Up Front with Tony Butterfield

WINNING sports teams are (normally) built slowly, unless they can pull a few Roosters/Rabbits out of a sombrero.

But generally speaking on the recruitment front, getting enough of the great players together, with the right support cast, for an extended period, remains the great challenge, taking, among other things, time and some luck.

As the Knights reflect on their 31st season, they boast two “greats” in the ranks. With hard work, perhaps a couple more in the seasons ahead. As the planets align, say the promoters, all will come together in time. But there’s the rub. The clock is running on the three guaranteed years of both Ponga and Pearce. Thankfully, the likes of Barnett, the Saifitis, Levi and Watson also have their prime ahead of them.

Some smart recruitment, a little good fortune and a massive overhaul of our defensive standards, and we’re in business for 2019.

So, as the boys boot off to parts far and wide to relax and recover, the question on most punters’ lips is: “What’s the verdict on the season?”

Suffice to say, we were better than last year. We certainly won more away games than we have in five seasons. We need to hang onto that. Our untried attacking combinations had their moments, fairly sizzling at times, while cumbersome and clunky at others. As to defence, leaking 600 points is better than 800 two years ago, so that’s a tick. But the eight-points-per-game improvement needed to get down to the competitive 400 mark will be a far, far tougher proposition.

Overall it would be crass and disrespectful to ascribe a simplistic score to a group of men who have just completed a gruelling marathon together. Each with his own untold stories of sacrifice and endurance.

Better to acknowledge the players on the park wore the jersey with pride and did their best. Thanks fellas. It’s on again next year.

In the meantime, good to see our boys well behaved after being sequestered into a west-end pub last melancholy Monday. No pesky paparazzi problems for our lads. Perhaps because the scandal mongers didn’t think to secrete a photographer close to the action, like they did with the Bulldogs. In that case, for no other reason than to entrap and sensationalise while moralising to their dwindling readership.

* WATCHING JJ Pearce last week lead from the front against the Dragons reminded me of the tough-as-teak halfbacks of the past. Talking tough, I’m thinking Tom Raudonikis, Geoff Toovey, Andrew Johns and Terry Lamb. All loved to tackle and lead from the front, sometimes shaming the forwards into having a go.

Pearce had one of those games last week. For more than 250 NRL games, he has instinctively done the tough things. His upbringing, more lately his concept of leadership, personal pride in performance and his respect for his teammates drive that urge to the nth degree.

Other than his competitive edge on the field, what Pearce must deliver for future success is the culture, example and atmosphere he obviously lives and breathes day to day. This will be his greatest contribution in the long term and his most important responsibility.

* EVERYONE has a Johnathan Thurston story, such is his broad appeal and accessibility. As he stepped off in style this last month, I can’t help but recall my own.

Doing the rounds of the clubs back in 2002, in my role as president of the players’ union, the likes of Steve Price, Willie Mason and Hazem El Masri typically dominated discussion with the Canterbury players.

In the corner, dwarfed by the tall timber, I noted a scruffy 19-year-old kid with a sinewy frame and a sparkle in his eyes, who was listening intently.

I thought to myself: “This kid might have something.” Indeed he did.

Two seasons on, after a last-minute call-up to replace the injured Steve Price in the 2004 grand final, JT left the Bulldogs (with a premiership ring in his saddlebag) to seek his destiny in the far north.

And this is where things took off, winning (nearly) every prize in sight.

I recall cabbing across the city late from the Tigers’ grand final celebrations in 2005 to the eastern suburbs to present the RLPA’s players’ player medal at the more sombre gathering of the runners-up, North Queensland.

The late, great coach Graham Murray was even prouder than his protege when I placed the medal around JT’s neck.

“Muzza” would eventually promote JT to the captaincy in 2007 and the rest, as they say, is his story. What a player he has been!

* A SEASON that started with an irritating yet useful crackdown on Rafferty’s Rules, gathered itself, bunched at the home turn and then, with desperate last-minute lunges, dove for the finish line. The tightest finish ever.

I couldn’t believe those bloody Roosters flew down the outside to snuff the Storm for the 2018 minor premiership prize. I bet Craig Bellamy still can’t.

So who’s gonna win it from here?

Applying my bent for what’s trending, I took a look at the last 20 years of NRL finals.

What do the numbers say makes a champion team?  Two categories: (1) most points for; (2) least points conceded. Simple enough.

PROGRESS: The Knights climbed the ladder in 2018, but they still need major improvement to challenge a finals berth next season. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

PROGRESS: The Knights climbed the ladder in 2018, but they still need major improvement to challenge a finals berth next season. Picture: Darren Pateman, AAP

To my amazement, It seems there have been only three premierships decided where the premiers have not  won either of the categories. The Knights in 2001 (where Parra won everything except when it mattered), the Tigers in 2005, coming from fourth; and Cronulla in 2016.

On that basis, and in the absence of a late flash down the outside which is possible in this comp, history suggests your hard-earned needs to be on either the Roosters or the mighty Bunnies.

My week-one tips: Broncos, Warriors, Rabbitohs and Roosters.  Enjoy the finals.

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