Australia Needs A Challenge Cup, Says Luke Dorn

Dorn, LukeBy STEVE MASCORD

OK, the NRL schedule is already so full that we didn’t even have a room for the All Stars game this season.

But according to former Northern Eagles, Manly and Sydney Roosters utility back Luke Dorn, what it really needs is not more games, but more occasions.

Standing in the players’ race at Wembley Stadium on Saturday evening, Dorn reckoned he knew exactly what sort of occasion was lacking.

“I was talking to Grant Millington today, saying the whole atmosphere and carnival structure of the week, even the day, I don’t know if it’s comparable to anything we have back in Aussie,” the 32-year-old tells League Week after playing in Castleford’s 23-10 Challenge Cup final loss to Leeds.

“It’s a knock-out competition and it’s always been one so everyone who has ever supported rugby league has an affinity with it.

“It’s their competition because the grand final’s only so many years old. The noise is incredible. There’s people not just from Cas’ and Leeds. They buy their tickets at the start of the year and come down and make a week of it.

“It’s unbelievable. If Australia could do something like that, it’d be great.”

As we said, on first glance it seems a ludicrous idea given the crowded fixture list in the southern hemisphere. But the pre-season is currently meaningless and there are moves to play Origin games on weekends.

Is a knock-out competition, involving teams outside the NRL, really so crazy when these teams often provide trial-match opposition anyway? Three weeks of games in the pre-season, and three more at Origin time?

Dorn says: “It would have to be exactly the same structure. You’re talking about developing the game in new areas … NSW Cup or Queensland Cup teams would be a chance of playing against the big boys.

“You’re not always going to win but there’s financial gain as well. It’s a great concept. The Challenge Cup have got it spot on. You get on the bigger stage before the end of the year and there’s two competitions up for grabs.

“I’m really disappointed we didn’t win but the day is something we’ll cherish for a long time.”

Leeds had lost six consecutive Challenge Cup finals going into a match which they were favourites to win against a newly-emerging Tigers team.

The Rhinos should have led by more than their 16-4 advantage at halftime but when Oliver Holmes scored off Michael Shenton’s break just after the break, Leeds fans began to feel sick.

In the end, Lance Todd trophy winner Ryan Hall was just too big and strong to stop. For the first of his two tries, he treated the defence like roadkill.

“If I needed to score those tries for us to win, I needed to do that today,” said the man whose tag as the world’s best winger is no joke.

“The hardest thing is to do it first. There’s been a few things in sporting history where a team is the first to do something and then the floodgates open so hopefully we can open the floodgates with continued success.

“It’s loud out there. If you’re not used to it, it will set you back a bit. I’m glad to be part of a group that has been here before and striving for success and finally we’ve done it.”

Leeds last won at Wembley in 1999 under the late Graham Murray.

“The message today is that it’s persistence personified with this group of people – and trust,” said forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan,

“If there’s one word you have to use, it’s trust – trust in team-mates, trust in what you believe and trust in your coach.”

The Challenge Cup could take on extra significance with plans to expand the World Club Challenge. One proposal would see the winners automatically included as one of the three northern hemisphere clubs involved,

But coach Brian McDermott does not think Saturday’s win put Leeds into next year’s tournament.

“I’m not sure – I don’t think so,” said McDermott. “I think it’s to do with the winners and losers of the grand final and those who are league leaders as well.”

If the Rhinos do take on the NRL’s best, hooker Paul Aiton insists he’ll be there. He has two years left on his contract and says he’s heard nothing from ASADA despite claims he’s been targeted by a show-cause notice.

Like Dorn, he was overwhelmed by the occasion to such an extent that the drama seemed a sideshow.

“When I was 17 I was in finals but since I went down to Sydney, I was involved in good teams but just never made it, whether I just missed out or came last. But now I’m part of this team, it’s a great group of blokes an I have the chance to play in these games.

“I’ve never been involved with something like that in my career. It’s still all a bit surreal, you’re going ‘did that just happen?’.

“It’s awesome.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Decision Not To Join Cronulla Pays Off For Tom

Briscoe, TomBy STEVE MASCORD

JUST a few hours before the club he was to join was left holding a likely wooden spoon, Tom Briscoe scored a try before 77,000 people at Wembley on the way to a Challenge Cup winners’ medal.

“I think that’s justified me staying in the Super League and choosing the Leeds Rhinos,” said Briscoe, who was widely reported to have agreed to a contract with Cronulla this season.

“It were pretty close but when I got the offer from Leeds, it just made sense for me to go and were one I couldn’t refuse.”

Briscoe lost the previous year’s final while playing at Hull in what was to be his last season before heading to the NRL. Leeds lost six consecutive Challenge Cup finals but Briscoe won in his first at the club.

“It’s pretty incredible, in my first year at the club, to be part of a team that’s had such a struggle in this competition,” he said.

“It’s great to be involved in this group of players who have finally got that monkey off our backs.

”It meant so much to so many people at this club who’ve only got so long left in the game. To finally get that trophy, one that’s eluded the club for so many years, is great to be a part of.”

Leeds other winger, Ryan Hall, won the Lance Todd Trophy with two tries – including one where he treated hapless defenders like flies on a speeding car windscreen.

“I think he’s the only man who could have scored that – from 10 metres out with about three players on his back,” said Briscoe.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

“A very deserved man of the match there.”

The A List: PAT RICHARDS (Wigan & Ireland)

Wigan - Pat RichardsBy STEVE MASCORD

“GO on,” a man in his 50s tells his young son, wearing a Warrington jersey, who has just posed for a photo with Pat Richards on King Street in Wigan.

The youngster, maybe 11, looks nervous has he faces the Australian-come-Irish winger who had two days before kicked four goals from as many attempts in front of 78,000 people at Wembley Stadium.

Mustering his best Neighbours accent, the kid says “no worries, mate!” to the lanky flanker who has turned back toward him.

Richards smiles kindly. “Good on you, mate,” he responds.

Even for A-List, this is a pinch-me moment. For almost three decades I’ve been sitting up until 2am watching Challenge Cup finals and reading about open-top bus homecomings for the winning (and even losing) teams.

Now, here I am, with one of the Cup winners’ star players, walking the streets of Wigan after one such parade attracted up to 20,000 fans. There are still the remnants of streamers and banners lying around and Jumpin’ Jaks bar – where this interview was conducted with music pulsing in the background – is busier than it out to be on a Bank Holiday Monday.

These rituals, like most of rugby league’s, happen completely out of sight from the national press in the UK. They are almost direct interactions between fans and teams, and as a result you feel like you’ve stepped into a timewarp on afternoons such as this.

There are no minders around the celebrating players. There is no-one telling Richards he shouldn’t be in a bar at 4.30 in the afternoon. I contact the player directly, chat to him for as long as I have to, and he walks me back to the train station.

This is what rugby league would still be like in Australia if the media didn’t care about it.

“It’s been crazy,” 31-year-old Richards says, tired by sober, leaning on a stand-up bar table inside Jumping Jaks.

“It’s like you say, when you’re a kid you see these games on tele and then you’re involved in them and the stuff that goes with them.

“We came back today and there’s a parade with probably 20,000 people in Wigan. It doesn’t really sink in just yet. It’s a bit of a crazy sort of time but I’ve loved every minute of it.

“The rugby league towns – Wigan’s one of them – have a history of being involved in this and that Challenge Cup is massive for them. To be involved in it has been amazing.”

Since scoring that unforgettable try off Benji Marshall’s flick pass in the 2005 grand final, Richards has written his name into the history books of rugby league in the country that invented it.

He is the first Australian to score 1000 points at Wigan, the club’s highest points scorer in a single match during the Super League era, the competition’s leading pointscorer multiple times, the former Man of Steel as its best player,

“I thought I’d be here two years,” he admits. “I had a third year option but that was in my favour. After two years, I thought ‘it’s pretty good here’ so I extended one more year and thought I’d probably go home. Then I signed around three years and another two years on top of that!

“I just kept extending, I thought ‘why not, I’m enjoying it’. I’m in another part of the world, I can always go back to Australia. It’s worked out great for me.

“I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to Italy loads of times, that’s probably my favourite place. Just everything’s on your doorstep, you know? Flights are so cheap. In an hour, you can be in Paris or somewhere like that. As Aussies, it takes us 24 hours to get anywhere.

“The game’s not in the newspapers at all, the major ones. In Sydney, you get the paper and you can go eight pages back and it’s still rugby league. In the major papers here, you’re 10 pages in and it’s one little paragraph. I think that’s a good thing as well, the boys love that it’s not in there.”

The decision to sign with Wests Tigers for the next two years was just as easy as all those contract extensions at DW Stadium. Pat wants to settle his family back home.

“If I didn’t go now, I’d never get the chance to go back and when the Tigers came in, it’s a perfect fit really,” he reflects. “Obviously I’ve been there before and to go back and finish my career in the NRL, it’s too good to refuse.

“If another club would have come in, I would have probably looked at it. When they came in, it just felt right.”

When Richards signed,a reunion with Marshall was a tantalising prospect. “Originally, at the time, I did (think it would happen) because he was still signed but he’s decided to move on and I wish him well,” he says.

But things change. Richards was at his peak when he signed for Wigan. Today, a player in his position would probably try to wriggle out of the deal.

“It’s a weird one, that. I don’t know how people can do that, you know? You sign a contract, that’s what you do. I don’t really know which way you want to go with me on this one.

“ I’ve got no real regrets at all about what I’ve done. I’ve loved my time here, I loved my time back there. I’m going to miss the place here. I’ve made some good friends here as well.”

Similarly, things have not exactly soared at Wests Tigers since Pat’s homecoming was announced. The joint venture partners are at loggerheads over funding and coach Michael Potter’s side is second last on the table.

Richards says:  “I’m still in touch with the boys there – Robbie Farah, Dene Halatau is going back now as well.

“They’re a side I look out for because I’ve got a lot of mates there as well and I suppose it’s unfortunate they’ve had a pretty bad run with injuries this year and obviously the pressure back there, it’s been quite tough.

“But they’ve got a very promising future with a lot of these young kids. Luke Brooks had a great game the other day and that’s where the future lies for them – those young fellas coming through.

“I see it as a challenge, yeah. Because of my age, people are going to say ‘too old’ and whatever. Everything’s a challenge. I’ve been involved in a club like Wigan where we’re expected to win every week so that’s a challenge in itself.”

But Pat, who’ll again suit up for Ireland in the World Cup, has never been the sort to let pressure weigh him down. He stayed in England because it felt right – and recently booted a field goal from the wing, near halfway, in the derby against St Helens for the same reason.

The one-pointer is truly a modern wonder of the game and has become a YouTube sensation.

“It’s gone a bit crazy. I don’t even know why I had a crack at it, to be honest. I just had a ball thrown to me on the last and just thought ‘oh well, I might as well have a shot. It happened so quick. It would have been better if won the game. Oh well, it wasn’t to be.

“I wasn’t goal-kicking when I was in the NRL. I played soccer when I was a kid. I always loved kicking a ball. I enjoy that part of it, goal-kicking as well.”

Richards would like to get involved in coaching when he retires. He isn’t sure if he’ll be playing against Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins in the NRL next season “Sam, he says he hasn’t signed a contract. That’s what everyone believes.”

After the final photo of Wigan’s Challenge Cup celebrations, with the “no worries, mate” lad, we walk back to Wigan North Western Station with Pat’s brother-in-law, who is going home next week … “unless that job in London comes up”.

Pat Richards isn’t much different. He’s been on a helluva working holiday for the last eight years, breaking records and playing before massive crowds.

Now he’s going home, like thousands of other expats in myriad lines of work.

“The Challenge Cup on Saturday, it was the 19th time the club’s won it,” he says proudly.

“We’ve got great history in this club and to be involved in this is something I’ll always remember. It’s a privilege to play for the club.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Renewing Your Vows With Rugby League

WembleyBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league is beginning to engage in what high school economics taught us to call “vertical integration”.

We have bought out a participant sport that provides us with players and fans, and gives our own participants somewhere to go when the bones creak too much: touch football.

The NRL no longer just provides content for broadcasters, it has become one itself via its ipad app. The Rugby Football League in England effectively has its own television station on YouTube. The NRL plans to break stories itself on its own website when the new media unit gets up and running.

Vertical integrations is buying up the raw materials – the mines and farms – and also the points of sale – shops and markets.

But it’s also about buying the means of transport in between and this reporter’s annual trip to the Challenge Cup final at Wembley has convinced him that rugby league should get involved in the travel business.

Because when you’re renewing your vows, when you’re visiting Mecca, then the church should be in on the deal.

“It’s unbelievable.,” says Wigan’s former Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury halfback Blake Green, standing in the mixed zone media area at Wembley after his side’s 16-0 win over fumbling Hull.

“The crowds over here are so loud. There’s lots of singing, they’re very passionate. Obviously the national anthem is not my anthem but the crowd were right into it.

“It’s such a special trophy, this Challenge Cup. It’s well documented about the famous players who have played in the game and we were made aware of that by some of the old Wigan players during the week.”

But the real attraction of Wembley is not the game. The venue has something to do with it but is only part of the magic.

The real thing that should attract at least a small group of Australian fans each year is the part the Challenge Cup final plays in the identity of northern England, the culture that gave us rugby league and therefore defines what we are as a sport.

Imagine if Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra did not exist and Melbourne was the undisputed political and cultural capital of Australia. But rugby league was still enormously popular in NSW and Queensland.

In this parallel universe, when a major rugby league event was staged in Melbourne, we would behave differently. It would perhaps be the only time many of us went there each year.

As a group under-represented on the national stage, it would be more than a football game to us. It would be like a pride parade for the provincial hoards from north of the Murray, a show of strength and vitality. We would go even if our team was not playing, we would feel a camaraderie with the fans of rival clubs that we don’t currently experience in the NRL.

Once a year, we would celebrate our “otherness”, the way minorities across society do.

If you’re looking to sum up what Wembley is, it’s someone raised in Warrington, living in Boston Massachusetts and wearing a 1980s vintage Brisbane Norths jersey to the Challenge Cup final, where he sits in roughly the same seats every year with his uncle and Londoner mate.

That fellow happens to be my best friend.

You don’t get much more northern, Wigan and rugby league than the coach of the cherry and whites, Shaun Wane. He played prop in the 1987 World Club Challenge win over Manly and was the first British coach to win the Cup since 2005.

“I woke up this morning and thought ‘to win this would be an absolute dream’,” he said. “We won nothing last year – we won the League Leaders’ (minor premiership) – and got hammered for it.

“I was very keen that all the players knew we are the most famous club in the world and I wanted them to write their name into the history of the Wigan Warriors – and they’ve done that.”

For Wigan, climbing into the royal box to collect winners’ medals is almost an entitlement. They’ve now done it 19 times. But that doesn’t mean it happens by itself.

“(Sean O’Loughin), who’s not played for many, many weeks – his Achilles tendon was sore and for him to come out and play like that was outstanding,” said Wane.

“Sam Tomkins is another one. Ben Flower is another one who was all jabbed up to play.”

For Hull, the only saving grace was their defence. They kept pushing the ball to the edges in slippery conditions and paid the price – repeatedly.

Coach Peter Gentle, the former Wests Tigers assistant, has also had to contend with speculation over his future. He said the thrill of being at Wembley will be something he doesn’t appreciate for “years ahead.

“Look, it’s a great occasion,” said Gentle. “But we’re just extremely disappointed we didn’t give ourselves a chance with what we did with the ball.”

Down the track, even Peter will be grateful he was there. But don’t believe me – make the trip yourself next year.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #57

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE great thing about social media is it allows you to gauge the general mood of communities, including the rugby league community.

It’s not a completely accurate gauge. Many people in the rugby league community don’t really like social media that much. So it’s a younger sample, probably urban, etc, etc. I’ve noticed, for instance, more people tweet about what’s on Triple M than the ABC.

Be that as it may, the prevailing mood after the Challenge Cup final at the weekend was embarrassment. As a group of people, we were red-faced.

Here was our game on one of the biggest stages in world sport and what we served up to millions of viewers was a knockon-a-thon. The second half, in particular, was a bumbling mess.

The occasion’s biggest star, Sam Tomkins, wasn’t able to show us much of those sizzling kick returns – mainly because of the slippery surface which made it difficult for anyone to get a good footing.

And although they defended stoutly, Hull hardly looked like scoring as they dropped the ball so often it was if they thought they were playing basketball and doing so was mandatory.

Maybe you didn’t watch that game, so let’s touch on a few more examples. Parramatta being flogged by 60 on free-to air television. Lucky that one wasn’t live on Nine or we might have missed some tries in the commercial breaks.

How about some of the games on Friday TV this year involving lowly teams and big scores? Again, we are embarrassed and want someone to do something so that rugby league puts its best foot forward and shows casual observers it’s as great a spectacle as we know it is.

But in a dodgy Wembley club on Empire Way on Saturday night, I spoke to people who had not been to many, if any, live rugby league games before.

And they couldn’t understand what we were whinging about.

“Lots of action”, “faster than union” and “very entertaining” were expressions I heard from the uninitiated.

We assume our love of the game makes as biased in favour of it – but it also makes us harsher on rugby league in the same way you will quarrel with a relative more readily than a complete stranger.

Rugby league at its worst is still a brutal, skillful, epic game played by very brave, fit men. Rugby league at its worst still better than many, many other sports at their best.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Next Season Will Be A Honeymoon For One Parra Player

Wigan - Lee MossopBy STEVE MASCORD

FEW Parramatta fans would regard this season without Nathan Hindmarsh and under new coach Ricky Stuart as a honeymoon – but 2014 has already been designated by one star Eel as being exactly that.

Wigan forward Lee Mossop walked off Wembley at the weekend a Challenge Cup winner and his thoughts immediately turned to his new destination, Sydney’s west.

“I get married on December 21st. It’s in Lancashire. It looks like Australia is going to be the honeymoon,” he said.

“I’ll have two days off and it will be into the pre-season training. That’ll be a good honeymoon, won’t it?

“If I’m in the World Cup squad, the final’s on November 30 and then I have a few weeks off.”

The fact his career in England only has a couple of months to run left him in a reflective mood in the famous Wembley dressing sheds.

“I’ve just been sat there for five minutes, never spoke to anyone, just trying to soak it in,” he said, “because this could be the last time I do this for a number of years with this group of people, if ever.”

Mossop wasn’t even aware that former team-mate Gareth Hock would not be joining him.

“I didn’t know, I had no clue,” he said. “But if he’s not going, he’ll have his reasons. You’ve got to do what’s best for you. If he’s got family over here, that would have a part in it.”

He said he was unsure what a current team-mate, Sam Tomkins, had planned. “As a player,Sam’s a closed book,” he said.

“Whatever team he’s at, be it Wigan or over there, they’ll be lucky to have a player like him. I’m provileged to play alongside him.

“If that was the last time we play together, then he’s special.”

Wigan went into Saturday’s game as overwhelming favourites. “I was thinking about it during the week, what it would mean to win, and I think I was more scared of losing, to be honest,” said Mossop.

“To have this as the last chance to win with my best group of mates (and lose) would have been horrible.”

Mossop said Wigan great Andy Farrell told the players “we are the best team out of the two of us and we were the only ones who could lose the game.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Blake Green Says England Dogged By Slippery Balls

Wigan - Blake GreenBy STEVE MASCORD

WIGAN halfback Blake Green says hard-to-handle footballs contributed to a poor Challenge Cup final and are hurting England’s World Cup prospects.

Rugby League fans reacted with embarrassment to the knock-on-athon that resulted in a 16-0 win for Wigan over Hull on England’s biggest stage, Wembley Stadium, at the weekend.

While Hull coach Peter Gentle refused to blame the balls, which are this year provided by new manufacturer Rhino who replaced Australian company Steeden, former Parramatta, Canterbury and Cronulla star Green said they were a major contributing factor.

“It’s a bit disappointing and I think it’s a disadvantage for England rugby league,” Green tells RLW.

“They’ve got the World Cup coming up at the end of the year and they’ve decided to change the footballs from Steeden to Rhino and then in the World Cup, you’re going to be playing with Steeden balls.

“If you’re going to look after your own countrymen, I’d be playing with a Steeden because that’s what they’re going to be playing with in the World Cup and it will give England every chance.

“Our players’ association wasn’t consulted about that. They just made a decision. I don’t know if it was a sponsorship deal.

“I think they’re a bit slipperier in the wet than the Steeden but I grew up playing with a Steeden.”

Steeden are listed as an “official partner” on the World Cup website. Gentle said the balls weren’t to blame. “Wigan handled them a lot better than us,” he said. “They were up around 75 per cent, we were around 54, 55.

“If one team can hold it, the other should be able to so we’re not going to use that as an excuse.”

Green is working hard at securing an NRL contract when his Wigan deal expires at the end of next year.

“I left the Dogs to come over and play in the halves,” said Green, who started his English odyssey at Hull KR.

“The reason I came here was to play in big games. It was unbelievable. The crowds are so loud over here, there’s lots of singing, they’re so passionate.

“I’m only 26, I’d certainly like to get home. I’ve learned a lot for Shaun Wane and Iestyn Harris, they’ve got great coaching staff here and they’ve really educated me about the game.

“I think I’ve got a much better understanding than when I left (Australia) when I was 23. The three years I’ve spent over here have been great for me, development-wise.

“Ideally, I’d love to go home and spend time with my family and live close. As a kid, I grew up wanting to play in the NRL.

“Unfortunately, I was just a utility player as a young kid and didn’t secure a spot in the halves. I probably wasn’t ready for it, as a young kid.

“I just developed later.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK