GIVEN his immense track record in rugby league, you cannot imagine England head coach Wayne Bennett ever describing himself as “terrible.”
However, that is how the revered Australian depicted his form during his first experience in the UK – as a player with Huddersfield nearly half-a-century ago.
Amid all his accolades and achievements, whether as the inaugural coach of Brisbane Broncos who he helped to six Premiership titles, or the record-breaking success as Queensland State of Origin chief, it is rarely documented that Bennett actually had a brief spell as a player in the English game.
It was 1972-73 when, as a talented young player who had represented his state and played tour games for the Kangaroos in New Zealand, he was persuaded to come over to West Yorkshire.
“I was 18 and playing rugby league at home at bush level,” recalled Bennett, who hopes to see his England side complete a series whitewash of the Kiwis in Sunday’s third Test at Elland Road.
“I was a police cadet in Brisbane but would go home every weekend and play.
“There was a guy who played here in England at Huddersfield.
“He wanted me to come over here and play at 18 years of age.
“He got me a three-year contract but I didn’t want to come.
“I wanted to be a police officer so I stayed at home.
It was a wonderful experience for me over here. I played terrible, though. I’m still disappointed with the way I played here.Wayne Bennett
“But when I was 22 he just kept at me and I did come over here for a season.”
The season in mention was the last of the Championship – the vast 30-club competition – before it was re-formed into two divisions.
Granted, Huddersfield did not fare well in 1972-73, finishing 24th with just 1o wins all campaign.
“I spent six months here,” explained Bennett.
“I resigned from the police force and landed in Manchester.
“A guy called Barry Sellers was the guy who was financially behind Huddersfield.
“He was an engineer and he was wonderful to me and my mate who came over with me.
“I remember he picked us up at Manchester airport and he brought us back on the M62.
“He had a Bentley and was doing 150 miles per hour.
“There wasn’t many people on the freeway in the early 70s!
“It was a wonderful experience for me over here. I played terrible, though. I’m still disappointed with the way I played here.
“They put me on the wing and I hated playing on the wing.
“I was a full-back but they had a pretty good one (Trevor Bedford) and I was going and he was staying so I could understand what the coach was doing.
“But it didn’t enhance my playing ability.”
The rangy Bennett debuted off the bench in a home loss to Warrington – who eventually finished top – on September 30, 1972. He went on to score three tries in 16 games flitting between wing, centre and just a solitary appearance in his preferred No1 jersey.
Bennett was the Fartowners’ regular goalkicker, though, and, ironically, scored Huddersfield’s only points in a 32-2 defeat to the New Zealand tourists of that vintage.
He also played alongside fellow Queenslander and future brother-in-law Greg Veivers for the Claret and Gold, his last match being a 10-10 draw against Hull KR on February 4, 1973.
It was Mike Stephenson’s Dewsbury who, memorably, were crowned champions later that year, beating Leeds in the play-off final having charged all the way from eighth spot.
It was the last time the league was decided by a play-off system until Super League introduced it again in 1998.
Bennett, who took over as England coach at the start of 2016 and guided them to the World Cup final last year, added: “That ,72-73 season was my first time here and I’ve been back many times, probably 15 to 20.
“Since then I’ve always followed the game here and always had a great interest in the game in England.
“So I suppose when the opportunity came to coach (England) I grabbed it as I wanted to…
“Well, there’s no better sporting contest in Australia than Australia versus England.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s marbles, table tennis – its the number one sporting event.
“I didn’t want to lose Australia versus England.
“I didn’t want young men growing up thinking that wasn’t a contest anymore so I knocked back the Origin job when I first went back to Broncos four years ago and I took this job.
“I’m enjoying it and it’s been a great series so far with New Zealand.”