WHAT a pity that it wasn't the NRL grand final that Muhammad Ali
attended at the weekend, instead of the AFL version of the same. For was there
ever a football game that more resembled a boxing match between two would-be
heavyweight champeens of all the world? Ali would have loved it.
In the Maroon corner - the Broncos, the champs, sporting royalty armed with
every punch in the book and a pure pedigree of pugilism, stepping into the ring
as firm favourites with all the smart money on them.
And in the Blue corner - the Bulldogs, the scrappy home-town favourites who
had already done marvellously well to even be contenders for the title, coming
from a ranking of ninth a month ago to now be within 80 minutes of a glory that
would last all summer and beyond.
Right hook! Canterbury were sucking canvas after only two minutes when the
Broncos scored, and at that point it seemed like the whole thing was nought but
a terrible mismatch. Brisbane looked so dangerous it was almost as if they could
have phoned in the rest of their game from the airport on their way home.
It was, as Ray Warren so correctly summated on the box, "just the start that
Canterbury did not want".
But that was where it became a great boxing match. Although clearly
outclassed, Canterbury, seemingly on guts alone, were able to drag themselves up
from the mat, start swinging and strike back for a try of their own. No matter
that the Broncos were able to score again soon after, Canterbury had them
covered on that, too, again coming back with a combination that enabled them to
go to the break with an all but unbelievable 12-10 lead.
The problem, of course, was that Brisbane, more than any other team in the
League, have their own version of what George Foreman used to call his "anything
punch" (as in "anything I hits, I breaks"). When the Broncos get it right, they
are able to do exactly the same - stringing together passes and movements
capable of breaking just about any defence whatsoever, even so valiant and
resilient a defence as Canterbury's.
So it proved. Though there might have been some teams capable of stopping the
Broncos' try scored by Tonie Carroll just after half-time, damn nigh none of
them could have prevented Wendell Sailor's follow-up try after superb set-up
work by Steve Renouf.
And when Gorden Tallis went over for Brisbane after that, it simply
underlined the point - Brisbane weren't playing one of their best games, but
they were, by God, putting together one of their finest 40 minutes.
Not that Canterbury stopped trying. At this stage, if it really had been a
boxing match, the towel might very well have been thrown in - with the Bulldogs
on the wrong end of a 26-12 hiding - bar one thing. That was that only a week
ago Canterbury had managed to come back from a 16-point deficit with only 10
minutes to go, and it was not totally beyond the bounds of possibility that they
could do it again here.
Of course, it was not to be. The Brisbane tries kept coming and when the ball
rang to complete the 15th round, Canterbury, with their heads bloodied but
unbowed, had conceded a points victory of 38-12. Whatever the width of that
impressive margin, here let it be said: it was not a knockout.
To have a KO, even a technical one, really means that one party to the
contest is unable to go on, has had the air completely knocked out of them, and
that most definitely does not describe Canterbury. To the end, they were
flailing away, and taking plenty of punches in return. But it simply boiled down
to the incontrovertible - the sheer guts of the Bulldogs was not sufficient to
make up for the sheer class of Brisbane.
It was like that Banjo Patterson line: "Though the drover fought for his very
life, blood in the end must tell."
So bravo, Broncos, well done - but at least you'll remember the efforts of
the Canterbury boys when you try to get out of bed this morning. Actually, make
that Tuesday morning.