Up Front with Tony Butterfield

FLYING FIJIAN: Melbourne Suliasi Vunivalu launches himself at the Roosters' defenders last weekend. Picture courtesy of FoxSports
FLYING FIJIAN: Melbourne Suliasi Vunivalu launches himself at the Roosters' defenders last weekend. Picture courtesy of FoxSports

I’M a little over talking about the Storm in this column. But as I’ve correctly acknowledged in recent times, they are the team to beat.

As if their roster is not already blessed with a galaxy of stars, what about the ability and presence of their Fijian winger, Suliasi Vunivalu? 

A tryscoring phenomenon with 41 tries from 41 NRL games. “Gasnier-like”, was how one old timer put it.

Big enough to play in the middle, fast enough to run professionally and likely adaptable to both rugby union and AFL.

Given his temperament I suspect he wouldn’t be out of place in the boxing or wrestling rings either. Expect him to be a real handful against the Knights’ outside backs unless someone can put him off his game.

A straightforward assignment back in the bad ol’ days, it presents a far more nuanced approach in the modern era.

And I reckon it’s his temperament that can bring him undone. Sure there’s a risk someone gets thrown into the second row of the grandstand for his trouble. 

But against that, I don’t think the extremely capable young man has been tested mentally. I’ve seen glimpses of him losing it from time to time, only for his wiser comrades to step in. Methinks he might float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but even the greatest have their off days. Let’s make it on Saturday.

SOME readers last week questioned my judgement asserting the Knights were on a roll.

Granted, I drew a longish bow then. But after winning their third in a row, it cannot be denied. Albeit one punters might comfortably assume will come to a shuddering halt by 4:30pm on Saturday.

And while that may be the case, Knights fans will take comfort that their boys will attempt to go down swinging in these final three games.

As to final placings on the table, a season or two back the Knights did enough to deny the Tigers a run to the play-offs.

This year returning the favour, the Tigers staged a masterful comeback last week against the Sea Eagles, all-but anchoring the Knights to the bottom of the table for season 2017.

Any hopes of extricating themselves will require a titanic effort with at least two wins from three to guarantee avoidance. Highly unlikely. Of course that’s what makes life interesting – the faint hope that the good guys will prevail against the odds. It all starts at 3pm on Saturday. Give ’em heaps!

AFTER talking with a couple of old-fella referees at a junior game recently, I was dismayed to hear of a chronic shortage of qualified referees in the local league comp.

With all the banter and occasional bile directed towards the one with the whistle and his touch associates, it should probably come as little surprise that kids aren’t knocking each other out of the way to pursue the career path. Problem is, without a referee, there is no game.

To cover for the shortage, normal standards are slipping as fellas in their 60s and 70s bravely shuffle the length and breadth of the valley filling in, while sometimes 14-year-old kids are forced to officiate in under-17 fixtures. Not ideal, and if little else, it impacts on safety. But there appears little choice.

Rather than seeing this as a transient irritant, I see it as a problem of significant proportions that can only be overcome by increasing participation. The corollary being, if a turnaround is possible, the culture of a small minority of abusive, if otherwise respectable individuals has to back off. Personally, I’d hate to see one of my young blokes constantly abused and intimidated while participating in a game he loves. A sure way to run referee aspirants out of town. Then we’ll have nothing.

Thankfully, with this week’s junior games entering the final fortnight, there are plenty of referees to go around, one game per division. One hopes spectators take it for what it is – a game.

In the meantime, the governing league bodies need to come up with a plan. We won’t know what we’ve lost until they’re gone.

I COULDN’T mention Suliasi Vunivalu without remarking on his similarity to dual world-champion hurdler, Sally Pearson, my outstanding performer of last week.

Vunavalu’s moment of madness has been done to death, while Pearson was outstanding on the London track.

A fitting salute only a week after the passing of the pioneering Betty Cuthbert, Sally’s back story is at the edge of human performance and ingenuity. Fighting back injury a few weeks off her 31st birthday, she showed the world what you can do if you work hard enough.

Making the effort even more remarkable, she mapped and committed to her own training program, set to peak on August 13, 2017. She knew her body, her mind, her injury history and her age. She knew when she needed a break and, most importantly knew what she needed to do to be the best.

The real greatness lay in executing her plan to perfection. 

I REMEMBER I was in fourth class when the King of rock and roll passed.

Forty years have passed and I know exactly where I was in the old Bennett Road school playground. Shattered. As you do, I pulled out the tunes on Wednesday to reminisce.

Reflecting on the messy high-stakes goings-on between the NRL, the players and the clubs, I thought: “What would Elvis say if he were here?”

(You’ll need a Southern US accent here): “Well, thank you very much for asking, ya hunka, hunka burnin love. You see sir, progress is stalled because suspicious minds dominate.

“No trust, sir. I say, to break the self-interest deadlock, these devils in disguise need to leave their egos and agendas at the stage door and all have themselves one helluva clambake.

“Then, get on with it. The value of time as bargaining leverage is not yet exhausted but one hopes, in the interests of the game, the finals, and apparently, some awards night, it’s now or never. So, don’t be cruel to the fans. Thank you very much.”

I’m a fan – so sue me!