Wayne Bennett
Bunnies or Knights?

Wayne Bennett looks certain to leave the St George Illawarra Dragons at the end of the season.

It’s understood  that the seven-time premiership-winning mentor has already told the Dragons he intends to coach elsewhere in 2012.

Dragons chief executive Peter Doust is desperate to retain Bennett and hasn’t given up on changing the 61-year-old’s mind.

But after finally breaking the joint-venture club’s premiership drought, Bennett is believed to be looking for a fresh challenge. And there’s no shortage of suitors.

South Sydney Rabbitohs, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys and the Newcastle Knights have all informally expressed interest. The Brisbane Broncos could also be a destination given his family still lives in Queensland and Bruno Cullen, who fell out with Bennett towards the end of the coach’s 21-year tenure at the Broncos, has stepped down as chief executive.

While Bennett’s future is in his own hands, the same cannot be said for many of his clipboard-wielding colleagues. More than half a dozen are off contract come October but it appears only five – Brian Smith, Stephen Kearney, David Furner, Craig Bellamy and John Cartwright – are certain to retain their present jobs beyond 2011.

Bennett’s decision will have a domino effect on the futures of existing coaches and a growing queue hoping to enter or re-enter the NRL ranks.

SEE ALSO:  REPORTS: Smith signing could see Test youngster walk

Ricky Stuart, Nathan Brown, Daniel Anderson, Jason Taylor, former Melbourne assistant Michael Maguire and ex-New Zealand coach Brian McClennan are among those available.

Anderson’s agent, Jim Banaghan, said the sacked Eels coach was ready to step back into the NRL fray. ”He is a career coach; if anyone is looking for a coach he will be there and interested in any opportunities that might come up,” Banaghan said.

Former Dragons mentor Brown, now coaching at Super League side Huddersfield, has repeatedly said he aimed to eventually return to the NRL. ”Yeah, I’d love to,” he said. ”Like all coaches, you want to coach in the NRL. I’ve had one go at it and I’d like to have another go at it. It’s the best comp in the world.”

Negotiations between Furner – off contract at the end of 2012 – and Canberra officials for an extension are expected to start as soon as this week, while off-contract Titans mentor John Cartwright is assured of retaining his position after guiding his fledgling side to the top four last season.

The other Queensland coaches may not be so lucky. North Queensland’s Neil Henry is under intense pressure, as is Brisbane counterpart Ivan Henjak. Henry is contracted until the end of 2013 but has performance clauses in his contract. If the Cowboys miss the play-offs for a third straight year, he is almost certain to be punted. A potential wildcard north of the border is Mal Meninga. After overseeing a historic fifth straight series win with the Maroons, he is considering a return to the NRL ranks.

SEE ALSO:  Five Super League players who would star in the NRL

Parramatta recruit Kearney will be given at least two years to rebuild the Eels while Bellamy, despite the Storm’s salary cap dramas and the Blues’ inability to halt Queensland’s five-year winning streak, is still considered one of the game’s premier coaches. However, should Bennett opt not to return to the Broncos, don’t be surprised to see a News Ltd transfer deal that would result in Bellamy returning to the club where his coaching career started. The Dragons and Souths are also in pursuit of Bellamy.

Everyone is waiting for the first domino to fall.