No fears for Bulldogs' SCG rookies: Mortimer
Former greats of Canterbury and St George agree that the excitement of playing at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sunday's Heritage Round clash will compensate for the Bulldogs' lack of experience at the world famous arena.
It is 18 years since Canterbury last played at the SCG and only a handful of current players have sampled the ground's unique atmosphere. Michael Ennis, Corey Payne and Dene Halatau have played there with previous clubs while second-rower Frank Pritchard and Halatau were members of the New Zealand team which played in the Centenary Test match in 2008.
Outside those four, Sunday's game against St George Illawarra will be a brand new experience for the Bulldogs. Not even captain Andrew Ryan, a veteran of 271 NRL games, 11 Test matches and 12 State of Origins for New South Wales has been to the SCG as a player.
By comparison, only a handful of Dragons players have not played there.
Bulldogs all-time great Steve Mortimer, who achieved many of his greatest footballing moments at the ground, is confident the players will acquit themselves well this Sunday. "I'm very confident that they will do well," he said. "Once they absorb the atmosphere of the place they'll be ready to play."
Mortimer's first experience of the SCG as a player was in a finals match in 1976 against an Easts team coached by Jack Gibson. He played five grand finals at the ground, led the Bulldogs to two premiership titles, steered NSW to their first series victory there and played his first Test match at the ground in 1981.
"I've got so many great memories of the SCG, it's impossible to put one ahead of the others."
Former centre Andrew Farrar, who played in three winning grand final teams for Canterbury, agreed that excitement would cover the Bulldogs' lack of familiarity with the surroundings.
"They talk about deceptive angles but you soon work out where the sidelines are," he said. "I think with a big crowd and the excitement of playing at a ground they don't often get an opportunity to play at they won't be at a disadvantage."
Former St George back-rower Graeme Wynn had his first experience of the SCG as a spectator in 1975 when he travelled by train from Werris Creek with his younger brother Peter to watch Saints go down 38-0 to Easts. "It was only 5-0 at halftime," he said. "And I still reckon a try that was disallowed to John Chapman should have been awarded."
Wynn, who played in Saints' 1979 grand final-winning team against the Bulldogs, believes the sense of the occasion will lift Canterbury. "They'll be very excited to play at the Cricket Ground," he said. "It may be a once in a lifetime experience for many of them and they'll be aware of the history of the place so I don't think they'll have too much trouble getting used to it."
Michael Hagan, who played alongside Mortimer in the 1985 grand final victory over St George, concedes that playing at the SCG is different to other venues. "In my day it was either rock-hard or mud but it was always a tremendous atmosphere and a great place to play at," he said. "The players may take a little bit of time to get used to the way that the ground runs in relation to the stands but I can't see a disadvantage for the Bulldogs."
Tony Trudgett, Saints' five-eighth in their 1979 grand final-winning team, says the excitement of playing at the historic ground in front of a 30,000-plus crowd will lift the players of both teams.
"I was always excited to play there," he said. "Even though it was usually rock-hard in the centre it was always exciting to play at the biggest ground, and I've got no doubt the players will cope with it."
Rugby league's association with the Sydney Cricket Ground began 100 years ago this year, when New South Wales played a touring New Zealand side. The ground had been the domain of the NSW Rugby Union but the league took advantage of a loophole in the rules governing the use of the ground to play the match on a public holiday Thursday.
Club matches were first played there in 1913 and it soon became the headquarters for the game, hosting Test and interstate matches, the Saturday match-of-the-day along with finals and grand finals up to 1987. The SCG has hosted only 16 premiership games over the past 23 years.