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Time of the year when we tread a fine line between magic and malevolence

Opinion

For the players who live close to the edge all season, the pressure and focus of the finals can prove to be a tipping point, writes Michael Blucher

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You can tell it’s getting closer to “GF” time, can’t you? Higher stakes, heightened emotions, cranky coaches, ranting and raving, clearly feeling the pinch.

No judgement there, You’d have to be a particular breed of masochist to take on a job like that in the first place. Hats off to all of them – every single top grade coach.

There were a couple of incidents in the past week the encapsulated this mood shift from “round robin grind” to “last throw of the dice” – one in the NRL, the other in the elimination round of the AFL.

To quickly bring you up to speed, just in case you didn’t know or didn’t particularly care, the first was South Sydney Rabbitoh Latrell Mitchell fracturing the cheekbone of his former Roosters teammate Joey Manu with a hit that was at best reckless, at worse, deliberate.

And over in shirt-front central, we had GWS firebrand Toby Greene “bumping” into field umpire Matt Stevic, forbidden contact that was …well, at best reckless, at worst deliberate.

The two incidents lit up the respective NRL and AFL twitter-spheres, as punters piled in to have their say, their views tainted by how much they knew, how much they cared, and you’d suspect in more than a few instances, how much they’d had to drink.

Pretty challenging work environment for our footy stars these days, isn’t it?

The sideshow is now almost as newsworthy and as comprehensively covered as the “main event”. The focus quickly shifts from what’s happened, to what people are saying about what’s happened.

And the game of self righteous indignation begins.

Those outraged by the said main event, are further outraged by others not sharing their outrage. And those dismissive of the incidents, are outraged by those who are outraged for no reason. It’s all become a little predictable – outrageously predictable.

But back to the main event.

The 2021 season for both Mitchell and Greene is now over, on account of the significant punishment that’s been meted out for their respective code violations.

At first glance, there’s little similarity between the incidents. Mitchell’s brutal clean out of Manu put the Roosters flyer in hospital with a fractured cheek bone, whereas Greene’s gentle three-quarter time ram-rodding of Stevic yielded no more than a quizzical look, and perhaps an under-the-breath “WTF just happened? He can’t do that!”

But dig a little deeper, and there are parallels that can be drawn, starting with the on-field demeanour of the two offenders.

Both Mitchell and Greene play on the fringe – they’re fractious, aggressive, prickly characters who, whether deliberately or not, get under the skin of their opponents.

They’re also polarising figures, adored by their own, demonised by the rest, in no small part because of their skill and effectiveness. They are game changers – they make stuff happen, and that triggers resentment. Think niggly schoolboy smart arse, the kid nobody can cop, yet he still tops the grade – and has the best looking girlfriend.

It’s my guess most professional athletes aren’t queueing up to win any sort of popularity contest, not while playing “contact” sport, and definitely not in their mid 20s, when they are focused purely on competing and winning – at practically any cost.

As any number of females would be happy to attest, the male brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 30 – even later if you’re married.

The more mellow, statesmanlike like behaviour of athletes tends to come in the twilight of their career when they have little else to prove.

And of course, their prefrontal cortex has finally kicked into gear.

The career clocks of Latrell Mitchell, and to a lesser extent, Toby Greene are set a long way from twilight hour.

Greene is 27, a “seasoned campaigner” in terms of matches played, but still a volatile young bloke working out where he fits in the world. He’s never shied away from controversy – he has a wrap sheet the length of the Flemington straight, and seems to carry it as a badge of honour.

Mitchell is just 24, an equally passionate and gifted athlete who can excite and appal in a single beguiling movement. Magic one second, malevolence the next, sending mixed messages as to who he is, and what he stands for.

What we do know is that Mitchell is a proud descendant of the Birrbay and Wiradjuri people, who speaks openly and at times loudly of the importance of his indigenous heritage.

His decision a few years ago not to sing the Australian national anthem before a Test match, because it didn’t represent him or his people, earned him both bouquets and brickbats.

His courage and commitment to his cause is of course commendable, but the risk is it contributes to him becoming a public punching bag, in the same appalling way Sydney icon Adam Goodes was in AFL circles a number of years ago.

In the aftermath of the Manu incident, Mitchell’s long team partner Brielle Mercy has already received death threats, highlighting the impracticality of legislating against stupidity. No matter what laws are invoked, the genuine idiots will always prevail.

The point is the NRL needs players like Latrell Mitchell, in the same way the AFL benefits from having Toby Greene-types in its playing ranks.

They are among the breed who make sport more watchable, more compelling.

We’ve got enough robotic types, talking in cliches, taking their finals campaign one game at a time, trusting their processes, and digging in for the boys.

The risk is that by pillorying any player for being anything other than bland, we’ll usher the genuinely interesting athletes out of professional sport altogether.

And then we’re will we be?

We’ll have no cause for outrage.

 

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