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Robbo, Ricky, Benny and Bellyache: the four horsemen of the NRL apocalypse

Stuart’s Raiders host Robinson’s Roosters in Canberra at 2pm while Bennett’s Rabbitohs square off against Bellamy’s Storm on the Central Coast at 4pm.

Pass the popcorn.

RICKY STUART v TRENT ROBINSON

Let’s head into the dressing-rooms at GIO Stadium moments before the Raiders and Roosters do battle. Here we are in the Roosters sheds, where Trent Robinson is about to deliver his pre-match oratory.

“We win this if we do the small things right,” Robinson says dispassionately. “If we stick to our systems and processes, and if we play how we want to play, the result will take care of itself.”

He won’t mention the opposition. He will take them out of the equation. This is about the Roosters — not the Raiders.

Further down the tunnel, Stuart spits on the ground, flares his nostrils and talks with so much passion his players reckon he’s about to burst.

Passion: Ricky Stuart's style is heart-on-sleeve.

Passion: Ricky Stuart’s style is heart-on-sleeve.Credit:AAP

“Those [expletive] blokes don’t [expletive] rate us,” he says. “They [expletive] think they’re better than us. They think we’re [expletive] because they’re from the eastern suburbs and we’re from Canberra. [Expletive, expletive, expletive].”

Stuart will mention the opposition repeatedly. This isn’t about the Raiders — it’s about the [expletive] Roosters.

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Apologies for putting words in the mouths of these two fascinating coaches, but you can just hear both of them saying them, according to those who have been in their respective dressing-rooms.

The day after winning last year’s grand final, Robinson told Roosters powerbrokers how their side could become the first since Bennett’s Broncos in 1992-93 to defend a premiership.

After winning the title in 2013, in Robinson’s first season as an NRL coach, the Roosters tore into the following season in the same way they did the previous one. They were minor premiers but fizzled out in the preliminary final against eventual premiers Souths.

Robinson, 42, knew this time around that something had to be different. He decided to manage his season, carefully plotting his side’s path to September by resting key players at certain times, in much the same way European football managers take a long-term approach to winning the premiership.

The Roosters flew out of the gates and banked as many wins as possible before the Origin series, which featured four of their players.

Throughout that six-week period and beyond, Robinson put the likes of Boyd Cordner, James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk, Joseph Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and others on ice.

When five-eighth Luke Keary suffered a serious concussion mid-season, the Roosters didn’t just err on the side of caution but took longer than advised before letting him play again.

Behind the scenes, Robinson has also assembled the best high-performance operation, including medical staff, in the NRL — all with the grand plan of going back-to-back.

The Roosters slumped mid-season and lost five from six but then blew the Titans off the SCG last Sunday. Danger …

Like Robinson, Stuart, 52, won a premiership in his first season. It was also at the Roosters.

That was 2002 and he hasn’t made a grand final since, struggling at a grossly under-resourced Cronulla (2007-10) and then Parramatta (2013), who were being ripped apart by factional infighting.

He returned to the city where he grew up and the club where he’s a legend. His winning percentage of 49 per cent at Canberra is the best it’s been since his five years at the Roosters (60 per cent).

Raiders players say the reason they’re sitting second on the ladder is the trust they have in each other. It’s evidenced in their defence, which kept them out of the finals last year. This season, the Raiders (278) are second only to the Storm (232) in terms of points conceded.

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Stuart is far more than just raw emotion. Predicting a quicker style of footy would be played this season, big men Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd were shuffled out with a more mobile pack preferred.

Lime green courses through Stuart’s veins and he wants it in his players, too. In the off-season, he made them randomly call players from the 1989 grand final side that won the Raiders’ first premiership, of which Stuart was a key figure.

It’s signature heart-on-the-sleeve stuff you’d expect from the coach who is known to barely sleep the week before a big match.

So, too, his wild media conference after winger Nick Cotric was sent off for a dangerous throw on Dragons centre Tim Lafai. On the long walk from the dressing-room before the conference, chief executive Don Furner, who has been best mates with Stuart since school, warned him to be careful with his words.

Stuart detonated when a reporter questioned if the tackle was a bad look for the game, especially in the eyes of parents. “I’m not here for the parents,” Stuart shot back. “I’m here for my player.”

WAYNE BENNETT v CRAIG BELLAMY

When Wayne Bennett knew last year that his time at the Broncos was up, he sat down with chief executive Paul White and discussed who his replacement should be.

“I said we’d be silly not to look at Craig, who is coming off contract,” Bennett said in March on the eve of his first season at Souths.

Master and apprentice: Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy.

Master and apprentice: Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy.Credit:AAP

It was masterful manipulation from the game’s most successful coach. His idea? I’m told he didn’t discourage it — but he didn’t come up with it.

Many at the Storm were convinced Bellamy, who was Bennett’s assistant at the Broncos from 1998 to 2002, was headed to Brisbane before he re-signed with Melbourne at the 11th hour.

Bellamy, 59, will likely finish his career as a one-team man, although that might change once captain Cameron Smith retires.

As a player at the Raiders under the innovative genius of Tim Sheens, Bellamy learned about the game’s technicalities and intricacies.

What he then learned under Bennett was how to manage men and get them to trust him. He also learned the value of delegation.

By his own admission, Bellamy was a “control freak” in his early years. Then he surrounded himself with quality assistant coaches, just as Bennett often does.

Michael Maguire, Brad Arthur and Stephen Kearney came out of the Storm system to become head coaches in their own right. It’s only a matter of time before Jason Ryles and Adam O’Brien (who the Roosters snatched this year) are elevated to the big job in the NRL.

Despite his explosions in the coach’s box, Bellamy has also mellowed with age and grandchildren. The players jokingly call one of them “The Pacifier” because they’ve seen the hardened coach transform into a doting poppy.

Bellyache: Craig Bellamy is famous for his blow-ups in the coaches box.

Bellyache: Craig Bellamy is famous for his blow-ups in the coaches box.Credit:AAP

Instead of taking days to get over a defeat, he rides the lows and highs with equal emotion.

That’s not to suggest his rigid standards have dropped. After his side’s 40-4 disembowelment of the Broncos, Bellamy made it clear to his players afterwards he wasn’t thrilled with some of the sloppy errors late in the match.

Bellamy and Bennett have duelled in many headline matches. The apprentice has the wood on the master, having won 71 per cent of the 34 matches they’ve played against each other.

Bellamy might have the numbers but Bennett knows how to win the psychological battle, often riling Bellamy with subtle jabs about the Storm’s so-called wrestling techniques.

The 69-year-old coach also knows how to push the buttons of his players. No coach likes defeat but he could accept the Rabbitohs’ patchy form through Origin, and with Sam Burgess sidelined with injury.

But he didn’t like what he saw in the loss to Cronulla last Saturday night, barely speaking at half-time. He gathered his players in after the game, let them sit down before simply muttering “have a shower” before walking away.

His point was made in three words.

He had a lot more to say in the days that followed to Burgess after the captain was placed on report for his high shot on Matt Moylan. Privately, Bennett oozes compliments about Burgess but his blast showed nobody gets preferential treatment. They are all equals.

Burgess, like the rest of his teammates, says he appreciates the straight talk — although not all of it is serious talk.

Wayne Bennett's dry sense of humour has been on show at Souths.

Wayne Bennett’s dry sense of humour has been on show at Souths.Credit:AAP

When Bennett arrived at Redfern, he sensed the playing group was worn down after years of commando-like training under Maguire and then Anthony Seibold.

He eased back the workload and hours of video analysis. He also let his dry sense of humour, which those on the outside rarely see, come to the surface.

Souths beat the Dragons 34-18 in round two but winger Dane Gagai had a night to forget, including five missed tackles.

“Is Dane Gagai here?” Bennett smirked in the rooms afterwards. “I didn’t see him out there.”

The players erupted with laughter, Gagai included.

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