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 

COMPLETE

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

http://www.theroar.com.au/2009/10/17/why-i-cant-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.

http://www.theroar.com.au/2011/07/24/taking-the-hits-in-rugby-league/

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 :-

http://www.theroar.com.au/2017/09/22/confessions-grand-final-coward/

Champagne in Films and Television Part 1

In Series One, Episode Two of  SherlockSherlock Holmes enters the apartment of a stockbroker he suspects has been murdered and opens the fridge to reveal at least 7 bottles of Bollinger Special Cuvee.

Seconds later he discovers in a bedroom the body of the man whose demise appears to be the result of suicide.

Using his superhuman attention to detail and a form of reasoning (‘abductive’, apparently) he decides correctly the stockbroker was murdered.

Of course he was. Who would kill themselves when there are seven bottles of Bollinger in the fridge?!

 

Woody Allen’s Wonderful Alice

I watched Alice (1990) for the first time in a long, long time and realised it is one of my favourite Woody Allen films.

The warmth of it. The soft music, the reminiscence, the lost and unhappy character of Alice (Mia Farrow) who, unable to sleep, wanders into her living room and is reacquainted with her past and the vision of her late boyfriend Eddie (Alec Baldwin):-

Alice: Who’s that?! Who’s there? … Who’s there?! Who is it?

Eddie: Don’t you remember?

Oh! …That voice!

Alice. Alice Jansen

Eddie?! Is it Eddie?!

Hi ya sweetheart

Is that you?!

God you’re even more beautiful now. It’s been almost 20 years.

I thought of you the other day. I met an interesting man who kind of reminded me of you … he’s like you, he’s irresponsible and temperamental but he’s cute, you know? …. What’s wrong?!

I feel very, very strange! …. It’s the oddest sensation. I feel like I’m fading. I am fading. What’s happening?! Here it goes. [his image and voice disappearing] It was great seeing you again …. You’re still wonderful.

Melancholic yet wonderful. Poignant and romantic.

There was also the rustic and cosy rooms of Chinese herbalist Dr Yang into which I escaped (from real life, from the prospect of work? I’m still not sure) with Alice.

It was no surprise the film got Allen a Writers Guild of America nomination (and Farrow a Golden Globe nomination); not that he cares – to Allen awards are just opinions. Inexplicably, some people are affected by a particular work of art, others aren’t.

Respected film critic Geoff Andrew wasn’t affected by Alice. He chose the unfortunate term ‘whimsy’ (“the silly whimsy of the fantasy interludes”) to dismiss the above scene, as did Leonard Maltin: “the whimsy seems forced and Allen’s usually infallible choice of soundtrack music is heavy-handed”.

Each to their own.

Hail To The Melbourne Storm

At the time of its conception the Melbourne Storm was deemed – and some still subscribe to this notion – to be a heartless moneyed construct in a city indifferent to the game of rugby league.

Two years ago when Cameron Smith was agonising over a multi-million dollar offer from the Broncos, the club who let the laconic and seemingly unexceptionable teenager pass by a decade earlier, his wife Barbara, knowing the decision was dragging on and dragging him down, sat him down to ask a key question.

It was the question the Storm faithful – passionate followers who had been there from the beginning – hadn’t dared ask lest they have their hearts broken.

The question went something like this: “Cameron, I know it’s a lot of money, I know you grew up in Brisbane, I know our families still live there, but what decision feels right for you?”

“To stay. This is our home now”, was the reply.

It was an exhilarating answer for the fans who despite the success knew that many previous players – the majority of who were cast-offs from Queensland and NSW – hadn’t really called Melbourne home. They were here only to prove they were worthy NRL players.

The coach too found himself in the southern outpost, not for family, coffee or “culture”, but to escape his mentor at Brisbane whose influence had become a shadow, and to create his own dynasty.

But once he had done that and St George Illawarra came calling he found he wasn’t capable of leaving: “The emotional attachment is very strong, especially with the players. I found that attachment too hard to break to be quite honest. I feel like a bit of a fan, I suppose. This is my club”, he said.

According to Matty Johns, this great team was inadvertently spawned by Brisbane when four men (the Big Four of Bellamy, Smith, Slater and Cronk) arrived at the Storm, spurned, neglected or ignored by the mighty Broncos, and made great by their desire to prove them wrong.

Most of its young players have followed the lead of their coach and captain and now consider Melbourne home. Teenage prodigies, like Cameron Munster and Curtis Scott, were prepared to leave the security of home to learn under Bellamy, Smith Slater and Cronk.

A Storm is the perfect image for a team that has instilled fear in a competition for the decade and half of its existence. Storms at their most extreme are scarier and have caused a lot more death and destruction than the powerful animals that many teams use as their mascots.

The German military with its Storm Troopers and Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was adept at instilling fear in opposition with references to the power of nature.

And like a screaming Stuka the Storm arrived in 1998 releasing its payload on to the established order of rugby league, winning a premiership in just its second year in one of the code’s most dramatic and exhilarating grand finals in a competition where a ninety-two year old foundation club hadn’t won one for seventy-seven years.

Based in a city ridiculed for its climate, weather was always going to play a part in the Melbourne club’s identity. But it’s not entirely appropriate. It drizzles here mainly. The real storms occur to the north in the game’s traditional home.

Also, blitzkrieg has never really been their style. From day one they have been patient and relentless. They never give up and are rarely stitched up which is why their 40-0 grand final drubbing at the hands of Manly is so sweetly savoured by many opposition supporters.

Bellamy’s great sides were more like the Russians than the Germans at Stalingrad. Unperturbed by the numbers and talent in front of them they defended ruthlessly and cleverly . Tiring the enemy, surrounding them and cutting the supply lines, they would send snipers like Slater and Inglis to pick them apart.

The 1999 premiership came after a Qualifying Final thrashing, and surviving the Semi and the Preliminary Finals by a mere two points.

And in the Grand Final, against their first final nemesis St George Illawarra, they were on the verge of an insurmountable second half 2-20 deficit when Anthony Mundine – who had been issuing Ali-esque taunts to the Storm throughout the week – failed to live up to his mentor’s ability to back up his words and lost the ball over the try line.

Watching that game now, seventeen years on, it’s easier to see clearly and understand what happened next. The Dragons’ disappointment at not burying Melbourne morphing into doubt and finally panic as the Storm kept coming, culminating in the penalty try that would sink them.

If you thought Melburnians didn’t care for their artificial construct, think again. Six hundred thousand of them watched that game on television and for those who travelled to Sydney to be part of the world record crowd at Telstra Stadium it was an experience that still lingers.

One of them going by the name of Sportymale commented on You Tube: “Why do I still get nervous and goose bumps every time I watch this? As a 16 year old sitting in the nosebleeds of the stand that is no longer there, it was one of the best days of my life.”

Contrary to popular belief the Storm gets significant media attention. With almost daily articles in The Age and Herald Sun it surpasses even Collingwood, the biggest sporting club in the land, for coverage.

AFL supporters on the street are always enquiring after them.

Understandably the salary cap breaches have left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. There are opposition supporters still screaming “cheats!”, six years on from the event, probably as much from sheer exasperation that a football team without a league culture has continued to be a major force – as from distaste over the morality of the breaches.

The wrestle whinging continues but Bellamy (with his great rival Des Hasler) has helped change the game for the better. The ruck and tackles have the power and intensity of rugby, players kick and mark the ball with the technique and dexterity of their AFL counterparts, and forwards goose step, sidestep and offload.

More significantly defences have become so highly structured, relentless and brutal that it takes either a penalty or something special to score a try. Hence the exhilarating rise of athletic, acrobatic wingers and centres the size of forwards.

Last Saturday, a decade after their first minor premiership – with Inglis long gone and Slater absent – they won another. Afterwards, an incredulous Paul Kent on Fox’s NRL 360 asked: “How have they managed to do it?”

Hate them for their corporate beginnings, for their playing style, for the salary cap breaches, and even for where they come from, but don’t pretend these words from the great Phil Gould aren’t true:-

“Melbourne Storm is everything you want your football team to be. They take kids, develop and nurture them, and turn them into champions. They turn the team into a champion team , and the club into a champion club. Every club would like to do that. Every supporter would love to have a team like the Melbourne Storm”.

Hail to the Storm.

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