wayne placed his reasons for my
dismissal on record:
"His ability to captain the team was without question. But at the same time I could see this distance growing between him and the young people we had to bring through, and I knew it wasn't the chemistry we needed. After the game (the play-off for fifth against Cronulla in 1989), Wally called an impromptu meeting with the players and staff and directors in the room and apologised to everyone for our performance and for letting everyone down. I was watching the body language of everyone as I had been doing for a long time and I felt no-one was listening. I made the decision that night.
"This club had made a statement from day one that it was going to be different. That it was going to be the best. (The decision to sack Wally) took me so far out of my comfort zone it was unbelievable. I had a great sense of duty to the Broncos' directors so I felt I had nowhere to go. I knew we had to have a change of captain.
"If I hadn't have had the board's support on it, I obviously wouldn't have gone on with it. I may have left the club, I don't know. There was no joy, but I knew what had to be done.
Wally held himself with class."
After our meeting, I managed the drive home to Birkdale and sat around for a few hours. Jackie knew something was wrong and when I told her she was livid.
That afternoon I flew to Sydney with my friend and colleague David Fordham for Channel 10's call of Sunday's NSWRL grand final between Canberra and Balmain.
Waiting for the departure, I told Fordo the story. Between us, there was plenty of self-assessment and conjecture as to why Bennett had done what he'd done. I was in shock. I swore him to secrecy.
When I got home from Sydney, I rang Gene Miles and we discussed who the new captain was going to be. Gene was as stunned as I was. "Look at the list. It's Greg Dowling, Greg Dowling or Greg Dowling."
Some days later, I met Broncos' general manager John Ribot, who suggested I announce I was stepping down from the captaincy. That wasn't me, just to take the heat off the club. I was the current Queensland and Australian captain. I know controversy had been my constant companion, and at times I loved it, but this was a humiliation that hurt deeply.
I knew the board wasn't happy with the team's performance. They wanted success - we all did.
Porky (Broncos co-founder Paul Morgan) would have let Wayne know how he felt in no uncertain terms. They had to back Wayne. What I disagreed with was who they decided they were going to blame. They must have known there'd be an almighty bunfight.
Somehow, the story remained under wraps for three weeks. In the meantime, to escape the drama, I took Jackie, Mitchell (then three) and Lincoln (two) to the United States. We spent a couple of days at Disneyland then drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to San Francisco.
A mate of Bob Fulton's organised the trip and only Jackie's father had the itinerary.
While I was in America, Wayne held a meeting of the club leadership group at the Parkroyal Hotel.
He'd offered the captaincy to Greg Dowling who declined. Afterwards, Wayne discussed it with Geno who said he needed time to think about it and run it past his wife, Debbie, who was a friend of Wayne's.
"I'd played all three Origin games in 1989 and had been moved into the forwards," Gene remembers.
"I was approaching 31 and my first child Tegan was born in 1990. I knew if I retired from rep footy, I'd be around more to help Debbie.
"Wally was fuming (following his dumping), but I knew he'd be happier if I was captain, although I don't think happy was the word. There was no point Wayne giving the job to one of the younger players. The transition had to be smooth. It was some months before I officially ended my rep career and actually accepted the position."
On October 14, the Lewis family made an unscheduled stop at an out-of-the-way hotel,
that wasn't listed on our itinerary. We'd only just pulled into the place when I got a phone call from one of my Channel 10 colleagues, who asked me what was happening at the Broncos.
The game was up.
On the 16th, I did a live cross from San Francisco confirming my sacking.
The next day, at just after 5pm, San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale, killed 67 people and injured thousands more. When it hit, we were in our room on the tenth floor of the Vagabond Hotel.
I had no idea what was happening. Jackie started screaming and grabbed Mitchell and Lincoln who'd fallen over and hit their heads. We headed for the bathroom. The tremors lasted maybe 30 seconds, followed by occasional shudders over the next few hours.
As the building shook, I went to the balcony. I yelled to someone, "Is that an earthquake?" The bloke looked at me and screamed, "What the f#+k do you think it was."
"Sorry," I said. "I'm from Australia; we don't get them down there." A couple of months
later, an earthquake in Newcastle killed 13 people.
We didn't sleep a wink that night. At first light, I drove us to the airport. We saw the extent of the damage - collapsed buildings, buckled bridges and motorways - and, as we flew out to Hawaii 14 hours later (San Francisco airport was in chaos), the destruction below. Passengers applauded loudly as the plane took off.
It was on my birthday - December 1 - that Gene and I first discussed his taking over. "Bennett's offered me the job," he said.
"Really Geno," I replied. "Was I that bad a captain? Look, if you want it, you take it."
On December 8, Gene's appointment as the second Broncos' captain was confirmed.
To this day the question remains - did Wayne's decision to sack me create more problems than it solved? Could Geno have declined the captaincy as a show of support for me? Whatever the case, it was a massive play on the Broncos' part and some say it defined Wayne's career as a coach - a hugely successful one at that.
Looking back now, I admire Wayne's courage to make such a controversial call.
My Life: Wally Lewis retails for $39.99 in softback at QBD and Dymocks stores and limited signed copies in hardback can be ordered at www.stevehaddan.com.au for $59.99.
Originally published as The King: 'Why Bennett sacked me'