Up Front with Tony Butterfield

THE annual Rugby League Players’ Association awards night, held on Tuesday night by Sydney Harbour, was another classy knees-up.

A big night out for the old and new, a theme obvious with a nod to the conservative black-tie tux shod with the very “now” tennis-shoe look.

Forster-based legend Dennis Tutty was, as always, the star turn, reflecting on the game-changing sacrifice and example he set in the late 1960s, challenging the unfair labour movement restrictions in place at the time. Appreciated still by generations of pros.

The festive new-age vibe pumped as the evening crept up on the much-anticipated big award, buoyed by few official speeches and news that Knights old boy and RLPA backbone Clint Newton wouldn't be speaking. (Something about not having a late-enough trading licence. Don’t quote me.)

PASSING THE MANTLE: Four-time Players' Champion Johnathan Thurston presents this year's award to his heir apparent, Kalyn Ponga. Picture: Brock Corfe, RLPA

PASSING THE MANTLE: Four-time Players' Champion Johnathan Thurston presents this year's award to his heir apparent, Kalyn Ponga. Picture: Brock Corfe, RLPA

Of course, no awards night is complete these days without JT making an appearance. The old maestro was on hand, but this time the four-time Players’ Champion recipient was presenting, rather than receiving, what he regards as the game’s highest honour.

And it was the youngest bloke in the room, Kalyn Ponga, who was recognised by his fellow players.

CONGRATS: Your columnist and Kalyn Ponga on Tuesday night.

CONGRATS: Your columnist and Kalyn Ponga on Tuesday night.

A polished performer on and off the park, the Newcastle fullback is the epitome of the old saying: “The good ones make it look easy”. His acceptance speech was all class.

Not wishing to overstate KP’s impact this season, but, Dally Messenger excluded, this week’s recognition from nearly 500 hardened professional players is an exclamation mark on one of the great debut seasons in the game’s history.

It wasn’t the first time, mind you, that Knights have figured in game-wide player voting success.

Danny Buderus in 2004 and Akuila Uate (2011) were both named Players’ Champion, while Craig Gower (Penrith, 2003), Ben Kennedy (Manly, 2006) and Darius Boyd (St George Illawarra, 2010) also wore the blue-and-red at various stages.

As the evening concluded, this Newcastle old boy was proud to have been there for the occasion and, if only a little, bask in the reflected promise of a new Knights success story.

* AND so to the finals. The Storm v Bunnies hit-out a week ago was a true clash of the titans, leaving footy lovers wanting more. As predicted in this column, Cameron Munster was the difference in the end, potting the ugliest of field goals when all was on the line. Resting up this weekend with their season-long halfback shortcomings seemingly sorted, the Storm appear likely to convert their advantage and qualify for a third straight grand final.

The Roosters have headaches of their own with two stars out, but will be equally rested for the week-three qualifying final.

Meanwhile, the final game of last weekend’s four-game bonanza finished with a flurry. The Broncos had expectations higher than a week-one belting at home but must walk away with nothing but time to sort a few housekeeping issues.

As for the mercurial Dragons, a side even the most rusted-on fan wouldn’t have backed a fortnight ago, by crikey, they’re back!

But with plenty of walking wounded plus playmaker Gareth Widdop out, joined possibly by James Graham (after having his bell rung badly last outing), coach McGregor would have been scrambling all week to pull together a healthy squad.

Their opponents on Saturday, the Bunnies, naturally have their own issues with injuries, chief among them the Greg Inglis battering from last week. But he’s a champion and should lead his mob to victory if given the go-forward support of the Burgess behemoths, who could run riot.

As for the Sharks, I fear the loss of the best pound-for-pound forward across the competition, Wade Graham, is too much to absorb. They’re up against it.

That said, they bombed at least two tries last week against the heavyweight Roosters, so have enough game to scare the life out of Panthers tonight.

As for my old club, it’s obvious the Penrith journey lasts as long as James Maloney and Nathan Cleary are healthy.

No team has better halves in this series than the young and old combination at the foot of the mountains. On that basis alone, I’m tipping Penrith.

* LIKE most, I love finals time. The intensity of performance goes up a couple of notches and everyone’s fighting for survival. And you do see things in the big games that aren’t as common throughout the long-winter banality of competition rounds after rounds.

Two of those moments stuck out for me last weekend.

The first was when Melbourne winger Suliasi Vunivalu was stranded against a rapidly approaching Rabbits attack. What did he do? He came in.

Wrong decision maybe at the time, but he made up for it by firstly folding Greg Inglis like a deckchair, before scrambling to beat the guy 10 metres away to the loose football. He had no right to the marvellous double-play, but like a dog on a bone he wanted it more.

Gee, if like his left flanker, Josh Addo-Carr, the Storm wingers are that tough, imagine the real footballers? Boom boom. (Old winger joke – you had to be there).

Seriously, desperate and hungry – just like the Dragons.

When his team started slipping into old habits, Tariq Sims demolished a ball runner, retrieved the ball and within a minute charged over for the second of his three first-half tries. (Now that would have been handy a few years back).

From there, the Dragons didn’t look back. 

Incidentally, the brotherly Korbin Sims sideshow was great theatre. No prizes for guessing the villain.

All in all, more big moments to come.