BONDI BEAT: June 2013

Rugby League World June 2013By STEVE MASCORD

AS a rugby league fan – probably in Britain – reading this, it’s entirely possible you can’t completely avoid soccer.

You may have a soft spot for your home town club or for a Premier League outfit. And while Rugby League is your passion, you’ll have more than a passing interest in the results each weekend.

In NSW and Queensland it is completely possible and quite easy to ignore the fact soccer exists. But fans of the round ball game in those states would find it almost impossible to have no idea who Wally Lewis or Andrew Johns is.

The reason I raise this is to draw a comparison between British rugby league and Australian soccer –the latter of which I am sure you can and do go about your daily lives not contemplating.

Both competitions, the A-League and Super League, have moved to summer to escape their overbearing competitors. Each sport has snared an administrator from the other, in David Gallop and Maurice Watkins.

And each has a poor record of failed expansion and financially ruined clubs.

But it’s in the area of recruitment that I want to make this comparison relevant. Super League is becoming a little like Australian soccer in that the best stars – the Tim Cahills and Harry Kewells – would not even consider staying at home due to the riches, glamour and profile on offer overseas.

Just a couple of weeks back, Gareth Hock and Lee Mossop inked deals with Parramatta. Many more are apparently on the way, with Mike Cooper linked to St George Illawarra.

The way Australian soccer attracts stars like Alessandro Del Piero despite having a salary cap of just $2.48 million (Stg1.66 million) is a marquee player scheme. There’s one at each club and their payments are completely exempt from the salary cap.

Similarly, Super League could stay in the hunt for some of the best players in the world by employing a similar system. Perhaps they would each go into the cap at a nominal amount, rather than nothing. The danger, of course, is that clubs who can’t afford marquee players (everyone but Leeds, Warrington, St Helens and Wigan) would send themselves broke by buying one anyway.

But with the cap unlikely to go up next year due to financial pressure and players lining up at Manchester Airport for direct flights to the NRL, it looks like the best short-term solution.

Who knows? Maybe someone’s already thought of it.

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UNTIL now, we got a vague idea that the new Australian Rugby League Commission cared a bit more about international football than the previous administration (which, to be fair, probably cared more than the one before it.

But now we have proof.

The commission has identified 30 tasks that it values above all others in the months ahead. One of them is the development of the international game.

In case you were hoping for ARLC chairman John Grant to just go ahead and list the other 29, well … er … he won’t.

But here’s what he had to say to us recently on the ABC.

“We just carried out a work prioritisation. If I go back, we put a strategic plan out there that was very clear on where we plan to put our focus and our attention over the next five years.

“We’ve devolved that laid it out into what turns out to be 30 priorities we plan to time-schedule and run through. It’s turning the intent of the strategic plan into actions and into measurements.
“We’ve got each of those 30 projects, each of which has multiple sub-projects.

“One of the things we have in our charter that fits onto this priority of international rugby league and making the Pacific Island nations stronger.

“That requires funding, and the commission funded the Tonga-Samoa international.”

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AND that’s a nice segueway into the game held at Penrith’s Centrebet Stadium on April 20, a big 36-4 win to a Tongan team full of NRL stars over a Samoan side full of NRL stars.

As you may be aware now, there were two large-scale pitch invasions late in the match. The second prevented Tongan five-eighth Samsoni Langi from converting winger Mahe Fonua’s second try.

One of the most bizarre – and disturbing – scenes during the evening was a security guard high-fiving a pitch invader.

The common story after the game was that half the security was sent home at 3pm because they didn’t think the crowd would be very big in light of heavy rain at that stage.

The event organiser, Frank Puletua, repeated this allegation to me in a story. Penrith Panthers angrily denied it, saying no such thing happened.

Even Chinese Whispers start somewhere.

But the fact remains that a fully sanctioned Test match was abandoned with 45 seconds left because of a pitch invasion – an even which would prompt countless unsavoury headlines if it happened in another sport.

International rugby league often wants to have a bet each way – “please take us seriously” until something goes wrong, then it’s down to “passion” and “grassroots”.

This definitely won’t wash at the World Cup. If we get the mainstream media engaged, we have to accept they won’t just report the good stuff.

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IT’S hard to know what to make of the make-over at NRL headquarters at Moore Park.

The former banker now running the show, David Smith, copped a bit of a battering the other day when only 4635 fans showed up to City-Country.

Central to the complaints is that he doesn’t return reporters’ phone calls. Although it went national – and international – in 1995, the premiership is still quite a Sydney-centric beast and the Sydney media feels it pretty much owns it.

Actually, until a year ago, it did!

No doubt the daily press had considerably less interest in what David Smith did each day when he sat at a desk and crunched numbers.

Now, traditional media everywhere is growing steadily less influential (you’re reading this on our ipad app, aren’t you?) but in the case of the Sydney dailies, they’re not going down without a fight.

Radio commentator Ray Hadley calling Smith a “dunce” was headline news in the Daily Telegraph.

The next day, the changes were announced. Chief amongst these were the appointments of Canterbury chief executive Todd Greenberg as head of football and former NZRL CEO Jim Doyle as chief operating officer.

Smith is putting an enormous bureaucracy around him, having hired people with a background as political lobbyists early in the piece.

He has created new divisions at the NRL: Finance, Marketing Digital & Content, Corporate Affairs And Community, Football, Strategy, Commercial and Operations.

Four heads of these departments have been appointed, three have not. Drop Dave an email if you are interested!

While the Sydney press treated these developments with the seriousness it would afford a new New South Wales state cabinet – and afforded them more space – it all seems like empty rhetoric to Bondi Beat.

The first big success the ARLC can claim is the $1.025 billion Tv deal. Since then, there have been small triumphs but we’re still waiting for the second big one.

Smith seems capable and I have heard from at least one club that his address to its board was “staggeringly impressive”.

“He knows where he wants the game to go and can tell you exactly how we can get it there,” the insider said.

The make-up of the team is only of so much interest. It’s the game that counts.

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AS previously reported, the United States and Samoa are hoping to play a World Cup warm-up game in Hawaii.

I can report that Australia coach Tim Sheens is not planning any warm-up games while New Zealand’s Stephen Kearney is looking for an opponent in Europe.

@BondiBeat

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

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