Up Front with Tony Butterfield

SEASON 2017 is finally over. By and large, the game looks to be in good shape excluding some issues with refereeing and rules and, oh, the dominance of the Storm.

Emphatically stamping an exclamation mark on a season that has them pegged as the best team of a generation, the Storm delivered a ruthlessly efficient masterclass on the biggest stage.

The loss of Cowboys lock Shaun Fenson early, and the run-in with the ref before Josh Addo-Carr’s first try, only hastened the inevitable. Kudos to the Cowboys for just being there, but I doubt, even with Cooper Cronk departing, the Storm will be any less imposing when it’s on again.

* OF the many issues that arose for the game in 2017, none are more pressing than better understanding the practical elements of concussion, its causes, effects and preventions.

SHATTERING BLOW: North Queensland's Shaun Fensom's grand final ended when he broke his leg in the early minutes. Picture: AAP

SHATTERING BLOW: North Queensland's Shaun Fensom's grand final ended when he broke his leg in the early minutes. Picture: AAP

Experiencing what might be, or looks like, a knock capable of some measure of concussion playing collision sport can be hard to avoid. In professional leagues like rugby union, AFL, NFL or the NRL, where athletes are required to be bigger, stronger and faster every year, it’s all but physically impossible the longer one plays.

The challenge now for players, coaches, parents and administrators is in the complexity and application of new rules, new codes, new guidelines, new expectations. The advent of the HIA observation, stiffer penalties and resting players has been a visible and effective first-up reaction, however belated.

Less straightforward are the legal cases on foot, or, those of similarly impacted but otherwise silent ex-players feeling the after-effects.

Significant changes to junior and senior registration forms limiting liability and indemnifying administrators and their leagues signalled a new attitude, and shifting of risk by the top of the food chain. A clear sign the NRL don’t expect the concussion issue to go away soon.

As for current and past players, in the absence of research findings, we still don’t really know what we’re dealing with. Nor why, apparently, if afflicted, any long-term effect might manifest with some and not others.

Is there a genetic pre-disposition? How important is extended rest after concussion to aid long-term recovery? We just don’t know enough.

Is it too long a bow to be drawn that the current situation might be likened to an iceberg? Like asbestos disease is, was and will be, is the visible component of this opaque “occupational hazard” masking what lies below? Who knows?

In pursuit of knowledge in prevention, I’d be interested in accessing studies undertaken by the leagues and clubs. Indeed, are we collaborating with academia, cross-code or the old fellas from back in the day? As a devotee, can you give me something? Or is it that the findings may be too confronting?

Urban myth has it one such study was in preliminary stages a year or two back looking at the health of personnel from some of the great premiership-winning teams of the ’60s and ’70s. Word is, the data was so alarming the study was “pulled”.

Apocryphal, maybe, but the true state of affairs needs to be front and centre if we’re to fully understand what we and our kids are part of. 

* THE third decade of the Knights (2008-17) began in the ominous aftermath of the most un-Newcastle of ways.

Coach Brian Smith, supported by management, had the previous season decided not to select a player on merit, lest he play one more game and trigger a contract extension. Plenty of players had been stitched up by the club in the past, but this brinkmanship heralded a departure from the values on which the club was built. And the community would eventually hold them to account.

Even legend Danny Buderus broke ranks to air his disgust, only to become one of many pushed out the door.

So badly was the business performing by 2010, it was decided the only path to survival and salvation was to dissolve community ownership and sell the club to a certain Nathan Tinkler. Of course, there was a fallback option in-built to “buy back the club”. It turned out to be as illusory as the promise of Wayne Bennett and Tinkler’s private jets. We got nothing.

To those few in the know, Tinkler was never going to last. After evicting him in 2014, the NRL took on administration, almost ensuring the Knights would make up the numbers ever since. Despite best efforts.

On the field, in this decade we collected three wooden spoons and enjoyed three stints in the semis.

Overseen by five coaches in six sittings, they were volatile and uncertain days for players and fans alike.

As hobbled as it started, the third decade mercifully ground to an agonising conclusion. Thank God.

So how did we go? In 30 years and 700 games the Knights:

· have won two premierships (bettered only by Storm, Broncos, Manly, Bulldogs and Raiders);

· endured agonising failure in three grand final qualifiers;

· have reached the play-offs in 13 seasons;

· have five times received the competition’s best-and-fairest fairest player award;

· produced 18 internationals and the youngest Kangaroos debutant (plus several who represented Australia via other clubs) and three Kangaroo captains;

· produced 29 State of Origin players (NSW: 23 Queensland: six) and three NSW Origin captains; 

· second-highest all-time pointscorer (A. Johns, 2176);

· one Immortal;

· over 1000 players wore the colours with (maybe) 40 coaches (288/10 first grade)

· drew 6,265,000 patrons, who turned out at 350 home games, averaging approximately 18,000. The second-best in the league.

The milestones above prove this club was once, and can again, be great.

As signposts along the way, they point to a generation of hard work, good and no-so-good memories, and to the potential for sunny days ahead.  

For now, it’s closing time – where every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Take care. TB.