Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

League: Suspension cruel blow for Kiwi before grand final

Dane Sorensen, a NZ rugby league player. Photo / News Ltd
Dane Sorensen, a NZ rugby league player. Photo / News Ltd

Former Kiwi Dane Sorensen will watch tonight's grand final with a heavy heart.
Sorensen is remembered fondly around Cronulla, playing more than 200 matches for the club between 1977 and 1989 and setting an appearance record at the time of his retirement.

He still lives in the Sutherland Shire and would love to see the Sharks end their long premiership drought.

But tonight's match will also bring back memories of one of the lowest points of Sorensen's career, when a controversial suspension saw him miss the 1978 grand final.
"It is something you never really forget," he says. "The suspension was a joke, but it was done and dusted before I walked in. I had to attend the grand final but I left at halftime. It was too hard to sit there and watch when you couldn't do anything."

The Sharks had been impressive throughout the 1978 season, jostling with the Sea Eagles and Western Suburbs Magpies at the top of the Winfeld Cup ladder. They faced the Magpies in the final regular season game at Endeavour Field, and Sorensen was sent off for a hit on Kangaroos enforcer Les Boyd.

"I put a shoulder charge on and knocked him over," Sorensen says. "It was a good shot but not that high. But I was sent off by the referee."

Fellow Shark Steve Kneen took out one of the Magpies defenders with a head high tackle that went unseen by the match officials during the same play. Sorensen fronted up to the judiciary the following week, confident video evidence would clear him. But the match footage wasn't released - according to Sorensen because of the consequences for Kneen.
"Steve was in line for the Kangaroos tour that year but a suspension might have ruled him out," Sorensen says. "So they didn't release the video. It might have cleared me, but it felt like someone wanted to protect him. I learned a lot from that; basically don't trust anybody."

Kneen was selected for Australia's subsequent tour of England and France.
orensen was suspended for a month. Cronulla beat the Sea Eagles and Magpies to make the grand final, then drew 11-11 in the decider with Manly, with the late Steve Rogers agonisingly wide with a last-minute field goal attempt.

Missing both Sorensen and captain Greg Pierce (also suspended), the Sharks lost the replay three days later 16-0. "At the time I was devastated but I was young (22), in my second season," Sorensen says. "I thought it will happen again, we will get there again. Of course we never did."

Sorensen, who was the Dally M Prop of the Year in 1981, is part of a short but infamous list. In the last four decades, only 12 players have missed the final through suspension, with Issac Luke (2014) the most recent.

Sorensen was one of the first Kiwis to head across the Tasman, after being spotted playing for Auckland against a combined NSW team at Carlaw Park in 1976. Sharks centre Martin Rafter played in that match and recommended Sorensen to his club, who were soon on the phone with an offer.

"I didn't hesitate," Sorensen says. "This was my chance to make it. Failing wasn't an option. I couldn't come back to Auckland with my tail between my legs." He became one of the most respected props in the competition, with younger brother Kurt by his side for much of his stint. They were both skilful players but also hard men, in one of the toughest eras of the sport.

"Kurt was a specialist in head-high tackles," Dane laughs. "Sometimes you could count 1, 2, 3 after the ball had gone and he would hit someone. It was a pretty rough era and the refs let a lot go. But you got your payback on the field and you had to look after yourself. It was up to you to run on the field OK, and leave the field still intact."

It was also a wild time off the park, without the intense media and public scrutiny that is a reality for today's players. "Some of the things we got up to off the field you might go to prison for today," Sorensen says. "Most of it you couldn't print."

He recalls a particularly wild celebration after the Amco Cup final victory over a Wally Lewis-led Brisbane side in 1979. "Some of the boys went out and didn't surface again for two days," he says. "It was our first trophy and I guess we wanted to make sure we didn't forget it."

Sorensen has high hopes for tonight's match, when the Sharks will attempt to break a 50-year premiership hex. "It's the best chance we have ever had," Sorensen says. "This team is a pretty tough team. They went to Canberra and did the job, then beat the defending premiers (Cowboys) last week. Maybe some of the Cronulla sides of the past would have folded but these guys don't give in."

Factbox
Grand final absentees through suspension
● Arthur Beetson (Balmain) 1969
● Greg Pierce (Cronulla) 1978
● Dane Sorensen (Cronulla) 1978
● Steve Bowden (Newtown) 1981
● Steve Roach (Balmain) 1988
● John Lomax (Canberra) 1994
● Jim Serdaris (Manly) 1997
● Peter Ryan (Brisbane) 1998
● Luke Ricketson (Sydney Roosters) 2004
● Carl Webb (North Queensland) 2005
● Cameron Smith (Melbourne) 2008
● Issac Luke (South Sydney) 2014

- Herald on Sunday

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