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The Sydney Morning Herald

THE SEASON OF CHANGE, UPSETS AND CHALLENGES

Author: John MacDonald
Date: 09/10/1986
Words: 1244
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 36
The Kangaroos have hopped it over to England and the dust has settled on the Sydney Cricket Ground after the grand final.

The NSW Rugby League can congratulate itself on a 21 per cent increase in crowds, a record profit to be announced at the end of this month and one of the strongest competitions in years.

But full congratulations are not in order until it successfully resolves the course of the competition.

That's for the future ... but for the present a look at the past.

Player of the Year: Peter Sterling. While acknowledging Mal Cochrane's effort in winning the Rothmans Medal it must be said that the diminutive Sterling stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The famed Parramatta backline was out injured for much of the season but Sterling, with considerable help from his unsung forwards, organised the Eels' entry to the semi-finals. He was also dominant in the representative matches and the finals series.

Discoveries: Paul Sironen and Les Kiss. A reserve-grader at the start of the season, Balmain's Sironen showed himself to be one of the most explosive running forwards since the young Bob McCarthy and Ron Coote. Kiss was a joy. A lesser-known Queenslander who migrated to North Sydney, he brought back the thrills of old-fashioned wing play. He is elusive, with a step off either foot, and like all good wingers is able to sniff a try and be in the right place to capitalise. One day it might not be blasphemy to mention him with the Irvines and Kings.

Comeback of the year: Terry Leabeater, unopposed. Washed-up, unwanted and on the verge of retirement in the off- season, Leabeater sought a trial with Parramatta. The rest is a sports page in history. With Geoff Bugden he formed"the bookends" and they are now part of the game's folklore.

Most improved: Leabeater again. Was this the same player who struggled in comparative mediocrity with Wests and Canterbury for years?

Coach of the year: No-one can do more than direct a team to the National Panasonic Cup, minor premiership and a grand final victory. It must be Parramatta's John Monie, with an honourable mention to George Piggins. Piggins got the absolute best out of a South Sydney team of limited resources. He is sure to have learnt a lot in his first season and the Rabbitohs can look forward to skinning many more teams next year.

Best decision: The defusing of the bomb. It led to more imaginative attacking play and a more varied and skilful use of kicks. When it was used, the bomb became an exciting variation.

Greatest advance: The opening of Parramatta Stadium. It not only was the major reason for the crowd increases but indicated that the public will respond to a world-class facility.

Greatest debacle: The grand-final "entertainment". Bigger than Quo Vadis, its value was smaller than an ant Rugby League team. There was the kernel of a good idea in the introduction of former greats. They were swamped by the"entertainment", however.

Greatest challenge: Still how the NSWRL regards the future of the competition. The push to admit Brisbane was aborted and the NSWRL took the easy option and retained the 13-team competition. The extra time won't be wasted if the League uses it to draw a blueprint, not for one year, but to take it into the next century. It is running out of time.

Injury of the year: Eric Grothe's knee and other ailments. He was in such a constant state of affliction that there was betting on whether he would survive a game, or, indeed, a tackle.

The march of medical science: Grothe and Wayne Pearce being ruled unfit for the Kangaroo tour. Medicine has come a long way since Johny Gibbs hobbled off on the 1978 tour.

Rule changes to consider: The use of in-goal touch judges is not only sensible; surprisingly, they appear to have a good chance of being introduced. The suggestion that defending backlines should stand a required distance from the scrum, say five metres, is worth plenty of thought. Backlines standing in each others' pockets have all but destroyed the attacking advantage of scrum wins.

Best buys: Kiss, of course. Canberra's Gary Belcher proved himself one of the sharpest attacking fullbacks for years, and young Canterbury forward Paul Dunn converted potential into considerable performance. His reward was a Kangaroo tour.

Most imaginative idea: Illawarra coach Brian Smith's proposal to use two referees. It sounds feasible and one day it will come.

Best money-raiser: The $1,000 fine on coaches for criticising referees. A guaranteed earner until infallible referees are found and coaches stop finding scapegoats for their teams' inadequacies.

Imaginative use of language: All coaches. They have made an art form of criticising referees without criticising referees.

Best talent wasted: Cronulla's Andrew Ettingshausen, who should have, and would have, been on the Kangaroo tour had he been with a stronger club.

The Frank Crean death-of-a-thousand-cuts award: To North Sydney for their treatment of coach Brian Norton. It was the season's biggest rumour that Frank Stanton would replace Norton. The rumour was right. North Sydney built up considerable goodwill through their courageous efforts on the field. They lost it by their treatment of Norton. The sensible way would have been to take Norton quietly aside, thank him, explain the position and allow him a dignified resignation. That's not the North Sydney way.

Foresight: Whether Western Suburbs deserve all the credit or not, the move to Campbelltown should be a winner. An area with money and population, and just waiting for a team to call its own.

Disappointments: St George, Penrith and Manly. The Saints just never got marching, and Penrith faltered after a promising first round. Manly promised everything but when the going got tough and the tough got going, Manly went out.

Stillbirth: The NSWRL's hasty idea to revive the second division under another name. It was quietly buried when only five entries were received.

Missing in action: Cronulla's Dean Carney. Selected to play against Papua New Guinea in 1985, Carney began the season confidently tipped to make the Kangaroo tour. A combination of injuries and poor form made it the season that never was.

The verdict still out: Mario Fenech. The South Sydney hooker and captain made it hard for himself by earning a reputation for over-vigorous play. Fenech's nickname is "Test match" and he can still play in them once he realises the solution lies with himself. There's still time.

Cliffhanger: Will Ray Price get a touch of the Dame Nellies? Can he sit through a season without tackling a comeback? Who shot Ray Price?

The gold boot: It's easy to be modest. Humility is innate. Mick Cronin is modest and humble. He went out as a champion deserves to go out - a winner. Has there been a greater combination of player and sportsmen?

 
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