When footy is the focus, rugby league is the winner

This story was first written for and published by The Roar.

Last weekend was what finals football is all about – two entertaining contests with plenty of thrilling match-ups, some outstanding defence, and a little bit of controversy to make things interesting.

On Friday night, Brisbane defeated Penrith 13-6.

Ben Hunt made sure his last game at Suncorp Stadium in Broncos colours was one to remember, in arguably his best performance of the year. He made 44 tackles (the most he has ever made in one game) and made sure the Broncos started off well with a beautiful pass to put Corey Oates into space.

Despite ending the game with only one man on the bench, Brisbane showed plenty of courage to hold on and put the Panthers’ season to bed.

Wayne Bennett-coached sides have traditionally struggled against Anthony Griffin-coached sides, winning just 18.2 per cent of meetings between the teams, but Bennett had the last laugh with the win on the weekend.

Their reward? The Broncos will travel south this weekend to face the Melbourne Storm.

Then on to Saturday night, where the hearts of over 40,000 Parramatta supporters (including mine) broke, when the North Queensland beat the Eels 24-16 to book themselves a game against the Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium.

Most pundits had the Cowboys being bundled out in Week 1, due to their immense number of injuries. At various points throughout the season, they have been without Michael Morgan, Kalyn Ponga, John Asiata, Gavin Cooper, Justin O’Neill, Patrick Kaufusi and Antonio Winterstein. Paul Green has also been without two of his best and most experienced players in Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott for most of 2017.

Following his side’s performance against the Cronulla Sharks, Green said, “We didn’t deserve to win that game, but we found a way.” Against Parramatta, the Cowboys didn’t find a way to win – they were the better team.

Morgan is in the best form of his career and has done so much work to take ownership of the team in JT’s absence. Jason Taumololo is one of the best players in the world – it’s outrageous that we simply expect Taumololo to make 200-plus metres every game. Kyle Feldt is one of the best finishers in the game and he proved that again on Saturday night. Throw the likes of John Asiata, Lachlan Coote and Ethan Lowe, and you have a serious football team.

The Eels may have been one of the feel-good stories this year, and a team some tipped to beat the Storm, but their usual spirit, aggression and flair in attack went missing on Saturday night, and the Cowboys made them pay. It was a missed opportunity, but hopefully the young Parra squad will learn and be strengthened by the return of Clint Gutherson and Bevan French next year.

It feels really good to be talking about football again and just what good quality the games were on the weekend. Pleasingly, this also seems to be the focus of the broader media too.

What I want to know is where all the journalists and fans are this week who labelled the game as being in ‘crisis’ after last weekend.

As journalists, advocates and fans, we have a responsibility to our game. We have a responsibility to care for it, protect it, talk it up and promote all the positive work that our administration, players and staff are doing – both on and off the field.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to criticise constructively or offer suggestions and ideas. What it does mean though is that we should all help to build the game up rather than take every opportunity to tear it down.

On the weekend, a combined 79,910 attended the two games – the biggest Week 2 NRL finals attendance on record.

It reminds me that the game isn’t in crisis because of poor crowd numbers. It also tells me that making a big deal out of crowd number is a waste of time. People still enjoy watching rugby league live and when Sydney teams with large fan-bases, like Parramatta, mobilise, the crowds follow.

Imagine how much bigger the crowd would have been if two Sydney-based teams had been playing against each other?

I’m expecting a sell-out at AAMI Park, and at least 30,000 at Allianz Stadium on Saturday, too.

Combine that with plenty of eyes watching on television and any claims that rugby league is in ‘crisis’ because of smaller crowds is utter garbage.

It also seems like the NRL community is listening to Todd Greenberg, who in response to claims that the referees had cost teams games last week, said the game needs to “grow up”.

This weekend, I saw few complaints about refereeing. It’s a reminder that when we go back to basics and focus on the footy, any claims that referees are the sole reason that a team wins or loses a game are absolutely audacious.

Rugby league is my favourite sport in the world. It reminds me of family and community. Our game has a rich history and some of the most talented players in the world. It’s full of scandal and intrigue and heroes and villains. It is not perfect, but few things are.

Rugby league belongs to all of us – it is our game – and I urge you to remember how important we all are as its stakeholders and protectors.

The next time you have a choice of taking the easy option and attacking and tearing our game down, stop and instead take every opportunity you can to build it up.