Arguably the last time the Australian premiership was interrupted by external forces was in round one 1996, when Super League players refused to play and six games ended in forfeits. Steve Mascord covered the first game of the round.
Western Suburbs 17 Illawarra 8 at WIN Stadium
SURELY there can be nothing worse than sweating, straining and bleeding for 80 minutes, winning the first game of the footy season and then finding there are five other teams who probably spent the evening in the pub level with you on the competition table.
That’s the reality Western Suburbs players faced after outclassing Illawarra at Steelers Stadium last night. Thanks to the madness of the Super League war, South Queensland, Auckland, Parramatta, Newcastle and St George will each be awarded two competition points because their Super League-aligned opponents intend to forfeit.
But Wests coach Tom Raudonikis, holding two green cans as he addressed the media in the Stadium locker-rooms last night, reckoned he knew of something worse.
Raudonikis had heard rumours that the ARL was considering redrawing the entire competition in two weeks if the recalcitrant teams continue their no-shows, making last night’s win nothing more than another trial.
“They’re my points and no-one is bloody taking them off me,” the former Test half said. “Everyone in this room worked bloody hard for those points and we’re not giving them away.
“I’ll fight and fight and fight to keep them.”
While some ARL officials insist they cannot now split the competition into two pools or reduce it to 12 teams for legal reasons, rumours are strong that the plan is still on the drawing board.
The first night of the season was one of contrasts.
On one hand, some things really never change: A burly prop, Wests’ Brent Stuart, knocked on from the kick-off. And a 34-year-old halfback, Wests’ Craig “Tugger” Coleman, engineered a victory for his kids against Illawarra’s by scoring a try and setting up another after the Magpies had fallen behind.
Asked for his impressions of a lacklustre display, Illawarra coach Allan McMahon answered in time-honoured fashion: “They were the best side on the night”.
But the ravages of the game’s half-baked schism were never far out of sight.
The venue itself, while enthusiastically and reasonably well-populated, was hardly comparable to last year’s season kick-off at Ericsson Stadium, where players emerged from a wall of fire, followed by the roar of 28,000 Kiwi fans.
Instead of last year’s mock war involving 200 soldiers, ARL chairman Ken Arthurson opted for a war of words as he thanked fans of the loyal clubs for their support and berated striking players and their clubs in a pre-match address.
The Super League war and financial reality seem to have taken their toll on the Steelers, too.
Without John Simon’s kicking and direction, Neil Piccinelli’s tireless midfield work and Peter Johnston’s intimidating defence, they had to rely on two second-half tries by Fijian winger Fili Seru for a glimpse of victory.
Coleman then turned the clock back to score himself and send forward Damian Kennedy over, putting matters to rest.
Raudonikis, whose side led 6-0 at half-time, praised centre Brandon Pearson, who ignored a pinched nerve in his back to star.
But everywhere, in both dressing-rooms, there was uncertainty.
Wests play Super League-aligned Brisbane next week and Raudonikis had no hesitation in predicting, “There’s another two points for us”.
Illawarra, meanwhile, take on Auckland at Ericsson. The Warriors say they’ll field local Lion Red Cup players if their stars continue to strike.
Of course, going to the pub might be an easier option, but McMahon says the Steelers will show up. “We just need to get ourselves a few points,” he said.