Up Front with Tony Butterfield

THE Knights copped a caning in the penalties last week as they struggled to contain the size, speed and ball movement of a Cronulla locomotive quite possibly bound for the grand final.

IN THE LONG RUN: Knights veterans Chris Heighington, pictured, and Jacob Lillyman will retire after Saturday's clash with St George Illawarra. Picture: Marina Neil

IN THE LONG RUN: Knights veterans Chris Heighington, pictured, and Jacob Lillyman will retire after Saturday's clash with St George Illawarra. Picture: Marina Neil

From the stands, Newcastle appeared for the most part competitive. Out on the field, blokes like Mitch Barnett, Daniel Saifiti and Josh King gave all they had.

In the wash-up, a useful experience and excellent lead-up game for Old Boys day – the biggest game of the year. 

High up in the main stand on Saturday, the not-infallible heroes of yesteryear will score our modern-day servants. Hard but fair, as it should be. Having worn the jersey on that very paddock, they will expect of nothing but victory, albeit noting the challenge presented by the wounded Dragons. That said, they aren’t out there now, so offer this simple encouragement: “Get the job done”. Then we’ll have a beer.” Knights by two?

* RETIREMENT from any professional sport can be as difficult as it is rewarding and healthy. I think the secret is to get out reasonably mobile and find a new passion, be it family, studies, business and/or meditation. Anything but “work”.

And so, the time has come, as each knew it surely would, for some old league champions to run onto the field, hear the whistle and get amongst it, one last time.

Top of the list to whom we’ll bid adieu are Johnno Thurston and Billy Slater. The highest-profile retirees, they’ll be appropriately recognised. 

But there are many others. The Knights will be sending off more than 600 first-grade games, and more precious memories a young bloke has a right to hope for, with Chris Heighington and Jacob Lillyman’s final curtain call.

Chris is the battler’s Superman from the Central Coast who gave his teammates and his craft all he had.

Queenslander Jacob Lillyman did likewise, proudly emulating the pioneering efforts of his great grandfather Percy, who played with foundation NSWRL club Annandale, between 1910-14.

Just 80 minutes away from retirement, both should expect Mark “Cruisy” Hughes to be hitting them up post-game in the sheds for membership fees. Welcome aboard, Old Boys. Bon voyage and good luck.

* IF you thought it unusual that most of the top sides have stumbled into the finals, you’d be right. Indeed, it’s impact on the eight has never been more profound in the 23 seasons of the top-eight format. In that time, the difference between first and eighth has averaged nearly 13 competition points.

Depending on results this week we could have the equal-lowest minor-premiership points total of 36 (or the outright lowest, 34, if Penrith beat Melbourne).

More remarkably, the already-smallest margin between first and eighth of six points could conceivably be just two, should the Panthers get up and the Dragons, Broncos and Warriors all salute.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s damn close. Anyone's comp.

* IT looked bad and was bad as Andrew McCullough dodged a bullet last week.

The kamikaze tackling method of Dylan Napa has become a problem. Enjoying the benefit of doubt last time after breaking Korbin Sims’ jaw, it must now be addressed by Napa. His career is in jeopardy.

I do wonder, though, would Napa’s tackling style be an issue if he were a smaller guy? Hypothetical I know, but relative size is absolutely a factor here, as are limitations in technique and relative mobility.

In this case, the small-man-on-big gave away an extra 30 kilograms of mass-times-acceleration. Amping that up with the momentum of a tall man driving forward, with his eyes off the target, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Complicating things further, Napa was making his third tackle in a row.

Similar to the Korbin Sims tackle, Napa faced a nimble and lively customer, under fatigue conditions. His most reliable option, if his objective was to close down the runner, was the do-your-best, I’m-in-trouble swamp tackle, and hope for the best. Risky.

Now, it’s not like kamikaze exponents are common, with only one or two springing to mind with any form in my day. Otherwise big men have long made the necessary duty-of-care adjustments over the years, if occasionally a little wayward. Indeed, of the 2000-odd NRL tackles Napa has made in his career, only a few have attracted scrutiny. So it’s a fine line.

Nonetheless, aware of his shortcomings, a few weeks on the sidelines working on his footwork, fitness and target practice is appropriate.

Woe betide the big fella if it happens again.

* A QUICK rave about Cameron Munster. The Storm five-eighth has all kinds of game at the moment and is shaping as the most influential player going in to the finals. A tough rooster, his general swagger and apparent “I don’t care” approach are refreshing.

While I’m at it, credit where it’s due. Barring a couple of unlikely last-round blowouts, the Storm are minor premiers. Again.

* KNIGHTS trainspotters wouldn’t have missed the significance of this week for the club in terms of their defensive scorecard for the season.

The Knights are locked in a titanic tussle with Manly this weekend to avoid conceding the most points in the NRL this season. Newcastle have currently leaked 583 points, Manly 574. So tackle, tackle, tackle, fellas. Manly can have that dreaded defensive wooden spoon.

* THIS column went to deadline last week not knowing of the passing of St George stalwart, doting father and mate to most all who crossed his path, Lance Thompson.

A fierce competitor on the field, a gentleman and genuine softy off it. Like all the good ones, he’ll be missed. Vale Thommo!