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Rugby League Shining Brightly

Sixteen weeks ago, Newcastle Knights’ player Alex McKinnon suffered a serious neck injury which has seen him confined to a wheelchair. The 22-year-old now has a long rehabilitation process ahead of him. Almost immediately after the incredibly rare, yet devastating event, the rugby league community, from the professional right through to the grassroots level, rallied around the rising star of the NRL whose whole life has now changed.

In a wonderful gesture, the Newcastle Knights – under financial strain – said that they would honour the rest of Alex McKinnon’s contract in order to assist Alex and his family with the long rehabilitation process. The NRL stepped up and delivered too. Alex McKinnon was graciously offered a job for life with the organisation, and a foundation was set up in his name.

But that was not all. Not that long ago the NRL said that Round 19 would be the #RiseForAlex round. The aim of the round, to raise funds for the foundation and for McKinnon. Another wonderful idea.

That round commenced on Friday night, with two very entertaining and high-scoring matches played. The two games so far were a celebration of rugby league, as much as they were a chance to help out a young man in need.

As I sat comfortably in my loungeroom, I began to ponder all things Alex McKinnon and all things NRL. It was a cathartic experience as I parsed through the thoughts I was having about what this tragedy, and the way the different actors have reacted, says about the NRL and its’ players. And there were thoughts about the man himself.

There might have also been a quiet tear or two. But they were happy tears. The Alex McKinnon situation resonated with me on a personal level.

Aside from a small issue I have grappled with in relation to the #RiseForAlex hashtag, and the contentious judiciary decision involving a Melbourne Storm player, the Knights and the rugby league community as a whole, not just the NRL have conducted themselves admirably. Their actions soon after the full extent of the injury to Alex McKinnon was known, could barely be faulted.

The one thing that I am still the tiniest bit unsure about is the wording of the hashtag. Is it a call to the community to get in and raise money? Or does it imply, in the tiniest way, that others have to help Alex and that he cannot help himself? I am probably over-thinking this. I have a tendency to do that. But nonetheless, the thought did cross my mind. Obviously though, I am not claiming there was any malicious intent. It’s just the case that words can have different meanings to different people.

Aside from my happiness at seeing the NRL community pull together, I also considered how Alex has so far dealt with what is the biggest challenge in his young life.

This is where it got really personal for me. I too have a disability. I was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.

I thankfully still have the use of my legs. But life has not been without its challenges. But they pale in comparison with those struggles that Alex and his family are now enduring. Alex is the very personification for me of the old adage that there is always someone doing it tougher than you.

The way that he has dealt with his acquired injury – and in the public eye – is something to behold. I have known nothing but a life of disability and I struggled to come to terms with it, basically until I found swimming when I was about 11. A few months after his injury, Alex appears to be dealing with his far more severe disability in a much more positive way. Of course he admits there have been tough times, but it barely shows when you see his smiling face in the video updates.

A horrific event in rugby league has brought out the best in those involved in the game. And it appears it has brought out the best in the victim. Perhaps most importantly, the response of the broader community appears to have been quite significant based on early indications.

You cannot underestimate too, the effect this might have on the way that we as Australians view disability.

Wrestling, Hookers and Fullbacks

There’s just a touch over 48 hours until that other grand final this weekend, the one that comes just a day after the Sydney Swans and the Hawthorn Hawks take to the MCG to battle for AFL honours. The National Rugby League final promises to be an intensely physical encounter between two teams that reached the absolute pinnacle in 2012. The teams finished 1st and 2nd in the minor premiership with the Canterbury Bulldogs taking the honours in the regular season over a Melbourne Storm outfit that have been consistent performers over a number of seasons.

But of course season-winning exploits mean little when it gets to the big one. Generally speaking, the two teams that make the last match of the season are closer on paper and of course in with a 50% shot, theoretically. It’s also the case that, when both teams finished the regular season first and second, they are of course, automatically said to be nearer each other in their chances for glory than not.

Different games and their different team match-ups bring a unique complexion to each game where different players and player combinations are required to excel in order to clock-up a win. In this particular game, it’ll no doubt be a battle of the hookers and fullbacks with some wrestling manoeuvres likely to also play a significant part in the game as has been the norm for a few seasons in the rugby league.

The game on Sunday should pit the experienced and widely regarded world’s best fullback, Billy Slater for the Melbourne Storm up against the barnstorming and youthful up-and-comer Ben Barba for the Bulldogs. This should eventuate despite Billy Slater coming down with a cold, with the team certain he will play.

This is probably a closer match-up than most would admit, with Barba not exactly streets behind Slater in the race to be the best fullback in the world.  Indeed Barba this year has been judged the best fullback in the NRL, effectively claiming the world mantle.

Both Ben Barba and Billy Slater are capable of swiftly moving up the field and breaking tackles. Both are known for their ability to easily streak past weary and unaware players, steaming away to score tries having run the length of the field. These plays alone have the ability to make all the difference on Sunday if playing conditions see the two teams competing on a dry playing field, no rain in sight.

The key to defusing the explosive tendencies of the two number ones will be with the kicking game of both sides. Both are usually strong under the high ball as they need to be, but a vulnerability exists there, especially in the case of Billy Slater who erred under pressure in the Origin series. The pack must be ready to chase after kicks targeting these players with gusto. The probability that one or two might be dropped increases with every opportunity taken.

Sending down a number of high kicks can also work for good defensive field position and can be used in attack for just as much efficacy, as long as the usage of such plays does not become predictable throughout the 80 minutes of the game.

The second key position will be the two hookers, Cameron Smith for Melbourne and Michael Ennis for Canterbury. One of the key players on the field, it will be Smith and Ennis, both class acts, as much as it pains to say about the on-field exploits of the latter, who will be there to get the ball into a good position in attack.

Another high tension element of the battle of the hookers will be the niggle. There is no love lost between Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis. The latter is more than capable of niggling opponents and chooses to do this a little more than most players in the competition. Cameron Smith will usually let his actions do the talking and the key will be him keeping his composure and perhaps forcing a penalty or two from an Ennis indiscretion.

Of course, the halves too, as they always have in rugby league will also be crucial, but in a game where Cronk is streets ahead of his opposing half, that equation doesn’t particularly change things and won’t signal a key two person contest within the broader game.

The final ingredient in the mix that is the Canterbury Bulldogs versus Melbourne Storm grand final will be the use of legal and perhaps sneaky illegal wrestling techniques. Both teams are professional at this with the Storm having pioneered the use of the so-called “chicken wing” tackle.

All NRL sides use wrestling moves, that is true. That is required in order to keep up with the competition. Such moves also act to slow the game down as well as causing a bit of pain. The referees will be on the lookout for the illegal chicken wing tackle, but most other moves are fair game and will be used more and more in the event of a very close contest on Sunday night.

The head says Melbourne will win, they’re big game players and have been there (the grand final) so many times in this decade, though Canterbury have been there more over the last 20 years. The difference is that the Storm have not been around that long. The Storm too, have more big game players than their opponents and this could also prove crucial to the end result. The heart on the other hand? Well, it doesn’t care.

The Key Ingredients For a Blues Stew

Queensland are again on the cusp of another special achievement in the sport of rugby league, needing only one win from the remaining two matches in the series. Their first opportunity to achieve further sporting greatness comes in just a matter of hours when at just after 8pm the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons run onto our Olympic stadium in Sydney, the Blues in front of a favourable crowd, to do battle on what is seen as the toughest stage of rugby league.

Origin is all about that old, well reasonably old adage anyway of mate against mate, state against state. The time of year where you find yourself squaring up against your fellow club men, them going hard at you and you required to show just the same level of intensity, strength, agility and passion as your temporary foe.

Queensland won the first game, but only just. The team were far from consistent throughout the match, starting incredibly poorly, but they were able to turn it around when it mattered and capitalised on enough of the opportunities they had to find the New South Wales line and dive or run over for those all important four pointers.

Were it not for the poor kicking game of Carney, including that awful decision by the Blues captain to go for the two points from so far out when the NSW team had all the running things more than likely would have been at least 2 to 4 points closer.

Then there’s the controversial try which for the first million angles didn’t look a try, but the more it was replayed and explained it seemed to flip a switch that said try and of course the decision was backed up by referees boss and known NSW friend, Bill Harrigan.

There were some flaws in the Queensland game that they will want to rectify if they are to beat a NSW outfit confident in the knowledge they have what it takes to be seriously competitive against the most dominant team in Queensland history, even though the Maroons are not doing it with Darren Lockyer this time around.

Our early possession rate was incredibly poor and to play against a New South Wales outfit that now knows the weaknesses that the Queensland team displayed in game one will be dangerous to deal with. So more consistent ball control will be key.

Part of the poor ball control was a pretty shocking game by Billy Slater’s world beating standards where one spill lead to a try that ordinarily wouldn’t have happened if his game was right on the money, indeed it may well have been a riot for the Queensland team if that were the case.

Our forwards too during game one were made to do an incredible amount of hard work early on and that meant that for the entire game the key Queensland big men racked in enormous tackle counts across the board.  Queensland will need to do more to ensure that the work our forwards do in defense doesn’t tire them out for bringing the ball forward in a more concerted attack tonight.

Apart from being able to take advantage of the play more often as has been the case under the Maroons team for 6 years now and even prior to that but to differing levels of impact the Blues in the first outing absolutely had all of the pace against a Queensland team that may well have been suffering from complacency. There is a good chance though that the speed they lacked in the first game in Melbourne will not be required so much with wet weather being part of the recipe for tonight’s game.

Indeed though, this complacency may have been a key factor in the silly mistakes and lack of energy that the team displayed throughout the match, but mostly in the first half of the game so that will need to be put in check and it is hard to believe that a such a senior Queensland side would not be capable of closing that complacency gap for the game in Sydney tonight.

Sam Thaiday will clearly be missed tonight too as one of the tough enforcers that have been a strong leader of the muscle men in the pack but Thaiday is being replaced by experience and talent in the reshuffled 17.

Other than those areas, the Queensland team that won the first match by a whisker was a well-oiled and clearly experienced and tested machine that need to overcome psychological barriers perhaps much, much more than any physical deficit they will have against a comparatively young side full of energy and on fresher legs.

Nonetheless, there are not too many ingredients to add to the recipe to make the best Blues stew around.

Why the Mighty Maroons Can Make it 7 in a Row

The best Queensland team to have ever pulled on their football boots has won an amazing 6 State of Origin series in a row, rewriting the record books to a point where the winning streak may never be broken. Overnight the Queensland team for the first game of the series next Wednesday in Melbourne was named and again appears to be a virtually unbeatable squad of players despite the absence of one of the legends of the game at club, Origin and international levels.

This series will be the first in the post-Lockyer era of State of Origin, an Origin career between 1998 and 2011 during which Lockyer only missed one full series, not through poor form, but through injury.

There has been much said about the Queensland State of Origin team hopes in the wake of the retirement of Darren Lockyer, with the player who holds god-like status in the game of rugby league, not to mention a statue outside his home stadium and a road named after him near his home town. The knockers have said it will be harder without him, it undoubtedly will be.

But the haters have also said that they might not win without him and that sounds ridiculous to many who follow the game, some like it’s a religion, some because they are proud Queenslanders, come May with the beginning of the State of Origin series.

Darren Lockyer, regardless of the massive star he was and he was the biggest of the big, hard to emulate, is but one player in the fabric of  a Queensland team that has so dominated over 6 years. Yes, he set up or took advantage of many of the attacking plays over 12 series in the game, but he was surrounded by people like Johnathan Thurston and Allan Langer before him and also Kevin Walters early on too and that’s just the players surrounding him on the field, there’s also many others who would take a long time to list that also make up this great team.

There’s people like Petero Civoniceva, in his last season in the game and Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and new captain of the Maroons Cameron Smith. There’s also top players like Sam Thaiday and Matt Scott providing the brute force for the Queensland team on the field of play, in the pressure cooker atmosphere that is representative football.

The Queensland team has so much depth that players like Ben Hannant, David Taylor and David Shillington will probably be on the bench, a reserve of four that also includes rising star Matt Gillett.

Not only that, but a side that counts as its second string halfback and 18th man, another star in the making, Daly Cherry-Evans, is sure to count its chances in the series ahead as very good.

Even with Johnathan Thurston switching to the number 6 jersey, a very similar position, the Queensland team can count its first choice halfback, Cooper Cronk as probably above all others in Australia and around the world.

The biggest enemy of the Queensland team at this stage is complacency. The series is theirs to win, but also there for them to lose if they don’t turn up with their game heads on, that’s State of Origin, it brings out the best in people, even the young blokes who may not have had a jersey to their name can step up if the Queensland team are lacking concentration.

The new and relatively new players and new combinations in the New South Wales team offer an air of unpredictability too which always has the ability, if plays are executed well, to bamboozle even experienced players like those who will don the Maroons jumper again from next Wednesday.

But all in all, if the Queensland team bring their attention and A game next Wednesday, then by Thursday next week, the Queensland team should find themselves just one win away from a magical 7th series victory in a row.

There’s just one word left to say: QUEENSLANDER!!!

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