Hasler and Bellamy: Another sheriff showdown in the Wild West

Two battle-dusty sheriffs stand at opposite ends of the ANZ corral in the Wild West, wearily upright among piles of the steaming fallen as the only remaining gunslingers from a drawn-out bloody battle carried out over 1 score and 6 rounds. And a couple of finals.

Both wear an engulfing tattoo of strain on their weathered mugs from years of gruesome scrap. Their hair is unkempt and grimy, filled with the dust of the battlefield like chronic brown dandruff, yet their eyes have the sharp competitive glint of a bright young soldier on his first tour of duty.

After a protracted and arduous shoot-out against other aspirants in the county, only one solitary death pellet remains for both in their respective trusty firearms, ready to be blasted at whoever ultimately stands in their way. Both know they are excruciatingly close to the warm horse trough of victory, yet are cautious to not let their regimented minds wander too far ahead.

Both gunslingers then suck in what could be their last breath, and slowly raise eyes to see the sweaty outback marksman that stands between them and glory.

Once again for both, it’s a silhouette of familiarity cut against the sun-strewn backdrop.

It’s a feisty rivalry that has bubbled since the days when they were conjoined twins.

‘Not you again, you wily pistol-totin’ son of a….’

The never-ending spaghetti western that is Dirty Des Hasler v Crazy Craig Bellamy has returned to the big stage in 2012, and like huddling under a big old poncho made from the coarse coat of the snowy owl bison, it just feels right.

After going mano-a-mano in 2007 and 2008, a third chapter will be written in blood on Sunday night, and like it’s 2 predecessors, I can’t pick who will be on the victory whisky come full-time.

These two locally feared hombres have been regular fixtures at the yearly showdown with contributions from at least one through years 2006-2009 and 2011. The well-worn soil of this battlefield is awash with their DNA, so much so that you wouldn’t be shocked to see little spitting cacti with side-part haircuts sprouting from the turf in years to come.

It’s the experience and rivalry of the pair combined with the intoxicating lure of a fracas of styles and wits that has me power-chucking with excitement even before a Steeden is kicked in anger.

And how will the victor be spoken of as smoke rises from the gun barrel in the aftermath?

The prize on offer for these 2 contemporary coaching doyens transcends the standard hardware, balance boosters and Gatorade-soaked business shirt. A nailed-down spot on the mantle of modern day greatness beckons he who finishes standing.

The reason?

Because the campfire stories of their recent travels and travails are lavishly special.

Hasler switched counties for a challenge like a wild western Valentino Rossi and hasn’t required a single warm-up lap, whereas Bellamy had his ranch pilfered, but now the farm is back to life thanks to his acumen. And some cheap livestock.

Whichever adds ‘Premiers’ to the credits at the end of their 2012 movie will ensure their unfinished story already has true blockbuster status.

So far this week, it’s been textbook ‘big game’ conduct from both coaches with the relaxo-meter soaring. There’s been casual praising, jive talking with the press and many a mention of ‘benchmarks’, but you can guarantee this is merely a shield for the raging doses of paranoid-insomnia these 2 intense competitors would be enduring as the match draws near and their trigger fingers become increasingly flinchy.

And by the time Sunday arrives, their super-cool personas will be nearly almost gone, with the final rites read to that surface weekday composure when it melts inside the unforgiving furnace of the coaches box as the gun-battle plays out before them.

It’s going to be another corker battle in the setting western sun, and I can’t wait to huddle under my bison poncho with a whisky and watch the two sheriffs do battle.

Again.

Here’s the news: Your compact guide to grand final week

Rugby league applies a weakening choke-hold to news outlets on grand final week as it provides only a solitary game’s worth of inspiration to the poor souls empowered to lay literary bricks in column space.

It is no more apparent in 2012’s decider with lonesome crickets chirping in the judiciary room at NRL base camp and not a banged-up body to be seen racing the clock on either physio table at the stables of Melbourne or Canterbury. It seems that we are hurtling towards this titanic match with all cast members available and in reasonable working order, which cruelly evaporates a good 75% of the journalist’s pool of controversial face-roasting headlines.

It’s a preparatory nirvana for the respective coaching staffs, but for the poor souls feeding the printing press, what is there left to pick over besides Tuesday’s team announcements and a pile of tips and margins?

The Storm are injury-free but full of journeymen

Unfortunately, there’s nothing but for them to craft manufactured yarns from the minutiae of historical life incidents, forensically-analysed statistics and quotes. Lots and lots of quotes. From anyone remotely associated with either team.

In a week that runs at the pace of a 1986 Sterlo as we count down the tedious working days to kick-off, these stories can be admirable fodder for fuelling the anticipation before spak-filling over the boredom of a weekend that shields us from footy until feeding time for the elderly on Sunday.

Alternatively, if sifting through tabloid pap ain’t the Jason to your Kylie, then save yourself the page-wrestle with this abridged version of a typical 7 days of pre-grand final fish and chip paper.

The reborn journeyman.

Holy smokes! Can you believe this guy has played for 7 clubs and never even smelt a hot dog at a playoff game, let alone strapped on a slipper for one? After 3 mid-season switches in 2012, it just so happens that this honest-as-buggery toiler got his clearance 2 weeks before the semi-finals and the bloke in front of him on the pecking order shredded his PCL in an innocuous training incident, allowing him to live out his dream of sitting idle on the pine for 80% of a grand final.

“I nearly quit the game.”

This gobsmacking header can be used in many fashions, with the 2 preferred methods for anyone taking part in the big game who has been either a) hideously lopped by a YouTube-worthy injury in the past where amputation was mentioned by doctors as an option, or b) languishing in the lower grades on $450k after being mistreated by a coach, punted for disciplinary reasons or simply not arsed to care. Rags to riches sells rags.

The Dogs are building… what seems to be a human pyramid.

Building a dynasty.

Ask any CEO of a grand final club about the road to success and they will always smugly tell you they were breathing easy the whole time. Even when the joint was borrowing coin from a local bottle-o to survive, even when their captain was found with his y-fronts around his ankles in a compromising position with a team mate’s wife and some tackling pads, and even when they were running stone-motherless with no wins in sight, it was all part of the long-term plan to build the club into a superpower. And even though no club has gone back-to-back for 20 years, this team is on the brink of a premiership dynasty.

“We’re really forming something here and I want to be a part of it.”

For those scribes hungry to fill a back page inch, the impending off-contract player is the siren song at any time. With clear decision-making non-existent in the emotional climate either side of a grand final, players suddenly decide that their manager is no longer required to navigate their off-field dealings by making a solo foray into negotiations with a misguided public trumpeting that ‘money isn’t a priority if it means staying with my brothers.’ It’s such a feelgood fuzzy notion until they either lose the final or the liquor wears off after Mad Monday.

Former great predicts early biff.

You can set the Town Hall clock to Tommy Raudonikis surfacing for the furnace games. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? The journalists will always welcome that nicotine-stained quote with open arms and tick off the requirement for another day’s headline before Sunday.

Reborn hard men.

What ever happened to that bloke who sensationally questioned a touch judge’s heritage before storming from the field and kicking the mascot in the aggies as he entered the tunnel in a crucial match last year? He’s in this year’s grand final and he’s contributing to his team’s success as a footballer, not a violent linguist, and it’s all thanks to some kind of turning point in his life that he’s going to spill before the big game, with the usual triggers for his snap chillaxing being fatherhood, the threat of the sack or more horribly, being left with the only option of playing league in England under the coaching of Nathan Brown.

Loyalties divided!

I know it’s hard to believe, but did you know there are actually families out there with blended supporter tendencies? It’s a little sickening, I know, but in grand final week these guys are absolute platinum for filling up half a page with schmaltzy staged photos and earth-shattering quotes such as ‘My favourite player is (insert team captain’s name here).’

Please say something.

Finally, it’s the granddaddy of all tabloid landfill. Have you strapped on a boot? Had your cranium smashed by one of the greats? Got an infinitely repeated yarn from yesteryear? Can you say ‘referees in crisis?’ Then you are in high demand at grand final time. It’s Wednesday, the coaches aren’t saying anything and the players are on their PlayBoxes so your phone will be flaming. Pick the thing up and say anything remotely controversial. Please.

 

 

If you guys enjoy similar fare as the drivel I pump out, then you can catch my articles along with a helluva lot of other great sport chat at TheRoar.com.au and LeagueFreak.com. I guarantee that you will have to use your mouse to get there!

Jamie’s Killer opportunity for true stardom

One of the more memorable episodes of this year’s NRL finals series has to be the hardy guts and miraculous strapping that was Jamie Lyon’s bucking of medical lore last week.

To the gritty Manly man, I say kudos. There is no doubt his legend has further expanded after that fine display of indestructibility.

It’s another shimmering jewel added to an already-majestic rugby league reputation thanks to him fronting up to play a cut-throat finals match on a skittish calf muscle that was high as a kite on painkillers.

Earlier in the week, said leg was pronounced as certified mince meat, but not only did he merely survive on the turf of the SFS, he prospered, performed and proficiently piloted his charges to within another step of title glory.

Not a photo you will see on a Parra Leagues Club membership card.

Lyon was deservedly showered with a roaring watercourse of concrete-tough footy superlatives in the days following the win over the Cowboys. For a man who has conquered it all over the journey of 204 first grade games, he can now add work experience in the roles of ‘unbreakable bastard’ and ‘team-orientated needle cushion’ to his bulging resume, which is already shining brightly enough as it is.

From representing his state and country, to captaining a premiership win as well as consistently plastering opponents down his channel either side of a rural hiatus, it’s a record of surplus cachet that encompasses all of the sport’s feathers of expertise and achievement.

In to what section of the stratosphere his profile shall lift if he manages to haul his Sea Eagles to further glory in 2012 is a grammatical unknown. We may need a bulky thesaurus on eastern European performance-enhancers to capture the moment should it happen.

Regardless, his dossier of ticked boxes along with his lucid footballing qualities should have bought him widespread treasure status in our game by now, and here’s where the little party-poop crashes this back-slapping piece.

‘Killer’ my man, I’m afraid you may be recorded in rugby league annals with an asterix next to your name.

I am in no way diminishing his ability to palm, step and ball-and-all with the best of them, but it has to be acknowledged that regardless of his long and continuing string of feats on the field, the heat map of affection for him wanes heavily outside of the Manly precinct.

The diagram freezes to form spiky icicles in the Parramatta region, but that’s another story.

The reason for this territorial change from unconditional worship to frustrated respect is because he chooses to stand idly by and watch as his home state flounders in failure on the Origin stage.

I’m sure he’s probably noticed that it’s all hands on deck at state level right now. So why does this blinding force that would be a walk-up start to the sky blue ranks as a high-ranking corporal gather dust when state lines are re-marked?

It’s because Lyon prefers to state his allegiance to the insular peninsula rather than the whole state. And it’s a burr in our backsides that we can’t quite completely extract.

On a human level, the welfare for his legacy concerns me. I stare blankly in to the bottom of a jar and ponder: how will he be remembered?

He’s in a rich crossover phase of a career where the worlds of his traits are colliding. At this moment, he’s a blend of his youthful days as a track-scorching force of attack and his current makeup of a stoic leader with ultimate footy nous. It’s a more than handy skill set.

We the people of NSW are prepared to break bread with Lyon, which in business speak translates to ‘we forgive you, we are desperate and we’ll even give you your own room in camp far from the snorers, farters and messy rookies.’

He can cement a deserved position amongst the eulogised greats of rugby league’s register of demigods by releasing the burden of whatever has irked him in the past and ending his self-imposed exile from our yearly drubbing by the Maroons.

Killer old boy, the opportunity for statewide adulation is there. You can convince everyone to see that asterix as a star.

Except out at Parra Leagues. I’m pretty sure you have a life ban in those parts.

Australia’s swimming crisis needs more BS

Australian swimming: consider yourself officially within the filthy confines of that tabloid-created sinister wasteland.

That’s right, our dolphin factory is officially in crisis.

The blind pimple that slowly developed during the Olympic campaign in London finally came to a head last week with all of the explosive and greasy qualities that the bursting of a badly infected pore brings.

Every local patriot and his dog stepped up to apply the pressure of the two index finger squeeze to the booming zit, with administrators, former greats and even disgruntled team members coming forward with their opinions on the evaporated team spirit and shaved-down punkings from the Games.

Would you swim faster for this man?

As the week wore on, the furore gradually grew more feral as the rush to vent the goss intensified.

Watching those involved ripping hamstrings in the sprint towards any waiting microphone was tough to watch. It was unsightly scenes for a one-time eternal stronghold of squeaky cleanliness that now finds itself being followed by pesky bad vibes like a special blue cloud hounds a pool urinator.

Understandably, the governing body is beans-keen to get this sorted out quick-sticks. The abrasive tarnishing of one of the nation’s most respected sports, as well as the potential PR disaster of having reduced numbers of candidates for Uncle Toby’s adverts, has the superiors on the lookout for a rapid-fire refurbishment of reputation.

Will they go for the classic knee-jerk and flush the bad seeds from the ranks? What about an audacious poaching of athletes from other water sports? Or what about we nick a blueprint for success from one of our many arse-kicking rivals, provided it’s not the Brits?

These are all feasible options straight from the bible of fresh starts. However, for effective relief, I believe we need to look left of centre and in-house.

The job is prime for a man who can sweep a place clean like Dick Van Dyke before applying some deputy principal-style muscle and discipline.

Swimming Australia needs the services of the rebuild king, and that man is Brian Smith.

End the pain now.

Forget for a moment about a long-term messiah. We know Smith has a definite shelf life, so give him the reins on a ‘knock em down, drag em out’ 2-year deal, which allows him to come in with a whistle and a grimace and simply extract the cancer from the organisation.

Think about the possibilities.

His distinctive style of mind-muddling philosophising and back pocket micro-management would have the egotistical creases in the Australian shirt ironed out in quick time. The disruptive pool fools would be thrown into a chlorinated haze of confusion with his regular changes of race plans being delivered by text at inappropriate times.

The cockiness of youth would be quelled and replaced by puzzled minds desperately trying to determine what the day’s training would entail. “Is it my start? Or my tumble turns? Is it kickboard work? Perhaps waxing?”

Poisonous influences such as Magnussen-style swagger and D’Arcy-like imprudence would be consigned to distant memory as Smith ruled with an iron fist.

There’s also the possibility that a major international meet falls within his usual honeymoon period of the first 6 months, resulting in an unlikely spike in fortune that sees the green and gold catapult back to the apex of a medal count.

And with his track record of choking at the big dance, he would fit in perfectly with our recently developed silver culture.

It’s a perfect fit like a pair of spray-on budgie smugglers. The fact that he’s currently on the lookout for work should have the Aussie pool people selling him the benefits of the black line right as we speak.

The answer is simple. Get in BS to filter out the floaters in the Australian swimming pool.

Murray fangs to title thanks to 2 great Scots

Wasn’t it fantastic to get an all-too-rare glimpse of Andy Murray’s teeth after he dispensed of his Grand virginity this week?

By eventually running over the jelly legs of Novak Djokovic in the US Open final, he was able to bust the padlock on the winner’s grin after years of concealment behind those pursed and furry lips. It’s hard not to be happy for the bloke, even though he did make us wait slightly longer to witness the emotion in the aftermath of the match due to a more pressing concern regarding the location his wrist watch.

The moment.

After enduring years of bland, glory-free existence tempered with an excessively hot girlfriend, regular tour victories, Olympic gold and caaaaaaaaaash, he can now finally live mega-chuffed in the knowledge that the weight of a bulky Union Jack has been removed from his back.

So what was the catalyst for the morose Scot to finally advance from perennial podium cryer to smiling Slam champ replete with sponsored chronometer?

Some would say it was the absence of the usual business-end roadblocks in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that greased the passage to the title.

Many tennis aficionados have also attributed the win to the treasured momentum created by his fairytale victory at the Olympics in front of his people.

But what about some kind of mystical X-factor moment that gave Murray that extra intangible something? A bolt of inspiration providing a hydaulic-lift to the psyche and instilling him with some patriotic gusto?

Something tells me the timely visit from 2 of the biggest hounds in the Scotland yard after his semi-final win was the moment the trophy was engraved with his name.

As Murray hurtled down the well-worn path from semis success to probable last hurdle failure, a couple of tartan icons in Sean Connery and Sir Alex Ferguson decided that they would take it upon themselves to arrest the unbroken sequence of major tournament heartache he found himself in.

Identifying Murray’s eternal ‘human sedative’ disposition as the common thread amid all of his failure, these members of the Scottish glitterati decided an impromptu visit to lift his spirits was the order of the day, so they gate-crashed his press conference after his win over Tomas Berdych.

The sullen manner of the surly right-hander was powerless to the charms of the two imposing personalities as they got to work like a couple of cheery grandpas.

Reports are unconfirmed as to the exact detail of what was said at the time, however there are rumours that Ferguson regaled Murray with various tales of his torment of famous English footballers while Connery repeatedly stated in his weighted accent ‘7-6 7-6 7-6’ before floating the offer of ‘schooners in Soho on Sunday.’

There were some special gifts given also, with Connery handing over some movie memorabilia including a spy timepiece from his days on-set which Murray particularly cherished. Ferguson then followed suit by showing him the watch he owns that controls injury time at Old Trafford, although that was strictly for looking and not touching.

Then when a signed copy of ‘The Rock’ was flashed, Murray was enchanted toast. The weight of another expected Open failure was temporarily lifted from his shoulders as he momentarily became a starry-eyed youngster in the company of legends.

Could this have been the moment where Murray’s pearly white smile had a partial reveal on the way to the big victory beamer after the final?

Murray’s entourage are sure to make it a priority at the next Grand Slam that a minimum of 2 worldly and rich Scottish celebrities are on hand to give him a small moment of mirth and buoyancy. And presents.

The perpetual despondency the man exists in requires only the best bunch of good luck human flowers to drive his performance to the next rung. No low-rent flavours of the month and no over-zealous politicians looking for a photo opportunity. Just the icons.

Susan Boyle is on standby for Australia in January. Get ready for some more happy fangs.

 

 

 

Australia’s skinny concern for T20

Here’s some sage fashion advice to our dearly beloved at the Australian cricket offices.

For heaven’s sake, get out of your flares every once in a while and put on some skinny jeans.

Please move with the times and accept that trendy 20 over cricket is nowadays a relevant and fashionable set of trousers. Everybody else on the planet has embraced this fabric of high demand except for us.

And before you ask; yes, you can still wear your favourite denims when required. We will always unconditionally love the comfortable and valued pair of strides that have hugged the national backside over the years.

That’s a spinner and that’s another Aussie bat exiting the arena.

Just stop neglecting the size 20 skinnies.

When are the structures of Aussie cricket going to start treating the compact game with respect?

Our recent series loss to Pakistan seemed to indicate that we are still unfashionably off the pace in the modern game of funk and innovation.

The 3 match encounter, played within roughly 40 metres of the sun in the stinking hot United Arab Emirates, was dotted with some shameful permutations that saw yet another lowering of the national colours to levels of unchartered depths.

A retina-offending collapse for 89 in the first game and a bereft display to good twirl and clutch coolness in game 2 was offset slightly by a thunderous thrashing of an opposition at ease in the final game, a win which only served to cover up our overall shortcomings like a Gray Nicolls youth’s box would cloak an elephant’s trunk.

The reminders of our predicament were plentiful and dire, so much that at one point our once-bulletproof brand dropped to 10th in the world rankings behind cricketing small fries Ireland.

That’s right, the Irish cricket team. Modest, semi-pro and fully-drunk. And for a fleeting moment, officially considered a better side than Australia.

On the eve of the ICC World Twenty20 Championship, this is a wake-up call akin to 7 alarm clocks bleating in unison at 3am after a night out. Is it going to be enough for us to start giving a continental about this form of the game?

Australia’s record of having won 4 of 13 matches since the current rankings period began in August 2010 should’ve had the hierarchy itching in those comfy strides already, but it appears not.

I wonder if they have a contingency plan in place for this important tournament to combat our batsmen’s clockwork asphyxiation when facing spin?

And the fact our tweaking abilities are better known in cricketing parlance as slow straight-break, however only in the event that the ball actually pitches?

Do they realise that Cameron White was seriously recalled to the team?

Why?

20 over cricket is no longer just in place for a few dares between mates to switch-hit while wearing a new illuminated kit with fluoro trim. Unfortunately however, it seems the finger of indifference still remains firmly in the Australian proverbial, and this is also evident when you see the bedroom eyes our domestic competition has recently made towards the athletic red carpet.

Don’t get me wrong; the popcorn-chomping adventure fan in me would love to see a mesh of disciplines involving superstars like Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake playing in the Big Bash. But if we are serious about catching up to within a respectable gap of the front-runners on the world stage, shouldn’t we get serious and save those spots for some local youngsters who can come in and try and bazooka the heads off competent batsman as practice for higher honours?

When Andrew Johns strode to the wicket with the willow in one hand and a lump of anxiety in his dacks all of those years back, I doubted television could’ve got any better. But those days, much like the shaded reggies Joey was wearing that day, are long gone.

Now I just want to see our team and its front office start to play harder and smarter for the only international trophy it doesn’t own. Or at least move up the rankings away from an area where Ireland and Zimbabwe keep us company.

Embrace the skinny jeans. Wriggle into them when you can and wear them in. And stop getting embarrassingly caught in the zipper.

 

Bellamy vs Maguire to rival Friday’s family feud

There’s a sleeper of this weekend’s NRL Finals extravaganza. It’s an explosive action/drama dwarfed by the shadow of a ratings beast and secreted in the dusty limitations of the 5.45pm graveyard shift on Saturday.

Everybody is talking about Friday night’s next instalment of apprentice v master in “UnderDessie”, but how about some spotlight action for the comparably tangy “UnderBellyache”, the subplot to the blockbusting Melbourne v Souths clash?

If it weren’t for Friday’s third 2012 episode of the supremely popular friend-versus-foe soap, this mouth-watering clash would easily have the top billing in the hot slot. Having it fall on the same weekend is like trying to re-launch E-Street at the time of a Home and Away wedding / Irene homicide double.

Bellamy. The black belt.

It’s a shame because this skirmish of old lineage between Souths coach Michael Maguire and the Storm’s Craig Bellamy is nearly as good.

Their coaches box history began with a youthful Maguire looking for a work opportunity in 2004.

He was handed the chance by Bellamy to continue his coaching development with a gig at the Storm where he ably assisted in the club’s 2 now-bogus premierships in 2007 & 2009, before deserting the tutelage of the Southern Don to take up the head role at Wigan in the UK Super League.

He departed Melbourne with a truckload of his mentor’s blueprints under his arm and brain full of Bellamyisms, both what formed the foundation of a similar philosophy he created which piloted him to the 2010 Super League premiership and 2011 Challenge Cup.

Now the young upstart is back in the NRL as a rival to his former footy Pops, and it’s safe to say the pair of them are mustard-fierce to get hold of a replacement trophy for those rescinded by Ian Schubert as soon as possible.

Adding further intrigue to this thriller is the fact that Maguire is lobbing in to town with 3 of the old boy’s former cohorts rolling alongside him in Matt King, Michael Crocker and Greg Inglis.

Yessiree, its like an oil-free “Dallas” clan showdown and all signs point to a squeaky-tight one.

Being a monstrous final that demands a great cliché prediction, I’m going to say that the battle of the primates in the middle is going to go a long way to deciding the result.

Both packs will be drilled with identical principles to win the ground and belt like a headmaster for the full 80 making it akin to inch-fought trench warfare, but on paper the Bunnies have the edge in star power. Both scrums are like two new flat-pack Ikea cupboards with the same instructions for assembly, except Maguire’s team is reinforced radiata with a glossy veneer compared to Bellamy’s honest cobbled-together chipboard.

Maguire. The P-plater.

However, in Melbourne’s favour is the fact they won their only clash this year in round 2, and the game is being played on their turf at AAMI Park where Souths have never won.

And as we all know, every cliffhanger has a main attraction, so what role will box-office beast Greg Inglis play in this dramality? You know he is programmed for at least one explosion of domination per finals series, so will Saturday be one of those bedazzling nights of match-winning bullish magic?

It’s all adding up to being a worthy sequel to the criss-crossing plotline of Friday night’s humdinger. The AAMI Park bout is a reconvening of former colleagues that’s poised to get edgier than a Rinehart Xmas dinner.

Footy people: will it be the teacher Bellamy or student Maguire who gets the top ratings this Saturday night?

Where’s the real Geoff Toovey?

The general conduct of Geoff Toovey in 2012 has been exemplary, and quite frankly I’m disappointed.

When the news broke last year that he was to be the new head coach of Manly, I felt one of those childlike thrills you get when you’re standing a safe distance away from someone who is about to go in to a comical fit of rage.

You beauty! A year of entertaining verbal roasts just like the type he famously deployed in his sandy-blonde days of pomp was surely on the cards.

Remember the days when Toovey was a taped-up terrier living life out on the paddock for the Sea Eagles?

Toovey. Polite. Astute. Badly weather-beaten.

He was a robust, skilful and resilient leader with the preened looks of a divinely behaved schoolboy and the foul mouth of a vile 3rd generation trucker. Combine these traits with a forward approach to airing grievances with anyone on the field who made his life difficult, and what you had was a Northern Beaches Napoleon.

Because of this reputation, I naturally saw his appointment to the coaching role at Manly as an opportunity for a delivery of some much-needed ignition to the bland universe of guarded coach-speak. My expectation was for Toovey to channel his agitated on-field persona from the 90’s and stream it directly into the realms of the coaching world in the form of press conference tirades and searing death stares.

Early in the piece, it seemed even outside influences were on the same page as me, and the variables had it beautifully poised to get the rookie coach going hog-wild.

The media was on side, drumming up the speculation about a supposedly decaying Manly squad under threat from salary cap pressures and its associated vultures. They predicted him to struggle plying his trade in that dastardly Shadow of Des. High expectations that come with inheriting the control panel of the reigning premiers were to drive him to cranium-expanding anger.

Then it was the turn of the footy powers-that-be to pelt a few rocks at him; an injury crisis, a mini-slump and conjecture over the retention of his big stars were just a few attempts to resurface his on-field terrier.

It was supposed to be too much to handle and he was expected to demonstratively prove so. Unfortunately so far, he’s failed miserably.

Besides the occasional short comment when mid-contract talk or post-loss, Toovey has been cool, calm and laced with grace. And not to mention, mostly winning.

He even beautifully handled being delivered the news of the change to the shoulder charge laws second-hand from the press as he alighted from the team bus on the Gold Coast last week.

Not even the NRL forgetting to advise him of a major rule amendment on safe tackling right on the eve of the playoffs was enough to get the blood vessels bulging on his panel-beaten forehead. And this bloke has Steve Matai in his squad.

What happened to you, Tooves? You’ve changed man. You used to be cranky, and now you’re just… cool.

I feel like I’ve been short-changed on a tantrum or two.

However, I potentially see a hair-trigger coming up in the rear view mirror.

Could the peppery build-up of this opening week of finals culminating with Friday’s traffic-halter against the Bulldogs be the proverbial poke that sets off the shelved Toovey fireworks display?

He’s dealt with the Darth Vader/Skywalker stuff surrounding himself and Hasler all year. But that’s nothing compared with the rarefied stakes of Friday night’s outcome.

The deep psychological bruise waiting to be inflicted, the week’s break to nurse pounded muscles after they belt the deep brown out of each other, and not to mention the outright premiership favouritism is all awaiting the winner of this Titanic match-up that should go close to filling ANZ.

Not since he’s taken the gig at the Sea Eagles have so many sharp pokers of pressure all prodded him simultaneously. The only way this test could be larger is if it were the last day in September.

Is Friday’s Doggy date going to tip Toovey over the edge and see us finally get the captivating scenes of rage we’ve all been waiting for?

Perhaps Channel Nine should get Adam MacDougall on standby for a post-match interview just as cover if he doesn’t combust as hoped.

Wests Tigers Season Review 2012

Where did it all go wrong, Tim?

The alleged favourites for the 2012 season, this was a team whose on field display failed to live up to such expectations. Clearly, even considering the Wests Tigers as title favourites was a foolish starting point but, on paper at least, they did seem to have the depth and calibre to mount an assault on the title. In fairness, they should have too; a team that was agonizingly close to the Grand Final in 2011, all but sealing that spot until the late heroics of the Warriors bundled the Tigers out. 2012 was going to be their season it would seem.

Alas, no. The Tigers do have some excuses and certainly have some young talent that will help them in future campaigns, but their meek on-field performances for the majority of the season were frankly not good enough. Too often, the Tigers looked uncertain, made embarrassing mistakes (the must win game versus the Roosters in Round 25 was one of the worst performances of recent history that would have seen a schoolyard C team hang their heads in shame), and were rightly labelled ‘soft’ early in the season for brittle defence. Credit is due to the Tigers for overcoming the poor early season (1 win, 5 defeats) to play a conservative ‘grinding’ style to win games, muscle up in defence and to selectively inject themselves at the right moments in attack. These seven weeks of winning football indicated promise and the Tigers looked a serious threat if they maintained this style and executed the basics right. Alas no. Hit and miss games are to be expected, as are losses and injuries, but too many sideways and flashy periods of attack in which they tried to find the Tigers circa 2005  ‘attack from anywhere’ edict would repeatedly come unstuck. And those defensive lapses would haunt the Tigers – the worrying sight of the lowly Parramatta running through yawing gaps in the middle of the field in Round 21 when the Tigers had specifically proclaimed that a return to the grinding style would be employed to yield the needed winning results and save their season; on this occasion it was the Tigers ‘touch footy’ ability, and the unearthing of Marika Koroibete in particular, that furnished the win. Overall, this would happen too often throughout the season; an inability to stick to the ‘grind’, to the basics of completing sets, conservative attack balanced with selective flashy ‘touch style’ injections and remaining resolute in defence. Disappointingly for fans, the coach and the players, the Tigers showed that they could do this on occasions and offered some hope of at least getting to the finals but consistency (and injuries) blighted their season and potential.

The excuses: In fairness, the Tigers did have an appalling run of injuries to key players, at key times or for sustained periods that made the much needed and vaunted consistency highly problematic. I recall coach Tim Sheens in 2005 stating that his team’s success was partly due to few injuries and being able to continually field the same team – clearly this unraveled in 2012. Long term injuries to James Tedesco (season), Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington and Lote Tuqiri, as well as stints on the sideline for Chris Lawrence, Keith Galloway, Curtis Sironen and Robbie Farah (Origin duties and injury) amongst others, curtailed the continuity on the field that was required.

The other major ‘excuse’ was some poor refereeing that has effected Rugby League in general throughout 2012, with the diabolical nature of the obstruction call bordering on the ridiculous. Again, most teams have been the victim of some bizarre interpretation (or lack thereof). While maybe some other circumstances may have conspired against the result, it would seem that the Tigers should have won against the Bulldogs in Round 24 but for a poor interpretation of the rules that even some of the wisest minds/best players in league (Phil Gould, Ray Warren, Wally Lewis, Andrew Johns) thought was a clear obstruction and gaffe by the video referee (and subsequently was deemed to be by Referee’s boss Bill Harrigan). This obstruction was ruled a try, forced the Tigers to conjure up a rapid response and took the game to extra time.

This game underlined the frustration associated with the Tigers in 2012 – rising to the occasion to push the Minor Premiers in extra time (and arguably be denied the win by an appalling refereeing decision) but to then capitulate the very next week when their season is on the line against the lowly Sydney Roosters.

Where to from here? It is not Tim Sheen’s fault in my view and he is exactly the person required to keep this often inconsistent team on the same page – harnessing the individual brilliance but reining in and tempering the over flashy displays with a return to the grind. He seems to know how to blood the young talent well too and created a template for the attacking ‘Tigers’ football that worked well in the past. Although not always apparent this season, he generally manages Benji well and certainly has taken some players’ games to the next level – most notably Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods.

There are plenty of positives in personale too. Some players have certainly exceeded this year, Farah, Woods, Beau Ryan, Liam Fulton, and off the bench, Ben Murdoch-Masila. New rookies were discovered that can help the club build in the future and hopefully will be major stars in their own right: Marika Koroibete, Curtis Sironen and James Tedesco. Masada Iosefa was also a handy addition to the team during the season. Others were generally strong but hampered by time on the sidelines, the likes of Chris Lawrence, Keith Galloway, Gareth Ellis, Chris Heighington. Too many, unfortunately, were far too inconsistent – the likes of Benji Marshall being brilliant on occasions but also resorting to trying too hard to be a one-man team. Unfortunately, most of the team were inconsistent and will raise headaches for Sheens – where and if to play Tim Moltzen and Blake Ayshford, or whether to resign Matt Utai and Lote Tuqiri.

Disagreeing with most, I actually thought Adam Blair was solid enough in his first season, he took time to adjust to the Tigers style and is still not fully there, failing to always provide the solid hit-ups, but he did provide some assistance on attack and certainly was busy on defence (as always he needs to stay disciplined and reduce his penalty count). It is also really disappointing that Gareth Ellis departs as one of the best Tigers forwards but injuries negated his final season in relation to his stellar performances in his too-short Tigers career. I also thought that the Tigers missed a trick by not signing Willie Mason (as I suggested at the time) as he has not been the negative walking headline and sponsors’ headache in 2012, while signing him for peanuts saw him excel in Newcastle. Ray Cashmere offered size but generally was patchy and is not the calibre of a Mason.

The future? – Braith Anasta comes to the club and offers a ball playing forward (or back?) with plenty of leadership and experience. A very gifted footballer and offering more attacking options he is a worthy signature but, nevertheless, not a Gareth Ellis in defence. Eddy Pettybourne will hopefully also add some starch to the team. Whether some players get a contract extension or not remains to be seen (Tuqiri, Utai) but certainly more depth is required on the roster as Tom Humble and Joel Reddy generally disappointed (Reddy’s defence was exposed far too often). Finally, who plays where in certain positions will be an interesting proposition for 2013 (how or if to accommodate Moltzen v Tedesco at fullback, Anasta v Sironen at standoff, and who the right centre and winger will be).

Overall, from being touted premiership favourites, 2012 will be remembered as a failure for the Wests Tigers being always on the fringe of the top 8 but failing to advance to the finals.

Warming the Pine

Sport for those with comfortable couches.