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Hot tip on how to get a budget rate at a motel in Port Macquarie: pick the same motel as the team you?ve come to see and stay there.
?They?ll be noisy,? warned the owner. ?On the drink all night. You won?t get a moment?s sleep.?
?I?ll risk it,? I said. ?How bad can it be??
?Well I?ll give you a discount anyway. I?m putting you in next to Bird and Merritt. Don?t say I didn?t warn you.?
A few hours later I found myself at Port Macquarie Regional Sports Stadium. It?s nicer than Brookvale, and the home team is more competitive.
The team looked great: big, lean, fast. Bailey looks bigger and leaner and faster than last season, which can only be a good thing. The team started well, proving that the rah-rahs aren?t the only ones capable of razzle-dazzle plays. Peach was everywhere, really and truly the Peachey of old. He did his own thing a lot. Constantly coasting around, nipping up here and there to run and pass and usually put people through gaps that hadn?t existed moments before. He combined well with Merritt, who constantly had the defence at sixes and sevens. Merritt made several long-range breaks in the early going which provided us with great field position. One of which led to Ryan McGoldrick scoring out wide. It?s safe to say that McGoldrick deserves to be in the starting side. The question is, where?
Our second try was brilliantly set up by Peach, who by this time was running across the field in criss-cross patterns that seemed totally random to everyone but him. Apparently though there was method to his madness, because he popped up with the ball, released it, and let it hang in the air for a good five seconds before it was collected by Bails who ran through completely untouched to score. Noddy provided the opposite end of the spectrum however, throwing some awful hospital balls, and lots of passes which went two feet behind the intended player. It didn?t help that the crowd was giving him stick for his goal kicking. 0-2 so far.
Stevens seems to have rediscovered his form, carrying three and four defenders with him on every run. Lomu was class personified, throwing the classic offloads that we?ve been missing for so long now. Nutley seemed to be having an unhappy night. He didn?t give away penalties, but he was tepid at best, not really hitting the line with any vigor. Perhaps he was carrying an injury, or maybe he was getting his off nights out of the way before the season starts. Either way, he didn?t seem on. Stevens seemed in high spirits, laughing and joking even after he let a ball bounce dead from the kickoff. He went to take the dropout before sanity and Noddy prevailed, but at least he seems to be enjoying his footy again.
Our third try came courtesy of Matt Rieck, showing pure pace from about forty out. Our forth came via a Lomu offload to Bails, who seemed to be having very little trouble against the local boys. Noddy finally converted this one after missing the first three. Am I missing something or did we not sign a very good kicker from Souths last season?
Try number five was Peachey practicing for his Wednesday night Oztag game. Little jinking run to the line through defence which by now is looking slightly frustrated. He scores under the posts to help Noddy out.
Try number seven: scored by Jon Green who barges his way through three defenders to score. He?s slightly ball-hoggy, ignoring several open men on his way to the line, but who can fault him if he scores? Greg Bird is also playing well. He?s thrown two good passes by this time, and is looking dangerous but still very much in the mold of a second rower though. I wonder what Raper has up his sleeve that he hasn?t told us yet.
Try number eight. Bird passes for the third time in half an hour, someone call Guinness. He finds Matt Rieck who crosses again out wide. You almost feel sorry for the home side.
Try nine. More razzle-dazzle from Peach and the boys in the back line. Bird goes himself. He scores. The siren goes to put the coast kids out of their misery.
Most of the regular first graders take a breather for the second game, and everyone who will probably start the season is premier league comes on. The exception to this is Beattie, who is given a run here to add some size and power to the pack. His presence is immediately felt as he takes a page from Lomu?s book, pops the arm free for the offload, and sends Dumas, a man with surprising pace for his size, sprinting away to score. The difference between the first grade and premier league teams is obvious. This team is a little shakier in attack with Sullivan at the helm, although their defence is still top drawer. The stand out here is clearly Dave Simmons. He looks awesome under the high ball. Confidence personified.
Try number two comes via basketball pass to Sully from someone who I think was Bickerstaff. The pass finds Sully unmarked and in the open. He turns on the afterburners and races away to score. He converts his own try, and is 2/2 so far.
Dave Simmons comes up with try number three. Fine, I?ll say it. He NEEDS to be in first grade. I don?t know how you do it, maybe you move Peach to five-eight or something, but to waste this kind of talent in premier league would be a travesty. I know it?s been said before, but watching him out there you swear you?re watching Darren Lockyer. He?s that damn good.
Try four comes as a surprise. The boys put together a flowing back line movement. I know what you?re thinking. Passes. To wingers. By our team. After two years I?d almost forgotten such things existed. But I was there. It happened. The ball flows left to Sullivan who splits the defence like Moses and scores. Another one who deserves a spot in the starting seventeen.
Noddy returns and the level of organisation rises palpably. Whatever Raper said to him in his rest period has worked. Noddy has the ball on a string, finding the right player at the right time, and generally playing traffic cop. Beattie is still having a ball out there. He pops an arm free and throws an offload for the second time in twenty minutes. Simmons is in the right place at the right time. He scores.
Try number six has Simmons stamped all over it. He destroys the left wing defence and gets the Sharks back into the attacking half after fielding a very deep kick from the coast kids. From there Bickerstaff slides a great ball to Dumas who again eludes all defenders on his way to the line.
By now the boys are lining up to score. Gallen scores number seven against tired defence. A forty-metre effort that sees him brush by three men. He follows that with number eight as he barges over in the corner right on full time. Sully?s kicking record is perfect, although Noddy?s return saw him resume kicking duties. He kicks well, but is unconvincing. I?d love to know what they?re thinking.
Game three is slightly more competitive thanks largely to some of the most parochial refereeing I?ve seen since Mander last refereed us against the Roosters. He pulls out every bad call in the book, and the crowd erupts as Port Macquarie score early from an error by Nathan Merritt. They convert to make it 6-0. The first graders are back on now. The laughing from the first game is gone.
Merritt receives a heavy knock, and is down for a long time before he rises and walks off. For mine the ref should have stopped play so that the player could be assisted from the field, but hey, someone had obviously promised him a drink if the home team got up. Merritt looks ok, shaken though walking. Hilder receives another heavy knock moments later, and again play continues while he staggers around in back play. He rejoins the scrum, though he limps a little in getting there. The Port Macquarie defence is only ever back four metres, and this causes numerous dropped balls. The crowd erupts again after Port score from a grubber. Cronulla looks shaken, and Nutley is replaced by Beattie.
Cronulla ups the ante, and Noddy delves deep into his bag of tricks. He finds a long range bomb which looks innocuous enough at first, until Matt Rieck comes from nowhere to almost reel it in and score. Great defence sees Cronulla in possession again from twenty out, only to be penalised when Paul Franze gets up to go again clearly being not held. Blind Freddy saw the defender fall off him, but the referee sticks by his decision and turns the ball over on the first. The Sharks finally get on the board after Simmons, who has come on for Merritt, makes a break down the sideline, isolates the fullback, and passes to Sully to put him in under the posts. The crowd is silent.
?Not so noisy now, are you?? I yell at the locals. Several glare at me.
A phantom forward pass quashes another attacking raid, and Noddy gets the team marched ten as he backchats the ref. The Sharks withstand the Port attackers before Dumas barges over to score with a minute left. Noddy converts to put us up by two. A knock on from a short kick off gives Port possession with thirty seconds remaining, and with our boys dawdling to the scrum there?s only time for a single play after it?s fed. The first attempt at a scrum goes down and the ref blows full time much to the ire of the locals. In a generous show of sportsmanship, Noddy informs the ref that the scrum HAS to be fed, and the Port halfback responds to the scrum win with a towering bomb into the in goal. It bounces around before being dived on by Bailey. The locals boo. I sing songs to annoy them even more. Several people glare at me. Over the course of 3 games the combined score is 102-10. Not a bad effort by our boys.
Incidentally, the team made no noise whatsoever later that night. They just came back to the motel and went to bed. Of course I was woken up at ten to eight the next morning by Chris Beattie abusing someone across the parking lot, but as far as I?m concerned, it added to the ambiance.