Up Front with Tony Butterfield

The Panthers tested the mettle of the referees last week. Up off the line marginally early on many occasions, lying in the play-the-ball and generally frustrating, they fatigued the match officials into ceding opportunity to the visitors.

But opportunity alone didn’t get the job done.

Their visceral intent to harass, impede, frustrate and, yes, belt the Knights into submission is the type of mindset at the heart of all combat sports. And Penrith did it better last week. As did the Bunnies the week before. 

Which brings us to round 11 and all but halfway in this marathon. Time to take stock and assess against benchmarks set late last year, taking into account the uncontrollables like injuries and bloody referees.

The Knights are competitive. While base-line in this grade, it’s a hell of a lot better than this time last year. But their vitals remain statistically anemic (averaging 17.4 points a game while conceding 26.1). Should that trend continue their semi-final aspirations will evaporate.

Disappointing, if left as is, because the team has played some champagne footy at times.

The Mitchell Pearce injury threw a curve ball but the squad has responded well. Straightening our attack, Brock Lamb and Connor Watson showed glimpses last week of better days ahead. Kalyn Ponga and Danny Levi round out the gun-slingers.

Our forwards have improved, but they still lack across the pack a consistent “bite” both with and without the ball. For mine, there is no “X-factor” and that, as much as silly errors, is hurting results.

THREAT: Connor Watson was criticised for a costly penalty against Penrith last week, but he gave Newcastle some much-needed spark in attack. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

THREAT: Connor Watson was criticised for a costly penalty against Penrith last week, but he gave Newcastle some much-needed spark in attack. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

All up, if they can shake off some of the rough edges and find their defensive groove, this team has the potential to claw back another converted try per game in the run to the semis.

Otherwise, the best remedy for not scoring enough points is to concede fewer.

Giving up four or five tries a game is way behind the NRL’s best defensive teams.

But significant improvement, statistically speaking, can be achieved simply by preventing just two more tries a game. In some cases, that’s no more than rectifying two missed tackles a game. Now that’s do-able on the whiteboard. A different prospect out in the middle but, nonetheless, do-able.

Starting against the Titans, why not learn from the Panthers and the Bunnies in defence, where a take-no-prisoners physical assault dictated terms? Rather than the other way around.

Now I get that teams get runs of possession and they can seem 10 feet tall. That should not, however, diminish the desire, nay, responsibility of any defensive linemen worth their salt to make a statement. In fact, when things are grim such an attitude is needed most.

At the other end of the spectrum, the passive hold-and-dance routine is overplayed and, to an extent, demoralising. Sure, slow the game down. Critically important.

But so is a bristling culture of attack and confrontation to a committed pack. One whose intent is denying the opposition runners every bloody centimetre, rather than scoring well on the post-game “slow-tackle” poll.

Our forwards need to take it up a notch or two, get the overalls on and make it happen. Or the semis will slowly drift from sight.

Knights by two.

* I DID a double take through the week after reports that the NRL rules committee were poised to shelve plans to reduce the number of interchange players in the NRL.

Funny, I thought only two weeks back NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was promoting such a move in response to an apparently spiralling injury toll. Talk about make up your mind. I wonder has there been some blowback from NRL clubs?

Possibly the clubs might be a tad concerned about the ramifications such a move might have on expensive rosters already in place down to the under-15s.

A good reason to backtrack if he wants to be popular, but a retrograde move suggesting proactive safety of players is an inconvenience and that ratification won’t start anytime soon.

Now, we know the interchange promotes big men. It promotes higher-speed collisions and it promotes wrestling and numbers in tackles, rather than tackling. These things obviously increase risk of injury.

The multiple replacement regime also discriminates against smaller players, filtering down to juniors. We see it at NRL games, junior carnivals and rep selections, where it favours the big and mobile over nippy, skilful and aerobically superior footballers.

What’s the answer? In the absence of a injury-surveillance database, it’s impossible to make any case other than what we know from observation and common sense.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why this research isn’t available. If it was and confirmed the hypothesis, the clubs would have little choice but to toe Greenberg’s line.

As it’s not, an increase in injuries is not foreseeable and any exposure is therefore perceived to be limited.

In this regard is it not bordering on negligence and dereliction that such a treasure trove of insights is not only sought after but leveraged for a safer, and, many argue, a more skill-based free-flowing game?

Get your act together, NRL, or the concussion avalanche won’t be your only future headache in the courts.

* A QUICK plug for the Men of League foundation’s big event Saturday week at Nelson Bay Golf Club. No less than John Quayle, the great Les Johns, Ashley Gordon and Mitchell Pearce are slated to give their considered opinions on all things league.

The dinner is a great initiative to raise money for retired players doing it tough. Tickets are $60 and available at the golf club or online www.nelsonbaygolf.com.