Santa Smiles on the Deserving

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

“You have ruined Christmas” my brother Matt yelled down the phone in total despair, tears most likely filling his eyes.

“There will be no Midnight Mass this year and I can think of nobody to blame but you.”

He was clutching at straws but I would just have to wear it. That is what brotherhood is all about. Roll with the punches; don’t strike back unless it is absolutely necessary. We had mixed it up any number of times, after controversial backyard cricket decisions and games of Monopoly gone wrong. There was never any malice. Just some hefty testosterone, the spirit of competitiveness and some old fashioned winding up.

At any rate, I probably had to accept some responsibility for the demise for Midnight Mass in the rural New South Wales town of Orange.

It all started back with The Sponge, four years back. Following the time-honoured Christmas Eve tradition of drinking heavily at The Metropolitan Hotel, a fine venue for an annual reunion with old friends and forgotten acquaintances, The Sponge, in the words of Shane McGowan, “dropped a button in the plate and spewed up in the church.”

This kind of behaviour, of course, was once commonplace in Catholic circles. Heavy drinking, prayer, belting out “Joy to the World” and emptying your pockets into the plate were once considered the norm. Not this decade, however, and not that night, where the Christmas spirit became a rare commodity indeed. The Sponge was shuffled out of the place and verbally beaten down by a coven of blue-rinsers, scone-makers and do-gooders.

Midnight Mass has not been the same since, shuffled away from the steeple near the public houses and now cancelled for good, a longstanding tradition relegated to history for reasons of political correctness, acute social rectitude and the waspish attitudes of modern rural Catholics.

The news of the death of Midnight Mass left me greatly saddened and yearning for Christmases of years gone by filled with corny vinyl Christmas carols being played while the tree was decorated and crunchy gingerbread men and A Mom for Christmas and Alex Keaton’s revelations when he was visited by the ghosts of Christmas past and present.

My mood was low and the usual festive joviality was nowhere to be seen.

And then, a Christmas miracle, at least for a true sportsman, like your ever-decent author, who calls Belmore home. In the space of a few days I went from Grinch to true believer.

It all started with the expulsion of Reni Maitua from the court of Belmore. Maitua had once again shown a pathetic lack of respect for the club by again missing a training session. It was not the first time he pissed on the Bulldogs jersey. Or society, for that matter. He had missed any number of training sessions after spending nights swilling booze and chasing trouble. While at the club he was charged and convicted of drink driving. He was also charged and found guilty of assaulting a police officer Tim Allen in a wild brawl that left the officer unconscious. That conviction was overturned on appeal. Maitua also threatened to walk out on the club numerous times, namely when Willie Mason extorted his way out of his contract and Sonny Bill Williams fled like a coward.

Just like those two clowns, Maitua was a selfish footballer who cared more about dollars than wins and losses, more about himself than the team. Like Mason and Williams, Maitua was a cancer on the club who only occasionally showed his abilities and could more often than not be found dodging his workload and failing at the fundamentals. As a somewhat senior player over the last two years, Maitua’s lead for the younger Bulldogs was that laziness and a me-first attitude was the way to advance your career.

The great shame is that Maitua and his kind were allowed to get away with it for so long. They were dark days for the Bulldogs, the best forgotten Malcolm Noad Era where ego-driven players used the club as their own personal brothel and underachievement was the name of the game.

Those days, thankfully, are now consigned to history with new boss Todd Greenberg adopting a Red Forman like approach: Stray out of line and you will be getting a foot in your ass. Fools and troublemakers will not be tolerated. The door is that way for those who don’t adhere to the rules. Your belongings will be thrown out behind you. Don’t ever come back.

It is the way a club should be run.

Seeing that nasty gangster thrown out the door and told never to return was a fine Christmas present in itself. The culture of the club was changing and finally the hard workers and the back-breakers had the numbers. The cancers were being cut out at a fast rate and I could be nothing but glowing in my words on their recruitment. Ben Hannant is a warhorse and a leader, a young prop whose potential could lead him to becoming the next Shane Webcke. Michael Ennis is sharp and committed and exactly the kind of player the team needs around the middle of the ruck. Brett Kimmorley is at the back-end of his career but he will teach the young Bulldogs halves plenty and ensure the Bulldogs don’t lose a raft of games due to stupidity as they did in 2008. He also comes with the Chris Anderson seal of approval. Josh Morris looks a promising young centre with bullocking strength and superb instincts who will thrive with some stability and a semi-competent coach. Michael Hodgson is an underrated tradesman who can be relied on to go hard whenever he is on the paddock.

It was a recruitment class that filled me with the hope the sounds of whirling blades give to those stranded on the warm sands of an unnamed island.

And then one of the greatest Christmas presents of all was delivered to me as I opened a newspaper with a coffee in one hand and a spoonful of banana, yoghurt and muesli in my mouth. The man who will replace Reni Maitua is the Broncos indomitable workhorse David Stagg, a player who has resided at the top of the list of my personal favourite players since he entered first grade back in 2003.

Simply, David Stagg is my kind of player, a footballer with a brain and a heart who will never let you down. He is not the biggest or the most skilful and he isn’t a game-winner and he isn’t what those in the business would call dangerous. What he is though is the ultimate team player, a man who will do the grubby work and fill the holes and tackle till his hands bleed and back-up until the sun goes down.

He is another Tony Grimaldi and there is not a doubt in the world that many of the Bulldogs failings over the last two seasons can directly be attributed to the failure in finding, or attempting to find, a replacement for Grimaldi.

The man once made 64 tackles in a match, an NRL record, and that pretty much says it all.

David Stagg is just the kind of player the Bulldogs need and Todd Greenberg, Peter Mulholland and Kevin Moore deserve plenty of credit for recognising what has been missing and chasing the right man hard to fill that hole.

He isn’t signed yet but it will only be a matter of days. Brisbane, showing why they are such a well-respected club, will not stand in Stagg’s way if the Bulldogs make him an offer too good to refuse and the talk of the town is that they have. The Broncos are resigned to losing him and the Belmore faithful are already emotionally invested in the ginger mule.

The prospect of David Stagg wearing the blue and white with a Bulldogs emblazoned firmly above his heart has me filled with joy, reaffirming my belief in the magic of Christmas and the notion of Karma and the principle that Santa smiles on the deserving.

I have been no saint this year but by the same token I am not deserving of having the former Bishop of Turkey and six to eight black men rock up on my doorstep and either beat me with paddles or stick me in a sack and take me off to Spain. David Stagg to the Bulldogs seems about right, at least by my count.

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