The A-List: JEREMY SMITH (Newcastle & New Zealand)

smith-jeremyBy 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.”
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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

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Are St George Illawarra the fittest team in the NRL?

By STEVE MASCORD

“The fittest side in the comp” – that’s the mantra that St George Illawarra players use when the blow torch is applied to them, it’s been revealed.

The Dragons’ world look like it had fallen in on them when Jarrod Croker scored with three minutes left in regulation time at Jubilee Oval last Thursday after they had dominated the clash with Canberra.

But in a glimpse inside the joint venture’s game day mentality, English forward Mike Cooper tells League Week: “It goes back to our fitness. We always think we’re a fit side and that was a real test for us.

“We talked about it quite a lot, about backing ourselves late on in games. Our second half performances have been really poor so far this year.

“We just had to stay tight and be composed. We’ve got a lot of experience in the side and we didn’t really panic. It was a bit of a shock to me that we went level. We probably should have closed the game our really … learning curve.

“We all felt pretty good at that period of time. We certainly put the work in in the pre-season and we feel like we’re the fittest side in the the comp. We proved that last year. We would out-grind teams and beat them on fitness and grit.

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“There was evidence of that (against Canberra), that we’re getting back to that sort of form.”

The Dragons recovered from Croker’s match-levelling score to win in extra time, thanks to an intercept from Scotland Four Nations hopeful Euan Aitken.

Captain Gareth Widdop confirms Paul McGregor’s men draw heavily on their torturous pre-season.

“We certainly back ourselves with our fitness and effort,” the five-eighth says.

“Last week we let ourselves down. It was a big challenge there, going to 12-all in that situation. You’ve just got to remain positive in what you do and that’s what we tried to do. With a bit of luck, we managed to get a win.”

One sour note was an overtime penalty for running a “wall” during extra time – two weeks after Raiders coach Ricky Stuart complained Penrith’s use of the tactic cost his side two competition points.

“To be honest I was more focused on taking the field goal,” says Widdop. “I didn’t really know what the penalty was for. I was just trying to get back onside.

“It’s a hard one. As long as they’re consistent with the ruling on it, that’s all that matters.”

Filed for:  RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The Eight Most Intriguing Players In The NRL

By STEVE MASCORD

WE are constantly told that rugby league players have become vanilla, clichéd, boring. Either that, or that they are uneducated hoodlums.

The idea that they can be engaging, interesting, intriguing people is something that rarely enters the public imagination.

There could be a number of reasons for this.

Current NRL media guidelines do not guarantee any in-depth profile-type interviews at all … absolutely none. They are, instead, aimed at providing soundbites and clips to feed the churn of the day-to-day news cycle.

And what clubs don’t have to do, they more often than not don’t do.

Another reason would be players being burned by tabloid headlines and being unwilling to share anything of their personalities with reporters. And then there’s coaches, who tend to be bigger beat-up merchants than journalists when it comes to using the comments of rivals for motivational purposes.

But as a reporter, we talk to players before and after the digital voice recorder flashes green. We observe body language. We see how players interact with each other and with fans and officials … and there are some very interesting dudes out there.

Here’s a selection

GREG INGLIS

South Sydney - Greg InglisFOR years, Greg Inglis was a quiet monolith. He destroyed defences on a weekly basis and said little the rest of the time. When South Sydney signed him from Melbourne in 2011, chief executive Shane Richardson famously declared “I think we just secured our 21st premiership”. Inglis soon began to appreciate his capacity to do good, particularly in the indigenous community. He worked on his public speaking – which has come in handy since he become captain of Souths. The transformation has been absorbing – and it will be very interesting indeed to see what Inglis does upon retirement.

BENJI MARSHALL

Marshall, BenjiBENJI Marshall has grown up in public. From that outrageous flick pass to Pat Richards in 2005 to calm organiser with the Dragons, a decade later, it’s not always been a comfortable ride. His time at Wests Tigers ended acrimoniously when he was dubbed “Benchy Marshall” before a failed foray into rugby union. Along the way, Benji learned to be humble – and he’s likely to be rewarded by a return to the Kiwis number seven jersey in October. “I thought I was going alright – and no-one was telling me that I wasn’t,” Marshall says of his tome at Wests Tigers. “Sometimes you need to hear the truth, especially when you’re an older player, or else you get caught just coasting and that’s what I was doing. I just got too comfortable in my position. There was never a time when I was under pressure from someone else coming through who was going to take my position Even my family wouldn’t say anything, which is … which is a shame.”

ANTHONY WATMOUGH

EVEN when ‘Choc’ wasn’t doing interviews – back when Manly were under intense media scrutiny – he would be cracking jokes with us.

Manly - Anthony Watmough

Watmough comes across as stand-offish and friendly at the same time, a combination that seems to make absolutely no sense but has led to a budding radio career. ““The scrutiny that I was under at the time was pretty daunting and it was pretty hard on – not just myself but – my family,” he once told A-List. “My mum takes it harder than anyone, the things that are written. Me, my family, everyone around me, knew that I wasn’t a serial killer. I was on the front, back and middle pages every day for a while there. You don’t get anywhere fighting against the people who write about you every week. It’s more along the lines of just – grow up a bit, bite the bullet, get on with life.”
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JAMES GRAHAM

Graham, JamesJAMES Graham is one of the more intelligent, humorous and engaging players in the NRL. Then he crosses the sideline; It’s the British Bulldog who was found guilty of biting Billy Slater’s ear in the 2012 grand final, and whose confrontation with referee Gerard Sutton sparked crowd trouble after the infamous South Sydney clash in April. Graham has also argued that if he wants to play on with concussion, he should be allowed to do so. It’s been suggested that Graham plays without concern for his own safety – or that of anyone else. ““In hindsight now, you just get on with it, but at the time you’re trying to get that point across,” he said a few days later. “Stakes are high, emotions are high and that’s not an excuse for questioning the referees decision because really, he’s not going to change his mind. It’s obviously not good behaviour, it’s not a good look.”

MICHAEL ENNIS

CONTRASTS are intriguing – and Michael Ennis is a man of contrast. On the field, he never shuts up and is known as one of the competition’s

Canterbury - Michael Ennisprimo sledgers. Off it, he’s a polished media performer, deep thinker and passionate advocate for players. His on-field ferocity becomes a joke, role play. But which one is the real Michael Ennis? ““I guess I skate a fine line,” he told A-List. “Well, not exactly skate a fine like but I have a competitive nature. I don’t know – not dirty things. Just competitive. I believe you should just get as much out of each game as you can. I could sit here and preach about what a good guy I am and how I’ve got kids and how I’m a nice family man but that’s not what I’m about, that’s not who I am. It doesn’t really worry me what people think.”

JARED WEAREA-HARGREAVES

IN all my years as a radio sideline eye, no player has ever stopped a fulltime conversation with a rival so I could interview that rival. No Waerea Hargreaves, Jaredplayer except Jared Warea-Hargreaves, who made it clear to his fellow player talking to thousands of listeners was more important than shooting the breeze with him. Before he was injured, JWH was the form prop in the NRL. He’s 198cm and weighs 116 kg but is also possibly the most gentle, softly spoken rugby league player on earth. “Schoolkids picked on me a little,” he told an incredulous A-List a few years back, “but then I started eating my veges and I had this little growth spurt!”

GLENN STEWART

‘GIFTY’ Stewart has a bit of his brother Brett – the ‘wronged’ bit – and Stewart, Glennsome of Anthony Watmough – the ‘reticent’ bit – in his complex make-up. He was aggrieved at his brother’s treatment at the hands of the NRL and the media, then about being forced out of the club without receiving an offer. There was rampant speculation about a rift with Daly Cherry Evans, who supposedly got his wages. Yet like Watmough, Stewart has mellowed somewhat and seems to have a decent relationship with the media for the first time. After his first game against Manly, he commented: “they’re all mates of mine … most of them”.

DARUS BOYD

 

IT takes a lot for the public to take the side of journalists but Darius Boyd’s monosyllabic “media opportunities” at St George Illawarra and

St George Illawarra - Darius Boyd

Newcastle did the trick. “Yes”, “no” and “next question” came across very poorly on television, as did his response to being doorstopped by a reporter as he left Origin camp. But things changed dramatically for Boyd when good friend Alex McKinnon broke his neck last year. Boyd quit the game, sought help for depression and is now considered a future captain of the Brisbane Broncos. Boyd never knew his father but received a letter last year from a man claiming to be just that.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: NRL Round 17 2015

The Joy Of SixTHE BEAST IS COMING FOR YOU

SO David Klemmer accidentally knocked out a NSW staffer who was holding a tackling bag? If he is on the field for a kick-off on Wednesday, Maroons players are best advised to stay out of his sight. The Beast Of Belmore has revealed he spots an opposition player from 30 or more metres away and tries to cause as much damage as possible by running over the top of him in such situations. “Whoever I see, I try to spot someone and run as hard as I can at them,” Klemmer told Triple M in the aftermath of the Belmore triumph last Monday. “I’ve probably got someone lined up to run at before the kick-off. As soon as I get it, I’m going straight for him.”

DOING THE RIGHT THING

THE silence flawlessly observed for Phil Walsh before the weekend’s three NRL games made your correspondent proud to be involved in rugby league. Such unity, such empathy. Now, if I add a ‘but’ to that, someone is bound to take it the wrong way. I’ll just say this: Danny Jones, James Ackerman and Zane Purcell died playing rugby league this year. Ackerman was honoured at two NRL games. I would like to have seen the whole comp observe a minute’s silence for each of them. Sometimes NRL clubs seem culturally isolated from the rest of rugby league – particularly overseas – while identifying themselves more closely with big time leagues in other sports. To reiterate, I fully support the solidarity shown regarding Walsh – maybe we can honour the three we lost on grand final day.

RISE FOR ALEX

IN a manner of speaking, I have a small inkling of how Cameron Smith feels after Sunday night’s 60 Minutes program. I covered the game in which Alex McKinnon was injured, for radio and for the newspaper. Like Cameron, I misread the situation completely. When people told me Alex’ treatment was “just precautionary” and that he reacted the way he did because he “got a fright”, I foolishly believed them. Fox’s Andy Raymond showed himself to be, frankly, a better journalist in the way he reported on the injury. Like Smith, I focused too much on the short term – in my case, trying to get a quote in the paper. I did that – but the quote was another well-intentioned smother. I am sorry for my performance and my decisions that night, which do not stand up to scrutiny. I wish I could change them. I’m sure Cameron feels the same.

IT’S LATE O’CLOCK

TEAMS are fined if they are late onto the field for a match but what if the game starts late? Who gets fined then? This was the dichotomy highlighted by St George Illawarra officials when they were told by the TV floor manager  to stay in the sheds an extra five minutes at WIN Stadium on Saturday night.  No-one could argue with the point made, either. Still at Wollongong, while the commentators sought to honour the days of the Steelers, it was a boy from the local suburb of Windang – North Queensland centre Kane Linnett – who was the hero for the visitors. Asked if Linnett was feeling the cold as much as his tropical team-mates, NQ captain Gavin Cooper said:  “He can wear a singlet because he’s got that much hair over his back.”

AS AN EXAMPLE….

I AM indebted to reader “Pete” for this example of why the idea of restricting representative suspensions to representative games is an intellectual miscarriage. “So Justin Hodges could go out on Wednesday night in his last origin game before retirement and cause absolute mayhem and cop six million demerit points and be suspended for next year’s origin series that he won’t be playing in anyway yet not miss any club games?” A million demerit points? I told you a trillion times not to exaggerate, Pete. Expect the Ennis loophole to be closed as soon as 9am Thursday. Suspensions will expire at the start of the following round.

MATE AGAINST STATE

ORIGIN shmorigin. The real rugby league grudge match was played over the weekend – and get ready with you “red zone” puns. Russia defeated the Ukraine 34-20 in neutral Belgrade to move a step closer to qualifying for the 2017 World Cup. “Russia was a really tough opponent,” said Ukraine coach Gennardy Veprik, no doubt echoing the thoughts of millions of his countrymen. Present at the game was RLIF chairman Nigel Wood, who will take part in something called the Founders Walk from July 19 to 24. Participants will walk 193km from St Helens to Hull, taking in the grounds of all the original Northern Union clubs from 1895.

Filed for SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Benji Marshall: Leaving The Blues Behind

Marshall, BenjiBy STEVE MASCORD

“I WAS shattered by that,” says Benji Marshall, staring back at me, unflinching.

Since his return to rugby league last year, the iconic Kiwi magician has given a number of brutally honest, self-critical interviews. We know already that his ill-fated move to the Auckland Blues has changed Benji irrevocably – but it’s a story which has so far barely had its surface scratched.

But before we mounted our black leather swivel chairs in the business centre of the Marriott Victoria & Albert Hotel in Manchester, Marshall had entertained a Leigh team-mate of FuiFui MoiMoi.

The young Championship player, accompanied to the hotel by Fui himself, was such a fan he had even brought a copy of Marshall’s biography for him to autograph. Given the goodwill wafting about, wading straight into this interview with hard arse questions had seemed a little ungracious.

donate2So League Week waits a little before asking about the comment on midweek television of Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens – following his sacking – that “players get rid of coaches. It’s generally senior players too,”

“I still haven’t actually spoken to him about it,” Marshall says when the subject is raised, after saying the implication shattered him.

“I don’t understand how it can actually get to that, where that’s actually put out there.

“….firstly, that I could have any influence on a decision the board makes, or a decision by whoever makes that decision.

“I’m just baffled at how it got to me. There was heaps of shit floating around about it but I never said a bad word about Tim. I don’t know how it got to that.

“I think the perception is that players have a lot of pull but the only pull I’ve ever tried to influence is on the field and off the field you just do what you’re told, man.

“What confuses me is how it gets put on the players that we have that control.

“Put it this way: if I had control over the Tigers from 2008 to 2012, none of my mates would have left. I lost eight of my best mates through that time at the Tigers and the main reason I enjoyed being there was the family atmosphere at the club and having all those blokes around – which slowly got demolished group by group. In the end, it just me and Robbie (Farah) left. “

amazonSheens and Marshall were once said to have a father-and-son relationship. “I’ve never had a chance to come across Tim and talk to him. We’ve never seen each other face-to-face since then.

“You know what? People can have their own views or whatever but I’m not going to go out of my way to change who I am. I’m just the same person I was.”

Is he, though? During a half-hour chat while his St George Illawarra team-mates play cards on the other side of a glass partition, 29-year-old Marshall says enough to indicate plenty has changed.

His thoughts on the extremely disturbing trend of Holden Cup players taking their own lives are particularly forthright. Wests Tigers Mosese Fotuaika was the first.

tWLBd41422314935“I see some of these kids now and it’s a mental battle just to get through a season “I think what the 20s does is create a false sense of making it,” says Benji, after warning he has “a rant” prepared on the subject

”A lot of the Pacific islanders, particularly, their families create a mindset that playing under 20s is making it.

“From the outset, these kids are put in a position where they’re trying to prove to their families ‘this is it, I’ve made it’ and if they don’t move on from that, it’s like a failure and if they fail in that arena of under 20s, it’s like the end of the world.

“When reserve grade was there, some of these kids would come through and play reserve grade which was with men. And when you’ve got men in the team mixed with boys, the men can give advice on live experience, like coping with the pressure or ‘if you’re having problems come here and I’ll look after you’.

“…which I did, coming through. In Under 20s, it’s boys with boys who haven’t lived. You’re too embarrassed to tell your mate you’re having dramas mentally. They all want to be macho men, ‘I’m the man’, you know?

“… older people could recognise when a young guy needed help. What I had was Mark O’Neill, John Skandalis, Ben Galea saying every week ‘are things alright at home’, you know? I had issues with money growing up, they’d say ‘do you need money?’ and I’d borrow $100 or whatever. They’d look after me.

“Whereas these kids … if they get injured, their family’s not getting paid. A lot of them send their money home, which a lot of people don’t know, because they feel obliged. That’s just the Polynesian thing, you know?”

Benji paints an unflattering picture of himself during the tail end of his time at Wests Tigers: complacent, overweight, wilfully LOZHh51420274496oblivious to what others were saying about him.

“When I went there (rugby union), they were really honest with me, like about where I was fitness-wise.

“They were really honest with me about what I needed to do, what I needed to become. That’s something I never had during the back end of my time at the Tigers – that honesty.

“I thought I was going alright – and no-one was telling me that I wasn’t. Sometimes you need to hear the truth, especially when you’re an older player, or else you get caught just coasting and that’s what I was doing.

“I was just coasting and thinking everything was going sweet. When you’re playing, sometimes you don’t see it. You need other people to help point that out.

“I just got too comfortable in my position. There was never a time when I was under pressure from someone else coming through who was going to take my position

“Even my family wouldn’t say anything, which is … which is a shame.”

We’re just linking together Marshall’s compelling quotes now. A key marker in Marshall’s dramatic fall from grace in rugby league was being sacked as New Zealand captain in February 2013.

WLF2“At the time I was disappointed because it’s obviously a big honour. But I’ve got older and thought about it a lot more.

“My type of captaincy is different to Simon Mannering or, say, Ruben Wiki’s style of captaincy. I think what I tried to do was change my personality and not be, kind of, joking around and be more serious.

“I think if I was ever a captain again, I’d be the same me – just relaxed and have a laugh, have a joke and play my best on the field.”

Marshall believes he has “four or five” years left in rugby league. He likes the idea of being a coach afterwards. His post-career prospects in that area would have been seriously lessened had he stayed in rugby union.

But he went there for a challenge – one that, in the end, he was not up to. And even that is OK by him now. There is no pain on his face when I ask him about the day he decided to come back.

“It was the Monday after Easter Sunday,” he says.

“I walked into the coach’s office and he said the way he thought it was going, it wasn’t working for him. He said it didn’t look like it was working for me. He said ‘you can go back and play club rugby and learn your trade there’ and I said ‘you’ve got the best coaches here, why would I do that?’

“And then he said ‘you can go back and play league’.

“Melbourne were close. I made the best decision for my footy. Even my family was telling me ‘go to Melbourne’, everyone I knew was saying ‘go to Melbourne’ but I was after a bit of longevity. Melbourne could only offer me the rest of the year.”

addtext_com_MjAzNTE5NjcwMzQ2I ask what he would tell himself five years ago, if he could.

“Probably just be myself. The more I took the game seriously, the worse I got. The more relaxed I am, the less worried about what happens, it just seems to be better.

“Whatever happens, I don’t care about anyone else anymore. I used to care about everyone, all my mates. Now it’s just let it happen and if they need advice, they’ll come and ask.

“Off the field is more important to me now than on the field.

“But I don’t think I’d change anything., Where I am now in my life – more important than in footy – is the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Six Highlights Of The 2014 NRL Regular Season

NRL logoBy 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

Young Dragon Unconcerned By Coaching Uncertainty

Runciman, CharlyBy STEVE MASCORD
CENTRE Charly Runciman has no regrets about re-signing with St George Illawarra before the current coaching ructions.
Runciman agreed to a two-year extension before Steve Price was sacked and now faces uncertainty over whether caretaker Paul McGregor will retain the role or a more experienced mentor is brought in for 2015.
“I re-signed before everything happened but it doesn’t really have an impact,” Runciman, 20, tells League Week.
“I was pretty keen to stay. I’ve got mates down there now. It was easy just to stick around. All my mates were here at the Dragons.
“It’s a bit more stable. I can finish Uni. I’m studying civil engineering at Wollongong Uni. You need something after footy.
“At the moment, I’m just trying to cement my spot in this team. If I do that, I can work and build in the years to come. Whatever the team needs, I’m here to do.”
The Dubbo-raised Runciman was the joint venture’s 2012 NYC player of the year and made his first grade debut in round 16 last year against Penrith.
Currently shunted out to the win with the move of Josh Dugan to the centres and injury to Brett Morris, Runciman says having a former Australia centre in McGregor as coach has been a bonus.
“Mary’s been really good, especially being a centre,” he says. “It’s a help to me when I need someone to talk to about attack and defence.
“If I’ve got any questions I can go straight up and ask him and he’s more than helpful.
“Duges, he’s a great player and no matter where he’s playing he’s going to do a job for the team. Because he’s such a great ball carrier … in the centres, that’s something you really need.
“Duges has always had that. It was just a matter of where the coaches wanted him to play. He’s found himself in the centres and he’s doing a great job.”
The Dragons are hopeful of making a late run to the finals. McGregor says when he took over, he knew he needed to win eight of the remaining 14 games.
“For myself, this year has been a bit stop-start,” says Runciman. “I found myself in NSW Cup and had to fix a few things. I’m taking the opportunity while I’ve got it in first grade.
“For the team, it’s a little bit similar. We’re building each week and we’re getting better and better. It’s starting to show on the paddock, I think.
“We got a win (against Gold Coast), we went close against Penrith and I’m sure we can back it up against Melbourne on Monday.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK