Up Front with Tony Butterfield

You've gotta tip your hat to those bloody Queenslanders.

Down and out after game one, all but history until the final couple of minutes in game two, and just too damn good on Wednesday night.

Part of me wants to praise them but I’m also suspicious it was all a front.

I'm advised the series was never in doubt north of the border. They just wanted to raise the hopes of southerners before skewering them in front of 50,000 vocal banana-benders. You see, when you win so often, why not create a little theatre, and this lot do it better than anyone in this country.

Before the game, the crowd acknowledged the mighty efforts of Queensland's favourite son, Johnathan Thurston.

Outside, in Caxton Street, the mob steadily grew until all you could see was an avalanche of maroon dotted for effect with the odd blue jumper or scarf.

A magnificent stadium, no overbearing police or security, easy access to a brewsky or two and a short wander back to Caxton Street for a debrief.

Beats the life out of the Homebush set-up. One of the great events of the sporting or cultural calendar, and one not to be missed if you haven't done it before.

As to next year, I bet you the Blues will be back, if only to make up the numbers.

Unless, A. Johns steps up to take over from Laurie Daley. Then, look out!

HAPPY DAYS: Cameron Smith and his Queensland teammates celebrate after Wednesday's series-clinching triumph against NSW. Picture: Getty Images

HAPPY DAYS: Cameron Smith and his Queensland teammates celebrate after Wednesday's series-clinching triumph against NSW. Picture: Getty Images

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Queensland players before kick-off.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Queensland players before kick-off.

MY gosh. Last Sunday’s last-minute disaster was hard to cop. A coupling of two poorly executed kicks in the final minutes was enough to gift the win to the ecstatic Belmore faithful.

For the Knights, there’s lessons to take on board. Objectively, it was their best 70-minute performance of the season. We held more ball, made fewer errors, kicked further, won the penalties and made fewer tackles. Their only blemishes of note were the costly missed tackles, and the “course management” of those final few minutes.

As this week’s lesson well learned, Brock Lamb will in future give more respect to desperate and clever defencers like Moses Mbye, who by anticipating and foiling the sideline grubber option, turned the game the way of the Dogs.

In reference to the final penalty-kick debacle, well, I still don’t know what went on there. Quite bizarre really, and probably the less written about it the better. We live and learn.

Overall, I thought everyone rolled up their sleeves and gave as good as they got. And that must continue against the Broncos on Saturday.

Getting over the mental scarring of the botch at Belmore should be a priority. One expects the Knights’ resolve to roll with the punches is rock-solid these days.

Almost perversely, by now they must genuinely relish the challenge to get back in the ring with a real contender. Enter Wayne Bennett.

Like he has done for 30 years, Wayne will bring the best team Queensland can muster and expects to win. As he did in 1988 when first confronted by 31,000 heaving Novocastrians in the rain, he encouraged his players to thrive on it, absorb it.

Maybe they won’t be able to leverage a similar atmosphere these days, but if the Knights ease ahead and lead going into the final minutes like last week, you just might hear the noise all the way into Nobbys.

As a side note, great to see Cessnock local and ex-Knight Kerrod Holland slotting goals and scoring tries against his old club. A real shame we parted company after he played in our reserve-grade grand final win two seasons back. The Dogs saw something in him the Knights didn’t. Not the first in a long line of missed or dismissed player bargains. Who are making these decisions?

IN a period of uncertainty for rugby league, it’s comforting to know the game remains alive and well in suburban and regional areas of the Hunter.

The Newcastle and Lower Hunter competition is the engine-room of the game in the Hunter Valley, drawing in more than 1200 participants annually.

This year, the competition has grown from 32 teams to a record – four divisions of ten teams – bigger than the NRL or any competition you could name.

But participation for many players is on a strictly casual basis. A situation begrudgingly tolerated by coaches and teammates, allowing work, young families and the odd buck’s night to intrude when necessary.

Perhaps it’s this freedom that appeals to those who might otherwise be playing in the Newcastle RL. Whatever it is, the pressure from declining playing numbers is reflected in the amount of under-19 players backing up for second grade most weekends in the Real NRL. 

Those I talk to who think about these things say its time for a new strategic plan. But rather than toss one up like last time, the local game deserves one that has some robust data and research behind it if it's to work. The only way to do that is for the Real NRL to open dialogue with all stakeholders and find out what are the problems and determine a path to addressing them.

This is not the time to lord over affiliates but rather encourage collaboration, leadership and promote a genuine desire to listen and learn. If not, things may continue to deteriorate. A cogent plan might also give the suits in Sydney something to read, understand and fund. Word is, at the moment, there is no such blueprint and so no funding.  

TYING up a few of the locals is a good sign for next year after recently recruiting two former internationals. Young Sam Stone shares not just his initials with the Knights’ great back-rower, Steve Simpson.

Sam has a frame out of the same mould. He’s tough, can tackle and has heaps of tomorrows.

 A player on a different career trajectory but no less important to the club over the next two to three years is Nathan Ross. His signature puts another important brick in the wall.

As will Peter Mata’utia, whose maturity and confidence to “seize the moment’’ last week on the stroke of half-time was all class and the stamp of a young bloke who can bring something to the table over the long term.

Let's hope for more positive news soon.

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