2013: Round 1
Sydney Roosters versus South Sydney Rabbitohs
8.05pm, Thursday, 7 March
Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Unsung heroes prevail
None of the sycophants and mindless running-dogs in the mainstream media wanted to rock the boat.
The game I grew up with, the game I still love as the greatest of all is now a product (glam rockers “KISS” live on The Footy Show: how sad can it get?). Managers’ names are as well known as the players whose egos they stroke and whose wallets they gouge. To step out of line with the product’s polished and manipulative PR is to risk a seat – OMG! – at the casino table with the rest of the oily suits. So let me say, on behalf of the Great Unwashed on the other side of the fence, the whole Sonny Bill ‘show me the money’ Williams circus had been giving me the Edgar Britts big time! Or, to channel the thoughts that were probably erupting like Krakatoa in the mind of one Steven Folkes, ‘the sooner somebody decks the Roosters’ number sixteen, the better.’
It’s a bumper crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium to kick off the 2013 season. Easts have the home ground advantage but the mob in red and green have the numbers – Moore Park remains a bridge too far for the 4x4s of Bondi and Dover Heights. The Roosters’ number sixteen will start from the bench. There he is on the big screen!
The Bunnies have arrived with the burden of, in many pundits’ eyes, premiership favouritism. Given the fate of last year’s fancied outfit, the Tigers, the high estimation is an albatross that we supporters of the Cardinal and Myrtle can live without.
Eternal hope and dark pessimism writhe in bitter conflict below the surface of every footy tragic, but confidence has the upper hand tonight. Souths are strong on paper, albeit with a not very mobile interchange, and if Champion and Farrell can keep Jennings quiet we should get the money – unless, of course, number sixteen blows us away with his mere majestic presence.
Every hack in town has written at some point about Souths’ tendency to go to sleep and invite their opponent into the game. It’s usually mid-way through the second half so, going against convention to start a new season, the boys nod off in the opening sets. Reynolds, 2012’s rookie of the year and prime candidate for that other great cliché, ‘the second year syndrome’, boots the ball out on the full, Easts get a scrum deep in Souths’ territory and, before you can say Sonny Bill Williams, they’ve scored. Maloney’s try: horribly easy. The Rabbitohs look leaden. The Roosters are all over ’em. Uh oh.
Chilled perhaps by the cold wrath emanating from coach Madge Maguire’s box, Souths pull their finger out – Merritt scampers over untouched at the end of a beautifully rehearsed, quick-handed movement. Reynolds nails the conversion from an acute angle and you get the impression that if the little half-back was rattled by his earlier mistake he isn’t anymore.
It is never too early to hit the lead and, ahead 6-4, Souths are warming to the task. Easts, on the other hand, are beginning to make unforced errors and, more significantly, giving away crucial penalties. Merritt’s second try, at the twenty-eighth minute, at last rewards the Bunnies for the dominance they’ve been asserting. Reynolds adds the extras. At 12-4, I’m allowing myself a warm, fuzzy feeling. But wait! Number sixteen is entering the fray. Sweet Jesus, be kind to my boys.
There’s a bloke in the centre of the red, white and blue faction – I think it’s Danny Weidler –screaming ‘Sonny! Sonny! Sonny!’, but the tattooed headline’s impact is minimal. Instead it is his opposite, Souths’ unsung McQueen, who strides across the chalk. The rangy Queenslander, in his fiftieth appearance for the club, is a salt-of-the-earth type that no team can do without.
The Rabbitohs take a 16-4 advantage to the sheds and, where this time last year it would be a perilous second forty to negotiate, there is now something about the side that suggests they will not let this one slip out of their grasp.
The baby-faced behemoth, Burgess G, crosses before Merritt collects his third. Easts, done like a dinner, have never turned it up and are consoled by a late try. That it is scored by number sixteen is of sour Shakespearean irony.
South Sydney 28 (Tries: Merritt 3, G Burgess, McQueen Goals: Reynolds 4/5)
Sydney Roosters 10 (Tries: Maloney, Williams Goal: Maloney 1/2)
Referees: Ben Cummins, Chris James
Votes: 3 Luke (Sou), 2 Sutton (Sou), 1 Merritt (Sou)
Brisbane Broncos versus Manly Sea Eagles
7.05pm, Friday, 8 March
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Reversal of history
When the Winfield Cup exploded in popularity in New Zealand during the early 1990s – sparking my obsession as a nine-year-old – Manly did not seem the inherently loathed team they had been for the previous two decades and would be again from the mid-1990s onwards. At least, that’s not the impression I got from leafing through my Dad’s Rugby League Week magazines. Maybe it was the arrival of the passionate, down-to-earth former auto-electrician Graham Lowe as the Sea Eagles’ coach that temporarily moderated that hatred of the maroon-and-white.
Lowe’s arrival in 1990, along with the acquisition of the Iro brothers and former All Black Matthew Ridge – plus Darrell Williams, who won a Grand Final with the club in 1987 – saw Manly become more popular in New Zealand than Dave Dobbyn. The Sea Eagles were Kiwi league fans’ surrogate Aussie team and Dad got on board in a big way – which is when my mild distaste for them started.
Dad would wind me up about my beloved team, the mighty Brisbane Broncos, and I had a fuse shorter than Michael Hancock’s. I revelled in the Broncos eliminating Manly during the 1990 finals but Dad earned bragging rights (which he exploited very literally and vocally) the following season as the Sea Eagles surged into the top five while Brisbane floundered and fell out of finals contention.
The NSWRL staged a premiership game at Auckland’s Carlaw Park in 1992 between Manly and the burgeoning Newcastle Knights – it was a big deal for New Zealand rugby league. Dad and I decided to make the hyped clash even more interesting with a wager; at stake was a nude run down to the end of the street for the loser. The match was a thriller and the Sea Eagles held a slender lead in the dying seconds.
Being a bashful little kid, I started to stress out about my impending punishment…until the Knights started throwing the ball around in desperation. Space opened up on the left and Kiwi centre Tony Kemp sent Ashley ‘Flash’ Gordon over in the corner with an outrageously forward pass stealing a 16-13 win for Newcastle. I remember the stunned look on Lowe’s face in the grandstand – because it mirrored Dad’s, who managed to buy his way out of the nude run with a crisp $5 note.
But ‘Lowie’ left at the end of the year, Bob Fulton returned and everyone started hating Manly again while New Zealand’s own team, the Auckland Warriors entered the premiership just two years later.
The 2013 season-opener between Brisbane and Manly at Suncorp Stadium marked the 25th anniversary of the Broncos’ first match – a special landmark ingrained in the psyche of anyone that has ever been a supporter of the club. The Broncos pumped the Sea Eagles – the defending premiers – 44-10 at Lang Park in Round 1 of the 1988 season. The mastery of Wally Lewis, Allan Langer’s livewire display, Terry Matterson racking up 24 points, ‘Smokin’ Joe Kilroy blazing away for a try, Fulton brooding in the stands and Sea Eagles prop Don McKinnon infamously taking a leak on the field – it was a dream debut for the Broncos from start to finish.
This milestone occasion showed early signs of being another famous Broncos victory. Justin Hodges continued to climb the ranks of the club’s greatest-ever players, conjuring breathtaking first half tries for Matt Gillett and Lachlan Maranta with magical offloads, the latter a contender for try of the year.
But it was Manly that evoked memories of the great Broncos sides of old after the break. Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans displayed the poise and game-breaking genius of ‘Alfie’ and ‘Kevvie’ in their prime; Steve Matai was a combination of Brisbane’s former centre pairing Steve Renouf and Chris Johns – brilliant and tough; and Jorge Taufua and Anthony Watmough, built like Michael Hancock and Alan Cann respectively, were equally blockbusting. The Sea Eagles won the second half 16-0, strangling Brisbane out of the contest.
There was no indication of the NRL’s ‘Dad’s Army’ slowing down, while the monumental task of emulating their predecessors without the same bevy of superstars was surely beginning to dawn on the Broncos.
Manly 22 (Tries: Matai 2, Cherry-Evans, Williams Goals: Lyon 3/4)
Brisbane 14 (Tries: Gillett, Maranta Goals: Prince 3/3)
Referees: Shayne Hayne, Alan Shortall
Votes: Foran (Man), 2 Cherry-Evans (Man), 1 Hodges (Bri)
Parramatta Eels versus New Zealand Warriors
5.30pm, Saturday, 9 March
Parramatta Stadium, Sydney
Parra and prawns
My traditional season starter takes place at the Beenleigh Yatala Chamber of Commerce Prawn Luncheon, to watch all three grades from the one venue on Foxtel from Parra Stadium – the NSW VB Cup, the Under 20 Holden Cup and NRL Telstra Cup. What a Friday lunch!
When they say prawn lunch they mean PRAWN lunch. They come out by the bucket load, a michelle of prawns, and they keep coming until you stop. I met four mates there – the Tyre Fitter, Tiny, Tommy and Mr Creosote (named as such to protect his innocence). The Tyre Fitter – lean and fit; the rest of us with a combined weight of over 560kgs – prime prawn protagonists.
I was very dusty when Wenty played Mounties in the first match of the NSW VB Cup. G-squared and I had a special interest as Bubba was playing, scored two tries and won Man of the Match in Wenty’s win, a carton of VB the prize.
The prawns are magnificent washed down with CUB ales and De Bortoli Wines which also flow freely. We hoed into the beer and champagne to prime ourselves for the coming onslaught. The pace was fierce.
Parramatta’s Holden Cup team put the sword through the Warriors’ 20s. If nothing else, new coach Stuart has put some pride back into the lower grade teams. The crowd was building and primed for the main game.
About 1,000 punters queued up for the tickets to Prawn Utopia. Our lunch was interspersed with a deal of footy talk. Cronulla and the ASADA problems were high on the list. The old man had phoned in the morning and said he remembered when the league drug of choice was two nips of OP rum – and steroids were a pick, shovel and crow bar. We discussed last night’s match (Souths-Easts) and Tommy suggested that SBW might be a great sport but he would struggle to match us today on the prawn eating circuit.
Parramatta started well and my aching head told me the early teams’ wins were not flukes. Sandow (for the second year in a row) scored Parra’s first try followed by a Hayne special off Kelly and Maitua, and a third team try by Ryan off Morgan. 35 minutes gone, 18-0. The Warriors were all over the shop and down at halftime but they returned in the second half to score through Lillyman before the curse of the shepherd struck against Sandow and what seemed a perfectly constructed try was disallowed. Nielsen scored for the Warriors and it was 18-10 after 51 minutes.
We started like Parra but became a little like Monty Python’s “wafer–thin mint” skit. The five of us went hard. As well as prawns, we decided to see who could construct the best Prawn Burger. The craftsmanship was exquisite. At about the 51 minute mark we had 10 Prawns left. I suggested we eat two each. I announced in my best French accent, “Boys, they are only tiny, little, thin ones.” Mr Creosote rolled back into his seat and said “No, bugger off. I’m full”. We knew this was the moment.
So, too, Parramatta. Over the last two years they could well fold at this point. The first two games on the day and the first half of the NRL looked good but this was the moment. A loose shepherd by Mateo cost the Warriors a try and Parramatta then played sparkling footy. Tries to Sio off good play by Maitua, two to the Hayne plane and another to Sio and it was Warriors Voila!
So we ate all but the last prawn when I again – to the groan of Mr Creosote – said, “Oh, sir. Hmm? It’s only wafer thin.” The classic response followed as Mr Creosote said, “Look. I couldn’t eat another thing. I’m absolutely stuffed. Bugger off.” I pleaded French accent and all “come on – just one.” But there was no Voila. Tiny knocked it over and I gave a nice big “bon appetit.”
Likewise Parramatta had a 40-10 victory through a team effort. The coach had promised early that he would put the smile back on Sandow’s face and he had put a smile on a big chunk of Parramatta closing out with a nice big “bon appetit”.
Parramatta 40 (Tries: Hayne 3, Sandow, Ryan, Sio Goals: Sandow 6/7)
New Zealand 10 (Tries: Lillyman, Nielsen Goal: Johnson 1/2)
Referees: Jared Maxwell, Adam Gee
Votes: 3 Sandow (Par), 2 Hayne (Par), 1 Maitua (Par)
Canterbury Bulldogs versus North Queensland Cowboys
7.30pm, Saturday, 9 March
Bluetongue Stadium, Gosford
When hope meets urgency
For many football lovers, March is a month of hope. The dawn of a new season brings with it rejuvenation – be it in the form of a new coach, some new players or even just a fresh start after the previous year went awry.
For North Queensland fans in 2013, hope is mixed with a strong sense of urgency. The 2012 season concluded with a distinct “we wuz robbed” feel, courtesy of some dubious video referee decisions that have become no easier to defend long after the dust has settled. Aside from some changes in the hooking role, much the same squad has reassembled this season.
However, this stability from one season to the next may be fleeting. Matthew Bowen, Brent Tate and Dallas Johnson are each safely into their 30s. James Tamou and Matthew Scott are both off-contract at season’s end with plenty of rival clubs keeping their cheque books close by. Most importantly of all, Johnathan Thurston is also off-contract at the end of 2013 with Penrith the most overt suitor thus far.
In short, the Cowboys’ current band may be breaking up soon with the premiership window potentially closing. Tomorrow may not bring with it the same prospect of glory; the time to strike is now. Hope, meet urgency.
The opening round offered a great litmus test with a road trip to Gosford and a match against the 2012 runners-up in Canterbury. To threaten in September and October requires an ability to travel south of the Tweed and match it with the best teams. While putting too much stock in Round 1 outcomes is often fraught with peril, this was no ordinary opening match for the Cowboys’ faithful. This was a test of premiership potential that had to be passed.
The early minutes at Bluetongue Stadium were frenetic in terms of both match pace and action on the scoreboard – Hasler’s men seemed hell bent on making the game an 80-minute sprint and trusting their fitness to prevail. A dropped bomb from Steve Turner saw Ashley Graham open the scoring for the visitors before the Bulldogs’ speed and lateral ball movement exposed North Queensland defensively on each of the outer flanks for tries.
Truly great players impose themselves on contests at the most opportune of times. With the early momentum gone and the familiar scene of being in deficit on the road once again presented, Thurston came to the fore. He threw a dummy and zipped between Josh Reynolds and Tony Williams to put Gavin Cooper over the line before a cross-field bomb to the left corner saw Antonio Winterstein cross and the Cowboys assume an 18-12 lead at the break.
The play slowed significantly in a second stanza where errors started to mount and both defences dug their heels in. The one exception to this came with the Cowboys capitalising on a Kris Keating error in the subsequent set, which ended with Graham diving over in the right corner in the 58th minute for his second try of the evening and the final four-pointer of the match.
The 12-point winning margin was deceptive with the majority of the match fought on much closer terms. The Bulldogs missed the likes of Sam Kasiano and James Graham up front (albeit that debutant David Klemmer looked very promising), while the absence of Ben Barba and, to a lesser extent, Frank Pritchard dented their attacking flair. Above everything else, the Bulldogs effectively lost by one player; they simply had no response to a virtuoso performance from Thurston.
For Cowboys fans, the first major litmus test of 2013 was passed. If the jewel in the North Queensland crown maintains his opening round form throughout the season, hope and urgency will stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, throughout the winter and into the early spring.
North Queensland 24 (Tries: Graham 2, Cooper, Winterstein Goals: Thurston 4/6)
Canterbury 12 (Tries: Reynolds, Turner Goals: Inu 2/3)
Referees: Jason Robinson, Gavin Morris
Votes: 3 Thurston (NQ), 2 Tamou (NQ), 1 Tolman (Bul)
Postscript: Two days after this match, Thurston signed for another four seasons in Townsville. North Queensland fans collectively exhaled.
Penrith Panthers versus Canberra Raiders
2.00pm, Sunday, 10 March
Centrebet Stadium, Sydney
A hot start to the season
The following comment is no doubt sacrilege to diehard rugby league fans but I’m of the opinion that the rugby league season starts too early. To be honest, I’m more interested in the Test series in India than I am in rugby league at this time of the year, and that’s saying something given the dreadful state of the Australian Test side at present.
On this Sunday afternoon in Wagga, as I sit in the Union Hotel, it’s 35 degrees outside, too hot to be in the right frame of mind for league. In my state of indifference, the lure of the Sunday Telegraph perched atop the neighbouring table is too much as the game commences and I cast an occasional eye on the Raiders. Reading the sports section raises some fascinating issues confronting the game.
The doping scandal is everywhere. It’s all rumour, speculation and little hard evidence at the moment, though there’s enough to suggest that ethical and legal boundaries are being pushed and good governance overlooked in the high-stakes world of professional sport. The boundaries between elite conditioning and ‘performance enhancement’ are by no means clear, but when club staff without formal medical training are injecting players on a routine basis – no matter the substance – then you wonder whether things have gone a little too far. The fact that so many players are imbued with the attitude that the club knows best and you don’t ask impertinent questions speaks volumes about their role in modern day football clubs.
The Ben Barba meltdown story is also prominent. Gambling and alcohol are central and between the lines can be read a potential whiff of other factors. It seems a case of a young man who may very well have had demons in the absence of the pressures of professional sport, but intense scrutiny and an injection of big money have almost certainly exacerbated his problems.
Other stories point to other pressures on young men who have chosen football, seeing it as a way out of difficult economic circumstances, and the pressure that can create.
Sport is no longer about wandering down the park for a run and a kick. Hyper-professionalism has (of course) changed things so much, and there are layers of complexity that are not always well-articulated in a mainstream sports media of journalists who are trained in the ways of football, not sociology.
The ridiculously long NRL season, leaving me here watching league on a hot summer’s day, is yet another sign that, in some shape or form, perspective has been lost. A player like Cameron Smith can play over thirty games in a year and rugby league is a brutal sport. It is not like playing baseball every second day of the week; in league players are being continually pummelled like in no other sport. There have to be limits to the more, more, more strategy that is currently being pursued.
Nor is the lack of perspective engendered by this professionalism limited to rugby league. My great love cricket is doing something similar, sacrificing the quality of the only format that matters by filling the calendar over the brim with flim-flammery and razzle-dazzle that maximises the game’s revenue streams. Take heed, ye cricket administrators!
Rugby league is a game first and a business second. You can’t turn back the clock and have players representing their club part-time while holding down a full time job, but those running the game should take an ice bath (thanks, Kevin Rudd) and contemplate where the balance lies between the pure essence of sport and the inevitable professionalisation of the game. To continue the current trajectory is counterproductive, diminishing the quality that sport should be about. It even belies the mantra of needing to win in the supporter ‘marketplace’ that administrators are obsessed with, because quality will always have people watching. Less is more.
The state of Illinois can pass legislation declaring that within that state Pluto is still to be considered as holding its traditional planetary status. To those running the game I say, think outside the box.
The Raiders are awful after some initial bad luck and get soundly beaten. It’s certainly too hot for Canberrans to be playing league today.
Penrith 32 (Tries: Manu, Segeyaro, Coote, Smith, Plum Goals: Walsh 6/6)
Canberra 10 (Tries: McCrone, Ferguson Goal: Croker 1/2)
Referees: Adam Devcich, Henry Perenara
Votes: 3 McKendry (Pen), 2 Plum (Pen), 1 Dugan (Can)
Melbourne Storm versus St George Illawarra Dragons
3.00pm, Sunday, 10 March
AAMI Stadium, Melbourne
Storm clouds massing already
It’s a hot Thursday night in Melbourne. Brisbane-hot. And Brisbane-humid. I am at the East Coburg Cricket Club, one of those small but enthusiastic clubs which exist across sports-mad Melbourne. We are enjoying a beer on the veranda when the best rugby league player in the world turns up: Billy Slater. He is the guest of honour for a gathering of 50 people or so.
He is tiny. No wonder he’s learnt to be so elusive, it’s a matter of survival.
There’s a hint of Alwyn Kurts’s Spotswood about it all. Throaty Fords rock up. Kids chase each other and pelt yonnies. The barbecue sizzles. The salads are laid out. The bread rolls (thanks to one of the sponsors) look fresh.
The president, George Georgiou, a legend of the area for championing multiculturalism in cricket (cricketers of 80 different nationalities have played at East Coburg over the years) flits around ensuring all is going well. But, really, no-one can stuff this up. Billy Slater is here.
Billy warms to the gathering. He becomes very comfortable with the microphone, telling stories at his own expense, laughing and taking the mickey out of, well, almost everyone. “That Cam Smith,” he says. “You should see him with his shirt off. He’s got no shoulders. You think he’s got a chest but when you push at it you realise it’s just hair. He doesn’t look anything like a footballer.”
He can say that. He’s won a premiership with Cam Smith. He’s also grown up with Cam Smith. It is a remarkable situation that Billy, Cam Smith and Cooper Cronk were all recruited from the same Norths (Norfs) junior side.
Billy is rock-solid in his position that the Storm will not rest on their premiership laurels. They are determined not to wait for the hunters; determined to continue to improve. I leave persuaded. More persuaded than I had been.
Melbourne enjoy a soft first-round draw: home to St George.
Sunday afternoon. That it is 35 degrees might act as a leveller. Losing Ben Norrie late doesn’t help the premiers. But they dominate from the outset. Cooper Cronk takes control. A 40-20, when he runs right on an early tackle and kicks across his body powerfully on the diagonal, is telling. The Storm press and Slater shrugs a couple of tackles, dances and bursts from just metres out. The first try of the season.
The Storm attack again. When Widdop flies through a gap, he looks for Slater on the inside but for once Slater has over-run the play and the try is bombed. Soon after, Widdop smothers a grubber and the footy bubbles free. It bounces up for him and he runs 80 metres to score.
The Storm continue their barrage. Jesse Bromwich is strong, Tahu Harris energetic. The Dragons defenders are within an inch of having their spirits broken. In this heat it would be easy to chuck it in but they hang on.
Cronk is having a huge game. He puts Ryan Hoffman through a gap and the second rower combines with O’Neill backing up on the inside. 18-0 at half-time.
This could get ugly.
A few dark clouds gather in the west but there is no rain, and no respite.
The contest is saved when, just after the break, Jamie Soward snaffles an intercept and goes the length of the field. The Dragons look more enthusiastic. But, really, they are absolutely no match. They are terribly disorganised, at one stage looking like a bad touch footy side with no go-forward. And certainly no leadership. What have they done all summer?
By comparison the Storm are slick. They know what’s on, what’s coming next. They play their roles, Cronk the engineer even more so than Smith. Billy hangs around looking to back-up, looking for the half-chance.
They score a couple more tries. Slater is instrumental in the final one with an over-the-top hook pass bowled in an instant to O’Neill who gets Fonua away.
It’s another no-nonsense Storm display.
At the cricket club Billy Slater talked about individual and collective improvement, and about the determination each player has to contribute. On this performance I have no reason to doubt him at all.
Melbourne 30 (Tries: O’Neill 2, Slater, Widdop, Fonua Goals: Smith 5/5)
St George Illawarra 10 (Tries: Soward, Nightingale Goal: Soward 1/2)
Referees: Matt Cecchin, Luke Phillips
Votes: 3 Cronk (Mel), 2 Widdop (Mel), 1 Bromwich (Mel)
Cronulla Sharks versus Gold Coast Titans
6.30pm, Sunday, 10 March
Sharks Stadium, Sydney
Gee, I sure can pick ‘em
I have a confession to make. I have not always been a Cronulla Sharks supporter. Between the ages of six and eight I was a fervent fan of the mighty Gold Coast Giants. I attended my inaugural first grade rugby league game in 1989 when I ventured down to the big smoke with my parents to watch the Giants take on the Eels at Parramatta Stadium. I arrived at the ground wearing my legendary Giants jersey which carried the name of my first rugby league hero, Geoff Bagnall, across the back. In what was to be a sign of things to come in my life as a rugby league supporter the Giants were thumped by the Eels that day.
Fast forward two years and I had decided to cut all ties with the Gold Coast franchise. Not only had they changed their mascot from the imposing Giant to the cowering Seagull, but they had signed my vision of the devil reincarnate, Wally Lewis.
Growing up in country New South Wales, it was compulsory to hate Wally, or King Golly, as he was affectionately branded by the Daily Telegraph after an alleged spitting incident in the early ‘90s. As such, upon hearing the terrible news of the prized acquisition, I immediately jumped off the sinking ship that was the Seagulls and subjected myself to a lifetime of heartbreak as a supporter of the Cronulla Sharks.
With this in mind, in normal circumstances, I would bear no ill will towards the Titans players or their supporters. However, given the events of this past week, I have little time for nostalgic reminisces. For once again, the Cronulla Sharks management, in conjunction with the NRL, has thrown the team under the bus. As Sharks supporters were out buying coats and blankets to welcome home Harold Holt in October, the season was over before it began.
The much publicised but, as at the time of writing, unsubstantiated ASADA investigation had struck. There were rumours of the brokering of secret deals and late night confrontations with ex-trainers. I barely slept all week. My work hours were spent scouring news websites and Twitter accounts. Based on my understanding of the facts as they were reported, I couldn’t work out why ASADA had seemingly granted immunity to a trainer, who was responsible for introducing an allegedly crooked doctor and overseeing the provision of supplements, to prosecute players who seemingly acted in good faith upon his advice. It’s like granting immunity to Tony Soprano to catch Artie Bucco.
Cronulla management, in usual fashion, imploded as the coach, manager, trainer, doctor and physio were all removed from their positions under section 1A of the Cronulla Constitution, “trial by media”. It was rumoured that Mermaids Coordinator and Choreographer Jacqui Doran was also in the firing line but she was spared due to her importance to the organisation.
It was reminiscent of the mayhem that occurred three years earlier where, as other clubs bunkered around their fallen stars, the Sharks threw their players to the wolves as treacherous acts such as falling down on a footpath whilst drunk were deemed sackable offences. As Manly refused to bow down to the pressure imposed by the NRL surrounding the Brett Stewart incident and used the incident to galvanise the team on their way to grand final glory, the Sharks received a gold star from the NRL for their good deeds and promptly settled near the bottom of the NRL ladder for three seasons.
So with this on the mind of all players and supporters coming into this contest, it was a surprisingly composed and polished performance from the Sharks as they put the torment of the preceding week behind them to record a tremendously gutsy victory. In my lifetime as a Cronulla supporter I had rarely been prouder of the team.
Cronulla 12 (Tries: Wright, Fifita Goals: Gordon 2/2)
Gold Coast 10 (Tries: Mead, Taylor Goal: Sezer 1/2)
Referees: Ashley Klein, Phil Haines
Votes: 3 Gordon (Cro), 2 Fifita (Cro), 1 Morris (Cro)
Newcastle Knights versus Wests Tigers
7.00pm, Monday, 11 March
Hunter Stadium, Newcastle
Priorities, poker, pain and pizzled
I missed the other Round 1 contests. Two old uni friends had rather selfishly scheduled thirtieths on the opening weekend of the competition, so I’d made the trek back to Canberra for the first time in several years to celebrate. On consecutive nights I drank more heavily than my constitution has ever allowed, only to be roped into afternoon drinks on the Sunday as well, my last day in town.
This was probably not the best preparation for the last of my Canberra plans. The final leg of my trip would be at the house of another old uni mate, Eugene, where we were to resume a fierce and long-standing poker rivalry. It had been years since we’d played against each other and to mark the occasion Eugene had provided for us a bottle of Jameson and a box of goon most people wouldn’t put in their spag bol. It was just like old times.
I’d been very much looking forward to this and entered into the evening with a simple plan: to reassert my well-established dominance over Eugene at the poker table, leave him broke and in a state of humiliation and despair, and cover my expenses for the trip.
Like the Tigers’ 2012 season, though, early favouritism proved meaningless.
After playing all night I had managed to lose more than a week’s pay by the time the sun rose. Despite an 8am flight home, I was in no mood to cut my losses. Staring across the table at my smug and self-satisfied old friend, in a rush of hubris I decided to book a different flight and continue playing.
I reasoned that my initial plan to crush Eugene’s spirit and take all his money was a good one. All I needed to do was keep playing for another twelve hours.
As it turned out I had the stamina for two. In between hitting ‘confirm payment’ on the Qantas site and roughly the departure time of the flight I was meant to be on I continued to lose heavily. Then, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I accepted a rather inglorious defeat.
It was only as I slumped on the couch to contemplate payment plans and the ignominy of it all that the full picture of my foolhardiness set in: not only had I, at 6am on a Monday morning, paid for a new flight to allow myself the opportunity of losing even more money, but I had also chosen a flight that overlapped with the Tigers’ first game of the season.
For the rest of the day I wandered aimlessly around Canberra pondering my own stupidity, managing little more than to arrange for my housemate to tape the game for me. Something to look forward to, I thought.
That changed when, on touchdown back home, I unthinkingly checked a message from a mate who supports the Knights. Concise and to the point, it simply read: “ha ha ha!”
At this point I felt like I deserved everything I got.
I didn’t check the score on the way home. Obviously the Tigers lost but maybe the taunt meant it was a nailbiter? Perhaps we showed a great deal of promise but couldn’t quite get the bacon in the end? A dismal hope to cling to but the best I had.
When I finally arrived home, slunk myself on the couch and pressed “play” it was evident early on that it would not be a close contest. No, they were insipid from the outset and never in the contest. I strained to keep my eyes open for a game in which it seemed my team never held the ball. My memory of the contest is hazy but essentially consists of a highlight reel of the Tigers losing possession, in almost humorous ways on occasion, then standing idly by as the Knights backline ran around them.
On some level, knowing the result probably allowed me to better appreciate the Knights’ performance. They did look the goods, Boyd and Uate in particular.
But for the most part it felt like an 80 minute exercise in self-harm.
Newcastle 42 (Tries: Uate 3, McManus 2, Gagai 2 Goals: Gidley 7/9)
Wests Tigers 10 (Tries: Blair, Moltzen Goal: Marshall 1/2)
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Brett Suttor
Votes: 3 Boyd (New), 2 Uate (New), 1 Gidley (New)
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