Inside the feud that tore the Broncos apart
BRONCOS chief executive Paul White has opened up about the feud with Wayne Bennett that tore Brisbane apart and led to the sacking of the super coach he has considered a friend for 35 years.
As the Broncos and Souths prepare for the NRL's grudge match of the year Thursday night, White spoke of the pain of sacking Bennett and his hope that the pair can one day repair their fractured relationship.
Bennett and White met at the Queensland Police Academy in 1984 but the duo fell out badly last season when the Broncos boss informed Brisbane's only premiership coach he would not be getting a contract extension at Red Hill.
Thrown a lifeline by South Sydney, Bennett will now come face-to-face with White and his Brisbane coaching successor Anthony Seibold in Thursday night's Rabbitohs-Broncos blockbuster at Sydney's ANZ Stadium.
After six months of toxic in-fighting at Red Hill last season, White was charged with terminating Bennett last December in the toughest decision of his nine-year tenure as Broncos CEO.
With the pair's relationship collapsing to the point where Bennett refused to deal with his CEO, White delivered the coup de grace by voicemail, amid criticism for his seemingly heartless treatment of the NRL's greatest coach.
For the past nine months, as a perceived power struggle raged at Red Hill, White has declined to specifically discuss his relationship with Bennett … until now.
"I will never discount the role Wayne has played in my life," said White, who at age 53 is 16 years younger than Bennett.
"Throughout my career in rugby league (as a former player and coach), I had the ability to give Wayne a call and take his advice.
"When I went to the academy and we first met, he had a great sense of humour.
"He was very well respected and very tough, but he really cared about us all.
"I remember first meeting Wayne. I told him I was from Rockhampton and he said, 'White, there are two types of people from Rockhampton,
p**fters and poets … and I haven't read your poetry."
While White speaks with equal doses of candour and pragmatism, Bennett is not so forgiving.
The 69-year-old declined to comment on White when contacted by The Sunday Mail. Since Bennett's dismissal on December 2 last year, the pair have not spoken a word.
It is understood White has tried to reach out to Bennett via mutual associates, but the response has been cold.
Those close to Bennett say he will never forgive White, or forget the bitter political machinations that denied the legendary coach, who has delivered all six of Brisbane's premierships, the opportunity to finish his career at his beloved Broncos.
I CARE FOR WAYNE
White suggests time may heal wounds and reparation is possible.
"The truth is that despite what's happened, I still care about Wayne as a person and I would hope he still cares about me," White said.
"He might not say that, but I just know the type of person he is. In his quiet times, he wouldn't be happy with what's happened at the Broncos.
"But I know somewhere, deep within him, he would care about me."
The notion of White ever sacking Bennett seemed implausible.
In 2008, the pair were named in the Queensland Police Team of the Century alongside NRL Immortal Mal Meninga.
Their bond forged upholding the law, White moved to reconnect with Bennett when the former police detective was appointed Broncos CEO in October 2010.
At the time, Bennett was coaching St George Illawarra and while White missed out on signing Brisbane's foundation mentor, he succeeded in 2015 when the seven-time premiership winner returned to Red Hill.
The powerful White-Bennett alliance steered Brisbane to that year's grand final, only for the Broncos to lose in extra-time to the Cowboys, but within four years their seemingly unbreakable bond had splintered.
To some, the bust-up was the result of two strong-willed personalities and egos operating under the one roof.
The real chasm, however, lay in contrasting career philosophies.
Bennett, off-contract at the Broncos in 2019, was keen to sign one more deal to coach into his 70s. White simply believed the Broncos needed a longer-term succession plan for the betterment of the club.
"The first tough call was to say to Wayne we aren't going to entertain a one-year extension (for the 2020 season)," White said.
"That wasn't easy."
When White fronted a press conference last December to announce Bennett's departure, he had a heavy heart as he articulated the termination.
A JOB TO DO
Bennett remains filthy that after 25 seasons of outstanding service, the Broncos punted him via a phone call. No formal face-to-face meeting; no respectful send-off.
White admits the manner in which Bennett was jettisoned wasn't ideal, but says he made repeated efforts to contact him.
"I can't change that," he says of the voicemail sacking.
"Everyone could see it (Bennett's termination) hurt me. I'm not a person who hides my emotions.
"Ultimately, I had a job to do. Whether it's being the Broncos CEO or my days as a police officer going to road accidents knowing what you would find, I've had to confront the situation.
"Your leadership is most challenged in those tough moments. It tests you … and last year at the Broncos tested me. But you have to lead. It was my job (to sack Bennett). I owned it. I accepted it."
White endured the Bennett saga at a time when he was rediscovering his health. Four years ago, in the year Bennett returned to the Broncos, White was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.
During a life-changing seizure, White slumped to the floor. His arm shaking wildly, and believing he might die, his thoughts turned to his wife Angela and their four daughters.
"I felt an electric shock go through my system. Right as I was facing death, I was at peace," White said.
"My only thought was Angela and the girls. In that moment, I didn't think about the profit-and-loss statement at the Broncos or who we might recruit.
"In a strange way, it was a good event in my life because it gave me a balanced perspective. My health is great at the moment. I get three-monthly scans and I have a real zest for my life again.
"I'm really lucky."
White says he won't derive any pleasure if the Broncos beat Bennett's Bunnies this week.
"It's not about Wayne and I," he said.
"He's a coach, I'm not. Anthony Seibold is our coach.
"It doesn't really bear discussing what Wayne thinks of me. He has a team to coach and he has a good opportunity down there at Souths.
"I wish him the best and I want 'Seibs' to perform and our team to perform.
"Wayne will want to win. We will want to win. That's as far as it will go."