By STEVE MASCORD
THERE is a history of Australia sending teams to World Cups in Britain with controversy swirling at home.
In 1995, it was the Super League War. The courts had ordered the Australians to consider players who had signed for the breakaway league.
They were considered – and left out. Heading to a World Cup without the likes of Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Allan Langer, Bradley Clyde and Wendell Sailor placed Bob Fulton’s Brad Fittler-captained squad under enormous pressure to win as the PR battle heated up at home.
After losing the opening game at Wembley 20-16, the green and golds survived a gripping semi against New Zealand and beat the host nation 16-8 in the final.
In 2000, players sat up late one night waiting for the courts to decide if South Sydney would be readmitted to the competition. After a mammoth march in the streets of Sydney, they were reinstated – and the story completely overshadowed the Australian campaign which finished with a 40-12 World Cup final win over New Zealand.
Because of the – quite encouraging – growth of the playing programmes of developing rugby league nations, the Australian controversy de jour in 2013 threatens to disrupt more than just Tim Sheens and his men, who are trying to win back the trophy lost to the Kiwis in Brisbane five years ago.
This controversy threatens a wide range of teams competing in the 14th rugby league World Cup.
ASADA, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, is expected to finalise its investigation into peptide use during the 2011season at some stage following the NRL grand final on October 6.
Read: smack bang in the middle of the World Cup, probably at the most inconvenient time for all concerned.
The highest profile of the players recently interviewed by ASADA is Paul Gallen, the Cronulla and Australian captain who is also likely to be Cameron Smith’s deputy in England and Ireland. He even described himself as the agency’s prime target and recently had his phone confiscated upon his return from an away game in Auckland, although there were reports this was at the behest of a different law enforcement agency.
Others reported to have been interviewed include Fiji back rower Jayson Bukuya and Tongan utility forward Anthony Tupou.
Also linked to the investigation are Newcastle players Jeremy Smith of New Zealand, Kade Snowden of Scotland and Kevin Naiqama of Fiji.
“That’s not something I want to go into in any detail,” Australia coach Tim Sheens says when Forty20 puts it to him the investigation could provide obstacles every bit as tricky as those thrown up by any opposition.
“That’s a matter for the ARL.”
We are told the Australian administration has, or will, approach tournament organisers about replacing players in the finals squad of 24 if they are called home by doping authorities.
At the moment, the no changes are allowed to the squads that start the tournament.
There will also be assurances sought that silverware cannot be stripped if the findings come after the tournament. Given that the alleged doping offences occurred two years ago, such a sanction would appear unlikely – but possible.
Sheens, though, has more tangible concerns.
Australia’s only warm-up game actually won’t involve them at all. Instead, it will be the Australian Prime Ministers XIII match against what will probably be a full-strength Kumuls side in Kokopo on September 29.
“We’re going to take this game pretty seriously, even though it won’t be the Australian side by any stretch,” said Sheens.
“I’d imagine they will have a full Test side out and given they are not in our group at the World Cup, they’ll want to get a result against us.”
The side will be coached this year by Laurie Daley, who succeeds his Origin rival Mal Meninga, and as usual will include only players with no club commitments. The Australians have decided playing any warm-ups in Europe, as most otherccountries are doing.
Players involved in the finals, as Sheens has already seen, are no guarantee to be still getting about on two legs by the time the World Cup kicks off in Cardiff on October 25.
Centre Justin Hodges (knee) and utility Kurt Gidley (foot) are already out of the tournament. At the time of writing, there was a finals series involving most of the remaining Aussie players left to run.
“We are fortunate that we have depth in most positions – but you don’t want to be losing your x-factor players, of which Hodgo is definitely one,” said Sheens.
“He plays on the left side so anyone who replaces him will have to come over from the right.”
North Queensland’s Brent Tate and Sydney Roosters’ Michael Jennings are the major candidates. Jennings will likely make the squad in any case, and be lost to Tonga.
Like Hodges, Tate was linked during the 2013 State of Origin series to a retirement from representative football.
The 31-year-old Tate, who has overcome an horrendous injury run over a glittering career, recently made it clear he would play on and wanted Sheens to know his availability.
“Don’t worry,” the coach laughed, “Tatey also made it clear to me when I saw him in the sheds after the Origin game!
“I would never, ever forget Tatey. He is an example to every young player when it comes to perseverance and professionalism. He has always done a job for me.”
Up front, the likes of Ben Hannant (shoulder/wrist) and Matt Scott (hand) have suffered minor recent injuries but Sheens’ side is not likely to be significantly different to the line-up which beat New Zealand 32-12 on April 19 at Canberra Stadium.
There is a perception that the opening match at Cardiff is more important to England than to Australia because the winner will stay away from New Zealand until the final. But Sheens says the Australians want to stay away from the Kiwis just as much.
“If you look at the last few series over there, you’ll see teams losing the first game and bouncing back,” he says.
“The first game is a very, very important once for us too.”
Aside from ASADA, another potential hurdle is the difference in rules between the northern and southern hemispheres. The advantage rule, the video referees, even the number of referees make the sport as different in Australia and the UK as it has ever been.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll even be able to throw a punch at the World Cup without being sent to the sin bin!
“In my time as Australian coach, we’ve had as few as two pages of rule variations and as many as six,” Sheens says.
“It’s going to be interesting. Yes, it is a potential hurdle. My understanding is that Daniel Anderson and Stuart Cummings are working on a united set of rules and interpretations for the tournament.
“It’s going to be a combination of what happens in the NRL and Super League because that’s where most of the players will be coming from.
“I remember Matt Cecchin pulling up play after a turnover and getting bagged by Eddie and Stevo before they remembered that under international rules, you’ve taken the advantage when you’ve thrown a pass.
“That’s just one example.”
Sheens has indicated he may quit the Test post after the World Cup – and that would be more likely with a victory.
But thanks to a swirling scandal at home, there are likely to be things not even he can control.
Filed for: FORTY-20 Magazine