Grand Finals time - the NRL says “game on” for Billy Slater

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The MCG, home of the AFL Grand Final (Image via Wikipedia)

Lee Duffield reports on the one week of the year when life seems to depend on the bounce of a football for both rugby league and the AFL.

FOR SPORTS SUPPORTERS around Australia, it has been “Grand Final drive you nuts week”, where everybody tells everybody else not to play the Grand Final before it happens while they try to play the Grand Final before it happens.

Sports shows and columnists have the hard ask of producing many angles to hold off the impatience of hard-to-please specialist audiences — they who never miss a moment of every game, contest every penalty, live and breathe it.

For the National Rugby League this time there was some real news in among the talk of injuries, suspensions, naming of the line-up, or betting odds, all resting on the shoulders of Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. Read on.

AFL — “Fame and Sensation”

The first relief from anticipation comes in this Saturday’s Australian Football League Grand Final in Melbourne.

For the record, both contenders – Collingwood and West Coast Eagles – walloped their opponents in Preliminary Finals the week before.

Collingwood (15.7 97) defeated last year’s Premiers, the Richmond Tigers (8.10 38).

West Coast (18.13 121) beat the Melbourne Demons (7.13 55).

Collingwood Magpies is billed as one of the oldest, most famous and most successful clubs, sporting 80,000 members and extra attendance numbers to go with it.

They’ve won 15 premierships, drawn two but have lost 26, meaning they're not infallible. Once, they won four premierships in a row, but as that finished in 1930, living spectators who saw it happen must be few and far between — actually, pretty-well all dead.

West Coast was formed only in 1986, so their local newspaper, The West Australian, was game to try an underdog line this week: ‘West Coast Eagles now can’t be ignored by critics’.

Except that the relative newcomers also have form, winning three Premierships in their much shorter lifespan.

Collingwood countered with some equal silliness — officials claiming that forecast cold weather in Melbourne, 13 degrees and possible rain, might give them an edge, more suited to their “style of play”.

Bookmakers were giving it to Collingwood mid-week (1.67 to 2.25).

Rugby League — “Greatest Game on Earth”

The story for the week in the National Rugby League was the story of two shoulders, belonging to Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.

Billy Slater, the sensational full-back, try-scorer and play-maker for the Melbourne Storm, set for his final NRL appearance in the Grand Final this Sunday, faced getting ruled out of the game in a judiciary hearing.

In last Friday’s Preliminary Final win for the defending Premiers he shoulder-charged Cronulla’s Sosaia Feki, knocking him across the touch-line and saving a try, but setting himself up for suspension — and a no-show in the Grand Final.

Suspense ended — Billy can play

Four days of suspense followed, ending at 9pm on Tuesday with a decision by a formal judiciary committee in Sydney: Billy Slater was NOT GUILTY of levelling a dangerous tackle — a shoulder charge.

His plea, that there was “no malice” in the tackle, was accepted, while the NRL would now have a refinement of one of its stiff rules on dangerous tackles. As the players seem to get more athletic by the day and the play continues hard, the organisation is determined to limit injuries, with reforms that also include management of suspected concussion, where players are removed from the field for medical evaluation.

The Slater affair brought out the judicial wisdom in dozens of ex-players and officials and thousands-upon-thousands of followers in the stands, who all had a view. Strictly objective observers in New South Wales generally concluded, sincerely, that he was gone. Strictly objective observers in Melbourne, or Slater’s homeland in Queensland, believed sincerely the offence was reprievable.

Foremost in that company was the Brisbane Courier Mail, front-paging its demands for clemency and running a few threats, even quoting the player’s Old Man: “Look out if you don’t let him play!” (Lucky for somebody on that one, the way it turned out).

Cooper Cronk — in with a chance?

Still on a medical subject — the other shoulder in question this week was the injured one of Cooper Cronk, another Queenslander but star player and half-back for the Sydney City Roosters, classed Minor Premiers after heading the competition rounds.

Knocked down in a tackle in Saturday’s Preliminary Final against the South Sydney Rabbitohs, he carried the obviously damaged left arm through the second half of the game, diagnosed after tests as suffering a severe rotator cuff injury.

By Monday night he’d declared he could play if 80 per cent fit, but called it a “long shot”.

Despite a very glum outlook on the weekend, maybe both champions will be on the field in the Grand Final after all.

There is no straight trade-off in a complicated game at the top of professional football. The absence of Cronk on one side, Slater on the other, might be talked up as a “balancer” but overall would just make for a less exciting Grand Final for the spectators.

NRL Preliminary Finals: Roosters – 12, Rabbitohs – 4; Storm – 22, Sharks – 5.

Betting: Storm ahead 1.85, Roosters 2.

Political footnote

Against the chance of seeing a report in Independent Australia without politics in it, consider the rocky road being endured by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, twice after breaking out of his home territory around Cronulla and venturing northwards into some action in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

There was the ill-fated foray into the Wentworth by-election, where he told Liberal Party preselectors he wanted a female candidate for the seat vacated by Malcolm Turnbull.

They took no notice and nominated a bloke.

The second step was for some gratuitous folksy-old barracking for the home football team, from Cronulla Sutherland, the “Shire”. “Go the Sharks,” he said, ending an interview.

No good — Sharks lost and, over in the other Preliminary Final, who should get a win but the Eastern suburbs crowd once more, the Roosters from Bondi?

Eastern Suburbs crowd – 2, Shire bloke – 0.  

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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