There is something amazing about a competition that boasts the kind of finish we're looking at in the NRL in 2014 – after 25 rounds of a fiercely contested season, and, reflecting a fair share of unpredictable upsets along the way, the minor premiership is still to be decided between three stand-out teams.
The excitement and anticipation of ‘crowning’ the minor premiers, and analysing the permutations and combinations that may transpire between now and Sunday 5 October to give us our grand finalists are tantalising. At this time of the year my enthusiasm is always somewhat tempered by the dawning realisation that there are a number of players whose brilliance, commitment, athleticism, skills, grit, integrity, professionalism and sportsmanship will be missing from the field next year.
It’s going to be well into next season before I can watch the Cowboys and not be subconsciously holding my breath lest the maestro Brent Tate favours a knee, or watching the Roosters in a bit of a pickle and expecting some classy 'Mini' magic from Anthony Minichiello to help them out, or watching the young Raiders up against it and automatically look for Brett White to appear, lead and mentor. We will in time get used to the Sharks without Beau Ryan and John Morris, it will take more of it to get used to the Sea Eagles without legend Jason King’s reassuring and spectacular presence on the field.
Having only just farewelled Ashley Harrison (twice!), Titans fans face another bittersweet experience at this Sunday’s match against the Bulldogs, as they bid goodbye to club foundation player Luke Bailey. Another one-club stalwart, Ben Smith from Parramatta, is also hanging up the boots this year. Loyal Panthers clubman Kevin Kingston’s playing days are over, but in a move that will hearten the diehard Penrith fans, Kingston is staying with the club in an off-field role. Warriors fans have already witnessed the plucky Jerome Ropati play his last game much earlier this season, but they too have been able to enjoy continued contact with the effective centre, who transitioned to an Ambassador role for the club.
Lucky Tigers fans had the loss of Braith Anasta alleviated by the knowledge that the brilliant and versatile five-eighth/lock is not lost to our game, given his commentary role… In another premature retirement from the game, the Tigers fans also bade farewell this year to Liam Fulton, who provided us with a timely reminder of the importance of life’s real priorities – health and family. Finally, the Tigers army also faces the prospect of a 2015 without Cory Paterson, who is heading off to follow his dream of a professional boxing career.
We wish these players well in their new endeavours, which are many and varied. Some will continue their associations with their clubs and the NRL, and others are pursuing interests outside of sport. Our loss is not, of course, confined to these great contributors – many players, (including some very handy stars!) are also heading to new codes, competitions and clubs… we wish them, too, every success on when they next pull on the boots and run onto the field, wherever that field may be.
So to the Rookie Class of 2015 – don’t you have mighty shoes to fill! We await with bated breath your debut onto the dynamic stage of rugby league, where we have every intention of welcoming you warmly. But to the Retiree Class of 2014, don’t for a moment think that this welcome will be at your expense. We shall long remember the sheer delight you gave us, and we thank you for your magnificent contribution to all aspects of our great game. Most importantly, don’t be strangers now – we’d love to keep in touch and hear how you’re faring.