NSW Blues restore pride and respect to state

RICHARD HINDS
Last updated 12:13 03/07/2012

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For Ricky Stuart, the moment of ultimate satisfaction is tantalisingly close. However, when his players gathered for the jumper presentation ritual last night, the coach thanked them for something they have already achieved. A renewed sense of pride and respect for themselves, and their state.

As many have noted, the Blues' squad includes several players whose reputations had - in an unfortunate way - preceded them. Yet, from his first camp last year, to the eve of what would be a momentous accomplishment, Stuart believes a team replete with colourful characters has passed every test he has set them - as players and, as importantly, as people.

Yesterday, Stuart took the team to lunch on their day off. When he recalls the phone call he received from the friend who organised the venue, he sounds more like a proud father than a coach preparing for the biggest game of his career.

''He said, 'They all shook hands at the end of [the lunch] and thanked us, and we're not used to that','' Stuart says. ''I was as proud of that as I am of a real good training run. That's important to me. They deserve a pat on the back for that.''

Stuart's praise is not merely because grown men had acted in a civil manner. It is because they have done so despite the head-turning distractions that their athletic ability brings. ''It's a tough job, constantly being in the public eye, the speculation that constantly surrounds everybody,'' Stuart says. ''But I don't want to be involved with people who don't see it as a privilege or respect that situation. Tonight is about thanking them for that, but also [showing them] this is now all about us.''

Which is why, rather than past greats or famous motivational speakers, last night's presentation was for the team, and those closest to them. Accordingly, players were asked who they would like to present their jumper. Cronulla teammates Todd Carney and Paul Gallen exchanged jerseys, as did the Morris twins, Brett and Josh. Symbolic of strong bonds Stuart believes have been strengthened during the team's time together.

Stuart was the only speaker, although he would not reveal the substance of his message. As if this match did not present enough potential drama, the coach's future presents an intriguing sidelight. Was there a hint this might be his last game in charge? Whatever Stuart said, as he makes the almost visible transformation from affable media performer to highly strung game-day coach, the passion in his words can be taken for granted.

Another highlight of the evening, according to a team official, was an emotional video prepared by broadcaster Graham McNeice in which the family and friends of every player offered their encouragement. It was of both the support they have received, and the responsibility they carry.

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Last night's tight-knit jumper presentation was symptomatic of the closed shop Stuart has run since the team arrived in Brisbane. Yesterday, Trent Barrett was the solitary morsel offered to the ravenous media. Predictably, the affable assistant coach's press conference is the most benign in these parts since the days when Joh Bjelke-Petersen would ''feed the chooks''.

One thing Barrett did concede was that the first 20 minutes tomorrow night should be explosive, with the Blues this time determined to stand their ground and not be taken apart in the early stages. This after Queensland captain Cameron Smith had been equally adamant the Maroons would be a more physically intimidating outfit than the one occasionally manhandled in the first two games.

Once, the Blues' reluctance to front the local media might have been interpreted as unease about what they were to face in hostile territory, or part of some a tit-for-tat mind game with the Queenslanders. This time it is an indication of their confidence - and a quiet suspicion the Maroons are under pressure.

From Stuart, there is a feeling that everything he has worked to build over the past two years is now in place. Now, he is keeping a protective arm around his team.

''I don't mind the Brisbane media having shots at me,'' he says of the criticism he might receive for circling the wagons. ''I don't read their papers, but I have a lot friends up here who tell me and I love it, because I know I'm beating them. Every time they're jumping into me, I know I'm beating them.''

-Sydney Morning Herald

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