By STEVE MASCORD
IT’S the most obvious question to ask any retiring player, a clichéd query that invites a clichéd response, asked more out of obligation than anything else.
And it’s usually saved until last: “what was your career highlight?”.
Jeremy Smith, 36, has more than a few clichés from which to choose: the 2008 World Cup with New Zealand, St George Illawarra’s first premiership in 2010, a grand final success (to which there is no longer a title attached) in 2007 for Melbourne.
Adding to the odds of a response something like “that one!” is the fact that in 13 years of first grade, Jeremy Smith has not been known for outrageous utterances.
“Obviously winning comps and World Cups and Four Nations….” he begins, as he sigs on a concrete partition with A-List outside Wests Mayfield days before his final game.
“But I just think when you’re in the trenches with your mates, defending your line for set after set, the other team not scoring and then….”
He looks off into the distance, like he can actually see battles past.
“You get the ball back and you’ve gone 100 metres and scored a try. I think you take more out of those games than you do out of winning competitions.
“It’s just one of those things. You can look at your mate and your arse is hanging out and you can look at one another and give him a nod and know he was going to turn up for you.
“In tough games – that’s when you get the most joy. It might not be fun at the time, but….”
It’s a prescient metaphor for the entire 200-plus game career of Smith, which ends this weekend. It wasn’t much fun at the time – certainly not for his opponents – but it was pretty damn impressive.
It began in Melbourne – but not at the Storm. They knew nothing about him until he went to Queensland, a curiosity which will amuse cynics.
Smith recalls: “My parents up and moved us from Christchurch to Melbourne and I ended up playing for Altona Roosters down there. I was about 13 or 14.
“It wasn’t the strongest comp. I played there for a couple of years and we up and moved to the Gold Coast to play football and school as well.” There was an ill-fated stint with the Northern Eagles in there somewhere. In 2005, Smith made his debut for Melbourne.
And for a year after that … nothing.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy made it clear that this career might be over at one game, too. “I was playing reserve grade and getting suspended and (had) injuries and what-not.
“Bellyache called me into his office for one of those meetings and he said ‘you’ve got one year left on your contract and if you want to make the most of it, you’d better knuckle down’ and that’s what I did.
“I hit the ground running in the pre-season and the rest is history.”
History includes 22 Tests for New Zealand a fearsome visage at Melbourne, St George Illawarra Cronulla and Newcastle. Like Parramatta’s Beau Scott, he had a reputation as being on-field “security” for the most talented men in the game.
“I wouldn’t say look after them, as such. That’s a tough question, actually. I wouldn’t say I’m a bodyguard but I look after my mates, that’s for sure.
“If they were good enough to play first grade, they’re all equal that’s for sure.
“I definitely relied on my defence …. to be aggressive. Back then, 2006 … it was a pretty tough comp and you could be a bit more physical than what the game is now.”
At times Smith was painted as a villain for the niggle but he’ll retire with an overwhelmingly positive legacy in the minds of most, to the thinking of this reporter. There’s no escaping, however, his proximity to two of the biggest controversies we’ve had in recent times – the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal and the Cronulla peptides affair.
“They were fairly big deals at the time,” he nods. “Darkest day in rugby league, it got touted at one time. I wasn’t at the frontline with the boys at Cronulla, that’s for sure. I was up here in Newcastle, we didn’t really get much and Wayne protected me from the media.
“(Current Sharks players) were right there and in the thick of it and I tried to keep in touch with the boys and make sure everyone everyone was going alright, what was getting said and what was going to happen.
“With the Melbourne one, I wasn’t there either. I’d moved on. Copping a bit of backlash from it, it’s part and parcel, isn’t it? I couldn’t really do anything about it. It had already been done.
“I’m not really one to worry about too much, I’m a pretty easy going, happy-go-lucky person. Whatever is meant to be is meant to be and whatever happens will happen. It didn’t really bother me.
“… with the Cronulla … they said that we were going to have the back-dated (suspension), a little three-month stint out … we didn’t really have a leg to stand on there at one stage.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s all done and dusted now.”
Surprisingly for such a fit man, Smith detests the gym and reckons he may never set foot in one again. The game itself was hard enough and he’s suffered enough for several lifetimes. “You get out of bed and you limp around and you come to training … I’ve got a sore knee, I’ve got a sore shoulder. I probably haven’t been 100 per cent fit since the start of the year. But that’s not only me.
“It is hard, but that’s what makes you who you are, isn’t it? You want to be a tough competitor, you’ve got to put up with bumps and bruises.”
We conclude with me asking if he still actually enjoys playing rugby league. There’s a cheekiness in his answer, but more than a modicum of truth, too.
“I still enjoy playing – you just don’t get away with any more high shots.
“It is still physical. It’s just not as grubby as it used to be….
“You’re not allowed to put your hand on people’s faces for some reason … “
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
THERE Is something unnatural – even mean-spirited – about the finals.
For 26 weeks, rugby league is just THERE. Some weekends, there aren’t eight NRL games but no matter how well or otherwise your team plays, there’ll be a match to watch again in a minimum of a fortnight
That’s 24 matches in all – pain, sweat, ecstacy, danger, drama and heartbreak. Leave aside the commercial aspect and look at it as a football competition – 1920 minutes are played purely for the right to make the finals.
Once there, the maximum number of minutes of football you will be afforded is 320. The mathematics, therefore, answer the most basic of questions: how much more important is a final than a regular season match?
Six times more important. Every minute in a final is worth six during the home and away rounds. Put another way, the NRL season is the equivalent of running six times around a track to decide whether you make the final one-lap sprint, and what your handicap will be.
But it’s those six laps that often give us our best stories and our memories. Those six laps are what makes a season for most of us, not the hare-like sprint at the end.
From a logic standpoint, the play-offs are clearly an artifice – a construct intended to add excitement and therefore profitability to the back end of a sporting competition. We are often told performances under the pressure of sudden death are “the true test” of a team.
Who says? Why? Surely how many tries and goals you score, and how few you concede, are more impartial barometers. That’s why Manly coach Geoff Toovey said the minor premiers were not given enough credit.
Here at League Week, we’ve tried to redress the balance this week by recording and honouring the players and teams who passed the post first in 2014.
A football season is often described as “a journey” but for your correspondent, it has been many. At the time of writing, I have travelled 162,922 km this year, mostly in pursuit of rugby league.
A season for me is a blur of airports, insane taxi-drivers, rental car desks, wifi passwords and hotel loyalty programmes. What do you ask Greg Inglis after he scores the try of the century? How do you report Alex McKinnon’s injury when no-one will talk about it? How do you get Steve Matai and Anthony Watmough to comment on reports they’ve just asked for a release?
Here are my moments of the season – from the point of view of a travelling hack trying to cover them for radio, newspapers and the great Rugby League Week. They are feats which weren’t only observed, they were lived (your favourite memory may have missed the cut for a simple reason – I wasn’t there).
April 14: MELBOURNE SCORES AFTER THE BELL TO BEAT ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA
THE NRL would later confirm fulltime should have prevented the Storm scoring the winning try in a 28-24 win. Working for Triple M, your reporter grabbed the winning scorer – Young Tonumaipea – right on fulltime. Unfortunately, we were on the same frequency as another outlet, meaning Young sounded like he was broadcasting from Venus. The mobile phone was quickly produced, and interviews were submitted by email. The trouble with the clock was not immediately obvious but Dragons coach Steve Price told us on air: “When I thought it was zero, he still hadn’t played the ball. We were truly the better team tonight – by far.”
April 20: BIG PAUL VAUGHAN BAGS A TRY ON THE DEATH TO BEAT MELBOURNE’
WE were on the scene within seconds of the Italian International danced nimbly between defenders to score the try of his life. “I just picked up the ball, I don’t know what happened, it happened so fast,” said Vaughan after the 24-22 victory.. “I think there was a loose ball, I saw a couple of lazy defenders and skipped across and gap opened up and I went for it. I thought it might have been a possible obstruction.” It was the Raiders’ third win of the year – they would find them harder to come by over the balance of the camptain.
April 25: GREG INGLIS SCORES LENGTH OF THE FIELD SOLO TRY BEATING SIX DEFENDERS
THERE was a collective withholding of breath in the Suncorp Stadium media box as Inglis set off on this run for the ages. Surely, he won’t get there – will he? Even gnarled hacks applauded when he did. Coming to the South Sydney dressingroom doors later in the evening, Inglis said: “I think anyone can score one of them. You’ve got Benny Barba …you see a try like that from (Michael) Jennings over the years at Penrith. You just see all these naturally gifted players. It’s a bit unfortunate in our game that you don’t see enough of it.” He came close with another beauty in the return encounter.
June 7: CRONULLA WINS FROM 22-0 DOWN
CRONULLA’S season has been bleak by any measure. The ASADA controversy and suspension of coach Shane Flanagan meant 2014 was a write-off from the start. When they arrived at Suncorp Stadium in late Jun,e captain Paul Gallen had publically questioned whether caretaker Peter Sharp was giving 100 per cent. No-one expected them to win and they duly trailed 22-0 after 27 minutes. What followed seemed impossible; the Sharks started their comeback just before halftime and won 24-22. “I think it’s a turning point for the club – it doesn’t matter where we finish this year, and in my career – where we’ll remember when everything turned around,” he said. Days later, Carney would be sacked over the bubbling incident.
June 15: CRONULLA WINS FROM 24-0 DOWN
GENERALLY speaking, I don’t cover Sydney games for the newspaper. There are enough rugby league reporters in Sydney. But when they Sun-Herald gave me one, it was a doozy. Eight days after the biggest comeback in the Sharks’ 47 year history, they broke the record again – by beating the reigning premiers and world champions. Not only that, they did it without Sharp, Carney and captain Paul Gallen. Jeff Robson scored the winner with three minutes remaining, and the Roosters crossed with 11 seconds on the clock but the try was disallowed because the referees were unsighted. “I thought I got it down,” Mitch Aubusson said. Cronulla’s round 25 display in Townsville almost got the wooden spooners three mentions here.
JULY 20: RISE FOR ALEX
NEVER mind that Newcastle lost their home game to Gold Coast, 28, on the Rise For Alex weekend. McKinnon’s injury was the saddest event in the careers of most of us. I covered the match and will never forget that night and what I witnessed and heard from the sidelines. But the Rise For Alex round was a testament to the compassion of the rugby league community and a platform for a brave, stoic young man who has already made a difference n the lives of so many and will continue to be beacon. The character, bravery and hard work of Alex McKinnon and those around him was best thing about 2014, and will remain so no matter what happens over the next four weekends.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
NEWCASTLE tyro Tyrone Roberts says Jeremy Smith is the man who’s given him the confidence to guide Wayne Bennett’s side around the park under intense pressure at finals time.
Only 22 years old with just over 50 first grade games to his name, Roberts helped the Knights end the premiership defence of Cooper Cronk-guided Melbourne on Saturday and faces up to Mitchell Pearce this weekend.
Unheralded at the start of the year, he’s playing with maturity beyond his years.
“Jeremy Smith, he’s had confidence in me every week to do the job,” Roberts, who will play despite a long-term posterior cruciate ligament injury, tells League Week.
“He calms me down.
“It’s a good balance. The (experienced players) give us some advice. We take a leaf out of their book and they trust in us to do the job.
“Bedsy (Danny Buderus) … all the older boys have got faith in the younger boys.”
The secret behind his own form?
“I think it’s just the belief, being the player that other players want to play with which is our motto, he answers.
“Wayne (Bennett), he settles us down and makes sure we don’t get too amped up before the game and overplay ourselves. I think it’s a credit to the boys, we stayed calm.”
Jeremy Smith says about the Knights chances against the Roosters: “We have nothing to lose next week – everyone wrote us off anyway”.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
WAYNES WORLD VIII?
ASKED on Saturday night why his Newcastle side was coming good in the finals, coach Wayne Bennett replied: “It’s spring”. Then quizzed if that was the reason just for him, he replied: “For all of us, that’s the time you want it to happen”. On the eve of the second preliminary semi-final, veteran Danny Buderus said Bennett was “a different coach” during the finals. That was apparent to outsiders after the 18-16 victory, when Bennett acceded to every interview request. On Sunday, he even made a rare appearance on FM radio. The reason Wayne Bennett makes himself scarce for most of the year is so he can cash in his media chips when it matters most, drawing attention and pressure away from the players by cracking jokes and hamming it up in public. The man with an image for dismissing the media actually strategies his interactions with them down to the finest detail.
WALKING WOUNDED CUP
YOU’D be forgiven for forgetting there is plenty of rugby league on after the grand final, by virtue of the World Cup. But will there be any star players still standing? Benji Marshall and Justin Hodges are already gone, Sonny Bill Williams is rated at long odds chose the tournament over boxing and then there are the walking wounded of the the NRL finals series. Greg Inglis, Anthony Watmough and Billy Slater (all knee) all look doubtful for Australia. Jack Reed’s shoulder has already cost him his England spot and if Brent Kite is playing with a broken hand, it’s hard to see Penrith encouraging him to play for Tonga. Sisa Waqa suffered a grade two medial ligament tear on Saturday night and seems set to be a Fiji Bati casualty. There will no doubt be more withdrawals – probably many more.
WOULD it really be such a bad thing for referees to be given a third option when they send a try decision upstairs, namely “dunno”. The signal could be arms at the side, bent at the elbow, with flat palms pointed at the sky. Maybe a head tilt as well. But seriously, is there not a logic disconnect in saying the on-field official must make a decision in 100 per cent of cases, only using technology to doublecheck his decision, then making it significantly harder for technology to disagree than agree with him? Surely the information of the video referees is being hampered to such an extent that we might as well not have them at all. Not having “dunno” seems a matter of pride rather than practical sense. At least I think that’s the case. I’m not sure.
LATE on Sunday night, Tony Smith – brother of Brian – was force to make a decision which he detested. Under the rules of the Super League play-offs, as the highest-ranking winner of week one in the play-offs, Smith’s Warrington got to choose their preliminary final opponents. The Wolves had a choice between Huddersfield, 76-18 winners over Hull, or perennial late-season-peak men Leeds, 11-10 winners over St Helens. Smith detests ‘club call’, as it is known, for old school coaching reasons – it gives the opposition ammunition. That’s how highly coaches rate psychology – they’d rather pass up the chance to choose their own opponents! The question is, who would 2012 Catalan coach Trent Robinson choose this year? I’m banking on the team where he used to be assistant under Tony Smith’s brother – Newcastle.
GROUNDS FOR CONCERN
ONCE upon a time, all finals were played at the Sydney Cricket Ground or Sydney Sports Ground. You knew it was September in Sydney when the wind picked up and you waltzed onto the hill around midday to watch under 23s and reserve grade. But crowds were poor early in the finals, so we shifted matches to home grounds. Then we did that in week two, then week three. And we stopped using suburban grounds completely. But – as we saw at the weekend – attendances are still and issue. What is the logical next step? Tendering out finals to venues who can guarantee big gates and financial security, perhaps? Perth, Auckland, Brisbane, Wellington, Adelaide, Darwin? Seems to be worth a try, given that finals venues are already centrally controlled and the grand final is in Sydney until further notice.
SOME questions regarding Saturday’s NRL media release: One of the people interviewed as part of the probe, a reporter, says he was told by the SC’s assistant the alleged incident itself was not being investigated. If this is true, how can one investigate a cover-up without determining if there was something to cover up in the first place? And how can a person who was not investigated be exonerated in the subsequent press release? Given that that the release said there would be “no further comment”, I guess we’ll never know. You might be wondering why this column is appearing, given its Sun-Herald predecessor. I’ve only stepped away from chasing news, because I can’t see the point under current conditions. I’m still hoping someone wants me to cover games and write columns and features. So far, so good. Fingers crossed.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
MELBOURNE Storm’s premiership defence ended with a startling admission from coach Craig Bellamy that his side lacked finals hunger.
Down 18-4 to Newcastle with 33 minutes left in the second preliminary semi-final, Cameron Smith’s men charged back but fell just short in a pulsating clash before 19,649 fans. It marked the end of the careers of representative stars Jason Ryles and Brett Finch.
“A lot of you guys, especially, have said we didn’t have the September buzz, for want of a better word,” Bellamy, who also led his side a world club championship at the start of the year, told reporters.
“And I think you are right. We just didn’t have .. whether it’s the want, desire, the reason to believe, I’m not quite sure.
“But the last couple of weeks we just didn’t have that something that you need in September.
“While the guys fought really hard in the last two weeks, we got behind in both games by 14 points and fought hard. There are positives there but we certainly contributed to our demise.”
Exhausted captain Cameron Smith said the defeat would give him many sleepless nights. “It’s hard in this competition to go all the way every year,” he said.
“Taking out 2010, this is our worst result since 2005. This is the first year we haven’t made a prelim (final) and haven’t made a grand final. That gets lost in the result tonight but that’s a fair achievement for an organisation to do that.
“We just weren’t good enough tonight and we weren’t good enough this year.
“The most disappointing thing is not that we’re out of the competition, but the way we’ve gone out.
“We had a team there capable of doing something this year but we didn’t play good enough when it mattered.
“I’m not thinking about next year yet. I’ll probably have a couple of sleepless nights over the next week, pondering what could have been this year.”
Asked if he was disappointing to hear his coach say the side lacked hunger, captain Cameron Smith said: “Yes and no.
“Yes because we don’t want to be that type of football side. We certainly don’t train to be that type of team but it’s sort of been happening that way in the back half of the year where we’ve struggled early in games and given opposition teams head start.”
Asked whether he felt the Storm lacked the required buzz, he said: “Not really. Not with our preparation.
“With our performances over the past few weeks, maybe. Particularly the last two weeks. You need to play your football with a lot of energy and intensity – especially this time of year – and that was a concern for us.”
Bellamy said his charges “got a bit frantic when we got within two”.
“If you take the last two weeks out of it, it’s been a really good year for us,” said Bellamy.
“We went over to England and won the World Club Challenge, then we started off with six or seven wins in a row. We had a couple of rough patches, we came through those rough patches pretty good and found a way to come third in the minor premiership.
“I think our draw this year, how it worked out, we travelled a lot early to hot places and we had short turnarounds and whatever.
“It was a really tough draw this year but the guys come through it really well. We had a couple of downs as you’d expect but we just didn’t seem.”
Winger Sisa Waqa is in doubt for the World Cup with a grade two medial ligament tear.
Filed for: SUNDAY AGE
DESPITE a stirring rear-guard action in front of a rabid, deafening AAMI Park crowd, Melbourne Storm’s premiership defence is over.
Under master coach Wayne Bennett, the unheralded Newcastle Knights rode into town and raced to an 18-4 lead just after halftime before Cameron Smith’s men attempted to run them down.
But at the end of the season which has seen their fortunes fluctuate, the Knights had the composure to hang on for their first win in Melbourne since 2004.
’The Storm found themselves 18-4 down with 33 minutes left in the second preliminary semi-final, with the majority of the 19,649 crowd trying to roar them back into the contest.
And they had some success, Cooper Cronk chipping ahead, regathering and passing to Kenny Bromwich, who in turn punched the Steeden onto winger Sisa Waqa.
Waqa, who had made a costly earlier error, raced over for his side’s second try, which Cameron Smith converted.
The second half had barely been underway when Newcastle took a lead which, in less high standard and frenetic games, would have been match winning.
Storm fullback Billy Slater dropped a bomb after trying to take it above his head, AFL style, with second rower Chris Houston racing through to score.
Video referees Steve Clark and Luke Patten checked that Slater had not been illegally interfered with after his initial error and the try was given, converted by Tyrone Roberts.
Melbourne held a 12-4 advantage at the end of a first half played at breakneck speed, with a couple of flare-ups inciting a vocal crowd.
The Knights gave early notice that they meant business when Kevin Naiqama, a late inclusion for James McManus who has a stress fracture in a lower leg, made a searching break before being hauled down less than 20 metres out.
Newcastle was sending wave after wave of attack at the Storm line and only a dummy-half fumble prevented them from ramming home an earlier territorial advantage.
Cronk kicked for Slater, who tapped the ball down to Kevin Proctor at the 22-minutes mark, with Novocastrian Jeremy Smith somehow managing to hold up his fellow Kiwi back rower.
But after Naiqama expertly defused a bomb, fellow Knights winger Akuila Uate managed to open the scoring.
The Knights appealed for a shoulder charge ruling against Slater as Uate crossed in the southwestern corner but there was no joy. Thankfully for Newcastle, replays showed the Fijian crossing cleanly and Tyrone Roberts converted for 6-0.
Newcastle’s Chris Houston fumbled from the ensuing kick-off but the world champions were initially held out.
However, a 26th-minute tackle by Alex McKinnon and Darius Boyd on Slater changed the course of the first half. McKinnon came in second and appeared to make contact with Slater’s head.
“I’ve seen that, there’s contact with the head and it’s been confirmed,” said referee Gerard Sutton. Within seconds of the penalty, Melbourne centre Maurice Blair sliced through to score from clos0e range.
But captain Cameron Smith was unable to convert and when McKinnon was involved in a head clash with Jordan McLean in the 33rd minute, tempers flaired.
Knights Joey Leiula rushed in and received a caution, while Smith said the referees: “I accept it was a head clash but isn’t that why we’ve got the (shoulder charge) rule? Richie Fa’aoso got six weeks for that at the start of the year.”
The referees didn’t see it Smith’s way, ordering a turnover for a lost McLean ball. The rookie was diagnosed with a broken jaw and didn’t return.
And with two minutes to go in the first stanza, the Knights added to their total with Chris Houston crossing after Sisa Waqa fumbled Tyrone Roberts’. Roberts converted from out wide.
NEWCASTLE 18 (M Hilder C Houston A Uate tries T Roberts 3 goals) bt MELBOURNE 16 (M Blair J Bromwich S Waqa tries C Smith 2 goals) at AAMI Park. Referees: G Sutton/B Cummins. Crowd: 19,649.
FOUNDATION Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett expressed disappointment the Broncos had missed the finals for only the second time in 21 years.
Bennett’s Newcastle consigned the current Broncos to that ignominy, coming back from 14-0 down to score a 26-18 victory at Suncorp Stadium with Darius Boyd and Joey Leilua each scoring try braces.
Asked his feelings upon seeing the club he helped found in 1988 fail to make the play-offs, Bennett said: “Second time in 21 years?
“Yeah, I’m disappointed for them. Proud club … they’ve got a short history but it’s a wonderful history.
“But it happens, you’ve just got to get on with life, recognise what you’ve probably done wrong. It was a thing for us a long time here, that we prided ourselves on enormously.
“I can go back to so many different years where we just scraped into the finals. It was a whole part of our being, just knowing you’d be there.
“You mightn’t be there one year in the top four, but if you’re (in the eight), you’re never going to be far off it.
“They always found a way to get there, they always found a way to win. I don’t know about the current crop here. I’m not here now. I’m just talking about the past.”
Asked how it felt to have preside over one the Broncos’ worst seasons, coach Anthony Griffin said: “It doesn’t (feel like that) but it is what it is.
“You’ve got to look it square in the face and build off it. I thought the last six to eight weeks we were starting to build again.
“That first 40 or 50 minutes tonight, I thought we were giving ourselves a chance. Unfortunately, we’re just not there at the moment.
“But the statistics won’t like, they’ll tell a story. That’s something for you guys to report.
“It’s very disappointing, frustrating … (they) are probably the main things which are the obvious ones.
“We need to learn why we got so close in a number of games – exactly like tonight. It’s obvious it’s not where we want to be but we’ll learn from it.”
Late Friday, Knights team doctor Peter McGeoch said it was likely captain Kurt Gidley had suffered the same tendon injury in his right foot has he had previously incurred in his left and would be sidelined for the rest of the domestic season and the World Cup.
Australia utility Gidley suffered the agonising break scoring a try just after halftime that got the Knights on the road to victory.
Another key moment was the sin bin dismissal of Brisbane captain Sam Thaiday for repeated infringements.
A fortnight ago, Bennett accused top teams of deliberately conceding penalties and called on officials to use the sin bin more.
“It’s hard for them, I understand that,” he said. “No-one enjoys that part of it. But you can’t give away four penalties there on the tryline.
“If you’re going to give up four on your tryline in that space of time, something’s got to be done about it.”
Thaiday was tight-lipped on the issue. “it got to the point where he had to do something, and he did something,” said the second rower.
“I feel more disappointed I let my team-mates down. I was on the sideline, they scored a try.”
Bennett also said the key to winger Akuila Uate overcoming an ugly first half gaffe was encouraging him to forget about it.
“He’s got a tendency to take his divot with him when he makes a mistake,” said Bennett. “Having worked with him for two years, I kinda know what works.
“My job was to pick him up. He was great in the second half.”
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
BRISBANE’S season is over and so, it would appear, is that of Newcastle’s former NSW State of Origin captain Kurt Gidley.
Newcastle will almost certainly be in the NRL finals after coming from 14-0 down a minute from halftime to edge the Broncos 26-18 at Suncorp Stadium on the opening night of the season’s penultimate round of home and away fixtures.
It’s only the second time in 21 years the Broncos have missed the finals.
But the Knights and Wayne Bennett had little reason to celebrate a rare away win over Brisbane. Gidley, who missed three months this year with a tendon injury to his left foot, was carried off in agony with an injury to his right after scoring a crucial try eight minutes after halftime.
Late Friday, Gidley was in hospital but his chance of taking part in the play-offs and the World Cup, where he would have been a near-certain Australian selection, appear grim.
The Knights victory was all the more remarkable considering an astonishing gaffe by winger Akuila Uate in the first half and their general listlessness during the opening stanza.
Four players – Peter Wallace, Dunamis Lui, Corey Parker and David Fa’alogo – were placed on report for a variety of offences while captain Sam Thaiday was sent to the sin bin for a professional foul.
Victory was assured for the Knights when fullback Darius Boyd crossed for his second try near fulltime. Centre Joey Leilua also posted a brace.
The game featured what was probably the bombed try of the season, Uate scooping up a loose ball and racing 90 metres, almost unopposed, before appearing to touch down one-handed.
On closer inspection, however, Uate lost control of the ball. Video referees Jason Robinson and Neil Wharton disallowed the try. The Fijian appeared to lose confidence immediately afterwards, failing to challenge for kicks and spilling a bomb in the 32nd minutes.
By any measure, Brisbane’s 14-6 halftime lead flattered the visitors.
The Broncos opened the scoring after 10 minutes when Corey Parker waltzed over to the right of the posts from the pass of a sharp-looking Andrew McCullough.
Scott Prince, who announced his retirement last week, converted and added the extras once more when McCullough scrambled over from dummy half just five minutes later.
Wayne Bennett’s side was on the back foot constantly during the early stages. After a penalty for interfering in the play-the-ball, Prince ticked the score over to 14-0 with ease.
Faced with annihilation, the Knights muscled up in defence. In the case of an apparent shoulder charge by Alex McKinnon, after Zane Tetevano and Willie Mason had already made contact with Ben Hannant in the 20th minute, they may have overdone it.
But at a time when Brisbane could have gone on the rampage, the Knights held them out.
Seconds short of the break, the Knights kept the ball alive in the south-eastern corner and centre Joseph Leilua dived over for his side’s first try, which Gidley converted from the sideline.
Brisbane had led the penalties 4-0 but by early in the second half, they found themselves behind as referees Ashley Klein and Chris James marched the Novocastrians up the field.
Thaiday found himself in a running battle with Klein and at 48 minutes, the second rower was sent to the sin bin for repeated infringements.
Seconds later, Gidley sighted a gap and sliced through. But when he waved team-mates away from the ground, it was out of agony rather than reluctance to celebrate flamboyantly.
The injury-blighted Australian international and former NSW captain had suffered a suspected broken foot and the sight of him writhing in pain before being administered an oral anaesthetic was disturbing.
After play was held up for some time while a medicab arrived on the scene, replacement James Roberts goaled and Brisbane’s lead had been eroded to just two points.
NEWCASTLE 26 (J Leilua 2 D Boyd 2 K Gidley tries Roberts 2 Gidley goals) bt BRISBANE 18 (C Parker A McCullough C Oates tries S Prince 3 goals) bt at Suncorp Stadium. Referees: A Klein/C James. Crowd: 27,601
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD