It was hard, at Brookvale Oval on Friday night, to find any little old ladies who might have necessitated extra personal security for Des Hasler. Plenty of little young ones, however, and the odd big old one, might have menaced him with a swinging beach bag.
Off-field tribalism in league will last longer than the time between Des's haircuts. He should know, having nurtured it on the peninsula for 25 years. On the field, the game was played in good spirit. Off the field, it was suburban cliches at 20 paces: Bulldogs fans (''Welcome to Desneyland'') taunting Manly supporters for leaving, Manly fans retorting with tired lines about kebab shops. That's why we love league: it turns us all into idiots.
On Friday afternoon I saw a group of Dogs players on Darley Road in Manly, including Ben Barba, Josh Reynolds and Josh Morris, giggling themselves silly because they'd apparently knocked a drink to the ground while walking past a cafe table. So what? Most league players are, at heart, still just juvenile boys. But there were locals, among them at least one little old lady, muttering darkly about ''scum of the earth''. That's the spirit!
As for Hasler's return, the Manly mob might have hated him less if Canterbury had lost. The Sea Eagles boardroom manoeuvrings, which led to Hasler's departure, are too hard for the public to decipher. They couldn't take sides. Following the Manly factions is like following Iraqi politics: can someone just tell us who are the goodies and who are the baddies?
The obscurity of what happened meant that Hasler, by default, became the focus for the fans' confusion and disappointment. I don't think many people blamed him for leaving. He'd helped bring Manly two premierships as a player and two as a coach. He didn't owe the club any more. It was the attempt to lure staff and players with him that caused the anger. Tom Keneally might have forgiven him, but the thousands on the hill who didn't receive a personal explanation are unreconciled.
Yet it was a good thing that Hasler didn't stay at Manly after having signed with the Dogs. There's a bit of a problem in league with this overlapping of loyalties. Manly fielded four players on Friday night who have signed with other clubs: Dean Whare, Daniel Harrison, Darcy Lussick and Tony Williams. Canterbury fielded two, Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett, who until a few weeks ago belonged heart and soul to the Warriors and Roosters. Nobody expects undying fealty, but this business of mid-season transfers and pending club changes has crept up on the game, and as a fan, I'd like a little less transparency and flexibility. It never hurt anybody when players kept their plans secret, and the public could at least believe, while a season was in progress, that their boys belonged wholly to the jersey they were wearing.
Coaches, likewise, seemed part of the fabric of a club even when they weren't. Hasler, by negotiating secretly with the Dogs last year, played his part in the theatre far more convincingly than Wayne Bennett, who made his move out in the open. League doesn't have to be honest. Players and coaches can shed blood for the club they're with, and then shed blood for another - next season. It's the way it has always been. As with any relationship of the heart, conducting them in sequence seems far more decent than letting them overlap.
As for Friday's match, it probably underlined what we already knew - any of the top 11 teams are potential premiers. With two defences cancelling each other out and four of five tries coming off kicks, luck carried an inordinate weight. The Dogs are a fine team, and I can't wait to see a NSW Origin team with six positions filled by the names Morris, Reynolds and Stewart. Speaking of the latter, Manly's reliance on the brothers is showing. Glenn was short of a run and will improve. And since Brett's hamstring injury, Manly have played 200 consecutive minutes of football. The score in that time is 76-18 against them. It's back to 2009-10, a collapse in confidence in attack that has spread to their defence, one man's absence being the common denominator.
The good thing is, a month ago the premiership was drifting drearily towards another Melbourne-Manly collision. Now, it's anything but. We've got some passion-filled weeks coming up. Watch out for those dangerous little old ladies.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/in-a-tribal-game-theres-virtue-in-the-illusion-of-loyalty-20120721-22gun.html#ixzz21M4a3G5E