Two tough hombres instilling the fear of God
Opening batsmen share a special bond in cricket, a one-on-one relationship they maintain separate to the rest of the 11. Their wickets are often the difference between a big innings and a disastrous collapse, and that stride out to the middle, with the weight of the team resting on their shoulders, tends to bring blokes together.
Matt Hayden and Justin Langer became so close their wives were worried; ‘Tubby’ Taylor and Michael Slater are still bouncing off each other in commentary today and West Indians Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes were the quintessential team within a team.
And although they’re not always renowned for quick thinking and quickness between the creases, front-row forwards are the opening batsmen of rugby league.
If they don’t drive the team forward, you can forget about victory.
So over the off-season, when sombrely reflecting on the fact the Wests Tigers haven’t made the play-offs since 2005, bookends Bryce Gibbs (left) and Keith Galloway (right) decided they needed to bond.
Thankfully for David Gallop they didn’t follow Boony’s manual about the best way of getting to know one other. Instead they went to church.
Galloway is a committed Christian, and one of the NRL’s genuine good guys, so finding him on a pew on Sunday morning is the norm. But seeing Gibbs anywhere near a stained-glass window? Well, that’s as shocking as Glenn McGrath opening up with a double hundred.
“Yeah, he was trying to convert us (Gibbs’ partner in crime Liam Fulton also came along for the experience), but we don’t really go to church so we weren’t paying attention,” Gibbs ‘confesses’.
“We were talking all the way through and Keith was like ‘shut up! shut up!’ He told us not to come back!”
When we put the religious rendezvous to big Keith he denied it (and when you’re dealing with Fulton and Gibbs it’s sometimes hard to know what to believe) but whatever the truth, something profound has taken place to bring the two props together.
You see, up until a couple of years ago, the flame-haired giant and the skin-headed firebrand loathed each other.
“I actually hated Bryce Gibbs before I came to the club.
"I thought he was an absolute grub,” Galloway says.
“I was at Cronulla and he was playing for Wests, and the Wests boys used to get under your skin . We played each other in an SG Ball semi-final out at St Marys one time and they were resorting to all kinds of dirty tactics – and ‘Gibbo’ was at the forefront of it all.”
For his team to make the finals for the first time in four years, Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens needs his big hombres to use their combined weight of 215 kilograms and work together as one.
But for most of Gibbs’ footballing career, Galloway has been the enemy.
“Me and him never really got on when we were younger,” Gibbs says. “When we were at Wests we used to target Keith. He was Cronulla’s main player, he was always a gun back in our age so we used to try and shut him down. And we would always get in fights with Keith.
“In that SG Ball final he was about to score a try and he knocked the ball on over the line and we were only 16 so we were all pushing him around going, ‘we’ve got it over you sauce head’ and that’s how his nickname stuck!”
Obviously they didn’t get off on the right foot – but Tigers fans can be assured Galloway and Gibbs are united in their determination to ‘see off the new ball’ in the front row in 2009.
It’s a watershed year for both players; time for two young achievers to fulfil their potential in the NRL... and the centre of the Tigers’ engine room is ready to fire.
With Benji Marshall still adjusting to the responsibilities of leading the team at halfback, Gibbs and Galloway need to give him space by dominating up front.
The 23-year-old Galloway is the first to admit he was a slow starter in the orange, black and white, but after a strong season last year, where he started all 18 games he played, the former Australian Schoolboy recognises the challenges that await.
“We’ve got those sorts of players who can wreak havoc if we go forward and we’re on the front foot,” Galloway says.
“You always hear that sort of stuff (criticism), but you try and not worry about it. It can be offensive, but I don’t listen to what other people say.
I’d rather look at what’s happening in-house.
“The first year I got here I realised I had to work on my fitness and agility and get hungrier. Every game I played last year I thought I improved and I feel like I’ve improved every year since I joined the Tigers. Starting in the front row makes you more aggressive.”
The man in the middle at Mass, Liam Fulton, admits it’s a bizarre partnership to go into bat with, but says Gibbs and Galloway prove that opposites do attract.
“Keith is just a genuine nice guy… and then you get Gibbsy, who’s pretty much the opposite; Gibbsy is just a complete jerk and tries to hurt everyone. Keith probably got a bit more mongrel in him the longer he’s been hanging around Bryce. He’s a mongrel kind of guy growing up in Campbelltown having it a bit tougher than Keith coming from Cronulla,” observes the departing Fulton.
“So you’ve got the ‘atheist’ front-rower and you’ve got the religious front-rower. It’s a strange mixture in the team, but they complement each other and it’s good a sign for the Tigers.”