THE BIG ISSUE: #22

By STEVE MASCORD

THEY say they don’t read the papers. Our stars reckon they are professionals and focus on the job at hand. They claim that off-field stuff is the job of the suits, not them.

But the Jamie Soward issue late last week got Big Issue thinking; Soward angrily denied he had a problem with coach Steve Price – and a day or so later was named in NSW Cup. That’s not to say Price and Soward do have a personal issue but the latter played Origin last year and the former did not pick him in first grade, which is a big enough story in itself.

But let’s look at a couple of other “media feeding frenzies” this year.

It’s just as well the clean-out at Newcastle happened before the new media regulations came into force. With eight players talking to the press each week, Wayne Bennett’s overhaul of playing staff in the Coal City could have got messy. As it was, the damage was perhaps limited to a few tweets.

At the time, the players all sung from the “we’re professionals” hymn sheet. Now the Knights might make the finals and back rower Neville Costigan admits in Rugby League Week: “There’s was something wrong , you know, maybe it’s because people are leaving and stuff like that. It shook up the joint a bit. People were down in the dumps. It sort of brought a bad mood.”

Hey Presto, Newcastle had won five of their last six in going into round 22. Not a distraction?

Gold Coast – the club, not the team – have been at death’s door for most of the year, their Centre Of Excellence has dwarfed and defensive or offensive excellence when it came to space in the paper. If we are to believe some things we read, they might have a new name and completely new administration by now had David Gallop stayed in his comfy chair at League Central.

Once again, the players told us the off-field dramas were no affecting their form. “We can’t use that as an excuse,” was the phrase we kept hearing.

Hey presto (not that Presto)! The ARL Commission guarantees the club’s future, some financiers come in, the Centre Of Excellence gets a buyer and – going into last weekend – three wins on the trot and they are challenging for a finals berth.

Penrith? Gus Gould and Ivan Cleary roll into town, Luke Lewis is (temporarily) dropped as captain, Michael Jennings is shopped around to other clubs and – of course – “we can’t worry about that sort of stuff. We have to concentrate on playing football”..

Lewis joins Cronulla, Jennings stays. “No-one’s looking over their shoulder now,” halfback Luke Walsh says after a win against Sydney Roosters, the week before an away victory at Cronulla in golden point time. The Pennys are back!

Not convinced? How about ….  drum roll please … Parramatta! Couldn’t beat time with a stick as all the rumours about coach Stephen Kearney float around. As soon as he jumps, they down Melbourne at home and FLOG Brisbane away!

“It’s an unfortunate thing that happens, I suppose, for the departing coach,” says Parramatta’s Nathan Hindmarsh. “What can you say? It’s been happening for years and years. As you said, you see it happening all the time. As soon as Steve announced he was leaving, everyone got on us to beat the Melbourne Storm and it happened.

“It’s one of those strange things.”

Hopefully the evidence above should be compelling enough to convince you we have a right to look a bit deeper than the lines we are given after each game. For me, the litmus test as a reporter is: “does it have an impact on results?”

If it doesn’t it’s none of my business. If it does, they you have a right to know about it because you put your hard earned into the club each year. The examples above should also show why some coaches and team management are baulking at aspects of the new media regulations, even though they carry fines. Players are clearly far more sensitive to drama and adverse publicity than they, or even most of us, were willing to admit.

Football clubs have an almost military credo of unity, where no-one speaks out of turn and everyone toes the party line. But does unity off the field come at the cost of performance on it? Would it be better if everyone just aired their dirty laundry and got on with winning?

Of course, it could be that it’s just a very long year and any change – positive or negative – is enough to freshen up an over-worked rugby league player.

They may even argue that the publicity and speculation from us causes the drama rather than simply reports it and causes 90 per cent of the mischief. But how can that have any impact? They don’t read the papers, do they?

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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