MVP: Michael Ennis (Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks; Hooker)

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Michael Ennis, Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks. Even writing that feels a bit unusual to a Bulldogs supporter, given how instrumental Ennis’ captaincy was in reviving the team in the early 10s. During that period, Belmore went from hosting the “Bulldogs” of 2004 to the new and rebranded “Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs” in the wake of Todd Greenberg’s assumption of management in 2010. Caught between those two eras, Ennis was faced with the difficult task of managing a transitional era that demanded to be distanced from the shame of the 2004 sex scandals but also needed to express continuity with the actual football achievements of that team as a whole. Attitude was needed – if anything, to defend the team against a competition that was increasingly anxious to distance itself from them – but it also needed to remain on the field and not spill over into the kinds of player misconduct that tainted that incredible Grand Final victory. As captain, Ennis’ solution and vision was to craft a niggly personality on the field but behave like a complete professional off it, earning him a reputation as one of the most provocative players but also allowing him to channel and redirect a lot of the energy that made the Dogs pariahs during this period as well.

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Of course, Ennis didn’t do it alone, but Canterbury-Bankstown nevertheless discovered a new kind of purpose under his leadership, as well as a renewed connection to the wider game, with Ennis being one of most charismatic players since the great generation of 2004 to make it to Origin and cement the Dogs’ representation at that higher level. That connection between Origin and Belmore is just one of the ways in which Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds took on Ennis’ peculiar brand of charisma and shared it amongst themselves as a halves pair, but it’s also what allowed Ennis himself to take his game to a new level and establish himself as one of the best hookers in the game, although he never seems to have achieved the legendary status of players of comparable talent in different parts of the Blues lineup. In part, that’s because hookers tend to be some of the most understated players on the field – facilitators more than showmen, they’re doing their job well when they manage to convince the opposition that they’re invisible while managing to set up the connective tissue and open up the corridors needed to get the ball moving. That’s also what makes them such good captains, as well as what has made them so important to the Blues in particular, where that kind of stealth in plain sight has often seemed like the only way to outwit a Maroons dynasty that gets stronger by the year.

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At first glance, however, Ennis, like Farah, doesn’t have the kind of charisma or personality that lends itself to hooker. Given his reputation for niggles, banter and provocation on the field, you might be forgiven for thinking that he was an impulsive player, especially since he was more than capable of throwing in a couple of questionable moves at the same time. What made Ennis so powerful, however, was that he managed to be both niggling and self-effacing, with the result that his niggles seem o hang around and agitate the opposition long after he had left the scene, just as they seemed to precede his actual presence as well, creating an extraordinarily volatile expectation whenever he ran onto the field, especially during the last part of his stint at Belmore. In many ways, I see something of that niggly spirit in Josh Reynolds, who would probably be less capable than Ennis of containing and controlling it if it weren’t for the serene presence of Hodkinson as his halves partner, begging the question of how and when Reynolds will manage to learn from Ennis’ example now that Hodko has left for the Knights. If he does, it’s my sense that he’ll be captaincy material for the Dogs in a year or two, as well as providing us with one of the most playful provocateurs in the game for some time.

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And playfulness was at the heart of Ennis’ niggles, which wouldn’t have had the same amorphous effect if he’d been any more aggressive or personal or sustained with them. When a player like Billy Slater makes a sledge on the field, it’s always about emphasising his physical presence in a very forthright way, and usually an invitation – or at least a potential invitation – to some kind of physical confrontation. Whereas Ennis niggled, Slater sledges, and a sledge is only ever a step away from a biff, something that becomes particularly clear whenever Origin comes around. In fact, part of the pleasure of Origin lies in seeing sledges degenerate into biffs without a moment’s notice – for a game that’s normally so disinterested in what players have to say, there’s something about the sheer visceral power of an insult that can make an Origin fracas so powerful to watch. In some ways, that makes me long for a miced-up Origin game, although maybe being able to hear every word would also take some of the fun and speculation out of it as well. After all, part of what made Johnathan Thurston and Mitchell Pearce’s sledgefest so enjoyable last year was that we only heard the full content of their exchange after the fact, and instead had to content ourselves with figuring out what was going on from Thurston’s serene fury and Pearce’s eye-bulging, shamefaced humiliation.

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In that sense, there’s something quite special about a player like Ennis who is capable of taking a niggle about as far as it will go before it turns into a biff – and one of the most curious and distinctive facts about Ennis was that his Origin game was never aggressive, at least not compared to some of the other Blues playing at the time. Whereas Slater’s sledges were about insisting upon his presence, Ennis’ niggles were more about absenting himself in just the right time and in just the right way so as to leave an unpleasant and unsettling taste in the opposition’s mouth. Given that one of the most important duties of hooker is that ability to dodge, weave and sow chaos around the oppositions’ forward line, there was something about Ennis’ charisma that had already prepared him for the role before he even took the field. Put another way, the best hookers are unsettling absences on the field – blink twice and you miss them – something that has become particularly clear at the Tigers. There, Farah’s absence, both on and off the field, is frequently a more galvanising force than his presence, a situation that promises to be exacerbated now that the arrival of Matt Ballin means that Wests are effectively stuck with two first-grade hookers. In that sense, Ennis has to stand as one of the great self-effacing players in recent years, even or especially as he seemed to be making a name for himself as one of the great personality hookers. Time and again, I expected that Ennis would take a niggle too far, or commit some indiscretion in his off-field life that took his niggly personality to a new level, and while there were certainly some hints of this, for the most part he has remained impervious to the kinds of scandals that seem to thrust players into the media spotlight for the duration of their careers.

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Over this writeup, I’ve noticed that I’ve been increasingly using the past tense to refer to Ennis’ career, even though he’s already put in a couple of very respectable seasons with the Sharks. To some extent, to a Dogs fan it feels as if Ennis’ career effectively ended once he left Belmore, just because of how identified he was with the team. At the same time, however, his self-effacing tendencies have been amplified by the way in which Cronulla-Sutherland tends to efface the charisma and background of players who gravitate there from more high-profile outfits. For, in many ways, the Sharks are something of the NRL backwater, a place where players go who have nowhere else to go, which perhaps draws them close to the transitory culture of the Titans, except that Gold Coast feel more like a holding-pen for players who are on their way up, while the Sharkies are more of a holding-pen for players who are – at least at this point in time – on their way down. The reasons for that are fairly clear – the collapse of an already struggling team in the wake of the doping scandal, as well as the remoteness of the team within the wider Sydney NRL community – but the effects are curious, since the Sharks have a way of making you forget that such luminaries as Ennis and Ben Barba are still in the competition at all. In that sense, you might say that Ennis has achieved a kind of apotheosis by heading to Cronulla-Sutherland, turning into the self-effacing player that he always really was.

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As a result, I have mixed feelings about his stint with the Sharks. On the one hand, he’s gained a real maturity as a player, effectively answering those critics who always dismissed him as being too theatrical, too much of a performer and too antagonistic in his playing style. At the same time, however, it’s hard not to miss that niggly part of his personality as well, even if it still does make the occasional appearance. Just as you might recognise that a musician’s late work is their most refined but still miss the messier transitional years, so Ennis’ own late work can seem just the tiniest bit anticlimactic after his time with the Dogs. In retrospect, those years were so dynamic because both Ennis and Canterbury-Bankstown found themselves at a moment of transition that made him uniquely poised to articulate the club’s needs, just as the club itself was uniquely poised to articulate his. And that sense that Ennis and the Dogs were speaking one and the same voice was ultimately what made him one of the key Canterbury-Bankstown players over the last decade, and certainly their most influential and visible captain for me as a fan. While I wouldn’t want to dismiss his time with the Sharks, then, it does very much feel as if he’s a Bulldogs player at heart, which gives his matches against Canterbury-Bankstown – and especially his matches at Belmore – a special intensity. To Dogs followers, seeing him share the same field as Reynolds is like witnessing a passing of the baton, and there’s something special about that, especially for those of us who attached to Ennis when he was in Reynolds’ place, choosing what to pick and what to discard from the Canterbury-Bankstown generation that had preceded him.

Author: Billy Stevenson

Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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