Up Front with Tony Butterfield

PENRITH’S Old Boys day fell a little flat last week as the Knights exposed the underbelly of the up-and-down mob at the foot of the mountains.

Despite being short one of their best in James Maloney, pre-game local banter remained pessimistic for the visitors. But they hadn’t reckoned on the leadership of JJ Pearce, nor the drive of Mitch Barnett, Daniel Saifiti and Adrian Guerra. Nor perhaps the versatility of Kalyn Ponga as he combined beautifully with Pearce in a stopgap positional move we’re bound to see more of.

Eventually tempers flared and four players were directed to an early shower. At this point I must say, in my old-fashioned way (however non-PC it may be), the sight of teammates backing each other when opponents are throwing their weight around is always a good sign, if not a good look.

The blanket fines these guys copped from the NRL is a “we’re out of ideas” joke. Hardly a deterrent and probably illegal under workplace laws. But I digress.

All in all, coach Nathan Brown must be asking himself: “Where has that attitude and execution been?” Not a bad player across the park. Yeeha!

Now for the Sharkies on Sunday at 2pm. It could be wet. That works for us.

It’s a big game also for the 2016 premiers, as they seek to leverage the skills and experience of a squad that may well be remembered as underachievers in the absence of another trophy during the Gallen era.

Headlined by the irrepressible Andrew Fifita, if forwards win competitions, then they have the pack to take the title. Which should be music to the ears of Newcastle’s pack, presenting a golden opportunity to take on (and beat) the best before hanging out the shoulder pads for the summer.

As for Fifita, you have to love how he attracts what passes for “controversy”, like rugby league brawls these days attract handbag-and-shove merchants. His animated post-try response to the coaches’ box last week, after a not-so-subtle half-time critique, was classic big-game play. Typical of some quarters of the media, it was initially cast in a negative light.

I wonder what sort of game we might have without the sort of on-field passion this big fella exudes on a regular basis. Indeed, sometimes you can’t have one without the other.

Now I’ve no doubt both coaches were in on the half-time reality check, which Fifita took as a direct challenge. It’s here one can’t but be impressed with how adroitly one of my old sparring partners, coach Shane Flanagan, delegated delivery of the harsh but truthful message to assistant Jim Dymock. Still a crafty old bugger. And it worked.

Knowing which buttons to push is the mark of a good coach.

As Fifita’s season comes to the point, I’m hoping this modern-day Artie Beetson has more headlines ahead of him. Only not this week. Knights by one.

* THE top eight is settled, if it hadn’t been already this past month. For me, these final two rounds may be important if the coach’s bonus rests on a top-four finish, or if a little “momentum” is what you’re after. Otherwise, it’s all about building a sense of confidence and invincibility. A sense of belief among the playing group that you will prevail, somehow, when it matters, regardless of who’s in front of you.

Individually, in the dark recesses of every player’s mind, is the irrational fear that they won’t perform when the big moments arrive. These next two weeks are about effort and detail at training so all will be in readiness when those very moments arrive. And they will.

It’s the best time of the year for players in the eight as it’s all ahead of them. For those with one foot on a plane to Cancun, Port Douglas or Bali, these next two rounds might be as much about career survival as  any notion of team pride and salvaged respect.

And, for some grizzled old champions, it’s time to have one last, almighty crack.

Buckle up folks!

* EARLY in the 2014 season, the tight-knit community of Aberdeen was rocked by the life-changing injury sustained by its favourite son, Alex McKinnon. Made from the sternest stock, they had seen their share of tragedy over many years, be it on the land or underground, and had survived. This would be hard, but it would be no different.

Members of Alex’s junior club, the Aberdeen Tigers, in particular struggled to find any sense at the time in playing a game that had been so merciless to their hero and mate. The local Old Boys’ chapter rallied around as the season played out – more as support than any desire to succeed. They would try, they would lose every game, but they would get through, together.

By the time season 2015 came around, they vowed to give as well as take inspiration from Alex on his long road to recovery.

They won seven games.

As Alex improved in body and mind, so did the spirits of his mates up the valley, losing the 2016 final by a point.

Last year they broke through to take the title, and on Sunday line up against Scone to defend their crown in the decider. A colossal story of heartache, courage and power of community.

And so, to captain/coach since those dark days, Daniel Hoogerwerf, his players and those faithful Old Boys, Alex included, the very best of luck, and well done regardless.

Your example inspires us all.

Aberdeen by two.

* WHILE I’m at it, a quick, “go dudes” to all those running around in junior league grand finals tomorrow. 

Win or lose, the whole experience will be terrific for all connections, not least because the weekends finally open up for Mum and Dad. Good job guys.

Also, maybe save a cheer for the refs. It’s their grand final day too and, you never know, you might just be sitting near the ref’s mum. Go on, it’ll make her day.

HARD TO HANDLE: Newcastle's forwards face a daunting challenge in trying to nullify Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

HARD TO HANDLE: Newcastle's forwards face a daunting challenge in trying to nullify Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita. Picture: Jonathan Carroll