First published in League Express, Monday 7th Oct 2013
And now the end is here, and so they’ve faced the final curtain.
Tests. Hundreds of senior matches. Joy and distress. The highs, the lows. The camaraderie. Every emotion that makes our sport the Greatest Game of All.
It was there at Olympic Park (the new name for the Homebush precinct in western Sydney) on Sunday evening as the greats of the current era said their last farewells to devoted Australian fans as they were driven around the arena.
They would have rather been down in the dressing room preparing for the Grand Final. But only a small few ever get that chance. Even fewer get the opportunity to finish as winners on Grand Final day.
Off the top of my head … Norm Provan managed it with St George, after leading the Dragons to five of their record eleven straight Premierships (not 10 as a journalist who should have known better told us last week – one of the same scribes who inexplicably passed him over earlier this year in voting for the newest Australian ‘Immortal’), Mick Cronin and Ray Price with Parramatta in 1996, Mal Meninga in 1994 and Royce Simmons in 1991.
Sadly, every great player can’t do it all his way.
Actually, Frank Sinatra – and regular readers will know he was one of my favourite singers – didn’t finish doing it His Way. He was a shadow of his former self in his latter years. But I saw him a long time before he retired, belting out the classics in the Olympic precinct at Munich, and at that stage he was still wowing us all in the aisles.
Each year in the Grand Final lead-up we pay homage to some wonderful Rugby League players. And we say thank you for the joy and excitement they have provided to enrich our lives. Lifting their battered bodies from the turf each and every weekend to provide us with not just entertainment, but inspiration to take away from Lang Park, Brookvale Oval, Parramatta Stadium, Endeavour Field (sounds much better than Toyota Stadium, doesn’t it) et al.
And I am not forgetting the playing fields of Britain, even though the likes of Knowsley Road, Central Park, Thrum Hall and Station Road are no longer with us. More’s the pity!
On Sunday there were the latest bunch of stout-hearted men. Those grey hairs weren’t there when we first saw them run onto the pitch a decade or more ago. Some actually had hair back then. And those craggy looks – mostly caused by the hundreds of stitches that sewed up mutilated cheeks and eyebrows.
How did Andrew Ettingshausen escape unscathed? Or has L’Oréal slipped him some clever skin regeneration creams? He still looks a million dollars on his outdoor television programmes Down Under.
In years to come the aching joints will be a problem, as these gladiators limp their way up onto stages around the country as clubs celebrate anniversaries.
We see Provan and Arthur Summons every year. Can these fellows really be 80-odd years of age? Why it seems only yesterday that they were wallowing in the mud at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Grand Final day.
Among the list of those in the departure lounge this year:
Shaun Berrigan (Brisbane, Hull FC, New Zealand Warriors and Canberra).
Danny Buderus (Newcastle and Leeds Rhinos).
Matt Cooper (St George Illawarra).
Michael Crocker (Sydney Roosters, Melbourne and South Sydney).
Nathan Fien (North Queensland, New Zealand Warriors and St George Illawarra).
Brett Finch (Canberra, Sydney Roosters, Melbourne and Wigan).
Clint Greenshields (St George Illawarra, Catalan Dragons and North Queensland).
Dallas Johnson (Melbourne, Catalan Dragons and North Queensland).
Matt King (Melbourne, Warrington and South Sydney).
Scott Prince (North Queensland, Brisbane, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast).
Jason Ryles (St George Illawarra, Catalan Dragons and Melbourne).
Every last one was an international. What a Test side they would have made!
One of the interesting facets of this year’s alumni is the number who joined clubs in Super League when everyone in Australia thought their senior careers were well and truly over. It was supposed to be a case of off to the elephants’ graveyard.
But they returned, usually in better form than when they had left, giving the lie to the Down Under suggestion that Super League has nothing to offer to the game as a whole.
British players and coaches still have plenty to teach their Antipodean cousins. Maybe not so much as they did in the 1950s, when the British ball skills were so superior. But there are still many subtle nuances to be learned.
As my old mate, Professor Julius Sumner Miller, a pupil of Einstein who became a television star in the 1960s bringing physics into Aussies’ homes would tell me: “Andrews, if you don’t learn something new every day, it is a wasted day.”
For our stars, there were no wasted days … indeed, no wasted years … in Old Blighty.
The record shows, they took the blows. They did it their way!
FOOTNOTE: It’s time in my other life as a travel writer to relax in the Mediterranean on board the world’s best boutique cruise vessel SeaDream I, one of around 100 passengers to be pampered by 95 crew members. I’ll be back in a few weeks relaxed and raring to go, continuing my Rugby League Odyssey.
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