I hate tipping competitions.
I mean properly hate them. I flatter myself that I know a bit about our amazing game, in both hemispheres and therefore at the start of every year I quite fancy myself to take out the winners prize in them. Every year about this time it all goes to shit, and again I realise that despite knowledge, passion and obsession results will always infuriatingly go the way you don’t expect leaving me mid table season after season.
I also have blind spots. In the Up the Cream Superleague Tipping League, my absolute inability to tip against Hull (and for Rovers) has left me off the pace, and in the office NRL comp my hatred for Manly and love for the Tigers (and second club Canberra) have conspired to keep me miles off the leaders.
Mind you, tipping the NRL this year has been nigh on impossible – as I write this the Dragons are unbeaten and the Warriors, Panthers and Tigers make up the rest of the top four. That’s mental. Part of the reason why this has taken pundits and the likes of me by surprise is the conclusions we all drew when we saw the off season recruitment each of these clubs did.
The Warriors picked up our old Red and white and Cherry and White foe in Blake Green, and although not a “name” halfback, he’s provided the perfect foil for the inconsistency of Shaun Johnson, and the Warriors have been very, very good. The Dragons brought in a prop and a halfback, and both of them have been incredible. Hunt and Graham have gelled quickly, and seamlessly into the St George line-up, possibly due to a stern pre-season test from us.
The Panthers lost a star in Matthew Moylan and replaced him with the Journeyman James Maloney. Maloney has won competitions with two different clubs, the Roosters and Sharks and yet still seems to miss out when people talk about great halfbacks. With the recent injury to Nathan Cleary, Maloney has had to really step up and has steered a very impressive young team around like an old master.
On the subject of old masters though, what the hell has happened to Benji Marshall? Close to winning the Dally M in 2016, he then totally fudged his contract negotiations at St George, leaving him without a club in 2017. Then he got picked up by the Broncos on a minimum wage contract, sitting in the reserves, and occasionally on the bench. When he played, he looked handy, if a little slower then we were used to seeing. In my view, Benji was always capable of some incredibly dumb decisions on a football field. No look passes, running in the wrong direction and into blind alleys were frequently part of his 80 minutes, the thing that always rescued him was his incredible pace. As he’s hit his 30’s though and a yard of pace has dropped from him, I worried.
There is nothing worse than seeing a player go on a season too long. We’re possibly seeing it with Johnathan Thurston at the moment, although I really hope he manages to bow out with dignity. It’s like seeing Mohammed Ali’s last fights, bravery, heart, and the head is still willing, it’s the body that lets you down. The irony of course is that each player might still think “I’ve got one more year…” and be proved right too. You’re a long time retired, and playing is a drug (no puns intended). Look at Steve “Beaver” Menzies, years after he left Manly, he was still turning out the Catalans at a decent level. For each one of those though, there are 20 that should’ve faded off into the sunset and didn’t.
That’s why what’s happening with Benji is so good to see. He’s changed his game. He’s playing to the fact that he only has 10 metres at full pace these days, and the players around him now follow him waiting for the offload a lot closer then they used to. His defence has tightened beyond belief, and the leadership he’s showing to the younger Tigers is great to see. His decision making is sharper, and in the last three or four rounds of the NRL, he’s looked like a chess master, three moves ahead of everyone else on the field. It’s not unlike when Hull signed David Topliss in the early 80’s. Toppo was 31 when he put pen to paper, and most thought his best days were behind him. The speed that he possessed was between his ears, pace of thought if you like. His reading of the game and decision making were sublime, and that’s what Benji seems to be doing right now.
Of course, now I’ve said that, the wheels will fall off and defences will get wise to his tricks, and the Tigers will drop like a stone screwing my tipping once more.
Finally, a word about Mahe Fonua. He’s still to make a 21 man squad for the Tigers – probably because it’s bloody hard for Ivan Cleary to break up a winning team, although he’s dominating the reserve league. He’s top of the league in tackle busts, meters made, and has scored in more games than he hasn’t. He’s wasted at that level in my opinion, but with his stated aim to be in Australia with his young family, I just can’t see him coming back to England anytime soon. Hopefully Albert takes a good long look at that situation and decides that sunny old West Hull isn’t that bad after all.
Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.
Rich – Twitter @pommyrich