Sometimes, in Rugby League, the small victories are what matter. Never do you feel that more in the leadup to the Grand Final. Although one or two teams are destined to make that climactic match, there are a whole host of other teams who haven’t hoped to make it for years, and some teams who have never made it. For those teams, finals footy is all about how they bring their own year to a close with dignity and grace. Each year each team has a different story to tell, and each year that story comes to an end during these last couple of weeks. Perhaps that’s why I often find the buildup to the Grand Final more compelling than the match itself. In fact, since the Grand Final is one of the few times in the year – Origin is another – when the game opens up beyond stalwart footy fans, the stories surrounding each franchise tend to be simplified, streamlined and repackaged in an even more explosive format to cater for a massively bumped-up demographic. At the same time, as a team moves towards the Grand Final, they consolidate their image as much as their game, identifying more and more with their broadest and boldest strokes until their quirks and peculiarities can get a bit airbrushed out by the biggest spotlight to shine on the game all year.
All of which to say that it’s often finals footy, rather than the Grand Final itself, which is often most precious to diehard fans. And last night’s match between the Tigers and the Warriors was a case in point. More than nearly any team, these finals have had a special finality for the Tigers. On the one hand, they mark the retirement of Keith Galloway and Pat Richards, two of the strongest and oldest players in the game. In a profession where retirement generally kicks in at around 30, Galloway and Richards have become emblems of longevity in a franchise that has often struggled to glimpse its long-term future as well, with the demise of the Tigers home club compounded by speculations over whether the team will be able to continue playing at Lilyfield Oval. If anyone has managed to hold all that together, it’s been Robbie Farah, arguably the best captain in the game at the moment. Sure, he’s copped a lot of flack for his volatility, but wouldn’t you be volatile if you were faced with the task of preserving and promoting one of the most threatened footy communities out there? And yet in the last couple of days, we’ve heard that Farah is on the way out too, transforming last night’s match into his last-minute swansong.
And what a match it was. Given that the Tigers’ recent troubles have tended to stem from a rapidly regentrifying Balmain, it felt right to see them get back to their Western roots, putting in their last match of the season at the very antithesis of a Grand Final venue: Campbelltown Oval. Against that backdrop, there was no need for cheerleaders, with the crowd roaring Robbie on from the very moment he arrived on the field and not letting up for one of the best first halves in Tigers history. On the field, Farah showed the same generosity and guidance he’s displayed throughout his tenure at the club – one of my favourite moments being a totally selfless pass to Brooks right at the try line – racking up twenty-two tackles in the first forty minutes alone, as he set out to bust his way through everything standing between him and the rest of the team. With Richards scoring his fiftieth try for the Tigers shortly before the they went out on fifty perfect points, the whole game had the kind of serendipity you only glimpse from a team that’s fighting for and asserting its very existence as a team. And in that sense, there was something bittersweet as well – a vision of the team the Tigers could have been if their troubles of the last few months hadn’t come down to the line over the last week or so. Still, an amazing performance, and a fine send-off for Farah, who I’ll be speaking about more in an upcoming post. I’ve just realised that I haven’t said much about the Warriors here, but sometimes your attention sticks with one team. Suffice to say that New Zealand felt a bit below par, with their seventh straight loss in a row and Ryan Hoffman and coach Andrew McFadden both coming out and saying that the team needs to lift their game quickly. Perhaps this will be the impetus they need for next weekend’s clash with Canterbury-Bankstown.