My, how time flies. It doesn't seem long since we rugby league enthusiasts happily consigned the 2017 season to the memory bank.
Shifting down a few gears, World Cup notwithstanding, we embraced the sweet respite of a long Ashes series, some beach, lots of family and heaps of nothing much. Ah, peace, at last. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.
But, ready or not, the alarm's gone off. Grab your boots boys, the relax is over. It’s all systems go for seven solid months. So, strap yourself in, and take a breath.
For those bleary-eyed mums, dads, coaches and trainers of tomorrow’s champions, you can press the snooze button. False alarm – you've got another month or two before the heavy lifting really begins.
But, for the big boys, it’s back on. Tonight.
In this, their 31st crusade, the Newcastle Knights will be looking to make intentions clear on (and off) the field from the opening whistle. Playing the Manly Seagulls may stir some sense of nostalgia and purpose among those that take the field, but you can bet it will be fleeting. These guys are intent on making their own history.
Against that, fans have generated some serious expectations in line with the calibre of talent recruited. As one myself, such are the implications for the long-term development of the squad, I could tell you where I was when the news came through we'd signed Mitchell Pearce. Heady stuff for Knights tragics.
Meanwhile, the new "front office" looks to have hit the ground running if membership and corporate interest is anything to go by. Early days on that front, with delivery to come, but the Wests Group haven't put a foot wrong.
On the field, Sione Matautia has moved to focus on his football, ceding the formal captaincy reins to gentleman Jamie Buhrer and new recruit Mitch (JJ) Pearce. I must say I still don't understand the co-captain thingy, but one expects the experienced tradesmen, acknowledged leaders and strangely complimentary personalities to combine and make an excellent fist of it.
As for Sione, nice work son! A fine young man who delivered superbly in difficult captaincy circumstances. For now, it's time to enjoy footy, defend his edge and show us what he's really got.
Other than that, the Knights have the largest roster shake-up in the championship and were handed their hats against Parramatta in the recent Maitland trial.
Neither is good nor bad, it's all experience. But the forging of a defensive mentality and team combinations will, like good wine, take time to mature.
All in all, an excellent preparation you might say, with few, if any, injuries marring the build-up.
See you at the footy. Knights by 8.
* IF you'll permit me, a quick rave about the RL World Cup prior to Xmas. Great coverage, tough match-ups with passion and national pride bursting at the seams. Any big event like this is the sum of all its parts, and the Pacific nations in particular infused their flavour with gusto.
Some entertaining footy followed their much-anticipated pre-game square-offs, with bluster enough to blow a dog off a chain. The obligatory post-game “slap-up” inevitably morphed into group singalongs and bilateral rejoicing, the likes of which we have never witnessed. Moving stuff indeed.
Which got me thinking – maybe you don't have to dislike your opposition to belt him? Who'd have thunk it? They should send a contingent of the good brothers to the Middle East. I'm tipping no one will argue with them.
* IN this exponential world, the nature of reflection is such that we are rarely unencumbered enough to recall the positive influence others have made to our lives. One of those occasions, sadly, is in their passing. In the rugby league world, two of the giants of 1970s and ’80s have gone to meet their maker in recent weeks.
When I say giants, Graeme Langlands and Steve Folkes were tiny compared to the modern player. But what they lacked in bulk, they made up in skill, technique and a indomitable spirit that marked their journey.
I was fortunate to have spent a bit of south Sydney cafe time in Changa's company, with a cavalcade of yesterday's heroes like Johnny Lewis, Bobby Lanigan, John "Bomber" Peard, "Chow" Hayes, Noel Kelly and Ray Carney – to name a few. And the yarns they spun about the old days, the stinks, the ladies, the wiseguys, did I mention the stinks, with Chang holding court, remain to this day, the funniest true (mostly) stories one could ever hope to hear. I suggested a book would do their generation's story justice but was politely told to beat it. “We don't talk out of school”. I never saw Changa play live, but those who did continue to hold him in the highest regard.
I did play Steve Folkes a few times but will never forget my second top-grade game in 1986. He captained a star-studded Bulldogs outfit, who would eventually go down to the Eels in the lowest grand final score of all, 4-2. Naturally nervous, I recall working myself in the queue for my first hit-up before screaming on to a wide Royce Simmons pass, eagerly targeting the second smallest guy on the field.
In the blink of an eye, the defender disappeared. Where had he gone? Had I run over him? In a violent and jolting exhalation, I felt my solar plexus crumble like a cheap suit and I was up, folded like a deckchair and slammed on my back. Looking down was the 87-kilogram Australian second-rower, Folksey. Man, that bloke could tackle. And scared of nobody and nothing.
Defensive coaches and referees could learn a lot from Folksey’s technique and consider paying dominance more often in the play-the-ball to those who tackle as one is supposed to. Done right, it's safer too.
To family and friends, may I extend on behalf of my footy mates with no public voice, our deepest condolences. We honour and respect the memory of your loved ones and will forever cherish the joy they gave and their time among us. Vale, two fine men.