Butts: Mums the word, NRL

Last week’s semis were all worthy of the final stages of a long season.

Key match-ups, last-ditch finishes and enough controversy to hopefully excite crowds for the two sudden-death elimination matches this weekend.

On the point of crowds, I imagine the game’s senior management would be scratching their heads wondering where all the fans have gone. Against the 235,000 supporters our AFL counterparts attracted, week one of the NRL finals drew a combined 76,000.

One might have expected more from supporters of the five Sydney clubs involved, particularly when the Roosters game was effectively a home semi and the three others were playing sudden death.

All in all a massive fail that seems to support the view that there are too many teams in Sydney.

Personally, I don't need big crowds to enjoy footy, but it does add to the overall experience enjoyed and perception of costumer value.

Digging a little deeper, one metric of strategic performance akin to a canary in a coal mine is the number of mums on seats. This is where AFL dominates. But why “mums”?

Without wishing to appear outdated, in many households mum is the gatekeeper to dad’s dollars and the kids’ loyalty and affection.

This divine power extends to whether little Bobby plays junior league, AFL or soccer, and, in so doing, setting he or she on a path of lifetime interest and, perhaps, investment in that sport. Whether that's Foxtel subscription, the latest jersey or tickets and a pie at the finals, future purchase decisions are influenced by this primary producer.

In these circumstances she, or he, is the key to the requisite mass appeal that drives broadcast revenue and, therein, the professional game’s very survival.

So come on, Mr Greenberg. Mums aren’t feeling the love with our game, and it’s hurting. The game is in decline on your watch and it’s time to lead, follow or get out of the way.

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Performance of week one of the semis, for mine, was shared between the greatest rugby league player to lace on a boot, Cameron Smith, and beleaguered young Panther Bryce Cartwright.

Smith’s long-term leadership and phenomenal resilience of body and mind mark him as an all-time great. Off the field he is a committed family man and exemplar role model, standing tall at the Players Association Ball on Tuesday night as its president, leading from the front. A constitution that belies his accountant’s frame, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s playing in 2020 with 400 games under his belt.

The second performance was all class. I know the Cartwright family well, having been a school buddy and teammate of Manly assistant coach John Cartwright.

So I’ve followed the ups and downs of his nephew, Bryce. A prodigious talent, he has all the skills. The archetypal modern player, coming straight from school into the big time, he’s determined to be a one-club player at the club his father and uncle played for and his grandfather, Merv, established in 1967.

But he has come back to earth with a thud in recent times as he develops into a responsible young man.

While still on that journey, you had to be impressed with his performance under pressure last week. Off the bench he scored just before half-time. On cue, as the game went down to the wire, he set up the go-ahead try with a deft kick before icing the win with another solo effort at the death.

If the Panthers are to prevail against the Broncos and their 50,000 bellowing supporters tonight, it will have a lot to do Cartwright and his equally gifted offsider Nathan Cleary. C’mon, Panthers.

With regards to the Parra-Cowboys elimination semi-final, I can’t see the Sydney boys getting beat. Courageous though they may be, I think the Queenslanders are running on tired legs and will be outgunned. Good effort, though, Greeny.

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Big or small, when solid foundations are laid in any organisation and guiding principles are maintained the future can be assured.

In the case of the Knights, those guiding principles were laid down in 1987 by a coaching staff who dreamed of a “bonfire that would never go out”. They recruited players who were tough and could tackle and embedded philosophies so refined and dogmatic that any financial or talent disadvantage would be negated in time.

The man tasked with devising and implementing such a long-term road map, and ensuring it stayed on course, needed to be more committed than the players and smarter than the opposition. He needed to know how young men ticked and how the game should be played, based on developing trends and fundamentals. Then he had to execute.

In short, we needed a Jack Gibson or a Ron Massey.

In my humble opinion, we did better. In Allan Bell, we gained a rugby league analyst par excellence, a deep and innovative thinker able to break down complex physical and mental processes into their constituent parts and apply training discipline that’s methodical and long-term.

Personally, I owe Allan a lot. But I’m not alone. Like Andrew and Matthew Johns, we have the good lord, our mums and dads and, to a large extent, Allan Bell to thank for much of what we achieved on the sports field. Indeed, an entire generation of Newcastle league players and coaches were, and continue to be, influenced by his techniques, his philosophies and even the designations given to myriad moves and plays.

In short, Big Al has given much to the Knights and indirectly his adopted community. Which was why it was fitting if a little belated that he receive appropriate recognition at last week’s awards night. Disappointingly tacked on at the end of proceedings and not afforded the opportunity to respond, much less be presented on stage, he was later handed a life-member badge. Not that a lapel pin was needed to mark the level of esteem in which he is held in the league community, but a nice gesture all the same. Well done, big fella. Well deserved. Thanks for everything.