It’s been a wild ride but Kevvie and Benny are still mates
Kevin Walters has described his sacking by Wayne Bennett as a "blessing in disguise" as he prepares for a coaching showdown with the mentor who once delivered the most painful bullet of his Broncos career.
The 35-year association between Walters and Bennett will feature another compelling instalment on Thursday night when the duo face-off as head coaches for the first time in the Broncos-Souths clash at Stadium Australia.
It is the very Homebush turf on which the pair celebrated a special moment: Bennett recalling how he begged his then-skipper Walters to stay fit as he piloted the Broncos to their 2000 premiership defeat of the Roosters.
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Now, 21 years later, Walters and Bennett collide as head coaches.
Theirs has been a fascinating union to frame and explain. Like a footballing equivalent of a long marriage, there have been highs, lows, tears, struggles, differences of opinion and periods of ecstasy and adversity ... but, through it all, Bennett insists they have a bond that cannot, and never will, be broken.
Ironically, it is a strength of relationship forged by a gut-wrenching episode - the moment Bennett called Walters into his Red Hill office and did the seemingly unthinkable, sacking 'Kevvie' as his Broncos assistant coach on October 7, 2005.
Walters was filthy. He lashed Bennett at the time, claiming he was punted because "I'm not a yes man". Bennett, sage as an old fox, believed Walters needed to get away from the Broncos and see a world outside Red Hill to broaden his coaching lens.
"To be honest, Wayne letting me go was a blessing in disguise," Walters says ahead of Thursday night's maiden meeting with Bennett.
"I took so many good things from Wayne. There's no ill-feeling from me about what he did.
"Because of that moment, I've been around the world with my coaching career. I've been to the (Ipswich) Jets in the Queensland to Catalans in the Super League and down to Melbourne (as an assistant to Craig Bellamy).
"There is a big wide world out there and I had to explore that. Wayne showed me that. I'm really pleased now that I did leave the Broncos. It's got me into the position I am today."
When Walters ascended to the Broncos post he coveted for so long last October, replacing Anthony Seibold, Bennett gave News Corp a rare insight into his pain at cutting the cord with 'Kevvie'. He admitted both broke down.
"That was a heartbreaking time for both of us," Bennett says of Walters' Red Hill sacking.
"Telling Kevvie to leave at the end of that 2005 season was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
"He had tears in his eyes and I was close to breaking down myself. It was painful. Very painful. But it was the right thing to do.
"I felt Kevin wasn't going to get any better with me. I felt he needed to go and be with other coaches, see other systems, work at other places ... instead of being in my shadow all the time.
"I always felt Kevvie wouldn't get the head-coaching job at the Broncos if he didn't leave and get some experience first."
Walters returned to the Broncos for Bennett's second incarnation at the club in 2015 and the pair engineered Brisbane's charge to that year's grand final.
While the Broncos ultimately lost to the Cowboys in an extra-time epic, Walters was back at the Bennett coalface. Watching. Detecting. Learning.
For all the tactical analysis of the modern game, Walters says Bennett's strength is his simplicity. The way he treats players. His basic messages. The word economy to explain concepts in one sentence that takes other coaches six.
When Bennett walks into training at Redfern, he doesn't bombard fullback superstar Latrell Mitchell with complex game plans. He simply says, 'Hey Latrell, how's your family?'
"There are a lot of things I like about the way Wayne coaches," Walters says.
"His relationship with his players is the best one for me. He cares about them. Knowing his players and knowing their personalities is his best strength.
"Wayne has been such a great coach, a very successful coach, but I don't look up and see who I am coaching against.
"It's more about the players and making sure they are well prepared for what's in front of them.
"I've had a great relationship over time with Wayne but that will mean nothing on Thursday night.
"He will want his team to win and I will want our team to win."
By virtue of their Red Hill ructions, there have been whispers Bennett has seen Walters as a threat and has not had his back when it really matters.
But the super coach bristles at suggestions he doesn't have Walters' best interests at heart, rating the kid from Ipswich one of the most authentic people he has met.
"Our friendship has never been broken," he said last year when Walters was appointed Broncos coach.
"Yes, we've had our moments, there's no doubt about that. What happened in 2005 wasn't pleasant.
"We've had some run-ins, but when the s**t hits the fan, Kevvie has been there for me and I've been there for him.
"Kevin just has to be Kevin (as Broncos head coach). The job at the Broncos can change you. It can put you under strange pressures you don't think will happen. But if Kevvie is true to himself, he will be OK. That's how he got the job.
"Sometimes to come back to where you want to be, you need to go elsewhere first.
"Now Kevin is back at the Broncos where he belongs."
Originally published as It's been a wild ride but Kevvie, Benny still best mates