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?