Tony Butterfield: NRL's final reckoning for Storm, Cowboys

NEVER WON ONE: Newtown captain Tom Raudonikis is consoled by coach Warren Ryan after the Jets lost the 1981 grand final to Parramatta at Sydney Cricket Ground. Picture: Fairfax archives
NEVER WON ONE: Newtown captain Tom Raudonikis is consoled by coach Warren Ryan after the Jets lost the 1981 grand final to Parramatta at Sydney Cricket Ground. Picture: Fairfax archives

Premierships are not earned in a month of semi-finals.

Nor are they delivered through a year or two of hard work in the gym, on the track or in team meetings.

For most players, premierships are won and earned over decades.

A chance moment of inspiration can be enough to plant the seed early in a young player’s life that a premiership success is their destiny. Along for the journey will be family, friends and generations of players and coaches.

In my case, watching the Roosters beat the Dragons in 1974 was all I needed to want to emulate big Artie Beetson and feel that euphoria.

It was a goal that took me, with the support and enormous patience of family and friends, 23 years to finally achieve.

And so it will be on Sunday when every player will have their story, no doubt of success and some luck mixed with equal portions of heartache, injury and sacrifice. This game may be their only chance to repay and thank all who got them to the biggest stage.

It is the epitome of persistence and self-belief. Most will have grown up to choruses of “you won't make it”, “you’re too small” or “come and have a beer”. But the dream was too vivid, too possible and too important for them to be deterred or distracted by others less personally empowered.

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Waking up on the big day is an exciting affair. Bunkered down in a hotel, you can’t wait to get down to breakfast to look your teammates in the eye. Smiles and banter will hide dark fears that it will all go pear-shaped. But no one lets on.

All will have spared a moment in the lead-up, without lingering too long, that in a two-horse race they could be facing a grief that goes way beyond disappointment.

A grief familiar to NSW and club champion Tom Raudonikis, the original cattle dog who never won a competition, “not even in the juniors”. It is rarefied air, for all but the most fortunate.

But all that insecurity will be gone come kick-off with 80 minutes and the shrill of the final whistle all that separates devastation from the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.

In the words of the Liverpool coaching legend Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death . . . I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

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Footy, footy, footy. In search of sustenance enough to endure the heat, the flies and the cricket of another Aussie summer, league fans will come together in the season’s last celebration of a game many have been a part of all their lives.

Devouring almost every minute of action and analysis through the long day requires discipline not to go off too early. If firing up early is your go, one must exercise caution, because the action will only be hotting up around 9.30pm.

In the under-20s we have Parramatta and Manly squaring off after the first, second and third finishers were bundled out.

NSWRL premiers the Panthers take on QRL champions the PNG Hunters in a clash that will be worth the price of admission for those less enraptured with all things Queensland.

In the main game, two thirds of all participants have Queensland connections. A sign of the times, maybe?

The Storm are rightly specials in this David v Goliath encounter. The best team all year, they’ve got enough big-time players to win two competitions and should win. But stranger things have happened.

In the other corner, barely limping into frame on another's misfortune, the boys from the far north are riding a spontaneous wave of excitement.

Banking on nothing to lose makes for an unpredictable opponent in these circumstances, and the Cowboys will have most of the support at the ground, despite their home base being 3000km away.

Completions will be high, the skill on show impeccable and the defensive desperation breathtaking. It will be a battle to savour before the season wraps up. Enjoy.

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The second decade (1998-2007) of the Knights leveraged nicely from the first, remaining focused on the fundamentals and planning for the future.

The home-grown strategy bore bumper crops of internationals and state players, with a number going on to write their names as greats. 

So successful was the program that, for the nine seasons from 1995 to 2003, only once, in 1996, did we fail to make the play-offs. These were, indeed, the salad days for the Knights.

Truth be told, we should have banked another one or two during this time. The grand final qualifier in 2000, in particular, was a wasted opportunity and the worst experience of my rugby league career. And not just because of the result.

Thankfully, the front office reluctantly removed themselves from issues of which they knew little and a second premiership was ours in 2001. With a red-hot side, the sky looked the limit. Not bad for a team on a shoestring budget, owned by the members, and trained out of shipping containers.

But the good times don't last. Coaches change, management come and go and iconic players must inevitably step off to give others a go. Signs also started to emerge that a reduced focus on junior development was starting to have an impact.

All in all, the 10 seasons reaped a tremendous reward of seven play-off appearances. But it was the final three that hinted at problems ahead. The 2005 campaign delivered the club’s first wooden spoon, only to be followed two seasons later with a second last place under Brian Smith.

And it was from this very coaching appointment and some inept management that the good ship Newcastle Knights would change course and leave its hard-earned past behind, something I’ll finish up with in next week’s final column.