No one looking good at Maroondah Hospital

Sallow complexions all round thanks to the harsh light rebounding off the cream walls.

There are animal murals (hanging monkeys, lounging zebras, feeding giraffes) for the kids but in outpatients today it’s the elderly couples. Typically, the man is the patient.

Later in the evening it will be teenage boys in moonboots, after jumping drunk from bridges and roofs, laughing loudly at unfunny YouTube clips of drunken yobs jumping from bridges and roofs.

“Mr Cedric Saunter to the colonoscopy room please”. Poor old tubby Cedric with a big bandage on the top of his head and two hearing aids – the men also have the hearing aids – struggles up out of his seat producing a fart (think, bubbling hotpot casserole) and totters off to his appointment led by his doting equally portly wife.

Is it time to go Brodie?

Two years ago the words “A star is born at AAMI Park!” were heard as the gushing accolade for a teenager who in just his second NRL game, coolly as you like, sunk the match winning Golden Point field goal.

That teenager, of course, was Brodie Croft. He only appeared one more time that year wearing the jersey that for 12 seasons had been wrapped around the torso of superstar Cooper Cronk.

Then, in his first official outing as the successor to the great halfback, he produced a near man-of-the-match performance against Leeds in the World Cup Challenge.

And yet after just five games into the season he was gone from the team. An error-riddled Storm found themselves tenth on the ladder and much of it was put down to Croft overplaying his hand, and his lack of structure.

A more subdued and “solid” Croft eventually returned to the team and played in the grand final against his former mentor.

But then after playing the first 22 rounds of this season – just three from the finals – for a team on the verge of the minor premiership, he was dropped again.

As everyone knows, no player makes it at the Melbourne Storm if they don’t put the effort in.

That’s why when Croft heard Bellamy’s media explanation for the decision (“It gave me no pleasure. The kid tries hard”) he knew his time was up.

The star has talent and tries hard, but it’s not enough.

And notice the sad replacement of the word ‘star’ with ‘kid’.

In the final game against the Cowboys when Croft was recalled to “warm the rested Cameron Munster’s No.6 jersey” Gus Gould asked Billy Slater: “What do you make of this young fella Brodie Croft Billy. Still developing?”

And of course it’s not really all about the performances of Croft. It’s also about the rise of a superstar whose ascendancy, it seems, will result in the dimming of the star that shone so briefly at AAMI Park two years ago.

Oh yes, Ryan Papenhuyzen. The skinny “third string” fullback whose plutonium-powered entry on to the big stage (112 avg running metres, over 200 avg running metres as starting fullback, eight tries, 13 linebreaks, 59 tackle busts) has the Wests Tigers reliving the same mortal dread they feel every time they watch another of their bargain priced products Josh Addo-Carr streak down the field.

If his slight frame and disconcerting tendency to bend his neck in tackles don’t prove his undoing, he’s going to get better. Although, other than gaining strength, I don’t see all that much room for improvement.

Exhilarating acceleration and top end speed combined with an impressive cardio capacity, he already has a deft late offload. During his Round 9 dismantling of Parramatta just watch the break he made, with the monster Blake Ferguson bearing down on him, that sent Addo-Carr to the tryline

But what happened to Brodie Croft? That combination of fluency, sleight of hand and bristling confidence exhibited against Leeds has not been seen since.

A linebreak or two, even a brilliant try scoring one, but the underwhelming nature of his tenure brought murmurings from greats like Johnathan Thurston who has been a constant but well meaning critic of both his defensive and playmaking performances, and from the club’s own supporters. I’m reluctant to admit that I called for his axing midseason for Hughes and Papenhuyzen. It has been the right call, but an unfortunate one.

He is strongly built and at the height to nail a large forward around the hips or legs. But if he he isn’t in the perfect position could also be run over, a common scenario this season while defending his tryline; a defensive weakness that his replacement Jahrome Hughes doesn’t appear to share.
He seems timid and uncertain with ball in hand. Often almost just handing it off to the nearest runner while Smith and Cameron Munster run the plays, attack the line and execute the offloads and cutout passes. He would take the planned dutiful kicks on the last tackle and into touch.

Is Cameron Smith part of the problem?

Since Croft’s axing last season Smith clearly imposed himself on the playmaking to the extent that he is now a hooker and a half back. Croft – once an exuberant precocious playmaker exhilarated at the prospect of steering the greatest team of the modern era – has become a mere foot soldier under General Smith.

In an on-ground interview after the Anzac Day clash against the Warriors in which the Storm luckily scraped home, Smith jovially responded to a question about Croft’s match sealing field goal that would have embarrassed the young halfback: “I came across to play the ball and I saw Brodie sprinting across to our left-hand side where Cameron Munster already was. So I turned around and I said, ‘Get over here and kick the field goal!’”

He did but only after it deflected off the upright. His response wasn’t one of euphoria, or even of relief. More, a withering self belief and a little simmering resentment towards his skipper.

He mentioned mid-season about seeking professional advice on confidence issues.

Storm’s partly enforced developmental model provides exciting times for supporters to see players slowly emerge but also to feel stress at the inevitability of losing some to calls from home and big contracts.

The sad fate of Croft has coincided with the inspiring story of Max King. A couple of months ago the forward was withering away in reserve grade for the wooden spooner Titans and now he is a finals player for the Minor Premiers: “Every Game I play I go back and think on everything that has happened and I get a bit emotional. It is crazy how it has happened so quickly and I appreciate every opportunity I have been given”

But back to Croft. Did he exceed expectations too early? Has the pressure of having Cooper Johns and Billy Walters, sons of legends, breathing down his neck and wearing Cronk’s no.7 jersey proven too much?

Ironically, with his confidence shot, what he most needs are some words from his predecessor, one of the mentally toughest players of all time.

Many have said he needs more time, that he is still learning.

But perhaps he just doesn’t fit in this team. The Melbourne Storm may not be for everyone. “Just playing your role” doesn’t suit the natural game of some. It can be stifling and self defeating for a ball playing half

It’s not often mentioned that James Maloney made his NRL debut with the Storm in 2009. I watched that game. Smallish but fast eager and aggressive, I didn’t quite know what to think of him.

In light of the astute recruitment of five eighth Brett Finch and imminent rise of the Victorian raised Englishman Gareth Widdop, he left for the Warriors and it was then that I knew what to think of him.

Two years later he was instrumental in knocking out his former team in a preliminary final and went on to claim a premiership with the Roosters and then to deliver a second reason for Storm to lament a lost recruiting opportunity by denying them a premiership with Cronulla’s historic 2016 grand final victory.

James Maloney is a winner and even more so against the Storm. But at least they helped him be one. On the eve of that 2016 grand final he admitted: “I learnt a lot about footy down there. It was a big part of me going down there”.

Maybe it’s time for you to go too Brodie. Like Maloney, Widdop and Cody Walker before you who moved on to become creative dominant playmakers, and prospered.

If you do, I wish you the best.

But please don’t play well against the Storm; your former mentor has caused it enough grief.

Originally published on THE ROAR

A Tale of Two Cities: A Preview Of The 2018 NRL Grand Final

Many years ago my father was offered a job in Sydney.

No one in the family wanted to go except me, transfixed as I was by the blue harbour, the multi coloured taxis, the vibrant chaos of the place, the light and warmth. The sheer Australianness of it.

Then someone mentioned they didn’t play Aussie rules there. My love and affinity for that game, one I was excelling at, changed my mind. Ironically it’s the Sydney game I follow now.

And tonight, this grand final promises to be one of the code’s great ones.

An NRL official lamented that the Sharks and Rabbitohs weren’t playing because that game would have generated more revenue.

Perhaps, but this game is between the two best sides. The powerhouses (yes, a cold soulless description and the spectre of salary cap rorting and unbridled poaching hangs over the Storm and Roosters respectively) of the competition.

And a contest between the best is what a grand final is about.

The strange thing about successful people in all endeavours is – despite opinions about compromised character and the often awfully selfish means of achieving success – other people are drawn to them. They can’t help watching.

The production designer of the film Death in Brunswick made this poignant remark: “It’s about characters who normally don’t get their stories told. Because they’re losers. And most people are losers you know, in some way or another. That’s a very real thing.”

Us losers will be watching tonight and the runner up technically will be a loser but as Greg Norman once remarked ; ” I’m a winner. I just didn’t win today”.

And failure brings us to Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson.

Bellamy, the player, was there when the Raiders established themselves but was left out of the 1989 premiership side. He was in the 1990 grand final winning team but you wouldn’t know it. Robinson played a mere 4 games at the top level but was always asking questions. Like most great coaches these two, lacking nature’s physical gifts, sought answers.

Their rivalry is in its infancy: 7-4 to Bellamy. I wonder if this game will mark the beginning of a rivalry the equal of the Storm and Broncos; and the Roosters and Rabbitohs.

Robinson had immediate success taking the Roosters from 13th to the premiership in his first year . Bellamy’s rise to greatness (5th, 6th, 6th, minor premiership, premiership) was a more gradual process as he moulded his disparate group of promising youngsters and rejuvenated rejects into a formidable outfit.

In the coach’s box Robinson is, outwardly at least, the most relaxed. He looks like a man who knows he has the players but is focused on how to utilise them. Bellamy – whether the Storm is winning or not – is constantly ill at ease, mumbling to himself, shouting and darting to the back of the stall while his assistants, seemingly unaffected by the antics of their eccentric boss, remain focused on the game.

But they are both thinkers. More importantly their players respect their knowledge ideas and authority. They care for their players and the players play for them.

In an enlightening interview by Peter Sterling in 2016 I learned that Robinson was not your typical NRL coach. Firstly he is a Francophile (“I love France”) after spending time at Toulouse Qlympique as a player and coaching the Catalans Dragons. More importantly he is sensitive and articulate: “Coming home after Monday’s loss you don’t stop thinking about it and then you walk in the door and you see the kids and that light comes back into you a bit”.

You feel he has sacrificed other things of immense interest to him in order to excel at what he does now. “When you become a football coach you narrow your interests. I was a much more interesting guy 10 years ago than I am now.”

With Bellamy you sense he can’t, or wouldn’t, do anything else.

In the week of the preliminary final Bellamy strolled next door to address the Collingwood players before their clash with premiership favourites Richmond. Nathan Buckley acknowledged the generosity of the gesture in view of the Storm’s upcoming match against arch nemesis Cronulla and said the aura that success brings and Bellamy’s message expressing his deceptively simple ethos of hard work (“the harder you work, the luckier you get”) and “playing your role” transfixed his players and was significant in propelling Collingwood into the grand final.

The Storm is a phenomenon. The greatest team of the past decade and more, one of the greatest of all time has not bought a single star player under Bellamy. Over 15 years of sustained success and dominance in a city without an established rugby league culture, an outpost. That must be unprecedented in the history of professional sport.

Bellamy took over what appeared to be a waning unsustainable enterprise – spent from the exhilaration of winning a premiership too early in only their second year in the most memorable and dramatic decider the code had seen.

The Roosters with the formidable business interests and connections of its long term chairman Nick Politis have used what Melbourne CEO Dave Donaghy politely termed “a different model” of recruitment ie attracting potential premiership winning stars with very attractive – but salary cap compliant – third party deals (apparently Cronk was finally lured by an opportunity of studying at Harvard).

But it hasn’t all been about blatant poaching and financial advantage. There have been the hardworking loyal mainstays like Anthony Minichello, Jake Friend. Boyd Cordner Mitch Aubusson… and Mitchell Pearce.

What are the thoughts of Mitchell Pearce with his former team in the grand final? Does he believe he could have got them there without Cronk?

It wasn’t, I’m sure, the intention of the Roosters to be rid of Pearce. They needed the final piece to a Premiership jigsaw – and that was structure, composure, meticulous attention to detail. The instinctive attacking backs “play what was in front of them” but coming up against a defensive fortress like Melbourne where there are rarely any gaps in front of you the dynamics alter. Unsuccessful attacking raids can be as tiring as repeat defensive sets, and more demoralising.

I feel sorry for him. An excellent player often blamed for Origin losses. But he was up against the greatest spine that will ever play the game. Nathan Cleary will never face that.

Cronk is not quite the player he was at the Storm. Whether that’s the absence of Slater sniffing about for a sublime no-look pass, age, the mellowing of temperament that comes with marriage and fatherhood, different coaching strategies or culture we won’t know unless someone asks him for the truth. And would Cronk truthfully respond to the question: What club do you feel more at home at?”

Robert Dessaix wrote “Can there be a more important word than ‘home’ to make your own in the English language? “Love” I suppose, although I wonder sometimes if they might amount to much the same thing”

This week Cameron Smith explained: “We’re all from interstate, or from overseas somewhere, all down there together just looking after ourselves”.

“Home” has been a serious issue for the Storm. They’ve been forced to steal youngsters from their beds in the dead of night – the parents and oblivious both to the possibility of their sons leaving them and of the child’s potential for sporting greatness.

Equally significant though has been the resurrection of aging forwards and those deemed plodding hacks by their former clubs.

It’s been unseasonably cold here in Melbourne.

Yes – too cold for too long – even for this town’s drear frigid climate. It’s a place where a Storm fan lies in bed – the window shuddering with the powerful freezing southerlies thinking how long can we keep players brought up in northerly climes.

Prodigies like Curtis Scott, Brandon Smith, Brodie Croft and Scott Drinkwater bunk down together. Instagram and Storm videos show they are mere boys. Bare walls, piles of unwashed clothes. They don’t even know who they are yet. Scott has his framed premiership jersey resting against the bedroom wall. They’re humble and unassuming despite playing in one of the greatest sides of all time and destined for greatness if the dynasty is to continue.

And there is the odd couple (perhaps orchestrated by Bellamy) of Business graduate Christian Welch and North Queensland larrikin Cameron Munster.

For those players with family it has been the presence of wives and young children at the games.

Later with success, some are lured back home for money and to be with family.

Perhaps when more Victorians play at the elite level and miss home the Storm can lure them back like Kenneth Williams was from a hot sojourn in Crete: “I should be glad to get back to my own country… the delight of being able to be cool”

Also the problem of having such dominant figures like Smith, Cronk and Slater means players search elsewhere for greater opportunities and responsibilities.

Gareth Widdop played in the 2012 premiership but I think he felt a bit like Mike Collins during the moon landing. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin danced on the lunar surface and were being praised to high heaven by President Nixon poor Mike was stuck in the command module on the other side of the moon. And just as Armstrong was delivering his famous line: “That’s one small step … Mike was heard on the radio asking: “How’s it going’?

On Tuesday night there was the chill factor of Slater’s looming Grand Final suspension and things felt grim.

At 8.45 when news of Slater’s reprieve came through I suddenly found myself in a balmy paradise. One of the great grand final exponents was going to play his last game in the quest for back to back premierships.

Cooper Cronk’s injury – what a horrible thing fate is: a warrior like Cronk – a stationary vulnerable target for late hits from stampeding forwards twenty to thirty kilograms heavier than himself his whole decorated career plays an entire season but finally succumbs, to miss out on a Grand Final. Not that he will have any self pity: he has played in seven already.

If he recovers and plays I’m sure he would prefer to play against an opponent he despises than one he loves and respects. The Roosters hierarchy would have privately hoped it would not come to this. Their star recruit spawned in the Melbourne culture and having to defeat it. Lose and the ploy has failed. Win and it will always be said you stole success.

“Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies”, wrote Gore Vidal.

Will it be Cooper Cronk or Billy Slater who dies a little inside as their close companion lifts the Premiership trophy?

Confessions of a Grand Final Coward

It has been a year, minus a week and a day and a half.

Since the night my shaking finger refreshed the mobile phone and I watched the line at the top complete its journey across the screen.

Then – like a shot of poison to the soul – this appeared:-

MEL 12

CRO 14 


For a moment, with the MEL at the top, I thought the Storm had taken it but then the sight of CRO 14 in bold italics hit home.

The image remained – torturing me – on the FOX NRL LIVE SCORE website for the entire offseason.

The 2016 Grand Final that was decided by Andrew Fifita’s try in the 70th minute. I still haven’t watched it.

And I’m still not ready.

Yes, I’ve heard snippets from friends and relatives who didn’t really want to talk about it but had had the courage to watch. I heard Cronulla came out hard and unsurprisingly targeted Cronk.

But the Storm, like its 1999 predecessor, was patient and relentless. It turned the tide and broke the surface with the 65th minute Will Chamber’s try.

I heard there were then two consecutive penalties – Christian Welch was mentioned – that led to the match-defining act.

And was it really true that during Melbourne’s frenetic final moments Chambers – a saviour a quarter of an hour earlier-  failed to notice an unmarked Cronk next to the tryline?

I have only two visions of the game and both were seen unintentionally in a highlight package and a post-game analysis months after the tragic event. Against my instinct, I didn’t look away.

The first was the worst: Fifita’s quivering slow motion put-down, and the second was an interview on the ground with Michael Ennis who admitted he thought the Chamber’s try had spelled the end for his team.

It’s been nearly eight years since I wrote Why I Can’t Bear To Watch The Storm In Grand Finals

It documented a history of being unable to watch my team play in a decider. It began as a child in my AFL days with bike rides around Melbourne during Collingwood’s gallant but doomed battles for glory in the late seventies and early eighties, and continued after my conversion to rugby league and the Melbourne Storm.

And nothing has changed since. In fact, the condition has worsened. Despite being a paid up member I can rarely watch a home and away game live, or on television.

A recent Eurosport ad proclaimed:-

‘I am a devoted fan. I am a true believer. You can only understand my madness … if you share my passion”.

This passion and madness in sports fans is usually expressed in extravagant extroverted acts on game day and, in its less noble manifestations, can be seen in drunken altercations afterwards.

But my passion and madness take another route  – to timidity trepidation and intricately plotted means of escaping the source of my passion.

I retreat within myself, go inside my shell. But unlike the snail and tortoise, I’m always on the move: by car, on the bike or striding along the neighbourhood footpaths without a destination.

To kill those two hours.

Is my version of fandom a more serious form of madness, an act of cowardice or the greatest passion of all? Who knows?

I have been privileged to revel in the glorious longevity of this club’s success –  surely one of the greatest of the modern era – and the heated controversy surrounding its success has pained me sometimes but also made the achievements all the sweeter.

It won its first premiership in only its second year, was a target of resentment for its initial News Limited funding and lack of a league culture. And then, of course, came the salary cap transgressions and criticism over its tackling technique.

I’ve given up calculating the statistics of grand finals played and minor premierships won (and this year’s team is a level – at least-  above last year’s minor premier). As with its skipper, greatness is assured.

And yet despite this level of sustained success and the attacking prowess of his 2017 model I worry about Bellamy’s obsession with defence and wince when I read these words from a military historian describing the Japanese in World War Two:-

“They were ruthless and bold as ants while their designs went well, but if those plans were disturbed or thrown out they fell into confusion, were slow to adjust themselves, and invariably clung too long to their original schemes”

Matty Johns likes to call it Storm’s “love of structure”.  And like all structures it can be broken down. Opposition coaches and players always talk of “moving the ball” “throwing it about” as a way of breaking down Storm’s solid fortress.

I always fear that Melbourne could one day, in the game that really counts, be outdone by a rag-tag collection of carefree ball throwers, weaving runners and giggling goosesteppers.

But the threat doesn’t lie just there. There are the admirers and replicators of his style for Bellamy to worry about also.

Remember it was Shane Flanagan who on the eve of last year’s grand final admitted: “Two years ago, when we talked about where we wanted to be as a club, Melbourne Storm were one of the clubs we looked at. I know the way Craig operates. They have been the most consistent team for ten years, for mine. We admire them as a club and a benchmark.”

Tonight the Storm play Brisbane in the preliminary final and it’s because of my pathological fear that they may not make it through I have written this article now and not next week.

At 9.55pm tonight in a deathly quiet street surrounded by hard rubbish collections I will once again refresh the screen on my mobile phone to discover if the Melbourne Storm has added another chapter to its glorious legacy.

If they do I won’t be watching them in the grand final but I will find some comfort knowing that this time around if a huge opposition forward attempts to plant the ball down for the match winning try in the dying minutes he will find Billy Slater waiting for him and not the tryline.


Published on the sports website The Roar :-