Monday, September 27, 2010

Only one winner in the battle of head, heart and history

High in the hinterland of the Gold Coast last Friday, a charity lunch ended with an auction of two first-grade rugby league jumpers linked to the past of St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers, the clubs competing tonight for the honour of playing in the NRL grand final.

They were 1980s strips representing the decade I coached both clubs before they each merged - a St George jumper, with the Penfolds sponsorship prominently displayed, and a Western Suburbs one, bearing the name of Victa.

Wests now exists as only half an NRL club, having merged with Balmain. The joint venture is named Wests Tigers but the media tend to drop the Wests off, calling them Tigers.

When they wore orange jumpers in the televised game against the Raiders on Friday night, I actually heard people at the Currumbin Surf Club call the team Balmain.

The Dragons, however, went into their post-Super League talks with Illawarra with three non-negotiable conditions: they would never relinquish their name, colours or emblem.

The value of the jumpers is a mirror of their fan base. Wests is ageing and nostalgic. The Dragons strip is both ubiquitous and numerous.
The lunch, to raise funds for Variety, was partly organised by two former Dragons players: hooker John Dowling and fullback Glenn Burgess, who played valiantly in the 1985 grand final, the first of the five the Dragons have lost since 1979.
''JD'', as Dowling is universally known, invited former Wests captain Tom Raudonikis to the lunch.
Raudonikis is very informed about auctions, travelling NSW and the outback mining towns of Queensland with Arthur Beetson, where the two former State of Origin captains entertain audiences with tales laced with political incorrectness.

''It won't get over $1000,'' Raudonikis said of the Dragons jumper, surveying the small but capacity audience of tradesmen and owners of small businesses. He was shocked when it went for $1600.
The auctioneer then offered up the Wests jumper. Bidding quickly moved to $1500, but Raudonikis drove it further.

Almost silent to this point, having enjoyed the rare opportunity of being a guest rather than a guest speaker, he leapt to his feet.

''You can't let a St George jumper beat a Wests one,'' he croaked to the crowd.
The jumper sold for $2300. It was the first time I heard Raudonikis express any passion for the club since the merger a decade ago.

He has occasionally said of our ribald, rebellious two years together at Lidcombe, ''No player will ever see those days again.''

To be a Wests fan back then was an act of faith and fantasy, and rugby league was, ironically, far more interactive than anything Bill Gates and the Apple man contrive for us now.
It was a look-you-in-the-eye era when i's, not coms, were dotted.

Tom rarely attends Wests reunions, and the vision I see of him on TV now associates him more with Newtown, the club he joined from the Magpies.

Yet something stirred within, and he exhorted the old Magpies in the audience to achieve a victory over the Dragons, even if it was over a 30-year-old jumper.

Maybe it was his innate competitive spirit, rather than latent loyalty. After all, his combative approach bears no relationship with Wests Tigers' playground style.

Raudonikis and Wests Tigers' main man, Benji Marshall, both hurl themselves into the attack like a four-year-old running towards the tree on Christmas morning, but they do it in vastly different ways. It's akin to comparing a bricklayer with a cross-dresser.

More than once, Raudonikis said in reference to the Dragons' head-geared five-eighth, ''Geez, I'd love to run at that Soward.''

Ernest Hemingway once declared, ''Every writer owes it to the place he knows best to either destroy it or perpetuate it.''

I owe Wests and St George, and have always felt a duty to perpetuate them in anything I write, even to the point where people complain, ''Can you leave it another 12 months before you mention 'Dallas' Donnelly?''
I'd like to think Raudonikis has finally come around to the need to perpetuate Wests. He could never destroy it.

Visit the neat brick house opposite Wests Leagues Club at Ashfield, and you'll witness a busy band of archivists dedicated to Magpies history.
You'll see the original 1908 team photo; Jimmy Sharman's 1937 football boots; the Kangaroos diaries of Skinny McMillan (1930) and Alan Ridley (1934); the minutes of meetings from 1955-56 where members stood accused of being ''drunk and disorderly'' and ''fighting within the club precincts''.

The Wests exhibit was the largest part of the 2008 centenary rugby league exhibit in the National Museum.
The more quickly a club dies, the greater the need to nurture its past.
Western Suburbs NSW Cup team, with the magpie emblem on the jumper, plays Canterbury this weekend for the right to play in the grand final. However, constant rumours of budget overruns cloud the team's brave efforts.

Rich clubs will tell you spirit is the most important thing in football; poor clubs know it is money.
The Dragons have no need to proclaim their history. It lives still, with the team playing at Kogarah and the leagues club across the road.

They didn't select a Team of the Century because it would have been too hard, given the competing claims of the champions of different eras.

Walking into the old ''middle room'' at Kogarah - between the home side and visitors rooms - was like stepping into the Palace of Versailles, where the Hall of Mirrors became a narrative one, with champions such as John Raper standing beside photos of premiership teams, recounting their deeds.
The presence of all these ghosts, all these shadows, can be debilitating, especially for a coach.

When asked to compare coaching Wests with St George, I would say that at Kogarah you ate a little better but didn't sleep as well.
Being in charge of an heirloom is akin to walking around with dynamite strapped to your body.

You fear that if you make a wrong move, you could blow up the place.
This is why the appointment of Wayne Bennett as coach was so strategically successful.

He has won six premierships, more than half the 11 St George won in its world record streak. Does anybody win 11 anythings any more?
Bennett's personal record is a distraction from the club's proud past.
Tradition is a many-headed beast. It's like fire: it can warm you or kill you; cook your food or destroy it.
Bennett's own record is so glorious, he can internalise all this history and relieve the players of the burden of the past. He can shoulder the burden of expectation and the even weightier baggage of doubt that has come with the choker tag.

There's a saying at the Dragons that when you leave, they don't want to see you back for at least 10 years.
This is why the appointment of Nathan Brown as coach was a poor decision. To move straight from playing to coach at the same club is too big a challenge. The directors should have known better, given they put Craig Young, captain in 1979 and 1985, in charge of his former teammates, and then sacked him after 18 months.
But the board, perhaps realising the error was theirs, stuck with Brown.

''Their loyalty to Nathan was a big factor in me joining the club,'' Bennett once told me. And Young has returned, as recruitment officer and father of Dean, one of the club's most inspirational players.
He would be happy to shed the tag of ''last premiership captain''.
Like ''JD'' and ''Burgo'', Craig symbolises the former St George player - one with the holy man's capacity to forgive, and the betting man's zeal for a win.

JD and Burgo feared the Raiders, believing they had the wood on the Dragons. When Wests Tigers won on Friday night, the pair breathed a quiet sigh of relief, convinced the main obstacle to a St George Illawarra premiership had gone.

My problem is I have loyalty to both, and when confronted in the past with choices like this, I have always asked: Who needs the win more?

Wests Tigers last won in 2005; the Dragons in 1979.
Time and football can be cruel.

The Dragons need it more.

September 25, 2010

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