The Long and Drawn Out Year of the Long Knives: The Only Cure for Termites is Extermination (Or So They Say)

Filed in Other by on December 5, 2010

Brian Smith must have the intelligence of a black beaver on heat. There are very few other logical reasons as to why he finds it necessary to screw with players heads and t\rip the heart out of a team like Stalin in his prime.

Newcastle is a proud rugby league town. It always has been. Tough, gritty and hard nosed. Rugby league is a game of the working man and no district represents working class more than the Hunter. The blackened faces of the coal mines go well with the bruised blue bodies of the football field. Just like they did in the north of England back in 1895 when those noble visionaries fought off the exploitation and class snobbery of the educated rugby brigade to form the sport of rugby league. Newcastle, the Huddersfield of Australia. Newcastle, a rugby league heartland.

Those in the Hunter were there when rugby league began in this country and though it was another eighty years since Newcastle fielded a team in the premier league competition in Australia, after a brief dalliance at the beginning of the sport in Australia, the game reigned supreme. It is as Novocastrian as patriarchal Labor politics and heavy industry and undying belief in trade unionism. From Churchill through Graves and Les Johns to Harragon and Joey, Newcastle has contributed more than their share to the greats of rugby league. The area dominated country rugby league championships for time immemorial and when the Knights came to represent the joint in 1988, the town adopted the team as their collective newborn baby. As the team got older, that love never waned. The Knights and the players who go to war each weekend for the town and the district and the working class spirit are as beloved as any first born child by the residents of the Hunter.

And like any decent mother or father, they will fight with all their gusto to protect their child.

That is what Brian Smith has on his hands. But he is too out of touch with reality to realise and too stubborn and incapable of changing his ways even if he realised which way the wind was blowing.

Most could tell you that the Newcastle Knights were always going to be in trouble when Andrew Johns waved farewell. Through poor management and seemingly uncreative coaching, Newcastle developed an over-reliance on the champion. And this was not only on the field, where Newcastle were without a doubt a one man team for the better part of his career. Off the paddock, Johns was not only the face of the Knights but the lynch-pin, the glue that held the side together and the spring that occasionally pushed the Knights to the top. He was not only the half back but essentially a coach, a mentor, a negotiator, an intermediary, the face of the side and the personification of the team culture. With his retirement, many voids were left and many power vacuums created. The Knights organisation, obviously unprepared for the post-Andrew world and how best to make the transition, have seen a culture of pride and localism descend into a shambles akin to a South American government.

As such, the man who has claimed the ground and the power associated with it is that bush league Machiavelli imitator Brian Smith.

The facts of Brian Smith’s coaching are this. He is, by the only measure of success- premierships-, a failure. He has coached for nearly two decades in the NSWRL, the ARL and the NRL and never led a team to the premiership despite having some exceptional teams to lead. Simply, his brilliance in the field of tactical rugby league is off-set by outdated notions he refuses to shed (one example being his overemphasis on big forwards, another being his complete disrespect for the five-eighth role) and his appalling manner of interaction with his players where he treats most as teenagers and seeks to reinforce his power base through divisiveness. Throughout his career as a head coach, he has torn teams apart. He divided the Dragons and he divided the Eels and the manifest results were failure. As was often yelled, constantly by yours truly, at one bookmaker who had, for some reason, a love for the Sharks: “there is only one measure of success Big Daddy and that is the premiership…second is just the slot for the last team to fail…nothing else, at the end of the day, matters…if you don’t have the premiership you are a bum and your team is a failure”. That was a rough screed to give to a Cronulla fan –most of whom, I dare say, have some suicidal tendencies- but entirely necessary. They need to know where they stand because the delusions of success they have are not healthy. And not correct.

The tide really took us out there. The point is simply this: Brian Smith is not a good rugby league coach because history has shown him to be power hungry, divisive, overly paternal, self interested and most importantly, unsuccessful.

And history has a tendency to pattern itself. We can look at the incalculable possibilities that rest at each, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, junction of history that reside in every decision made and not made, consciously and unconsciously, and go mad thinking of the what ifs. But the only way to keep your sanity is to learn from the tendencies of history, to realise that in some manner, particularly in sports, that history repeats itself. As Lloyd and Konikiewicz noted, man is essentially unchangeable, only changing shades of the self rather than transcending ones nature, moving from point A to point B and sometimes to point C and sometimes back to point A but always existing only withinin a limited sphere. That allows observers to get an edge on the likelihood of the now or, at any rate, a reasonable explanation of why some things occur. And Brian Smith won’t change, not in any real manner, because he can’t. And history will play itself out again in Newcastle the same way it did at St. George and the same way it did at Parramatta. Teams will be blown up, tears will be shed and nothing will be won. The Brian Smith legacy.

That got heavy quickly. Real quickly. Too much Descartes and Kafka and Neitzchke for healthy living and mental well-being…

So the Clint Newton incident is only the first step in the dismantling of the soul of the Newcastle Knights. Brian Smith will keep driving in, shoulder first, until the being of the side is nothing but a pile of old bricks and dusty rubble. The purge is essential to him and like the SS in 1934; a purge can only succeed if you are prepared to show your ruthlessness by shedding blood and plenty of it. And the crimson will flow freely. Smith will then engage in the reconstruction, building up the Knights again by purchasing outsiders and those with no real ties to the area and impart the Brian Smith ethos on the club through efforts as devious and self-serving as The Prince. There will be plenty of pain and not much gain for Newcastle in the near future. And it will last until the Knights can extricate themselves from Brian Smith and then exorcise the demons of his legacy.

It causes some melancholy to see the representative of such a devoted rugby league town whipped like a maniacal donkey looking for love. But when fingers start folding out and getting pointed, the organisation will have nobody to blame but themselves. Brian Smith was not forced upon them and any club with an ounce of sense would not risk their soul on him. But the Newcastle Knights did. And now they are paying the very heavy price for doing so.

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