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The 10 Big Questions

The 10 Big Questions

we can’t wait to see answered by Australia’s biggest football codes in 2019. Because there’s nothing like the smell of liniment in the morning.

Alliance Magazine - February/March 2019

Words by: Ben Smithurst  |  Illustrations by: Anna Farrell


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1 NRL: How last can the Cowboys come without JT? Can they come double last?

Perma-chuckling football superhero Johnathan Thurston was, like fellow great modern halves and captains Andrew Johns or Brad Fittler, a player so good that players around him were inevitably infected with genius. But when Fittler and Johns retired, their teams went from minor premiers/top four finishers respectively to missing the finals. In 2018, with JT as captain, the Cowboys barely scraped into the top 13. In 2019, how last can they come without him? With Parramatta still playing, the Dogs haemorrhaging hope and the Tigers sans (any) Clearys, things may look up.

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2 NRL: Will Wayne Bennett do a ‘Knights’ or a ‘Dragons’ on South Sydney?

The trans-season coach swap between South Sydney and Brisbane mentors Anthony Seibold and Wayne Bennett was messier than a Charlie Sheen sneeze and almost as expensive. Seibold has been a one-season supercoach, despite looking like a man-sized gummy bear; Bennett, who appears to be a proto-Ent from Lord of the Rings, has won six titles, but his years away from the Broncos have been mixed. He took the long-suffering Dragons to a title in 2010, before defecting to dismantle Newcastle from within in 2012-14. Now he’s at Souths, perhaps the NRL’s proudest club, with a rolled-gold roster. If the Bunnies go badly, the Souths fanbase will make the Battle of the Five Armies look like a pavlova recipe tiff at the CWA. Legend he may be, but Bennett’s reputation is on the line.

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3 AFL: Will beloved-of-his-players Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson’s mental pendulum swing through ‘innovative left-field genius’ or ‘unhinged anger merchant’ this year?

Or both? After three straight flags from 2013-15, the Hawks had a weird pair of seasons in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, despite losing triple-premiership players Brian Lake and David Hale, and rough-headed Jarryd Roughead out indefinitely fighting melanoma, they were bundled out of the finals by the dream run of fairytale title winners, the Bulldogs. In 2016, Clarkson traded Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell, lost by 75 points to the freakin’ Giants, and started the season so poorly that after nine rounds they seemed as likely to make the finals as they were to fly a cheese spaceship to the moon. Then staged a giant finals run. Having joined the club in 2005, and moulded it in his image, Clarko – by turns a wall-punching ball of anger and a shrewd tactical leader of men – is one of modern football’s great innovative leaders. In 2019 he’ll plan on building on 2018, with a new-look team that includes Tom Scully and Chad Wingard. But if they fail, his meltdowns may be just as interesting.

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4 NRL: Who got the best of off-season Musical Chairs?

Cronulla lost Val Holmes to the NFL but re-signed Deep Intellectual Thinker Paul Gallen, who now has the chance to be the first NRL player to be a perfect geometric cube and simultaneously eligible for the age pension. Then New Zealand’s Warriors, insanely, fired mercurial football genius Shaun Johnson out of their joblessness cannon, because their on-field strategy of “just do something weird” has infected the boardroom – only for him to join the Sharks. 

Canberra’s Raiders signed nobody, instead choosing to hope Josh Hodgson stays healthy, but couldn’t hold on to Junior Paulo and Blake Austin. The Dogs lost consistent, hairless, hair-brained lunatic David Klemmer to the Knights and signed inconsistent red-haired lunatic Dylan Napa from the Roosters. The Panthers kept most of their team, re-signed their Easter Island hard-headed halfback Nathan Cleary and re-signed his coach father, Ivan, from the forlorn Tigers. 

It was all very dizzying and weird. Who got the best of the off-season? Probably the Knights. Or – having signed Angus Crighton, from Souths – the Roosters. It’s anyone’s year… again.

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5 NRL: Can the Chooks go back-to-back?

Statistically, the short answer is almost certainly: “No.” The last (non-Super League) team to win consecutive premierships was Brisbane in 1992 and 1993 – but there’s something about the Roosters. Specifically, that something is a team list that should be doing to the salary cap what the Hulk’s calves do to Bruce Banner’s slacks. Six players made the 2018 World XIII, announced in December – including boom centres Latrell Mitchell and Joey Manu, halves Luke Keary and Cooper Cronk, star fullback James Tedesco and wormhole-chinned Easts/NSW/Australia captain Boyd Cordner. The GF was arguably the first time the team had gelled properly all year, and they carried Cronk throughout the game with a 15-centimetre crack in his shoulder blade. Add a brilliant coach (beetroot-faced stoic Trent Robinson) and rising stars such as airborne-tackling lunatic Victor Radley, and they’ll be harder to stop than an unwanted state government stadium demolition.

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6 AFL: Will Richmond bounce back to win another flag, provided Dustin Martin isn’t deported by Peter Dutton in some sort of father/son rule?

Squat, short and violent, football legend Leigh Matthews is as canny an AFL pundit as he was great a player – which was very. The ’tache-toting tough man described Tigers wonderboy Dustin Martin’s 2017 as the greatest ever individual season had by anyone, which if anything is slightly ungenerous. Two seasons ago the Tigers won the title, and Martin took home the Brownlow, the Norm Smith Medal, the Gary Ayres Medal for the best player in the finals and the Jack Dyer Medal – his second. If, like teammate Nathan Broad, Martin were to photograph (and moronically distribute) a shot of his season’s medal haul hanging between a superfan’s breasts, she’d need a wider sternum. Martin’s heavily tattooed, hard-as-nails approach probably comes from his father – an NZ-born Maori bikie deported to Auckland on “character grounds”. If he fires again, it’ll take a Border Force intervention on made-up father/son rule grounds to stop the Tigers. And considering AFL boss Gillon McLachlan had Border Force tsar Peter Dutton personally intervene to get him a French au pair, that seems unlikely. West Coast’s biggest obstacle if they want to go back-to-back.

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7 AFL: How will the Demons engineer a 55th straight disappointing season with such pre-season promise on paper?

Founded in 1858, Melbourne proudly touts itself as “the world’s oldest professional club of any football code”, but for an operation that’s 161 years old, they’ve had a quiet half a century. The Dees’ last premiership was 55 years ago, but a comprehensive preliminary final belting after a top-five finish in 2018 should – on paper – hold the lesson they need to start a year with something they usually don’t: hope. Which is usually the catalyst for the Demons to leap sideways into the undergrowth. How will they screw it up? Will Max Gawn snag his beard on one of the many sharp edges of Sam Weideman, a man so angular he looks like a sock full of coathangers? Will Simon Goodwin pop back down to the TAB for the first time in a decade? Will super-ginger Clayton Oliver burst into flames when exposed to sunlight? Wait and see.

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8 AFL: Is the Gold Coast a basket case so cane-based and basketty that the AFL should just give up?

Cross-code evidence suggests that the Gold Coast is best avoided, with the AFL pouring money into an area in a hearts-and-minds battle with the rugby league that seems to be being won by, er, neither code. Probably because both teams underperform as consistently as the Washington Generals. The Gold Coast has lost star players and are facing another long year in a town that, ironically, is yet to warm to the Suns. Could do worse than recruit retired local surf hero Mick Fanning – at least he shows some fight while away from home in the wet.

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9 AFL: How will Greater Western Sydney cope with losing players?

Entering the AFL as a new team has many slow-burning advantages, most of which result in assembling a young team of potential champions that mature together. But having come into the competition in 2012, the Giants went backwards in 2018, being knocked out of the finals a week earlier than 2016 and 2017. Now they’ve begun to manage their list, losing some quality players – but keeping an exciting roster of young stars, including Jeremy Cameron and Josh Kelly, who reportedly knocked back $11 million from North Melbourne, because he is mad. That’s a lot of cash to reject to live in Penrith. Still, their prospects are good, although with even tougher retention decisions looming, they need to win – soon.

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10 NRL: Will Homebush ever not suck?

It’s officially known as Stadium Australia or ANZ Stadium, sometimes referred to as Sydney Olympic Stadium, Homebush Stadium or the Olympic Stadium, and colloquially most often called an enormous, soul-destroying turd. But whatever its name, the 83,500-seat stinker in Sydney’s west is a great place to watch sport like jamming your fist into an InSinkErator is a great way to enjoy a manicure. The SFS, in Moore Park, is much finer ground, but still a bit shit, being more than 30 years old. And so NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian probably thought there were sure votes in demolishing the SFS and upgrading Homebush. But the public decided they’d prefer that $2 billion to go to, you know, hospitals and schools (socialists!), and it may all go down to the wire before the March 2019 election. “The NRL are saying that if they don’t get a new stadium at Moore Park then they will take the Grand Final away, but they don’t even play it at Moore Park,” argued NSW opposition leader Michael ‘Who?’ Daley in December. But if the Roosters play at the terrible-for-NRL SCG in 2019, their already fickle crowds will disappear. Good luck, Steggleses. 

 

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