Hagan To Coach Maroons

Wayne Bennett has confirmed he will step down as coach of the Queensland State of Origin team next year and he will be replaced by Newcastle coach Michael Hagan.

Bennett's decision will also give him the oportunity to stake his claim on the Australian national team coaching position next year.

Bennet informed the Queensland Rugby League of his final decision only yesterday and only after he was informed the Knights had given Hagan the all-clear to take on the Maroons job.

"Michael being available to step in certainly made my decision a lot easier," Bennett said last night. "I feel comfortable that I will be leaving Queensland in very good hands.

"I congratulate Michael for having the courage to take on a very big job and I want to thank the Newcastle board for letting him do so. It's a very unselfish thing for a club to do and they're not even Queenslanders which makes their decision even more admirable."

Bennett said the Broncos' horror finish to the 2003 season, had not been the only reason for him leaving the Origin arena.

"I made the decision a long time ago, before the season even started," he said.

"I have been torn between my duty to Queensland and my duty to the Broncos, and the time has come to give my full attention to the club.

"The Broncos have always paid a heavy price for representative football but that price has been even higher since I became involved in Origin again at the end of 2000.

"I need to be at the Broncos when the players come back from Origin physically and mentally tired, and I need to be fresh, not as tired as they are."

Bennett will continue to head the Queensland Academy of Sport rugby league program and said he would be there for Hagan any time he called for advice.

QRL managing director Ross Livermore said the board "fully" understood Bennett's position and supported his decision.

"Wayne has achieved tremendous results for Queensland and the league is very appreciative of this, and what this has meant to Queenslanders generally," Livermore said.

Hagan has been coaching the Knights for three years, winning the premiership in his first season as first-grade coach in 2001.

The former Queensland Origin halfback was under no illusions last night about the task ahead.

"This was a massive decision," he said. "But it's a massive honour as well."

Wayne Bennett coached Queensland a record 22 times in three stints (1986-88, 1998, 2001-03) for 11 wins, 10 losses and a draw.