Wayne Bennett's unique standing in league was cemented last night, as he faced Australia in a World Cup final for the second time.
He has also coached the Kangaroos in two different stints (1998 and 2004-05) but his enduring legacy to the game in this country came almost a decade ago, when he was a key element in New Zealand's shock World Cup win in 2008.
Stephen Kearney was a rookie coach — appointed six months earlier following Gary Kemble's demise — but Bennett was a vital ingredient.
"Wayne was amazing," recalled Kiwis prop Adam Blair, then a 22-year-old with the Melbourne Storm. "He had great presence, great mana and so much knowledge of the game. Obviously the boys were excited to have him as part of the group."
Bennett was first approached by the New Zealand Rugby League to be head coach — turning down that opportunity — but agreed to be an adviser and sounding board to Kearney for the tournament.
"I really enjoyed 2008," Bennett told the Herald on Sunday. "They hadn't held a World Cup for eight years and everybody said it was going to be a failure, especially the Australian press. It was because Australia were a really dominant team. People were saying it was the best team they had ever seen and you wouldn't want to believe it — the Kiwis turned up and beat them."
New Zealand's prospects looked bleak early in the tournament, after they were hammered 30-8 by the Kangaroos in Sydney. But they bounced back to trump Papua New Guinea and England in group play, before beating the Lions 32-22 in the semifinal in Brisbane.
But how did Bennett go about rebuilding the Kiwis' belief that they could compete with Australia, after the comprehensive defeat in the first match, which was their eighth successive loss to the Kangaroos?
"It's probably a longer story than you can write," said Bennett. "But I'd been around a long time. I knew I had a few things that could help. It's just what you bring."
A key moment in the lead-up to the final was an Rugby League International Federation dinner in Brisbane a few nights before the game.
"We were building," recalled Bennett. "We had beaten England in the semifinal and we had picked our act up since the first game against Australia. There was a function before the final and we were there as guests with the Australian team. Now, I've never thought of myself as a Kiwi or an Englishman — I'm an Australian, and that's the way I am. But on that night, they were quite disrespectful to the New Zealanders. We may as well not have been there and I was quite offended by it. It was all about Australia, Australia this and Australia that. I used that big time over the next day or so."
Blair remembers Bennett started as soon as the team got back on the bus that night, to return to their Brisbane hotel.
"Wayne grabbed the microphone and said 'You see, boys, that's what people think of you here'," said Blair. "They don't rate you at all. I remember another talk from him the next day and it certainly got us going."
The other asset in New Zealand favour was their build-up to the final, having faced England twice in the space of a week. In contrast, the Kangaroos had barely been out of second gear; after beating the Kiwis, they smashed England 50-4 and Papua New Guinea 46-6 in their pool matches, before a 52-0 win over Fiji in their semifinal.
"Australia hadn't really been pushed," said Kearney. "We wanted to take them places they hadn't been in the tournament. We knew if we could stay with them, then they might have to ask some tough questions. We had to push them, and in the end, we did."
The Kiwis trailed 10-0 early, but tries to Jeremy Smith and Jerome Ropati got them back in the game. New Zealand trailed 16-12 at halftime, before Lance Hohaia scampered over from close range to take them into the lead for the first time. Benji Marshall flashed over — from Billy Slater's infamous mistake near the sideline — but Greg Inglis crossed for Australia to leave the Kiwis leading 22-20 with just over 10 minutes to play. Then came the turning point, with referee Tony Archer ruling a penalty try when Hohaia was taken out as he chased a Nathan Fien grubber. That gave the Kiwis an eight-point lead, before Blair iced the result with an opportunistic try in the 75th minute.
"My main memories are about what a great group of blokes the guys were and how much I enjoyed being with them," said Bennett. "They wanted success and they got success. They were a very talented group of blokes."