There’s been plenty of talk about this year’s premiership having an asterisk attached to it.
That’s always spoken of as a negative. It doesn’t have to be, in my eyes.
This could be the toughest premiership to win.
And right now, a team could be staking a huge claim to lifting the trophy.
Whichever club shows the greatest mental toughness away from the field gives itself a major edge. Whichever group of players has the discipline to do what needs to be done.
By the same token, certain teams could be letting the chance of making a grand final this season slip through their grasp right now.
The players aren’t at training, so they have to remain fit themselves. Everyone will still be training – but who’s going to be pushing themselves to the necessary level?
We’re going to find out this season who has taken ownership of the one thing they can control in such uncertain times: their individual preparation. We’re going to find out which clubs were prepared to do that little bit extra to win, and which teams weren’t.
There are so many distractions and obstacles at the moment. There probably will be all year.
Whichever team best deals with all those problems will likely win the comp.
It’s still unknown what the competition will look like when it returns. May 28 is the planned date, but who can tell?
Say that we do start games then and players return to training a few weeks beforehand. Whichever clubs players return to training the fittest and healthiest are ahead of the game.
They can get straight back into teamwork, where other teams might still be getting their players back up to speed. Some guys, some teams, are just better than others at going the extra mile.
Michael Ennis was a great example that I saw first-hand. He was always doing extras when people weren’t watching.
Mick would always do an extra run after training, an extra cardio session, just to make sure that he was ready for the weekend.
Shane Webcke used to go running in the dark by himself. He thought that no one knew; but Wayne Bennett did.
Terry Lamb used to push himself through a 5km run on his own each week, even when his knee was shot late in his career and his coaches used to bar him from training.
He finished his career by captaining the Bulldogs to a premiership in his final game.
There’s a story Joel Caine tells me about 2005, when Wests Tigers won the comp. They were known more as a flashy team, the Benji Marshall flick passes and all that stuff.
But they had a meeting during that year when Tim Sheens came in and told the players, “The top four is gone”. Ben Galea, an unsung hero, got up and said, “It’s not gone – we’ve still got a mathematical chance to do it. I want everyone here to do something tough. Something that no one knows about.”
Joey analyses Benji’s iconic flick pass
Apparently they all did it. I don’t know what they did, but they made the top four on points difference thanks to a club record eight-game winning streak.
The players went away after that meeting, took the time on a day off to do something extra, and they won the competition. On the back of Benji’s flick passes, sure, but also because of the hard work that no one ever saw, away from the cameras and crowds.
They trained their backsides off. They forced themselves to grind and they got the job done.
That’s the challenge for teams this year, more than any season before.
And speaking of crowds, that’s another hurdle for certain players to navigate.
Some guys really get their competitive juices flowing by feeding off the crowd. By drawing on the atmosphere of a stadium packed with fans.
Now, we’re looking at potentially playing even State of Origin and the grand final with no crowds in attendance. We’ll find out who really relies on that extra boost to compete, and who can find all they need within themselves.
Again, it comes down to self-discipline and grind.
What makes rugby league so interesting and such a team sport is that you need probably a dozen guys who make their living as footballers purely on hard work.
The guys who are out there grinding away every day, doing their best, earning their place not on talent and skill, but on pure toughness and commitment.
These are the guys who weren’t the best players at 17, but worked harder than everybody else to get there. Those guys will be especially valuable this season.
Matt Prior was one of those players for us at the Sharks. He always worked his backside off and on top of that, he was a guy who could never keep weight on.
Some of the food I saw him consume was just ridiculous! I don’t know where he was storing it all, he should have been 150kg the way he could eat, yet was just over 100kg.
Matt was an unsung hero for us and a great example of what can be earned through hard work. He played Origin for NSW, he won two premierships – with the Dragons then Cronulla – and was our player of the year in 2016 along with Andrew Fifita. He’s still playing over in the UK.
Then you need your X-factor blokes, guys who can create something from nothing. Your halves, who control the team. You need so many different personalities in a side to win a premiership; that’s what makes it so hard.
When you get that perfect mix, you need all 17 players performing to their best each week, especially come the end of the season. Especially on grand final day.
For me, Melbourne remain an obvious candidate to thrive this season. The Storm have had that work ethic instilled in them for a long, long time.
The Roosters have been there and done it before. They have the continuity of a winning culture, plus blokes who are willing to work hard.
Then there are teams like Brisbane. They have all the talent in the world, all the strike power and speed. Have they got that work ethic in them?
I’m not saying that they don’t, but it’s a question they need to answer this season. There aren’t that many senior players at the Broncos currently, who know what it takes to win grand finals and big games.
They’re also going from playing in from of 30-40,000 fans per week to none. It will be interesting to see how they react.
It would be unfair at this stage to say, ‘Well, this club won’t go any good under these circumstances’. But we’ll know by the end of the year.
The fixture is still a huge unknown. We may even be forced to halt the competition again, if there’s another wave of coronavirus cases.
I reckon that playing each team once and having a proper finals series is the bare minimum for considering this to be a legitimate premiership season. Less than that and perhaps you need to consider renaming the title that is awarded.
Provided the season meets that minimum standard of games played, the winners will deserve respect. They will have earned their premiership in a way that no team has before.