What’s in a name? Like all sports, our game has its big name players – those whose talent, abilities and performance have plucked them from the ranks of the ‘ordinary’ elite and catapulted them into the dizzy heights of the superstars... household names with huge public profiles and reputations. We all know them, and they are undoubtedly responsible for a significant chunk of the allure of our great game, and the fan base of their individual clubs. In fact, there is absolutely no shortage of evidence on what they mean to us – the average punter – and their worth in selling a product or promoting a good cause.
Prompted to reflect on the absence of Sonny Bill Williams this weekend, Roosters hooker Jake Friend said on Wednesday: “Whenever you have players out you really come together and talk about winning without them, so I think it's definitely a confidence thing. If we can get a few wins without Sonny in the team it'll be good for the whole team.”
It’s not only the Roosters who will need to heed Jake’s well-chosen words this week – a quick scan of current team lists reveals very noticeable big name absences.
So what do these absences mean to a team? I can’t think of a Rabbitoh who hasn’t expressed in some way, at some time, the confidence they derive from knowing that Greg Inglis is on the field – regardless of the score, the opponent, the conditions or the clock, with GI at the back a win is always possible. The mood when GI is not at the back? Not quite so buoyant, but still relatively straightforward to sum up – opportunity! There isn’t an enthusiastic and committed sports player of any persuasion amongst us who doesn’t acknowledge that on-field success is all about seizing your opportunities.
A missing star doesn’t only present an opportunity for an entire team to take added confidence from a win against favoured or higher-ranked opposition, it also presents opportunity at an individual level. Panthers star prop, local boy and one-club stalwart Tim Grant, is as qualified as anyone to comment on big name absences. Until two weeks ago Penrith (who are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their 2003 Grand Final victory this weekend) was coming home with a wet sail despite a run of prominent absences at the beginning of the season. Losses in the past two rounds have halted their momentum somewhat, but the boys from the Greater West are certainly looking a better chance at a top-eight finish than they were two months ago.
Tim puts star absences into brilliant perspective. As he puts it: “It doesn’t matter why they are out – injury, suspension or disciplinary reasons – the motivation for us isn’t their absence, it’s the new, young kids who get their chances.” He adds: “… seeing the excitement in their eyes before each game reminds me that this is not a job, but something I love doing – there is no better motivation than that.”
He is absolutely right, of course. The absence of a SBW, a Barba, a Ferguson, an Inglis, a Hayne or any superstar necessarily shifts the rugby league spotlight, and we look forward to seeing where it will settle this weekend after hopefully some dazzling and resounding displays from perhaps unexpected quarters.
Unfortunately often it’s more than a short-term fix that is required – the Eels have been without star fullback Jarryd Hayne since he injured his hamstring in Round 13. Coach Ricky Stuart hasn’t ruled out resting him for the rest of the season – but on Wednesday some good news from Eels’ co-captain Reni Maitua – Hayne could be back in a couple of weeks. What a boost for the now 17,000-strong Parramatta members who haven’t had much joy this year! Without their two biggest stars and most exciting players, Hayne and Chris Sandow, and with no hope of making the finals this year, the return of the Origin No.1 can’t come soon enough.
We don’t have a top-of-the-table battle in Round 21. In fact, with the exception of the Storm v Raiders clash, and the Titans v Wests Tigers encounter, we have a top-eight side playing a bottom eight side in all matches.
Nonetheless, shaping up are some beguiling contests and thought-provoking scenarios. With or without some of our big name players, for my money, whether you’re chillin’ in Sydney, Newcastle, Auckland, Townsville, Canberra or the Gold Coast, there are no better thrills and spills on offer this weekend.