THERE are few people in rugby league who carry an aura of mystique around with them in the way Wayne Bennett does.
Last week’s flying visit to England was a case in point, where the England head coach availed himself of the opportunity to do some scouting in Super League and hold a national team get-together with his club side, the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos, on a bye week.
In what was described, tellingly, as a “low key visit” by an official RFL press release, Bennett took in three games, visited several facilities to be used during this year’s Four Nations and gathered 31 players together for a meeting.
And then, just like that, he was gone. No interviews, no public appearances aside from being spotted in the stands at Huddersfield, Widnes and Warrington, and no word on what insights the 66-year-old may have gleaned from his trip.
The decision not to make Bennett available for interview during the week naturally irked one or two rugby league journalists, as well as drawing criticism from former England PR man Danny Reuben on Twitter, who saw it as a missed opportunity to promote the international game.
Then again, can you imagine what would have happened when some poor junior lackey in The RFL’s media department was sent to ask Bennett whether he would possibly consider putting himself up in front of the media?
It is probably not too far wide of the mark to speculate the response consisted of two words – and the second word was “off”.
In his homeland, Bennett is considered somewhat hostile towards the media and while that reputation is somewhat unfair, he admits he does not enjoy speaking with them in his book, ‘Don’t Die With The Music In You’ (well worth a read if you can track down a copy).
Not that you would have known it from his charm offensive when he was appointed England head coach earlier this year, where he drew much praise for how accommodating and forthcoming he was.
“I’m not that naïve not to know that the game needs the media’s support and involvement, even if I can take or leave them,” wrote Bennett, who is naturally wary around new people.
“I also realise that media people have a job to do and most of them will give you up to do their job. Which is fine.
“But the nasty side of me comes out when I see unfairness to the game and its players, and I wonder, if you put the microscope on their own ethics and work environment, do you think we’d find any fault there? Honestly?”
Bennett did not need to give any interviews for what he would no doubt perceive as unfairness to come out regarding the 31 players he held his get-together with, mostly from some fans who felt certain players from their teams were being overlooked.
Hull FC fans were questioning why full-back Jamie Shaul was not included, while Castleford Tigers fans were wondering the same about second row Mike McMeeken. And that is not to mention those alleging bias due to the number of Wigan Warriors and St Helens players included.
But then again, the group included all of the England-based players who were involved in last year’s Test series win over New Zealand, so would it not make perfect sense that Bennett would want to meet up with those and speak to them about his intentions and expectations?
The fact injured Leeds Rhinos lock Stevie Ward, who has yet to play this season, is perhaps an indicator that Bennett is looking beyond the Four Nations and towards next year’s Rugby League Would Cup.
The same could be said for uncapped St Helens quartet Alex Walmsley, Mark Percival, Joe Greenwood and Kyle Amor – although the latter of those raised a few eyebrows.
Given he is 29, Amor can hardly be considered “one for the future”. Yet the former Ireland international prop is now eligible – thanks to the RLIF’s arcane rules – to represent the country of his birth and seemingly has an admirer in Bennett.
It is also important to remember nothing is set in stone as far as squad selection is concerned for the Four Nations. Whatever Bennett has planned, he will let everyone know when he feels it appropriate.
Thursday night attendance watch: The 6,219 who turned up to the Select Security Stadium for Widnes Vikings’ home game with Wigan Warriors was 3,067 down on the corresponding fixture from last year.
That was played on a Thursday night as well, although perhaps a mitigating factor in the drop-off was that the 2015 encounter between the two was the opening fixture of the season.
Not that those who decided to stay at home missed much, with another low-scoring game seeing Wigan edge to a 7-0 win thanks to Josh Charnley’s converted try and a drop goal from Matty Smith.
That was Smith’s seventh drop goal of the season, which is the highest number by an individual player since Lee Briers kicked the same number 10 years ago, and the Wigan man seems on course to beat that tally.
Brough puts the boot in: Also kicking a drop goal to secure a victory was Danny Brough, although in a somewhat more pulsating contest than the one at Widnes the night before.
What was interesting about half-back Brough’s score was that it put Huddersfield Giants 31-18 up against Salford Red Devils and proved more crucial than he perhaps would have realised at the time, with the hosts mounting a fightback and falling short by just that single point.
The match was played not only in the wake of the death of Huddersfield youngster Ronan Costello, but also on the back of head coach Paul Anderson being sacked after a dismal season for the club.
Salford are not quite condemned to another year in the Qualifiers yet, but of bigger concern to the club and owner Marwan Koukash must be the fact only 1,958 supporters showed up to the AJ Bell Stadium.
And while Leeds Rhinos are still propping up the table, they at least gave their fans something to cheer about after recording a back-to-back wins thanks to a 32-6 triumph over seemingly play-off bound Wakefield Trinity.
There is some sort of bizarre parallel universe where the defending champions recording such a result is not considered a shock, although the bigger picture is that Leeds now face Widnes, who occupy the final Super 8s place and are six points ahead with four games to play.
Thirty-three year of hurt: You have to go back to 1983 for the last time Hull FC were crowned league champions, yet in those days it was simply a race to finish top of the table.
Lee Radford’s team are, at least, odds-on to claim the League Leaders’ Shield after they edged out Castleford Tigers 24-22 at a packed Mend-A-Hose Jungle on Sunday afternoon, but the bookies still rate them at 3/1 behind Wigan and Warrington to win the Grand Final.
The Wolves managed to edge out fellow title hopefuls Catalans Dragons 20-18 to keep up their hopes of finishing first, while St Helens gave head coach Keiron Cunningham some respite by beating Hull Kingston Rovers 48-16.
Championship round-up: Three games in eight days did not seem to harm Bradford Bulls too much as they moved up to third in the Kingston Press Championship to boost their hopes of a return to Super League.
A 48-4 victory at relegation-threatened Oldham Roughyeds was followed by a 17-16 win at home to Batley Bulldogs, with Kurt Haggerty kicking a late drop goal to seal the win for Bradford.
Batley still remain in the hunt for the Qualifiers and are now level on points with Halifax, who downed Dewsbury Rams 24-8 to go fourth on points difference.
Convincing wins for Leigh Centurions – 54-12 over Workington Town – and London Broncos – 56-16 over Oldham – saw them continue to lead the way in first and second though.
League One round-up: Normal service was resumed for Toulouse Olympique as they put fellow promotion hopefuls Keighley Cougars to the sword 84-6 in France last Saturday.
York City Knights and Barrow Raiders both racked up a half-century of points in their wins over Oxford and Hemel Stags respectively, but the game of the round in Kingston Press League One was arguably in Newcastle.
Rochdale Hornets came off a bye-week to take a 38-30 win over Newcastle Thunder to revitalise their quest for promotion, having trailed 24-22 with 15 minutes remaining.
Amateur score of the week: Birstall Victoria 34 Sheffield Hillborough Hawks 6, Yorkshire Mens League, Division Four. Inspired by the returning Jonni Parrish, Birstall secured a comfortable win to close to within a point of second-placed Sheffield.
Celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, Birstall’s former players include Batley’s chairman, Kevin Nicholas, and groundsman, Jim Morley.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough Hawks can trace their ancestry back to the Junior Eagles team which was formed in 1989 to develop the sport below the level of Sheffield’s professional side.
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