DISCORD 2009: Edition 6

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

A COUPLE of weeks ago, British league legend Mike Stephenson let a pretty staggering development seep out onto the world, in the middle of his weekly magazine column.

Stevo wrote in Rugby League Express that he knew of two Leeds businessmen who wanted to enter a team in the NRL. Not a team based anywhere near Australia or New Zealand, mind you.

No, they want to enter a team in the NRL based in Leeds.

“These guys are friends of mine and I would be loathe to identify them,’’ Stephenson told me when I called him at the weekend.

“Their aim is to make the England team stronger and they believe the way to do that is to have a team in the best competition, like New Zealand now has.’’

Stevo went on to say that in his mind the proposal was a near impossibility. But is it? Couldn’t a team playing alternatively in Yorkshire and Lancashire play a month of home games, and then play a month of away games?

Isn’t the travel time that teams have between, say, Christchurch and Durban in the Super 14 about the same as Sydney to Manchester? Couldn’t the teams about to play them be scheduled for the previous Friday night, and the teams who have just returned be given an MNF game?

And how much money would the television rights generate? My God! The NRL would surely salivate at it. Of course, the Rugby Football League would kick up a huge stink – just as the Queensland Rugby League did when the Broncos came in – about the local competition being devalued.

RFL chief executive Nigel Wood told us nothing had come across his desk.

We also called David Gallop to ask if he had heard anything. He hadn’t. We asked him that if he was to receive an approach, would protocol require him to advise the RFL and get their permission, or would they just be another consortium like Central Queensland or the Central Coast Bears.

He declined to speculate. Tell us what you think.

.

I’M not sure if sharks have backs but the Reni Maitua drugs positive should have just about broken Cronulla’s.

They are broke. They have lost $150,000 in sponsorship. They are running last. Their major sponsor is about to pull out. They are at the centre of the year’s biggest off-field scandal.

Here’s what I think. The best option for the game is that they relocate somewhere – Central Queensland, the Sunshine Coast, Adelaide, Perth or Wellington. There’s up to (and maybe more than) $12 million in it for them.

Discord t-shirtBut the best option for the club is to merge. Gallop has admitted the merger incentives are still on the table. That way, they get to play half their home games at Cronulla.

Who, dear reader, should Cronulla merge with?

Gallop would not speculate on whether they would get any money for forming a joint-joint venture with St George Illawarra. Surely, though, the idea would have crossed Peter Doust’s mind.

But the right partner for Cronulla would be a team that doesn’t mind giving away it’s home games already. That team, for me, is the Bulldogs. Even the colours are a decent match.

Dogs CEO Todd Greenberg has said Cronulla should be considering a merger – but has discounted his club from involvement. We’ll see.

That, of course, would leave us one team short in 2010. I asked David Gallop if he had already worked on a contingency plan for fast-tracking a new team into the premiership.

He said ‘no’.

.

IT was disappointing to see my favourite player, Terry Campese, not take on the defensive line himself at all on Monday night.

I want to see a fellow who plays with a smile on his face test himself at State Of Origin level but it seems unlikely he will get a shot in the first game of the series after a tentative display against Melbourne.

With John Sutton injured, my choice for the Blues at five-eighth is Trent Barrett. He’s looking a bit battered at the moment and claims he needs the split rounds to recover, given his advanced years!

But he is a determined competitor and has the physical presence to bolster NSW’s defence.

.

I’VE left the Matthew Johns imbroglio alone this week but I want to thank everyone who commented on last week’s column.

In many ways it is good to get some of these issues out in the open instead of leaving them behind bedroom doors. I think “broadminded’’ people need reminding how conservative others are and – perhaps more importantly – vice versa.

And I notice that my comments about legal action for defamation may actually become reality. What a terrible court case that would be for all involved….

DISCORD 2014: Can Duncan Thompson’s ‘Contract Football’ Save Rugby League?

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
EARLY in a recent Super League game, commentator Paul Cullen remarked: “We’ve been going for 10 minutes and there’s not a blade of grass that’s not been stood on”.
Leaving aside the double negative, you can picture the sort of game Cullen was describing – touchline to touchline attack, from the outset.
Now, I’ve already said that I could not remember a better weekend of football, given the comebacks and razor-edged finishes of the two preliminary semi-finals we had in the NRL.
But plenty of blades of grass went undisturbed.
The structured nature of NRL football could be one reason why the game is better to watch on television than live, in the view of all the people who also left seats at Allianz Stadium undisturbed.
The physical nature of the sport, which is harder to detect from the stands, is highlighted by tight camera shots while the ball movement – a feature of Australian football – is rather limited.
Result: you’re better off watching it at home.
Step right up, Ben and Shane Walker.
The brothers, both former first graders at a number of clubs, have turned back the clock almost a century and have employed at Ipswich Jets a style of football favoured by Duncan Thompson, who captained North Sydney to their only two premierships in 1921 and 1922.
It’s called “contract football” and it works like this: you have a ‘contract’ to pass the ball to your team mate if he is in a better position to me.
“If you played structured football, the way they do in the NRL these days, you make it easier for the defence to get three men into the tackle to do all that stuff I don’t like – wrestling,” Walker told Discord.
“The way we play, we test the defensive like three or four times on a single tackle. The defence can’t get enough numbers in to wrestle and we play off the back of it.”
Thompson, who died in 1980, once said: “Contract football is flowing football – it has no relation to bash-and-barge stuff – it is what rugby league is all about, or is supposed to be.”
Ben Walker says he learned about it growing up in Thompson’s home down, Toowoomba, where it was passed down from generation to generation.
He also says t works.
“It would work better in the NRL, where you can train fulltime,” he said. “You need players who can catch and pass under pressure – but mostly just catch and pass.
“That actually takes a lot of work these days. I have had our players say to me after watching an NRL game on TV ‘we would have towelled them up playing our style of football’.”
The Jets fielded seven rookies in their final 17 man squad of the year; they made the finals this year and next year they will employ their free-flowing style even more.
“I won’t say which NRL game I am talking about but one of those at the weekend, they played block play, block play, block play, kick.
“You could have defended it with your eyes closed.”
,
MY MEMORY tells me Greg Mackey was a player who pre-dated my career as a journalist; someone from whom I sought an autograph but never a quote.
The facts tell a different story; he was at Illawarra for three years that I was covering the game, albeit all of them as a casual reporter at AAP while still in highschool.
“Bluey” was such a good player, I must have interviewed him many times.
But I prefer to think of him as an untouchable footy hero, a flame-haired five-eighth who won a match with an intercept fresh off the plane for the Chatillon club in Paris – not before momentarily stopping when an “idiot” in the crowd blew a whistle.
These were days, for me, when football players and administrators could do no wrong. If I knew about off-field “atrocities” and official incompetence, a rarely paid it any mind.
I just lived for Sunday afternoon at 3pm when men like Bluey would take to Wollongong Showground and throw outrageous cutout passes, chip and chase from their own quarter and upend much bigger men.
These, days, the fact that they lost most weeks seems inconsequential.
Steelers legend Michael Bolt says he last saw Blue on Thursday, and he had “a cheeky grin”. That’s good to know, because it’s the way I remember him too.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

DISCORD 2014: Edition Nine

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

THE aspect of today’s NRL media conference about Cronulla which really stunned Discord was CEO David Smith’s admission that the League wouldn’t have the power to ban Shane Flanagan from Remondis Stadium, even if it wanted to.
Now, on balance we’re not sure Flanagan deserves to be locked out of the stadium. He probably doesn’t. But the idea that someone could perpetrate a much worse crime than that of which he is accused and still walk through the gates of any ground he or she chooses is pretty scary.
We all know of fan “watch lists”, which effectively ban troublemakers from venues. Neo nazi Ross ‘Skull’ May was banned from St George for years. But a player manager who encourages a club to rort the salary cap, a “sports scientist” involved in doping or a bookie who tries to fix matches can still come in? It’s unbelieveable.
Just what can the league do if it can’t stop individuals going to games?
In other sports, drug cheats and the like are banned from being present at matches and/or meets – plus training sessions. The NRL does not have enough power over its clubs. The sooner it incentivises its grants in return for better business practices and accountability from the clubs, the better.
The news regarding Flanagan and Trent Elkin was really no news at all. The NRL considered the appeals against penalties that had already been handed down and rejected them. Flanagan remains banned for the year, Elkin most likely for two years.
By the way, it’s hard to see Cronulla being banned from the finals, despite the threat to that effect from the NRL.
.
I AM indebted to colleague (and inventor of the Set Of Six column format) Andy Wilson of The Guardian for the following whispers regarding the end-of-season Four Nations.
Apparently England will play Fiji or Samoa somewhere in Queensland and Australia in Melbourne (I seem to remember there was a long-term commitment between the ARL and the Victorian government to that effect). Steve McNamara’s men are also set to take on New Zealand in Dunedin.
Sounds like quite a cool tournament.
Best wishes to Hull KR centre Sean Gleeson, who may lose an eye after being attacked in Wigan at the weekend. Two men have been detained over the attacks.
.
ONE of the things the NRL plans is incentivising clubs to do is more media. Rather than fining teams for not fulfilling media guidelines (which are already looking rather forgotten), the plan is to give them more money if they do what they’re supposed to.
The season kicks off this weekend and there were no big joint press conferences like the one that launched the World Club Challenge, during the week. The game has not been out there spruiking itself as it normally does this time of the year.
There is a feeling among some clubs that the traditional media is becoming increasingly irrelevant and the dispersal of information is better achieved by sending out emails to members and posting things on facebook pages. Instead of courting new fans with publicity, it’s done via databases the NRL has obtained with its takeover of touch football.
You would expect me to rail against that attitude here but in fact I think they may be right in their approach. People are becoming more savvy in the way they consume information and “mass media” does have less power than it once did.
Having said that, clubs are not likely to put out a video to all members revealing their player got in a fight. Would Dragons TV have chased an exclusive interview with the man Craig Garvey allegedly bashed?
So what happens is the clubs get “exclusive” access to good news, and the traditional media finds itself only covering bad news. If the clubs and NRL believe that scenario won’t hurt them, then fair enough. But there’s a gamble involved.
.
THANKS, as always, for all the comments on last week’s Discord and this week’s Set Of Six.

read on

DISCORD 2014: Edition Eight

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
LET’S face it, the NRL didn’t do a very good job of proving that players WERE concussed when their clubs allowed them to play on over the past season or so
But now, we are being assured, the League is hellbent on proving they are NOT concussed when – or if – the new concussion guidelines are exploited to get a free interchange.
The bottom line is that it’s a good thing the League is doing something to protect players against themselves, and the sport in this country against bankrupcy which would surely come with an NFL-style class action. An American expert told the club CEOs by video conference recently that the legal action they would likely face would completely ruin them financially.
But the NRL has never taken action against clubs for flaunting the rules as they existed before. Even video of a player being given smelling salts was not considered compelling enough as evidence of an infraction. Players stumbled around on national television and nothing was done.
So it’s hard to believe that collusion that happens behind closed doors, with just a few people involved, to fake a concussion can be adequately policed by the governing body.
Hopefully everyone will just appreciate what is at stake now, and will do the right thing.
.
IS deducting points from clubs who go into bankrupcy a bit like executing someone for being dead?
Bradford are on the brink of collapse after their new owners-in-waiting withdrew an offer in response to the Bulls being deducted six competition points for entering administration.
RLF chief operating officer Ralph Rimmer says the would-be owners knew the dangers. Obviously a club going broke is not a good look for the sport and the governing body feels it has the right to respond with some sort of punative measure against those who damaged its brand.
But if there’s a bigger example in professional sport of kicking a dog when it’s down, Discord has not heard it. If the punishment is aimed at clubs who deliberately go into receivership to avoid their debts, why are we punishing the team and the fans, on the field?
Surely we don’t want people who do business in this way involved in our sport OFF the field? Punishing the team by docking points would achieve little but exonerate the RFL of accusations they did nothing.
It’s hard to imagine an NRL club experiencing financial difficulty being docked competitition points. In the past, the administration in Australia has helped clubs in trouble, by either advancing grants or even forwarding loans.
And what of the players still owed money by failed franchises such as the Celtic Crusaders? How does docking competition points help them?
In light of Bradford’s problems, it’s not surprising that the Super League clubs voted against a marquee player system.
.
TO those who scoffed at my tweet that Sonny Bill Williams had inspired Sam Burgess’ decision to switch codes, I offer the following quote from Bath coach and former South Queensland Crushers coach Mike Ford on the Rugby League Extra podcast from BBC Radio Manchester:
“I think he’s seen what Sonny Bill Williams has done, switching from one code to the other and how successful he was, playing in New Zealand in thw World Cup in 2011,” said Ford.
“He boxed as well, Sonny Bill.
“That’s the challenge he wants. Sam, once he makes his mind up he wants something, he more or less gets it every time.”
.
THANKS to everyone who commented on Discord last week and Set Of Six on Monday.
Alan said the extended 1997 World Club Challenge was good. Most people would describe it as the most disastrous competition in the history of rugby league! As for his comment that State Of Origin was become irrelvant … Alan we dreamers often overlook the importance of tribalism in our game. Tribalism is why we have eight and a half teams in Sydney and none in Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory. There is clearly something to it!
Soot says a summer nines tournament may become irrelevant, like rugby union sevens. I’m sure the boffins at Rugby League Central would be happy to achieve that level of irrelevance. It doesn’t matter if the media ignores it, if it keeps the turnstile clicking over the summer, then the concept will do its job.
DOS called for a PNG team on the NRL. As you may be aware, the PNG Hunters are making their Queensland Cup debut against Redcliffe on Sunday – and I’ll be there. But NRL? Is there a Major League Baseball team in Haiti? Where does the television rights income come from? How do you get players to live there? I have serious doubts it will happen in my lifetime.
Frank from Bexley, I suspect, was taking the mick so I won’t be responding to him.
Taffy said he liked my optimism but I thought last week’s column was largely pessimistic! I disagree that no-one debated union players going to league when union was not openly professional – many column inches were devoted to the subject at the time. And clearly hybrid games are commercial attractive because there are powerful forces pushing for them. You are
right, however, to say rugby union in most places would have nothing to gain from rugby league – which makes the prospects I discussed last week even more forboding for league.
I recommend everyone read Friendly_Raptor’s comment at the bottom of last week’s Discord. I agree with Hear The Crow that Eddy Pettybourne should have been sent off on Saturday.
Here‘s the forum:
Subscribe to the podcast here

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

DISCORD 2014: Edition Four

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
SORRY but Discord doesn’t believe Warrington coach Tony Smith did anything wrong by helping Sydney Roosters prepare for the World Club Challenge.
Wigan coach Shaun Wane has described it as “sad” that Warrington would help the Roosters tactically, including a video session and an opposed training session.
“But I take it as a compliment that one of the best teams in the world is asking for help from a Super League team, especially a team that did not manage to beat us in a huge game last year,” he commented to The Star newspaper.*
It’s a good story – but if the Roosters were taking the Wolves under their wing at training, it’s reasonable for them to expect something in return.
Smith may have coached England but like Roosters boss Trent Robinson, he’s Australian. He doesn’t owe Wigan anything, really.
One Super League club that is unwittingly helping Wigan is Huddersfield, who have to kick off the season a week early next Friday so the Warriors can travel to the southern hemisphere. Their coach, Paul Anderson, is not best pleased at the situation.
And have we forgotten that the England national coach is on the Sydney Roosters coaching staff? I’d assume HE is helping the Roosters, right?

* Wane later denied being offended by Smith’s actions
.
COLLEAGUE Tony Hannan is correct in saying Super League’s new deal with Sky can only be properly judged when – or if – we know how much money is involved.
Given that the NRL contract will certainly dwarf whatever the figure is, it’s possible we will never be told.
But on the surface, these are positive times for the game in the UK, with a new sponsor announced and controversial competition structure bedded down for next year.
The season launch is at Event City in Manchester on Monday. Two more sponsors for the competition are likely to be announced there, or later in the week.
.
THE signing of Lote Tuqiri by South Sydney is another example of how our sport could benefit from a proper Nines circuit.
Tuqiri could keep playing indefinitely in Nines and his name would put bums on seats. When brings me to the Cabramatta Nines. I’m not in Sydney right now but if I was, I’d be getting out there this Saturday.
Congratulations to Thailand for their 46-10 win over Japan (13 a side) at Redfern Oval last night.
.
THANKS for last week’s comments, as always. Mercurial MattyV makes a very, very good point about the dangers of the last five minutes of games being refereed differently than the first 75. Will we now just get time-wasting in minutes 70 to 75?

read on

DISCORD 2014: Edition Five

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

IT’s a popular sport among a certain section of rugby league fans in Australia to make fun of Super League, which kicks off on Friday night with Wigan playing Huddersfield.

But consider this: Super League now has a naming rights sponsor, a new and ambitious competition structure and a television rights deal extending to 2021.

International rugby league, which hit a highpoint during last year’s World Cup, still doesn’t know what games it is staging THIS year.

How is it possible that we don’t have a draw or venues for this year’s Four Nations, two months after a World Cup that made $6 million? Great Britain want to tour for the first time in 24 years next season and no-one in Australia or New Zealand has told them if they can.

On one hand, the new NRL administration seems more interested in international development than previous regimes. They are considering playing exhibition games at Wembley.

But on the other, they don’t seem to be able to make decisions on the immediate to medium-term future. When the 2014 NRL draw was announced, the venue for the ANZAC Test on May 2 was ‘TBA’

No-one is saying it but there is a concern in the northern hemisphere that the NRL has agreed to pay players so much for representing Australia that it’s become too expensive to stage a Test match and make a profit.

Super League has clubs with major financial problems and an active rebellion underway among those who don’t have them. The new competition structure is … weird.
But we should remember that all is not rosy in the NRL either – particularly when it comes to the vitally important task of building on the legacy of the World Cup.
.
THE latest news from America is intriguing.
There’s what purports to be a leaked email doing the rounds, in which a flagship team of the establishment AMNRL distances itself from the organisation, which sent the United States Tomahawks to the World Cup.
I stress this ‘purports’ to be a leaked email, although the New York Knights have yet to deny its authenticity.
“We decided to no longer tolerate foreign intrusion in U.S. RL domestic & international matters,” says the missive, sent by the Knights to the AMNRL and to Aussie Steve Johnson who assembled the Tomahawks.
“No offense to our friends in Australia but we want the game in America to be run exclusively by people who can physically be present at every game. We strongly believe that knowledge of the local reality and field commitment are the required attributes to move forward and put behind us this delusional hope that we’re about to become professional anytime soon.
“Why would we need foreign assistance while the U.S. is by far the country with the best athletic programs and sports business structures? Note that most NRL coaches are desperate to attend an NFL training session…
“I know you guys think that we “shock (sic) the world” at the RLWC but the sad reality is that, beyond the good performances of this 2nd Australian team wearing U.S. jerseys, we also lost a large contingent of talented American players who will play 7′s this summer and pursue their hyphothetical Olympic dream, simply because they know they have nothing to play for on a RL field!
“We literally spoiled a great opportunity to expose our boys (and subsequently our clubs) to top level RL so I personally can’t continue to tacitly endorse this approach.”
The email is signed ‘G’. Guillaume Cieutat is listed as coach on the club’s website, Rob Balachandran as president. Discord has been assured that despite all this, the AMNRL are playing on. If Cieutat chooses not to be involved, that is regarded by other AMNRL clubs as his choice.
AMNRL clubs remain defiant.

THANKS, as always, for the comments last week.

read on

DISCORD 2014: Edition Seven

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

CROSS-code challenges, nines tournaments and players defections; are we at a fork in the road of evolution of the rugby codes, or are these developments no more than fodder for the daily news cycle?
This week we’ve seen Sam Burgess defect to rugby union, calls for nines tournaments to be held everywhere but the moon (give them time) and now Salford announce a cross-code challenge with Sale for August 26.
None of these developments is completely new – players have been switching to union since that code became openly professional, nines tournaments have been played for 20 years and cross-code challenges have also been staged before.
But it is the conflence of factors behind these developments that could amount to a discernible trend.
One, Sonny Bill Williams’ example points to elite players crisscrossing sports and signing short-term deals which maximise their earning potential, profile and personal motivation.
Whereas fulltime professionalism was seen as demanding specialisation and killing off the all rounder, we have now seen the emergence of individualistic, exceptional athletes who see being an all rounder as the peak of a sporting Everest.
If you change the rules, athleticism will eventually catch up and overtake the legislators.
Two, private ownership and external entrepreneurs offer the chance for sports to go beyond the traditional income sources of broadcast rights, sponsorship and gate receipts.
Until now, pro sports were locked into a cycle of courting sponsors, selling memberships and flogging broadcast rights to the highest bidder.
But now consortia such as DUCO in Auckland and the Dubai businessmen who want to stage a nines tournament can provide a totally new income stream, as can venues and cities who are increasingly willing to bid for events in the way that previously only the Olympic locations were chosen.
Where can all this be leading?
Let’s extrapolate the trend of players changing codes more regularly. The more open and competitive the labour market place, the greater the pressure on individual sports to follow the AFL’s lead and centrally-contract players. NRL CEOS discussed this in Auckland last Friday; if one club identifies a rugby union player it wants to sign, it can apply for financial assistance from head office BUT every club has to have the chance to sign that player and make up the larger part of his total salary package.
As I have said previously, before we whinge about losing players we should reflect on how lucky we are that our most popular domestic sports are not played widely overseas. If Australian Rules or rugby league were big sports in the United States or western Europe, none of our best players would reside here.
Our glass is well over half full; our small, divided market does not really DESERVE to retain world’s-best talent at anything in pro sports.
Extrapolating the second trend, of outside entrepreneurs providing new income streams, it is reasonable to assume rugby league will have nines ‘specialists’ and year-round competition before long, and that broadcast rights will be more diverse with a portfolio of properties (NRL, pre-season, nines, domestic representative fixtures, World Club Challenge and internationals) spread more widely between competing television platforms.
More clubs will do what the Dragons have done and spread their games around a wide variety of venues; we’ll more further away from the traditional model of teams having one ‘home’ ground. There’s money to be made.
It’s not hard to have a stab at what could happen as a result of more interaction between the rugby codes at club level. If Salford and Sale were to aggressively sell sponsorship and advertising for several years of annual cross-code challenges, they may invite more clubs to be involved.
Then they could try to sell their own television rights and when threatened by the RFU and RFL, they could conceivably decide to go it alone and play an entire season of hybrid rugby, taking other clubs with them.
The main reason for there being two rugby codes was professionalism. That reason no longer exists. Hyper-professionalism could one day re-united the codes; cross code challenges create the market and demand for a third code which could conceivably kill off the other two through economies of scale.
If rugby league and rugby union officials don’t want that to happen, they’d be best advised to protect their intellectual property aggressively and impose draconian penalties on any clubs sleeping with the enemy.
It’s when a whole club does what Sam Burgess has just done that we’ll know the apocalypse is upon us.
.

DISCORD is happy that the idea of a summer nines tournament, mooted here over the … um … summer, is now gaining widespread support.
But while our idea of having state teams, rather than clubs, in the Auckland Nines didn’t catch on, we certainly hope that any summer nines tournament doesn’t just include the same 16 NRL clubs.
A touring circuit, ala rugby sevens, should include all Australian states and territories. As Ben Elias says in League Week, it’s a great ‘soft landing’ for franchises earmarked for NRL inclusion.
But at the risk of being branded a scrooge of sorts, let’s not call Perth and Adelaide ‘new markets’ and the nines a ‘new concept’.
We had teams from Adelaide and Perth before – and stuffed it up. And we had nines in 1996 and ’97 – and gave up on the concept. Let’s get really excited with rugby league does something really new.

.
THANKS for last week’s comments.
read on