John Harms Talks NRL

It’s a magnificent summer’s night in Melbourne. Hot. Still. It could be Brisbane. I am standing on the veranda of the East Coburg Cricket Club looking out cross the well-grassed oval. The centre wicket is fenced off. The cityscape is clear in the distance, spotlighted by the setting sun.

A handful of people mill around, catching up, ribbing the club president George Georgiou, one of the characters of Melbourne club sport. Not only does he run East Coburg CC, he is also responsible for Harmony Day which celebrates the ethnic diversity that is cricket in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. People of more than 80 nationalities have played for George’s club over the years.

George is a master recruiter. In seasons where the club is short on players George starts hailing taxis. Literally. He knows that many drivers are from the sub-continent – Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans – and most of them follow cricket, and play cricket. He invites them to training, then gets out of the cab and hails another one.

George has got the knack of organising functions, but he never promotes them. They are largely for the people of his local community. His personality is so infectious he has, over the years, been able to attract guests like Dermie and Dipper, Dane Swan and Kouta, Tim Lane and Gideon Haigh.Tonight it’s Billy Slater.

Billy is preparing, along with his Melbourne Storm teammates, to defend their 2012 premiership.The snags sizzle away. The bread-rolls and the salads are laid out. People quench their sizable thirsts. The cars keep coming, throaty utes and blokes in work-boots. Office-workers. Mums. Lots of kids. They run around all over the place, excited. Chucking yonnies at each other. Drinking too much soft drink.
Billy arrives and stands around greeting folk who are a little shy in his presence.

He is tiny. How does he handle the hits? It makes me think he is an even bigger star.

I have written about Billy for an Australia Post publication – he is an Australia Post Living Legend, one of eight footballer, two from each code. Billy Slater is on a stamp!

After tea (because that’s what it is), the MC Stephen Milne, from radio station 1116SEN, interviews Billy. He’s friendly, open and has something to say. He tells of his background in north Queensland, his time in the Gai Waterhouse stable, and the absolutely classic story that Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and he played together as juniors at Norths (or ‘Norfs’ as they say in Brisbane).

He also makes it quite clear that Melbourne have remained hungry. Not one word throughout the evening suggests they’ve made it: they’re still making it.

Craig Bellamy has clearly been a factor in developing these young men but, reading between the lines I’d say Bellamy has taken a step back to entrust the leadership to the senior players. Billy et al have been there for a decade. And why wouldn’t you step back and let them run the show.

Some intriguing things emerge. Apart from Billy being pretty handy with the mic, and quite self-deprecating (he strings out the yarn about three successive suspensions in 2006 beautifully), I am surprised at how much this AFL-obsessed, cricket mob knows about rugby league. Questions are specific and relevant.

As he continues to tell stories and field questions everything suggests that the Storm are focused this year. “It’s not about the other clubs reaching the standard of the reigning premier,” he says. “That’s last year. It’s about us improving as a team, as individuals. It’s about raising the bar.”

He would talk forever. He signs everything. And off he goes after giving almost four hours.There is an auction and a raffle and the club raises some much-needed cash.

I look about and think that Australian sport is so idiosyncratic. We’ve just had the best rugby league player in the world pop out to a little suburban cricket club in Melbourne and become part of the joint. I reckon about 60 people were there to enjoy Billy’s relaxed open-ness.

Billy Slater did his PCL in the Melbourne State of Origin match last year. The Storm went through an awkward patch of over a month. But they fought back. Billy came good. Their first 25 minutes against Souths on a wet night in the first round of the finals was something to behold. Skill. Discipline. Their first half of the Grand Final was just as good. (“All three tries were set plays,” Billy explains.)

Given the age and experience of the Storm squad, given the inclusion of some young talent, given the position of Craig Bellamy, the Storm are right in this. Given the turmoil in Sydney, hiding away at the end of the Hume is not such a bad thing.

The $5.50 for the premiership looks pretty good to me. I suspect the price won’t last long.

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