Sonya Ackerman won’t watch Sunday night’s State of Origin match. She can’t. Because the man who made the tackle that resulted in her son losing his life will make his debut for Queensland.
Ackerman’s son James died after being hit in a tackle early in a match between the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Norths Devils in the Intrust Super Cup on June 20, 2015.
Francis Molo, who will make his Maroons debut on Sunday. Inset, James Ackerman.Credit:NRL Photos, Facebook
At the inquest, coroner John Lock told the court that Molo did not make contact with Ackerman’s head or neck but the force of his shoulder was enough to rupture an artery, resulting in death from a traumatic haemorrhage. Shoulder charges were already outlawed from the game.
Molo was contracted with the Broncos at the time but now plays for North Queensland and will take up a three-year contract with St George Illawarra in 2022. The 26-year-old was asked during the week if he had reached out to Ackerman’s family.
“Not yet,” he said. “I will do it when the time is right for myself and I feel I will do it, but that’s a personal thing for me and I feel like when the time is right for me I’ll do it.”
Sitting at home watching the interview on the news in a house where James’ son Ollie has a room full of photos of his dad, the anger spilled out of Sonya.
“We were absolutely heartbroken when we heard that,” she said. “When the time is right for him … is it that hard to be a decent person. I know he is having the time of his life, but the impact of that shoulder charge we feel it every minute of every single day.
“It’s been six years and some people say that as time passes it gets easier. Well, it doesn’t. It deserves to be acknowledged. James deserves to be acknowledged.
“Try and tell that to his kids that the person involved in the tackle is playing Origin. James’ son Ollie is nine. His room is like a shrine to his dad. He won’t take the photos of his dad down. He is suffering without his dad. I don’t have my son and now we have to watch this young man as he continues not to acknowledge my son. It’s really shattering to us as a family.
“Francis is a father and I would have thought when he became a dad he would realise the impact of his actions or words would have. I really struggle with the idea that Queensland could pick him. If he had acknowledged us and the incident, I could begin to accept his approach. I can’t accept that Queensland would pick him. That destroys our family, and he gets to live a dream while we are involved in an ongoing nightmare.”
Storm is brewing
There is another twist to the Bernard Sutton story, which could affect his ability to work for an NRL club.
This column broke the story about the former referees boss and the brother of Origin whistle-blower Gerard Sutton working with the Queensland team. A lot has happened since. Bernard quit his job with Queensland because he didn’t want to affect his brother’s career.
The NRL was fuming that it was not told about Bernard’s involvement with the Maroons earlier but, behind the scenes, there is significant agitation coming from the Panthers because Bernard is now working with the Storm. He started there after he lost his job as referees boss with the NRL.
Gerard refereed last year’s grand final and is likely to be the whistle-blower in this year’s decider. It will be awkward to say the least if Melbourne are playing Penrith again, which is a distinct possibility. It will be a very difficult week for the NRL.
While there is no suggestion that anyone has acted inappropriately, it is not a great look for the game. I have requested interviews with both Suttons through the NRL, but neither have been made available.
Professional big wave surfer Mark Mathews (pictured) talked to the Blues before Origin II.
Wave of success
Big-wave surfer Mark Mathews was the Blues’ guest speaker in the lead-up to Origin II and he talked to the team about facing fear head on – something he is well qualified to talk about.
“It’s all about not expending your energy before you actually get out there,” he said. “Most of these blokes are conditioned to face fear … it’s just learning how to think about it and deal with it and not letting it get to you.
“It’s about not getting wiped out in our mind before you get out there and face the challenge.”
COVID reality TV
If you think coaching an Origin side is tricky, try organising a commentary team during COVID. Channel Nine head of football Simon Fordham has been scrambling to get his troops together.
■ Andrew Johns is in locked-down Sydney. He will stay in town and call the game off the TV with Ray Warren;
■ Billy Slater was due to fly from Melbourne to Sydney to join them, but with the Victorian border closed to NSW, he will fly to Brisbane and be at Suncorp Stadium;
■ Phil Gould was stuck in New Zealand when the travel bubble was paused and by the time he flew back into Sydney the Queensland border was shut to greater Sydney;
■ Peter Sterling will also be in Sydney because he was awaiting a COVID test result on Wednesday when the Queensland border closure was announced;
■ James Bracey and Paul Gallen have been in Brisbane since Wednesday.
Maroons burn midnight oil
There are serious questions being asked about the old-school approach of the Queensland coaching staff during this Origin series. It involves late nights and drinking – in stark contrast to the Blues camp.
Sources with knowledge of the situation told me after game one that Queensland coach Paul Green was in the Townsville casino bar area until 1.40am on the morning of the series opener. I have also been told he left a team dinner early on the Monday night.
Green’s agent, George Mimis, did admit his client was at the casino, but said he was in bed by midnight, nearly two hours earlier. We can only accept his word. Mimis confirmed that Green left the team dinner early on the Monday night to attend a sponsor function for a company that is associated with the coach.
I have been told that other members of the Queensland staff were at Brisbane casino on Friday morning until after 3am. There is no suggestion anything untoward happened but, when a team loses, everything is scrutinised.
The scene could not be more different in the Blues camp under Brad Fittler. Every member of the coaching staff gets up for a 6am walk. I saw staff, including Greg Alexander, Craig Fitzgibbon and Danny Buderus, strolling along the beachside walk at Kingscliff every morning. The approach from Fittler is that if the players can’t drink, the staff can’t drink.
Blues teams and Kingscliff have a questionable history. The fallout after Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan visited the Lennox Point Hotel before the series decider in 2017 was significant. It became a huge story because the Blues lost game three 22-6 and the series 2-1 after dominating the opener at Suncorp Stadium 28-4.
By contrast, on their day off on Wednesday, I saw a group of Blues enjoying an alcohol-free bite to eat at a Kingscliff establishment to celebrate Damien Cook’s 30th birthday. On the same day, James Tedesco and Tom Trbojevic teamed up on the golf course to beat Panthers Nathan Cleary and Api Koroisau. How times have changed.
Cleary’s tough love
Nathan Cleary has healed nicely since a stray Tom Trbojevic elbow sliced him open in game one. Cleary has claims to owning the bloodiest jumper in Origin history.
“I had to change it because it was going maroon,” he said with a laugh. And don’t think he got an ounce of sympathy when he saw his mum, Bec, either.
“She laughed at me,” Cleary said. “And told me to toughen up. Mum and Dad are always telling me that.“
Cleary is now a genuine leader and the Blues have a ready-made skipper when Tedesco calls it quits in a few years.
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