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?

https://www.theroar.com.au/2018/09/30/a-tale-of-two-cities/

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 an 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.

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.