Freak show is over - time for couple of swift halves
September 7, 2010
In the first in a series of Herald essays looking at this weekend’s NRL finals, Andrew Stevenson celebrates the lords of the dance, Todd Carney and Benji Marshall, before Saturday night’s showdown between the Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers.
The Hayne Train has pulled into the station for an off-season grease-and-oil change, looking more like a puffing billy than the VFT that last season threatened to tear up rugby league’s tracks and denude the sporting landscape of suitable adjectives to describe his performances.
Jarryd Hayne was the prototype of the 21st-century footballer, with kicking skills akin to a soccer midfielder, a leap from AFL, a step from hip hop and the speed of a sprinter - all built into a body big enough and strong enough to pack in at prop. With his orange boots a fury of movement, Hayne was the dancing savage inside every player who’s ever held the ball in their hands and dreamed.
What - who - could be better than that? Certainly not Hayne himself, who ended up looking so last year. In 2010, his talents undermined rather than enhanced a strong Parramatta side which sunk without making much of a splash at all. They stayed on life support for the past month, but the Eels were walking dead ever since being tortured by the Roosters, 48-12, in front of a sold-out Parramatta Stadium in round 21.
The victors that night - in one of the most comprehensive performances of the season - threaten to be the story of 2010. No matter how far they go, it’s still a world removed from the ignominy in which 2009 ended for the Roosters - stone-motherless, with their team beset by infighting, their players out fighting at night and with a betting scandal placing a huge question mark over their final game.
Redemption and regeneration are the NRL’s bywords. From plucked chooks to proud Roosters, the game has found a way to facilitate what fans most desperately want: the chance to be a contender. It’s a high-speed cycle, with dynasties rising and falling in a season or two and the spoils shared around. Even when the salary cap has been rorted, it has worked to produce a competition in which most teams start the season with a reasonable chance of making the play-offs. If not this year, then next; if not last year, then today.
Of course it helps if your club has its act together, if players stay fit and focused and if your coach actually can. But all those ingredients are by way of background: the chopped wood and kindling, the scrunched-up paper and twigs ready for something - someone - to convert potential into actual. The spark that sets the whole damn show on fire.
In 2010 Hayne ceded the role and Todd Carney and Benji Marshall have claimed it for themselves. If rugby league lights up the night sky for the next month, then it’s a likely bet Carney and Marshall will have provided much of the fireworks. Whereas Hayne was a brute in his own right, Carney and Marshall typify a swing of the pendulum from size to speed. In the NRL, everyone’s getting bigger, but the powerful few this season are the ones who are faster than the rest.
Carney’s body is inked like a railway station wall and if the tattoos tell the story of his life - or even half of it - you’d be right to say he looks like trouble. Hopefully, last drinks have been called on the fool he made of himself. On the field, he is making fools of everyone else. Old forwards, their lungs screaming, their hearts fibrillating, stare when Carney gets the ball: here comes trouble.
Plenty of players are fast, not so many as quick between the ears as Carney, who has vision, a full bag of kicks and the pass, both long and short. Under Brian Smith’s coaching, Carney also has players in motion around him. What’s more, says former halfback and Souths coach Jason Taylor, he knows how to use them. ‘‘He’s also got an ability to get across top players on the outside and that just makes the defenders really nervous because he’s got support on the outside, he’s got blokes cutting back inside and he can go himself. It’s very scary for defenders when he gets the ball.’’
Carney’s reflexes, too, are peerless - for instance, when he pulled in a Manly grubber like a wicketkeeper, got up from one knee and dodged a handful of tacklers to inspire a length-of-the-field try that had Roosters fans out of their seats and Sea Eagles supporters shaking their heads wondering what on earth had just gone wrong with their season.
Carney doesn’t so much as shimmy or shake, it’s all speed and step; the dancer’s craft. So you think you can dance, asks the defensive line? Yep, says Carney with calm authority. Stand there and watch and so many times this season would-be tacklers have stood like witches’ hats as Carney, 24, skipped around them as if in a practice drill.
Which, of course, they are not. The tacklers, weighing in at 100 to 110kg of bone and muscle, spend their season waiting for a chance to skewer someone like Carney on the point of their shoulder like a block of cheese on a fondue fork. It’s what they are bred to do, just as Carney was made to dance.
Dancers are everywhere in sport. Look at the world football player of the year Lionel Messi, or Mesut Oezil, who so terrorised the ageing Socceroos at the World Cup in South Africa.
From the first moment of the Socceroos’ first match, Oezil had the ball at his feet and the Australian defenders were but spectators. Bring on the ballet shoes.
Those who love the beautiful game, those who don’t and even those who don’t particularly like sport at all can immediately see the beauty. Youthful exuberance and speed leads age in a merry dance where the only music anyone can hear is playing in the flying winger’s head. It’s his right, his destiny, to run with the ball and all the world glories in the frail beauty of youth.
‘‘Look at rugby league,’’ they scorn. ‘‘Where’s the grace, where’s the beauty?’’
Look harder, I say.
Carney and his like can dance. First, though, they must earn the right. First they must be able to withstand the punishment of playing a game that is as close to war as peacetime life ever gets. With their bodies their only weapons, 17 young blokes who do little else but sculpt themselves into weapons of destruction enter the field of battle intent on not just hurting the opposition but breaking them in pieces if the opportunity presents itself. And the easiest players to break in two? The ballet boys, the show ponies with the step and the jive; the little blokes.
Taylor knows what it’s like to line up as one of the smallest players on the field; he knows how far talent will get you and what Marshall and Carney needed to take them further. ‘‘There’s plenty of players with all the skills that those guys have got but the one thing that stops them from getting to that level is just the fact they can’t handle the physical side of the game,’’ he says. ‘‘It was a hurdle I had to work hard to overcome as a player. You know they’re going to run at you and it becomes a point of commitment - particularly on the first couple. If you don’t commit, then you’re in for a long night.’’
Bent and broken are Benji Marshall’s middle names. A Maori warrior might course through his veins but inflicting physical pain is not what Benji was born to. Mental torment is more his go, with a magician’s bag of tricks from which he’s been plucking white rabbits since his debut, which shows no signs of ever emptying.
His three tries against the Storm two weeks ago were as good as you could see, one with a flick pass easily missed on replays, let alone in live action. What chance a defender against it? Now 25, Benji still plays like a sprightly kid without a care in the world who debuted in first grade while still in short pants at Keebra Park High School. Harder to comprehend is how he still keeps stepping after fractured and dislocated shoulders and a broken cheekbone, the legacy of never giving in to his whippet-like frame.
If dance is all you’ve got, play soccer or touch. If you want to dance in rugby league, first you’ve got to survive. Before you can show us what you’ve got, show us what you’re made of.
Preston Campbell, 33, is the same as Benji - only he’s coming off a smaller physical base and has been doing it for longer. Sure, the modern methods of training and preparation have even packed a bit of muscle on the scrawny kid he remains. But imagine what beats inside.
Fuifui Moimoi hits the defensive line like a shot cannonball. Even forwards who match his 110kg bulk can be snapped like old driftwood when he winds up. Last year, the Herald got some scientists on the case to calculate what it feels like to be Moimoi-ed. Imagine standing looking up at the sky, explained physicist Dr Nicholas Armstrong. From a leaning tower, someone drops a 20-kilogram bag of cement from a height of 22 metres. When you try to catch it, the cement will have the same energy as Moimoi generates when he surges into the defensive line. Last month, the bag of cement was picking up speed for at least 22 metres when Moimoi broke the Titans’ defensive line and kept charging, with Campbell looming as a minor inconvenience in his path to the tryline. Instead of waiting for the cement to come to him, Campbell launched himself at Moimoi’s right thigh and knocked the monster down. A battalion is only as strong as its weakest man. Later, Campbell would have time to slip on the tap shoes; first he had to hold the line.
Carney and Marshall are bigger but essentially no different. Playing at five-eighth, hiding is not an option. Wherever they stand, traffic is headed their way. Coaches devise their game plans with a bullseye on their heads: run this way, they tell their forwards. Run into him, run over the top of him and run at him again. The first point is that Carney and Marshall are among the smallest players in their teams and therefore a likely weaker link in the line; the second is that every thuddering run their body stops drains petrol from their tanks and dulls the sparkle in their shoes.
Bring it on. Carney and Marshall have proved they can cope with it. But can the rest of their team cope with each of them? And if they can cope with them in the first 10 minutes, can they cope with them in the last? The longer the game, the longer the season goes on, the more dangerous they get. Long may it last.