“How’s that for throwing the ball around, eh? Check out the ring, kiddo. What are you going to bag us about next year?”

It’s just as well St George Illawarra five-eighth Jamie Soward didn’t get close enough to 10-year-old Taylor Murray on the winners’ dais after the NRL grand final — or that’s what he may have said. Murray, remember, was the little girl who criticised the Dragons’ attack at the grand final breakfast and she was up there again presenting championship rings on Sunday.

In the hype and glory of a premiership triumph, the media are often kind enough to overlook dummy-spits. In 2003, when victorious Penrith coach John Lang told reporters ‘you all reward cheap-shot merchants’ — a reference to Adrian Morley — it was allowed to go through to the keeper.

But make no mistake, the Dragons spat the dummy on Sunday night after winning the grand final against Sydney Roosters, 32-8. Spectacularly.

“We don’t have to worry about all the rubbish we read about now,” coach Wayne Bennett said.

Soward gave a telling insight into his frame of mind by telling Channel Nine just after the siren: “They said we couldn’t do it and our attack sucked … they’ll probably find something else to bag us about, but we’re champions this year.”

“They” are critics — including Perthville Juniors youngster Taylor.

Ah, the “choker” tag.

In the Dragons rooms late on Sunday, it was a recurring theme. In fact, it was the most united message from a premiership dressingroom I’ve encountered since, um, the 1993 grand final when just about every Brisbane player I spoke to went out of his way to personally bag rival coach Brian Smith, who headed the Roosters this year.

Working for AAP at the time, I couldn’t believe the sensational quotes I was getting from a premiership winning team that should have just been savouring its victory and smiling.

Of course, we later learnt that Bennett had doctored a tip sheet that was allegedly from Smith, then coach of St George, to include personal insults against his players and that their anger had been sparked by a lie.

Bennett’s time as Queensland coach was marked by instances where former greats — known to have good relationships with the supercoach — would come out and criticise a current player on match day, invariably inspiring the Maroon to great heights.

So, did Bennett fan the ‘choker’ taunts this year, perhaps to take his players’ minds off the pressure associated with a 31-year premiership wait for the red V?

The man himself seemed to answer the question in the affirmative, when he was asked whether coaching a side that was so heavily criticised had been difficult.

“To their credit, they bought into it,” he said. “They bought into the approach I took to them and all that.”

In other words, Bennett used the “choker” slurs. One can only assume he would have used them to his benefit, as using them any other way would make no sense.

I’d be willing to wager there is a story behind the story of St George Illawarra’s first premiership — and Bennett’s latest triumph over Smith — that will only unravel when the years pass.

So it’s just as well Jamie Soward didn’t say anything to Taylor Murray. One day — when he is as old as Allan Langer is now — he might discover she was doing the bidding of the man who has become our greatest ever coach, all along.

*The celebrations for St George’s premiership were dampened overnight by the death of a man outside the St George’s Leagues Club.

**Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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