Sunday 9 August 2009

2009 NRL Premiership Reflections: Reasons to celebrate Wayne Bennett & Gareth Ellis

September... can you smell it? The final weeks of winter are winding down and in just over a month, Finals Football in the NRL will be here. And it can't come soon enough for this scribe. The 2009 NRL Premiership has hardly been a season of quality, in fact it has been pretty mediocre. But it has provided some great highlights; not least Queensland's fourth straight State of Origin Series win, the Bulldogs revival from wooden spooners to contenders, Wayne Bennett's coaching genius and the arrival of a quality English import in the prime of his career in Gareth Ellis. You may not choose those four as your highlights of the season but the last two are the standouts for mine so far in 2009 - and not for the reasons you might think. THE BENNETT FACTOR Wayne Bennett has given his critics (of his personality because only complete idiots criticise his coaching) another reason to doubt their convictions. Taking charge of a perennial choker in the St.George-Illawarra Dragons, he has led them to a likely Minor Premiership with his incredible ability to not only formulate and introduce a game plan that works for his playing roster - but instill in those players the confidence to have self-confidence in their skills, which comes from his desire to see each player improve as a person first, and a footballer second. For that - and that alone - Bennett should be celebrated. Let's face it anyone who can bring Wendell Sailor back to the code from a potentially life derailing episode is a legend. Because without Big Dell how boring would football be? If the Dragons can shed that chokers tag and win the title in 2009 - for mine it will be a secondary triumph for the Dragons as a club. Bennett changes footballers and establishes his culture at a club - which is a giant step forward for the team and the region. For St.George-Illawarra's long suffering fans - which include entire generations who have yet to taste Grand Final glory (only painful defeats) - their desires may only be satisfied with a title. But they should not ignore the fact that the joy they are experiencing now - is not just from winning. And remembering that fact should not be forgotten if the Dragons falter in the Finals. The Dragons may not win a premiership with Bennett at the helm (there are no guarantees in football) but they are winning as a club just by having him as the coach. MORE ENGLISHMEN PLEASE When the news came through in February 2008 that Tim Sheens had secured the services of English International back rower Gareth Ellis at the Wests Tigers for 2009 - I was stoked. Although I am not a Wests Tigers devotee - they are a favourite to watch because they play football the way it should be played. For years I have listened to my brother (a Balmain fan) express his desire for the Tigers to find a backrower to replace the gaping hole left by the great Paul Sironen. Even in the Premiership year of 2005 - the backrow ranks didn't have a dominant player, but were deep with the likes of Ben Galea, Mark O'Neill, Dene Halatau, Liam Fulton, Chris Heighington and Anthony Laffranchi. It proved to be the right mix for a title that season (a premiership Tigers fans should never forget was in a very large part due to the presence of Tim Sheens as coach) but Ellis is the first player the Tigers have had that brings a Sironen like game back to the lineup. He is a great player to watch because of his intensity and raw ability. He plays 80 minutes a week, hits (at times unforgiving) lines outside his ball players with refreshing vigor, can create second phase play with his off-loading and is above all - a punishing defender. He is not a guy who will break the line regularly, as he lacks some footwork at the line and speed off the mark but he always bends it. The Tigers left edge is now their go-to side of the field, with attacking weapons Chris Lawrence and Taniela Tuiaki playing outside the Englishman. Alongside his defence, the most impressive aspect to Ellis is the man himself. He is a well spoken gentleman, who exudes team over self. That belief is also the reason at 28, Ellis has given his best years to the hardest competition his code has to offer. He is testing himself for less money because of the sheer challenge of the NRL and that is incredibly refreshing. If the NRL is serious about improving its product in the wake of player walkouts, defections and off-field issues - looking to bring more Englishmen of Ellis's quality should be high on the agenda. =================== With another two months left in the season, both Bennett and Ellis will be significant factors in their side's quest for premiership glory. But they deserve to be celebrated as the kind of men that Rugby League needs to recognise more often for what they bring to the game.