TONY BUTTERFIELD: Great game, but needs work

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 05: Johnathan Thurston of the Cowboys speaks to the crowd during the North Queensland Cowboys NRL Grand Final fan day at 1300 Smiles Stadium on October 5, 2015 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

AS I sit down to draft this week’s final column for the year, I feel a little out of breath.

It’s been a long haul.

Emerging from the annual hibernation in February, the new NRL season brought hope for all, including the struggling NRL clubs.

The Knights, in particular, had chins wagging they were final-eight prospects after just four rounds.

But, like the tortoise said to the hare, “that’s just chin-waggin”.

The NRL season is long, intense and physical, one of the most gruelling competitions in world sport. It’s longer than a marathon. And tougher than getting to the final two on Survivor.

And so it has proved to be some 31 brutal weeks later.

The spectacular season finale, with the Knights’ NSW Cup success thrown in, served up a tension-filled, action-packed, nail-biting banquet for local sports lovers the past two weeks.

Climaxing a second after the wobbly football left Johnathan Thurston’s right boot on Sunday night, the haze of energy from the occasion has not yet lifted for many league tragics.

When it does, the real state of the game can be assessed: big resource discrepancies between clubs; three clubs under NRL administration; confusion with rules; judiciaries; contract sanctity; refereeing; and declining crowd and junior numbers — to name but a few.

These are all clear indicators of a game that needs leadership and a massive tune-up.

Hopefully, before getting to work on these things, the NRL leadership, like the rest of us, will take a well earned moment to appreciate another season completed with a contest for the ages.

Some are saying it was the best GF ever. I prefer to think everyone sees these things through their own frame of reference, filtered by memories and the emotions they evoke.

All can be special in their own way, but this one will certainly be hard to beat, Knights ’97 included.

Importantly, like the Knights, where inaugural coach Allan McMahon received tributes for his foundation role in the premiership, the NQ club was quick to acknowledge the similar role played by their late coach Graham Murray. Muzza is credited with securing JT from the Bulldogs and building a squad with a solid junior base.

The squad that Muzza started delivered on Sunday night in a way that would have made the old coach very proud indeed. It also serves as a lesson to those trying to build a successful club roster – the good ones take time, astute planning and the best people.

A WELL deserved and hearty congrats to our brave NSW Cup side, who fell at the national final hurdle on Sunday. Their tremendous rally late in the season instilled some much-needed confidence, renewing some vigour about the club after difficult times.

On the day, Ipswich were probably a touch better, but there was little in it.

Controversially, an Ipswich Jets player dispensing some jungle justice on our attacking trump in Jake Mamo was allowed to remain on the field despite clocking our man, whose afternoon was thereafter spent on a merry-go-round.

Those who believe that incident did not affect the final scoreline must surely be Queenslanders. However, the only opinion that mattered was that of the match officials and video referee on the day. But they were about as effective as an ashtray on a motorbike.

Unacceptable in a grand final. In fact, it was unacceptable in the ’50s and ’60s and warranted a mandatory send-off even then. A weak and potentially costly failure not befitting the occasion or the effort of our brave Knights. Well done, fellas. Great season!

BACK to the first-grade grand final for a moment.

The question I’d like answered about the application of the golden-point rule is why there is a rule that can impugn the integrity of the outcome on league’s greatest day.

Did the best team win on Sunday? By the golden-point rule and on the scoreboard, yes — the Cowboys got field position quicker than the other mob and, bang, it was all over.

My problem with this is, by its very finality, a drawn grand final match is a significant sporting moment. It’s here, more than ever, that any result must be settled, and seen to be settled, by millions, with honour, integrity and fairness. The golden point doesn’t do that in my view, as exciting as Thurston’s field goal was.

Granted, the golden-point principle may be a sound mechanism to determine a winner in the week-to-week premiership tussle. I understand in this regard it is favoured by broadcasters for its ability to spike interest in viewers. I get all that.

But surely equity and common-sense require the Broncos get a go with the ball in extra time? After such a titanic and evenly balanced struggle? On grand final day?

And that’s the point – they never got their chance – and that’s bodgie.

I mean, to determine the ultimate victor of a competition, comprising 500 professional players, played over 200 games for 10 months of the year, costing a combined $350-$400 million to stage, broadcast to millions, with a system patently influenced by the random toss of a coin just doesn’t cut it in my mind.

Forget coming back next week, but rule makers could do worse than adopt the world game’s 10 minutes of extra time (each way), then golden point. In the biggest game of the year, the focus should be about respect for the players and all they have sacrificed. That respect should extend to allowing the contest to be properly and fairly concluded in the biggest moment of a player’s life. May we never see the likes of it again.

FAR be it from me to comment, but since many have . . . Johnathan Thurston is a superstar who will one day likely be anointed as one of the game’s so-called Immortals.

But I found calls this week for his immediate canonisation, more than likely traceable to his excitable management team, a tad premature.

More immediate is the shamefully delayed recognition of St George legend Norm Provan. If ever there was an Immortal, this bloke is the embodiment. Mentor and captain-coach to current Immortals John Raper and Reg Gasnier, Provan would play and win an astonishing 10 straight grand finals between 1956-65, captain-coaching the last four of those before retiring with more than 250 first-grade games and 16 Tests under his belt. Enormous. Unmatched?

The rest of his amazingly influential career can be found on Wikipedia, but the above exploits alone make a very strong argument for expeditious recognition.

At a spritely 82, it’s reported the six-foot-four giant affectionately known as “Sticks” is not in the best of health. Go on, committee guys, I reckon it would cheer him up no end and finally make a few things right.

As I sign off for the year I’m reminded of the privilege it is to submit weekly musings on the game and its people. To my loyal readers, I trust I haven’t wrongfully offended and hope I made sense most of the time. If I didn’t, then I’ve got something in the off-season to work on, and tips are always welcome.

Merry Xmas and good health to one and all (thought I’d get in early). It’s on again next year!

Regards, Butts

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