Up Front with Tony Butterfield

The long weekend last was as bleak and blighty as the haughty fairytale from which it lamentably still derives its name. The Queen’s Birthday? In the 21st century? Really?

HARD-LUCK STORY: The Knights celebrate a try by Jaelen Feeney. Soon afterwards a dubious Manly try left Newcastle chasing the game. Picture: Getty Images.

HARD-LUCK STORY: The Knights celebrate a try by Jaelen Feeney. Soon afterwards a dubious Manly try left Newcastle chasing the game. Picture: Getty Images.

Now, before being hung, drawn and quartered by the historically and geo-corporately challenged, I’ll continue the metaphor and get straight to my point.

With weather surely inspired by the old girl herself (there it is), the young Knights were gifted their own battle at Brooky, in the bog. Like old times. Indeed, a rite of passage.

Many of us have played in similar, or even worse conditions. But at that end of the scale, it’s really all about battening down the hatches and doing your best.

I think the Knights did that at least as well as their hosts. Enough, I thought to win the game. But that grizzled old girl blew hard and loud again, just, it turns out, as the touch judge told the referee to review the legitimacy of Knights legend Aku Uate’s second try. “Ah, sorry, what was that?” Foiled again.

Assessing performance, the team carded some of their more impressive statistics of the season. Daniel Saffiti, eyes stinging, ploughed like a big old draft horse into the tempest. Mitch Barnett was tough and effective. Then Danny Levi stamped his class on proceedings with an impressive piece of athleticism in the 75th minute to score and force a grandstand finish.

The decision as to whether to take a penalty kick early has its pros and cons. When the decision eventually arrived (I think via semaphore), the interim observable on-field body language betrayed something one expects to see in young teams: uncertainty and indecisiveness among the team leaders. Evident in one form or another during this game (and others), it needs time and crucial conversations.

I mean, there are times when a measured pause is appropriate. But more others where haste, surprise and pressure can pay dividends. Indeed, it’s one of the few sustainable advantages of the underdog. Always has been.

On the leadership question, coaching legend Jack Gibson was fond of making his own mind up about things. “Want to kill an idea, form a committee,” he would say. Good advice to Knights captain Sione Mata’utia when it comes to on-field decisions. Which is not to say his on-field lieutenants don’t have remit to create and/or seize the moments, as they are trained (and paid) to do. Get it sorted. 

Looking ahead, the season’s solstice has passed and after this round there’ll be but 11 rounds to complete. The Knights will logically improve as combinations jell, injured players return and the bye rounds serve their purpose.

More immediately, however, the round-16, mining family day on July 2 against the Tigers shapes as the most important game of the year. If a third wooden spoon is to be avoided, the Knights must beat their fellow cellar dwellers or risk losing contact altogether.

High stakes indeed. 

WHEN did it all get so complicated? The refereeing system’s failure that probably cost a valiant Knights outfit last week highlighted how far we’ve come in the quest to get it right. And, still we get it wrong.

When the oval-shaped ball game was first played, a code of honour existed. No referee. Other than winks and nods for more mundane decisions, captains, as gentlemen, met mid-battlefield, an accommodation reached, and a decision made. As time passed and outcomes grew more prized, this approach proved less than ideal as esprit de corps was out the window.

Enter third-party judges. Initially each side offered up one of their own, men of integrity, to walk the line adjudicating or entering the fray when captains were locked. Equally as partisan, this model soon followed the first.

What the game needed and got was one referee and two touch judges, independent to their bootstraps, for a century.

Now? Now, we have two referees and two touch judges. Surely that will improve things? Throw in the bunker, and all systems are go, right? No?

Ultimately these systems are manned by humans, prone to errors of judgement under pressure. So nobody is perfect. But I don’t think that’s quite the issue here. For me, the underlying reason the decision came out wrong was because the referee ignored the touch judge. In referee school, that’s not an error, that’s a complete repudiation of what the referee must do, with both touch judges, before awarding every try.

Reports in the aftermath suggest a balls-up that goes to the culture of senior NRL referees and by extension, the very integrity of the game, to use NRL-speak.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe, but I highly doubt the ref in question and his bunker buddy would have been as trigger-happy if the team on the pineapple end were Manly, Melbourne or Brisbane. Just saying. 

THE Queenslander way had to falter sooner or later. After the success of the past decade, they were obliged to stick with the old formula and pin their hopes to a cultural artefact exclusively (apparently) indigenous to the northerners. Loyalty! Their first fatal mistake.

Now an interstate grand final ambush awaits them on Wednesday night to finish the job.

Thankfully for my Maroons buddies, they've picked a far more balanced side, boasting more strike, more experience in key positions, and a smattering of handy debutants likely to shake a few things up. The best team north of the tweed this mob can muster, I’d say. It looks a red-hot football team on paper.

As for the Blues – who've won a battle, but not the war – I expect they'll improve. Combinations, timing, communication, all better for the run. Confidence at home should not be a problem either, nor self-belief.

In fact, it's theirs to lose. The very mindset that can create its own set of mental gymnastics. But the coaching crew are pretty cool and build up will be low-key, so no problems on that front. In any event, the time to shine is Wednesday night. So bring your long studs and a towel, it’ll be a big night in the wet.

Bodacious Blues by 10.

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