Standing up to star coach may revive fortunes of dead men walking

THEY must feel like dead men walking.

Tapped on the shoulder and encouraged to find new clubs, a host of Newcastle Knights players are pondering apparently bleak futures under master coach Wayne Bennett.

Like Cory Paterson, Beau Henry, Mark Taufua, Antonio Kaufusi and Con Mika last season, Junior Sa’u and Wes Naqaima – and an undisclosed number of teammates – have been asked to walk away from valid contracts.

Now the Newcastle Jets are heading down a similarly dubious path, as evidenced by the A-League club’s treatment of Chris Payne and Nikolai Topor-Stanley.

Payouts are offered as sweeteners, so players are not financially disadvantaged, but that is hardly the point.

The issue here is that when players sign contracts, they expect them to be honoured.

They buy houses, put their children in school and can believe they have a semblance of security, in a transient industry, for a specified period.

A contract, remember, is supposed to be a two-way street. Otherwise are they even worth the paper they are written on?

If Dragon Beau Scott, for instance, approached Knights officials to say Bennett no longer featured in his long-term plans, would they agree to tear up his four-year deal?

Of course not.

The offloading of contracted players is becoming a trend in the NRL because nobody seems willing to take a stand.

Newcastle, since the Tinkler takeover, have been among the most frequent offenders.

The Rugby League Players Association is not renowned for picket line-style industrial action.

Players are wary of copping the sort of hardball treatment Josh Hannay and Adam Cuthbertson received at Cronulla, when they were dropped to play for the Gymea Gorillas and Como Crocodiles respectively.

They would usually rather make a fresh start than risk being marginalised.

But if Sa’u, Naiqama and company are under the impression they can’t beat the system, then two players who won premierships under Bennett may offer a glimmer of hope.

Former Test hooker Luke Priddis and ex-Kangaroos winger Michael Hancock both convinced Bennett to change his mind when the veteran tactician had already decided they were past their use-by dates.

As Priddis explained in a recent interview with Rugby League Week magazine, Bennett told him at the end of the 2009 season he should hang up the boots, despite having 12 months to run on his contract.

‘‘I said, ‘Well, I’ve still got a contract for next year, so write me out a cheque for what you owe me and we’ll part ways’,’’ Priddis said.

‘‘Wayne scoffed at that and said, ‘Well, that’s something you need to discuss with [CEO] Peter Doust.’

‘‘Wayne didn’t get back to me for a few weeks, so I called Doust and asked what was going on.

‘‘Five minutes later Wayne called me and said, ‘You don’t have to do the pre-season testing, but be at training ready to start.’’’

Priddis proceeded to play 19 games for the Dragons in their premiership-winning 2010 campaign, a feat Bennett later acknowledged ‘‘shows what type of man he is’’.

A similar backflip from the game’s most successful coach paid spectacular dividends more than a decade earlier at Brisbane.

As Bennett said in an interview in The Australian this year: ‘‘I may give that appearance outwardly, but inwardly I can’t be inflexible, not with what I do.

‘‘When Mick [Hancock] came to the office [in 1996], he was gone. Just the passion in him saved him.

‘‘And it turned out great for us. He won another three premierships with us.

‘‘Sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you’ve got to be big enough to say you got it wrong.’’

On that point, if nothing else, Bennett is unlikely to get any argument from those dead men walking.

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