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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

A few minutes with the ‘Chief’ and Gil Crespy

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Eve Jeffery

Recently the Toohey’s New Crew descended on the Fingal Rovers SLSC to help them finish off the work needed to ensure that the building was up and running for the summer season. The Echonetdaily editor sent me up to see how the work was going and I decided that it would be a great opportunity to pick at the brains of crew leader Paul ‘The Chief’ Harragon – but, as we all know, I am a Victorian and unless we are talking Collingwood, I haven’t much of a clue about football. Tag in all-code expert and all-round nice guy Gil Crespy to help me frame a few questions for the Newcastle Knights legend.

Is banning the shoulder charge a good idea?
Banning the shoulder charge has some merit in its intent but it’s fraught with danger. They could even end up reversing the decision if it is not implemented correctly, and what I mean by that is that shoulder charging is part of the game and you can’t stop something so instinctive on a button. If they try to put a suspension on it, they are going to have people left, right and centre out of the game. It’s too hard to stop. It has to be ushered in over three years with just on-field reminders at the start and as time goes on penalties can get more and more severe. You cannot just stop shoulder charging.

Is Mark ‘Spud’ Carroll still your mate?
*Laughs* Yes, he is. He’s a mate; he’s in my phone contacts and we are actually quite close friends now. We usually try to catch up once a year before Christmas. It’s funny how the arch-rivals and enemies become friends. I mean we used to hate each other. Manly and Newcastle, we used to hate each other for all those years but in our old age we’ve become the best of friends.

Will NSW ever win State of Origin again?
This year, that hurt me. I have been suffering for the last seven years, but this one I felt dejected because we were close. Now with a change of coach, we’ve got to start again a little bit. It won’t take long, Laurie (Daley) will do a good job. So I have no definite answer for that one except to say that if you don’t reinvent yourself and get ahead of the game, you are forced to reinvent yourself by failure and we have failed abysmally. You can make the excuse that the Queensland team is probably the best of all time, when you have four or five players who are some of the all-time greats. That’s just one of the things that goes in cycles, but, it’s time for us to really step up.

Will rugby league remain the premier football code in the Newcastle/Hunter region, despite the emergence of soccer and AFL?
Absolutely! When rugby league first started in Australia in 1908, Newcastle was actually in the Sydney competition. They went down by train for two years but it was too far, so we started our own competition. Northern England is where the game started. All the northern English coalminers who came out to Australia came to the coal mines in Newcastle. Mate it’s in their blood, in their DNA, and it will never, ever, ever change.

Does rugby league really need mercenaries like Sonny Bill Williams to get punters through the gate? Or do integrity and club loyalty still count for something?
Hmmm – well that’s answer for the NRL because if an NRL club lets a player go for disciplinary reasons, because he’s breaking the code, integrity says that no-one will pick him up – he’s got to learn that lesson, but in our code at the moment, someone else might pick him up and utilise him. He might be a wonderful player and much needed. The team who is getting rid of him need him, but they’ve got to do the right thing. Integrity is important. If someone does the wrong thing there should be some timeframe before they can come back into the game, and with Sonny Bill – I mean that’s one for the NRL. They are looking at the total picture.

Did Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns really take all of those drugs and still win the comp for you? Is drug use (apart from alcohol) still a problem in the game?
Look, I think the game is vastly changed. The young blokes coming through, say ten years ago, who were 15, they saw the game change. What was expected from the local community and their sports heroes was totally different from the past. For the guys that were already there, it was very hard for them to change, but the young blokes that were coming through that are now in the game, they have been brought up so they understand, so I’d say that it would be less than the average bloke from like 18 to 30, much, much less than the average.

I reckon we are going pretty well. I think our game has really changed itself and the players have gone along with it. There’s nothing there. You don’t see much of it at all now and it’s only going to get better. In the past it was accepted; now it’s not.

As far as Joey is concerned, he’s an Immortal now, he’s recognised as one of the greatest players to play our game. He’s won grand finals, he’s done everything, but he is bipolar. To achieve all that with that legacy makes it even more special, I reckon.
What Joey went through – he went through a lot. The drugs were something where, I would say, the bipolar and the drugs were all mixed up; he went through his own personal tough time, but still was an amazing athlete. He’s a close friend of mine and I see he’s no different from anyone else. He wasn’t like a ‘drug addict’ – you wouldn’t know, but he got caught.

Does bush footy get enough support from the NRL?
No, but I am excited about the future. With a new TV deal and the money in the game now unprecedented, there is scope for massive expenditure and increase and expansion in the bush, so we should see a lot of seeds planted now. We should see some good stuff. Like the AFL – they’ve had an extra five years of top-line funding on top of us, so we’ve had basically half of what they have had, and they have spread their game wonderfully with that money. We haven’t had the resources and the reason we haven’t had the resources is because we’ve been hamstrung, but that’s changed. We’re back on an even keel. The five-year deal will see a big difference in the bush.

??Is the game too much in the hands of the people who own the broadcasting rights? Are constant replays spoiling the game – especially when the replays are still inconclusive?
The game is more and more being owned by the media, and you know what? I think that’s just the future. These guys are paying our wages. So if they say they want to play the grand final at night, you know, we have just got to cop that and make the most of it. We got a really good deal. I think it’s fair.

Should players who are concussed be immediately stood down from the next week’s game?
That’s a very good question. Yes. The NRL is quite barbaric with its rules for concussion. It hasn’t ever drawn a line in the sand. It’s a very subjective thing. If you get knocked out in boxing, you can’t box for three months. In rugby league, you can get knocked out, carted off and within five minutes, you’re back out playing again. It’s crazy. I think there should be a mandatory week off. Again, you’ve go to usher things in slowly. If you lose consciousness, that means it’s a big knock and you can’t get up, it’s easy to detect that; you come off – it’s classed as a replacement. You have a week off the next week and away you go. I think that’s fair.

See, you get compromised. Imagine your key player gets a big hit and gets knocked out and it’s the grand final the next week and he’s saying, ‘Mate, I’m ready to go’. That’s why everyone is reluctant to do it, and I wouldn’t like to be in that situation, but there has just got to be something where we care for our young blokes getting KOd all the time.

What impact might Wayne Bennett have on the Newcastle Knights and the game in general in the area?
Wayne’s presence in the Hunter has been well received. He is the most successful coach of all time.

Is there a lot of pressure on him this year?
The is a lot of pressure on him. Last year was a poor effort all round and we all accept that, but there were a lot of new people coming into the club and Wayne came in and his staff so we had to gel a lot of people very quickly.

It takes time. It took a lot longer than we probably thought, and for the players to get used to Wayne was another thing; that took a little while. It probably wasn’t until halfway through the year where everyone started to gel a little bit. We’ve had another off season on top of that. We’ve analysed a lot of things and gone through a lot. I expect to see a vastly different team this year.

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