Manly v Tigers (round 2, 9 March 2012)

There is a saying of the Buddha that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”. It’s true.

Ever since the Round 21, 2011 clash between Manly and Wests Tigers I have been unable to use my hot coal throwing hand by reason of holding onto an incandescent lump of ore, searing my hand flesh, that I have wanted to lob at Robbie Farah. Or drop down the back of his jumper like a deliciously cold ice cube – without the delicious coldness – or the tittering and screeching as I girlishly skip away from him. For the best part of seven months.

I wonder what the Buddha’s position is on stainless steel tongs?

The doctors tell me that I may never be able to throw hot coals at any one ever again. Why?

Because, on that chilly Friday night at Bluetongue Stadium in Gosford with Manly leading 12-6 and with 19 minutes to go in the game, Farah channelled Eli Manning and sailed a sumptuous pass, which billowed forward like a pregnant spinnaker pointing itself at Sydney Heads in a stiff breeze on Boxing Day, into the hands of Blake Ayshford to score. It was thrown as far forward as our universe was in the brief “inflationary period” after the Big Bang. Mystifyingly, the forward trajectory of the pass escaped the notice of the officials (but no other person not blinkered up like a Clydesdale in a CUB ad) and after a missed (botched really) conversion attempt by Benji the score stood at 12-10. Only 2 or so minutes later it was 14-12 to the Tigers and that’s how it remained.

I watched last July’s game at the Bald Faced Stag in Leichhardt (of all places to choose to watch it), surrounded by partisan, increasingly gleeful barbarians pounding their wooden shields noisily with their crudely fashioned clubs and heads.  As I walked home, my glorious, shining Roman Legion vanquished, it felt like I had been burgled. My citadel sacked. Two competition points purloined and the minor premiership sailing, like the pass itself, over the maritime horizon and tracking south to the magical land of “Nevermore”. Melbourne, that is. The dark land of Mordor where the shadows lie. And the thief in the night (to my completely objective mind), not B. Baggins but one R. Farah.

It’s funny how we single out one villain for special attention in our lives, when there are often many that are potentially available (and equally deserving) for our enmity and scorn. Most of the time, we are spoilt for choice. So we choose. And that’s completely okay.

Typing away on comments pages since 29 July last year (with my good hand) I have, with the perseverance of a savant (and a good deal of rocking back and forth as well) managed to bring up this affront to my senses, and my very self, on a regular basis when the contextual opportunity has presented itself (and sometimes even when it hasn’t).  Applying the bellows of animosity (“hate” is such a strong word) to keep my hot rock toasty warm in case I can finally throw it. I haven’t, as they say, been able to “let go”. I haven’t found that moment of catharsis on my “journey”.

Of course, any psychologist or psychiatrist (if you have the money) will tell you that my bellicose feelings towards Robbie (and the Tigers) since last year are a classic  transfer of anger from its real object, my beloved Sea Eagles (“my precious… precioussss”, if you will), my life partner for over 40 years with whom I could never stay angry for long. How do you lead a game for nearly three quarters and then deliver it up to the enemy, in a mere 7 minutes, with so much on the line? How? Answer me!! Only one month out from September it felt like 2010 all over again when Manly made an art form of squandering big first half leads. Comparable, even, to the efforts of “The Scottish Team” [like Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” it is bad luck to say their name] in the early part of the present century, at the same ground. Like Scotland, that team had a northern aspect, shall we say… although its perspective on the competition table was decidedly southerly, most of the time. To nearly everybody’s relief, they no longer exist.

Which takes me, via the long and (hopefully) pleasant anecdotal way, back to Bluetongue last Friday night.

Soon.

Like any follower of a sporting team who has been “married” to them for any significant period of time, I have made a large emotional investment in Manly (who have presented me with eight lovely children in the time I have been supporting them). I don’t know if I have a favourite child. Perhaps the two youngest, though, as they still have that extraordinary unsullied imagination and fearlessness that children have. Next year “2008” will be off to school! “2007” (not one of mine) is in juvie I hear. They grow up so fast!

I have mixed feelings when I watch Manly play. There is the addict’s giddy anticipation of pleasure but also apprehension about the perceived threat to my psyche and sense of “self” if things go pear shaped (the aforementioned psychic “burglary”). [At this point Buddha whispers something to me about the “self” not existing concretely from its own side]. Aaannyway. If your team plays poorly, it is a type of marital infidelity. Happening in front of you and you make yourself watch, in dismay and revulsion. Dragons fans who watched the Bulldogs game on Saturday night will know what I’m talking about.

On Saturday morning, feeling the early buds of inspiration for a post, I watched the “Simpsons” episode where Homer swallows a number of “Guatemalan insanity peppers” with psychoactive properties and is counselled by his (Johnny Cash played) coyote spirit guide to find his “soulmate”. At the beginning of the episode, Homer is concerned that he is going to miss the chillie “cook off” (because he made a drunken arse of himself the previous year and Marge has been trying to prevent him remembering that it is on again this year). When he finds out (and thinks he may be missing it), he launches into his trademark nervous (and slightly effeminate and hilarious) giddiness, his arms and legs moving up and down like a marionette. His hands theatrically spinning like the blades of a windmill. [In front of Marge] “Oh my God, I’m missin’ the chillie cook off, I’m missin’ the cook offffff…. It’s goin’ on right now and I’m missin’ iiiitt….”.  I have a bit of that same nervous apprehension and energy every time I sit down to watch Manly.

This year, I watch the game at home. It’s just me, the couch, the TV, the remote, some Sierra Nevada pale ale beers (a little luxury – being a “silvertail” and all) and those Friday night football pork spare ribs that I just can’t seem to resist in all their salty crackling virgin olive oil coated potentially mischievous goodness. And tea bags for when the beer runs out. And my mobile phone. And my laptop computer for social network connectivity. And nothing else.

Memories of “The Scottish Team” aside, I really like Bluetongue Stadium. It has a country football ground feel to it, more so than Sydney suburban grounds. The light doesn’t scream at you. Maybe it is toned down a few lumens. It is adequate. I am reminded, a little, of suburban training grounds on Tuesday and Thursday nights. You really have the sense that the game is being played at night. That it is dark outside, on the periphery. It is a little oasis of light, a little “grace”, a small liberty from the enveloping night enclosing the fans and players in their floating cathedral. Behind the ground there is darkness breached by little islands of light, like stars, separated by black space. Glinting constellations of habitation rather than gaudy, neon Milky Way. Just in front of Brisbane Water and the road the massive fronds of the iconic palm trees peep ghostily, engagingly, like fingers, through the darkness. The Water lies blackly and expansively behind, more sensed than apparent. What a magnificent place to watch rugby league! The players, punters and viewers are wrapped, comfortingly, in the stadium’s embrace.

On Friday, a resplendent, nearly full moon was rising to the east of the ground. Also, above the eastern horizon the visible speck of dusky Mars. In the sky to the West, the diamond brilliance of Venus (only pretty from a distance).  Above her and to the right, the martial and regal presence of Jupiter. Auspicious spectators looking on from the celestial nosebleed seats and anticipating the battle to come.

Apparently these two teams “hate” each other or something. Probably as much as Rabs and Gus though with their fake, sometimes hilarious, animosity. It’s all part of the show. This evening, Rabs sneers that Gus has forgotten to take his medication. Maybe they both have? Thank you, imported Californian beer.

I estimate that, after the game starts, I spend about 50% of it on my feet. Jumping up during exciting phases of play. Advancing tentatively towards the impassive television which bravely stands its ground, unafraid of me.  Unblinkingly meeting my gaze as I shriek threats or guttural yelps of exultation, wildly and incoherently gesticulating with my spear for it to “back off”.  As though the television is a recent intruder in my living room or we are having a “first contact” moment in the jungle. At times my bent over posture, splayed stance and crablike movements, back and forth in front of the set are reminiscent of an inquisitive Silverback gorilla in the highlands of Rwanda. Sometimes I submissively retreat back to the comfortable depression which I have carved out on the couch and nurse contentedly on my beer bottle, watching carefully in case the TV charges.

There is good reason, I think, why I watch so much rugby league on television by myself.

The game itself is entertaining, and its resolution as tense and uncertain as last year. Manly and the Tigers play a similar expansive style of football. In recent times the Tigers have been much less cavalier and more controlled, in a Manly, grinding, sort of way. Although they still seem to revert to “freestyle” when they fall behind, as they allowed themselves to do on Friday night. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. To be fair, their “freestyle” had more control this year. Much standing up from me at this point as the “Ghost of Christmas Past” threatens to pay an unwelcome visit. “Oh my God, I’m missin’ the chillie cook off, I’m missin’ the cook offffff…. It’s goin’ on right now and I’m missin’ iiiitt….”

Manly (playing in a jersey reminiscent of their 1947 foundation strip) went into the game without Glenn Stewart, who brings so much to their right side attack in combination with Jamie Lyon and his brother. They are a different, more vulnerable, side when he’s not there. Steve Matai, a big threat to defences on the left side, was out with a hand injury.  The youngster, Dean Whare (who had a stunning hat-trick debut against the Cowboys in May 2010) took his place. It is no slight to him to say that he is not in the same class as Matai (who my Dragons supporting brother thinks belongs in “juvie” with “2007”). The Tigers were missing the experienced Keith Galloway at prop and their unfortunate erstwhile custodion, James Tedesco, who wrecked his knee in round one. Tom Humble looked a little uncomfortable as his replacement, I thought. Manly had an exhausting recent schedule travelling to Leeds for the World Club Challenge, and a short turnaround after returning from their round one clash with the Warriors in Auckland. Maybe it would prove too much for them in this game.

Manly looked sharp at the outset but were unable to penetrate the Tigers’ defence. As so often happens after a period of scoreless dominance by a team, 28 minutes in, they failed to counter a smart decoy run from Chris Lawrence with the Tigers on the attack, allowing a clearly delighted Adam Blair (of Donnybrookvale infamy) to stroll over in the karmic space which opened up for him. So delighted that I thought for a very brief moment he was going to celebrate by spiking the ball, NFL style, behind the goalposts. Manly then seemed to tire and lose composure but somehow kept the opposition out for the balance of the half. The Tigers went into the break leading 8-2, not before neutralising a powerful Tony Williams line break.

After the half-time break (and joking with Kieran Foran in the sheds – clearly worried about the deficit), Daly Cherry-Evans put Jason King over the line for a rare four pointer and the scores were level. Soon after, the Tigers’ Gareth Ellis was forced off with a badly corked thigh. With the score in Manly’s favour at 10-8 after a penalty shot from Jamie Lyon, Daly waltzed through the line, and showed two dummies to run 80 metres, racing a surging tide of pursuers and support players, to score under the posts. Sliding triumphantly on his knees and joyfully launching the ball up into the night in celebration. Such is his (seemingly) bullet-proof confidence and skill at the moment. He has the demeanour of a young man who realises that his “time” has arrived. Watching him run I was transported back to 1978 and memories of Johnny Gibbs, whose number 7 (ironed on by my mother) I proudly wore on my jersey as a child. Sanctified by its talismanic numeric protection, as you are when you are 10. Daly, when he runs, seems to hold himself in much the same way.  And coathanger tackles are thankfully much less prevalent nowadays.

If Adam Blair was going to have his cathartic moment during this game, then so was I. It came in the 59th minute when the colossus of Brookvale, Tony Williams, steamed and stormed over the line and straight through my nemesis Robbie. Tony trampled him. I then thought “time to let go” and thoughtfully let my sun hot coal drop over the balcony of my apartment into the milled Friday night revellers and children playing in the piazza below. It must be said, in defence of Robbie that he made an outstanding 54 tackles throughout the game. His counterpart, Matt Ballin made 49. And carried the ball almost as far as Robbie’s 54 metres.  That is the value of a good number 9.

12 minutes from time, with Manly up by 14 points at 22-8, and my brother having sent me a text from Melbourne (where he was watching the game live – I don’t know how) about how good Manly were looking “so far” the spectre of July 2011 passed in front of me (throwing back a “Fat Yak” and winking). A sloppy and grossly ineffectual swipe by Michael Oldfield, when attempting to clear a Benji Marshall grenade allowed Beau Ryan to force the ball in the corner and the score became 22-12. Maybe I would need to look for that piece of coal. And investigate the cause of the annoying screaming and wailing coming from the piazza. Is that glass really double glazed?

With 3 minutes to go Joel Reddy showed lovely hands to hang on to the ball and plant it over the line in easy range for Benji Marshall to bring the score to 22-18. Manly were able to hang on until full-time. Phew!

Both these teams were depleted by injury, in crucial areas, which disrupted combinations. No doubt, the Tigers were affected by the absence of Gareth Ellis for most of the second half. There is also the fact that it is only round 2 and far too early to make confident prognostications about the future.

Still, this Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court went to bed very happy. And dreamt about Lord Buddha and flaming children chasing me with barbecue tongs. I don’t really hate you Robbie.

 

Manly 22 (Jason King, Daly Cherry-Evans, Tony Williams tries, Jamie Lyon 5 goals) df Wests Tigers 18 (Adam Blair, Beau Ryan, Joel Reddy tries, Benji Marshall 3 goals) 

About Niall Connolly

Niall is a Sydney lawyer.

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