Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

Sometimes, as Peter Sterling said at the end of a tumultuous NRL Grand Final, we forget why we love sport.

We bitch and moan about referees, criticise the players we supposedly support and blame coaches for their selections, tactics and lack of foresight.

And then you have weekends like the one just gone and not only realise that sport is the finest metaphor for the greatest qualities in life; selflessness, discipline, respect, team work, togetherness, reliance, magnanimity and supreme sacrifice – but that rugby league does it better than any other.

That’s not just a value judgement, it’s about the qualities needed to play the toughest of team sports, the values that are associated with and a pre-requisite of it, the pain that is endured for our pleasure, the ability to stir and change emotions in a split second.

We are incredibly fortunate to support a game that has such an honour code at all levels.

The incredible deeds and then considered words of Jonathan Thurston, the game’s greatest current exponent, encapsulated all of that in what was generally accepted to be the finest Grand Final ever.

He made an error that led to a Brisbane try that it seemed the Broncos would defend to destiny but, with the match seemingly gone, Thurston – whose cheeks were puffed with thinking endeavour throughout – refused to die wondering.

The image will live long of him keeping going regardless, beginning the move that led to last second salvation – although Michael Morgan’s part was lost in the denouement euphoria – thought he had won it from the side line only to see his hopes dashed, but still marshalled his forces for one, last glory shot – innate belief and heroism of the finest kind.

What lingered and drew the largest lumps in throats, though, were the pictures of him with his daughter aside and on the field post-match – the true meaning of a family sport – and the way he picked up his opposing half and Maroons team mate Ben Hunt, whose errors had cost his side.

It was the greatest of human nature as much as it was magnificent drama, watched by over four million people in over 100 countries. To not capitalise on it would be criminal and we all have a responsibility in that.

Similarly, St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham, after his side had surrendered their title but not without the most heroic of fights at Headingley, could not have been more gracious in defeat; the picture of he and Brian McDermott in heartfelt embrace after a truly magnificent semi-final the other abiding image of what this game means and displays.

Likewise, defeated Wayne Bennett who, more than anyone, has perspective on the meaning of sport noted about his side’s heart breaking defeat, “I’ve been in situations that have been tougher than that. You don’t count your losses like that. It was an absolutely outstanding game of football.”

In the relief of winning the ‘million pound game’, Brian Smith’s apposite comment was lost after James Lowes’s outburst about the concept not benefitting anyone when he said, “The people who own the game don’t realise how good the brand is.”

Advancing plans to bring an NRL match to London in the near future on the back of the World Club Series, and more ‘on the road’ games should be the first steps in addressing that.

And we should be bolder too, more confident, let’s put out ‘Your Country Wants You’ posters with Sam Burgess on to promote the forthcoming Kiwi series; if we genuinely think we’ve got it, we have to be brazen enough to flaunt it.

The weekend proved, yet again, that we can deliver everything a sporting audience craves, even allowing for Huddersfield’s insipid capitulation, the Giants again failing to do themselves justice.

To come up with the quality of game Leeds and Saints did, turned on a moment of magic from another generational player and exemplary life exponent Kevin Sinfield, after such an arduous season – not least with both clubs battling injury crises – was simply jaw-dropping.

Won by the finest of fingertip margins, it was the embodiment of mental and physical toughness which enraptured a stadium that rocked in awe.

Saturday’s understandably edgy affair to see who would be in Super League next season was a different type of drama that, in many ways, captured the very essence of sport being determined on a battlefield rather than in a boardroom.

But it was still, because of the likely consequences, like seeing someone draw their fingernails down a blackboard.

We need more events, and over 7,000 fans at Belle Vue justified that it was, but the added tension and effect on livelihoods does not solve the underlying issues of insufficient player availability and a level financial playing field, so we got a status quo.

Bradford and Leigh’s record in the Qualifiers proved that they are not yet ready for the weekly intensity of Super League, the bigger issue for discussion after seasons-end is, will they ever be under an illusory structure that offers promotion but almost also keeps it at arms-length.

What that game and the gripping League 1 promotion decider did prove was that, like in Sydney, matches between evenly-matched sides are such tremendous spectacle.

Last year, Hunslet and Oldham produced a similarly classic encounter as Swinton and Keighley did this, a point between the teams on both occasions, yet the Hawks were woefully underfunded to then compete at the higher level.

But they are issues for the close-season.

This weekend was a reaffirmation and a reminder that those of us with a link outside of the dressing room are very, very lucky to be a part of a wonderful sport played by astonishing people.

It is a privilege by association.

The broadest smiles are in Wakefield and Swinton the morning after.

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