An epic of heroics and heartbreak
March 5, 2012
Benji Marshall says you can not really know what it was like during that merciless second half at Leichhardt unless you were out there. What it was like to forget tackle counts usually memorised like a five-year-old memorises his ABC. How bodies trained to the peak of fitness refused to obey basic commands. Why Marshall dropped balls he would normally balance on the end of his nose.
‘‘It’s hard to explain how your mind actually blanks when you are that tired,’’ says Marshall after his golden-point field goal brought redemption for Wests Tigers, and inflicted agonising defeat upon the star-crossed Sharks. Although, even from the shade of the grandstand, we had some idea.
It was 82 minutes of rugby league in enervating humidity on a soggy, steaming ground that sapped strength from the legs and ripped the wind from the lungs. But, as one player after another fell to the ground clutching limbs screaming with cramp, the outcome more resembled a five-hour Australian Open quarter-final on a 40-degree day.
Leave it to a northern Englishman, Tigers’ second-rower Gareth Ellis, to explain the sheer agony of playing a winter sport in an early autumn furnace. ‘‘I will never complain about an English winter again with how I was feeling out there,’’ Ellis declared.
Of course, they had themselves to blame. It was the relentless, stubborn, accident-prone heroics of the two teams that meant, with 12 minutes still to play, they had literally played themselves to a standstill. At that point, with spreadeagled players seemingly engaged in a re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme, the referees stopped play so they could refuel for the gut-wrenching conclusion.
Yet, if this was the game from hell for the players, for the home fans it would end with a moment when all heaven broke loose. The orange army will remember only how Marshall swung a leaden leg and somehow knocked the ball over the crossbar from 35 metres. How bedraggled players found the energy to run and leap with joy. How the crowd of 19,672 barely had enough voice left to boo the referees from the field - but did.
Few will have noticed that Bryce Gibbs, of all Cronulla players, almost blocked Marshall’s match-winning kick. Afterwards, the former Tiger told Marshall the ball would not have gone over if not for his deflection. A favourite son forsaken by Wests Tigers - yet still lending a helping hand.
For the blue-and-white wedge of Cronulla fans who had been emboldened by their team’s brave second half, the story will not be of Marshall’s kick, but of how it got into his hands. Of a brief, crazy period of extra time in which there was more action than in some entire games - Todd Carney’s kick-off hits the crossbar, then has a field-goal attempt charged down, Marshall knocks on, Cronulla are penalised for offside. Then Marshall’s kick in the guts.
Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan lamented the offside call, and a disallowed try to Colin Best earlier in the second half. His disappointment was understandable. Yet, somehow, it was an unfortunate postscript to a game that should be remembered for the nobility of the contest. Something etched, as ever, on the scarred brow of Sharks captain Paul Gallen.
Both teams had overcome the odds just to make it to extra time. The Tigers suffered the physical and emotional loss of young fullback James Tedesco, whose left knee collapsed beneath him less than half and hour into what, even in that brief time, shaped as a promising career.
Tedesco’s season-ending injury had been diagnosed before his teammates got back to the sheds at half-time. His were not the only tears.
Cronulla, as ever, shouldered the burden of their underachieving history. Now, living and dying by the slick hands and true boot of Carney - which, to some, seems like an inveterate gambler putting his fate in the hands of a hustler.
The first half had gone to script. Cronulla conceded their first penalty in 21 seconds. Their first try inside two minutes. The Tigers, for who momentum is oxygen, breathed freely on the Sharks’ mistakes. Marshall cheese-knifed one try and put up a couple of bombs so high Cronulla fullback Nathan Gardner had time to change his Facebook status to ‘‘Concerned’’.
But in the second half, Carney the pub footballer turned back into the Dally M medallist. Neat runs, clever link playing and - welcome to Leichhardt, Cinderella - what seemed like the match-winning try. Sweet redemption. Until Beau Ryan stole Carney’s thunder, scoring in the corner with four minutes left. Extra time. Exhausting, heroic, wickedly cruel. And only 25 games to go.