WHITE LINE FEVER Column: December 2016/January 2017

p1_coverBy STEVE MASCORD

THE real question in the current imbroglio between the NRL and its clubs is not who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.
It’s which group is worse.
Firstly, the basics. The clubs are trying have Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant ousted. They have the required votes. What they are angry about is a promise to give them 130 per cent of total player payments from 2018 being broken when Grant came back from the Rugby League International Congress in Liverpool.
A memorandum of agreement was “taken off the table”, causing a group of chairman to walk out of a meeting at Moore Park’s League HQ in Sydney. Subsequent meetings were postponed when the chairmen refused to show up.
Let’s start with the clubs. They have all their player wages and travel expenses covered by head office but only one of them returned a profit last year. Why? Because they spend so much money trying to out-do each other via high-priced coaches, cutting-edge technology and expensive scouting networks.
In most cases the clubs run their own local junior leagues, too. They have under 20s sides and a reserve grade team of some kind. In Sydney, any short-fall is made up by grants from Leagues Clubs, which are basically giant poker machine palaces that get tax breaks precisely because they support junior rugby league.
The entire structure of the traditional Sydney clubs is mired in the past, when players played for beer money and TV rights were worth a few thousand dollars.
Now to the so called “Independent Commission”.
Australians love a “commission”. Forming one is what they do when there is perceived to be a problem with something. There’s the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Australian Football League Commission, etc, etc.
All eight members of the commission are independent of the clubs. Under chairman Grant, in its four years the ARLC has performed an almost complete clean-out of the NRL, on the back of an army of consultants picking the brains of existing staff members and using the information to appoint those staffers’ new bosses.
Grant’s big mistake in promising the 130 per cent of player wages to the clubs is that he underestimated their deviousness and desperation. Now the clubs stood to make more money, the more the players were paid – so the players and clubs were suddenly allies and the central body became a giant cash cow.
But the question has to be asked: if the clubs are truly calling for Grant’s head because he’s shown incompetence, then why didn’t they point it out to him in the first place instead of pulling the wool over his eyes?
Like in England, rugby league in Australia needs blowing up and starting again. Like just about everywhere, it’s a cargo cult driven by self-interest.
In truth, the clubs should just be shells. Twenty five players, a capped staff selling tickets and sponsorships and that’s it. Everything else should be run from head office. The best model for the sport would be the lean teams making money for the the rest of the game, franchises in the true sense.
Junior development would be run centrally, players would change clubs via a draft.
But would I trust THIS head office not to make a mess of this fantasy scenario? Definitely not….

Filed for FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

White Line Fever column: December 2016

forty20-magazineBy STEVE MASCORD

OVER the next four months, I have a book to finish.
It’s working title is Fifty-two and the kind folk here at Scratching Shed have agreed to publish it. To those of you who pledged your support on Kickstarter, I thank you.
Now, fifty-two is about to expose me to something of an adventure. According to the premise of the book, I have to attend at least one rugby league game a week for an entire year.
I’ve gone close before, covering – say – a Papua New Guinea tour of France that went until the last week in November and then fronting up for a trial match at Gosford in the middle of January. I saw plenty of winter rugby league in Britain in the early nineties, on one occasions going from a Premiership final at Old Trafford to a Winfield Cup game in Perth five days later.
But I’ve never quite done a full year. I’ve never attended a Boxing Day or New Years’ game in England. I’ve never NOT had a Mad Monday, even if the flamboyance with which I celebrate it has dimmed with the passing years.
So the week after the Four Nations final at Anfield, I’ll return to London for a couple of days and then set off for the south of France. I am not quite sure what I will see as I find the fixture list on the French Federation website rather baffling.
But I am expecting baguette, Kronenberg and long, cold nights in front of the laptop until mid-January, punctuated by Christmas with the in-laws in Tipperary and a food hangover at somewhere like Headingley around the end of the year.
What do I hope to achieve? What insight can be provided by chasing 13-a-side rugby each weekend for year?
While watching the year’s NRL Nines at the home of Wigan Observer and Rugby League Week writer Phil Wilkinson, he asked me “do you think you actually like the game, or just all the things around it?”
It was a very prescient question.
What attracted me about rugby league to start with was the iconography; the footy cards we swapped at school, the intro music to Seven’s Big League with Rex Mossop. I parried that into a career, where if you could get someone to say something interesting you would put it in the third paragraph of a newspaper story, paraphrase them in the first paragraph and live the Life of Riley.
amazonBut did I ever fall in love with the aesthetics of the game? Certainly, I wouldn’t be the first person you would go to for a view on attacking patterns and defensive responsibilities. That was just never my thing.
By going to early round Challenge Cup matches, NSW Cup finals, internationals in Wales and America and – finally – domestic matches in France I hope to divorce the artifice surrounding big time pro rugby league from the game itself.
I hope to get reach genuine, objective conclusions about the sport’s strengths and weaknesses as a spectacle. I have already discovered that I find comfort in the cadence of a rugby league match – but also that I find few games so engrossing that I won’t allow myself to be distracted.
That is one of many essential truths I’ve spent the last two-thirds of a year pursuing for this project. It’s a ridiculously ambitious concept for someone who has never written a book before.
I should have just eased my way in with, say, The Sean Rutgerson Story.
So if you’re a French rugby league game this winter and see a shivering Aussie, come up and say hello.
I’ll be looking for material.
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE
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White Line Fever column: Toronto Wolfpack

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-9-54-35-amBy STEVE MASCORD

THE things that stuck out were the names. Young trialist Bomaly Costanby. Local NRL and Super League-savvy photographer Marvin Dangerfield.
We’re not at Leichhardt Oval or the DW, Toto.
When I first heard the Toronto Wolfpack were holding open trials (‘tryouts’ in the North American lexicon) across the continent, I was desperate to attend one.
But it was only the previous evening, standing under a tree at Eden Park, Wilmington Delaware, that I realised it was possible.
A Toronto Wolfpack delegation, including coach Paul Rowley and director Adam Fogerty, had been standing there waiting for the United States-Canada international to start. They were holding a tryout the next day at EE Garthwaite Stadium, Conshohocken – about 20 minutes’ drive from here – they told me.
Eden Park is not to be confused with it’s Auckland namesake. It’s a chopped up old paddock. The players got changed in the carpark, they had to break into a box to turn the lights on and the crowd numbered in the double figures.
And while the rugby league itself was quite engrossing, Wollongong-domiciled US Hawk Junior VaiVai racing away to secure a 20-14 win with two minutes left, the event was a bit of a damp squib (although the halftime food was delicious … and free).
So I held few high hopes as I took an Uber from Essington, Pennsylvania to the home of the Philadelphia Fight the next day – having been up all night blogging the NRL grand final for the Sydney Morning Herald.
But the immediate signs were good.
A Wolfpack banner at the quaint suburban ground, a documentary crew of four, the coaching staff in smart black-and-grey attire and numbered vests for the hopefuls.
amazon“I was named after Bob Marley – honestly,” says winger-in-waiting Costanby.
“I was just playing rugby union for four months. I’ve been working really hard from 4am every day and I thought I could test my skills out here, see what I can do.
“I just love everything rugby can offer a person. I’m kinda greedy. I just feel like rugby can give me a good life, you get a little pay cheque and you can have fun.
“It’s good to go out and battle with my mates.”
By the side of the pitch, an Atlanta Rhinos player is talking State of Origin and hit-ups. On the field, Rowley is presiding over three-on-two drills, schooling the triallists on unders plays and inside shoulder responsibility.
I admit, I learned a thing or two listening to him.
Rowley won’t move to Canada at all. The pre-season camp will be in Europe and they won’t play a home game until May.
Leaning over the fence with a pipe is Fogerty, the former Halifax, St Helens and
Warrington prop who was also a heavyweight boxer and movie star (once knocked out on screen by Brad Pitt).
Along with being a director of the new club, he is involved in Last Tackle – the production company turning these tryouts into a documentary. One fellow from Samoa is told to answer the question again and leave his country of origin out of the answer, mentioning only Ohio.
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donate2“It’s a story of redemption – giving these athletes in North America a chance at a sport they may not know much about,” says the Huddersfield resident.
“Only have a percent make the NFL, who leave college. We’ve got thousands and thousands of college athletes.
“It’s not X Factor. We’re not in it to show people up and make fools of people. We’re going to pick 15 of what we think of the best and bring them to England.
“They’ll be whittled down from there. It’s not a voting system where people ring in. They’ve got to have something special that we think we can mould into being rugby league stars.
“We want it to go out in everyone’s front room around the world.”
The Wolfpack are still regarded by many in Britain as a bizarre joke that will be lucky to last a season.
“People have got to take it to heart in Canada,” Fogerty admits. “We need to fill the stadiums for the home games and have them get behind us.
“You’re only as good as your supporters, in a way. They money men won’t keep throwing money into it forever and ever if it’s not financially viable.
“But we’re here because we believe in it.”
An hour in Conshohocken, and I believe again, too.

Filed for: FORTY 20 MAGAZINE

American Civil War Wages On

US TomahawksBy STEVE MASCORD

YOU know how it was supposed to happen.
The United States Tomahawks would shrug off criticism that they were just a bunch of Aussies who went to a bucks weekend in Vegas, capture the hearts of everyone at the World Cup, make the quarter-finals and with the glow of their success still bright, we would have and end to the American Civil War.
And Apple Pope, Curtis Cunz, Spinner Howland and everyone else in our rich cast of colourful characters would live happily every after.
At this early juncture, it’s important to fill in those who have more going on their lives than the political situation in an amateur competition played on parks in the most powerful nation on earth.
There are two leagues, right? One is the AMNRL, established by former Australian first grader David Niu, which is the officially recognised body for the game in the United States. They sent the aforementioned Tomahawks to the World Cup, where they indeed made the quarter-finals and warmed the cockles of most hearts.
Niu has since left to promote arena (American) football in Vhina. Connecticut Wildcats owner – and prop – Curtis Cunz has replaced him as league chairman.
The other competition is the USARL, which broke away three years ago in response to what it described as the autocratic administration of the AMNRL. The rebellion was led by the champion club in the AMNRL, the Jacksonville Axemen.
Its chairman is Australian Peter Ilfield.
Now, back to our central narrative: there was a committee formed to negotiate a ceasefire, an independent commission was nominated and then …. nothing. Two months on, we still have two leagues and emails being leaked which suggest the AMNRL is falling apart.
Our mission here, which we have accepted, is to figure out what went wrong. There are two broad theories I heard during my time in the US in January. One: that the USARL lost faith in the democratic power of their AMNRL counterparts. The other is that the USARL clubs got cold feet in handing over power to the independent commission.
“I would say it leans 80-20 towards the first one you said,” Illfield tells Forty20 by phone from Philadelphia.
When negotiations were at a delicate stage, AMNRL team New York Raiders issued a media release declaring their “independence” from the negotiations and describing the AMNRL as “defunct”. Independence from an independent commission? It could only happen in rugby league.
“When you are talking unification, you are talking a merger, right? And when you merge with someone, you merge your assets with theirs’,” says Illfield. “During the course of negotiations, it became apparent there was a doubt over exactly what assets the AMNRL had.
“Two or three of their clubs came out distancing themselves from the negotiations. There seemed to be a degree of dysfunction there.
“We found themselves asking: what is the nature of this organisation? Is it an organisation at all?”
This no doubt contributed to the cold feet of the USARL clubs. They felt their fate was going to be guided for the next 12 months by an organisation in which a “dysfunctional” league had a big say. Support for the deal evaporated.
Instead, the USARL thought it best to strike while the iron was hot (the only think hot in North America this winter) and invite the quarrelling AMNRL clubs to join them. At the same time, fortuitously for the rebel competition, there was expansion in the south east with Tampa, Atlanta and central Florida joining the comp.
Atlanta have partnered with Leeds and be known as the Atlanta Rhinos.
The Invitation For Unification read: “The board of the USARL LLC has resolved to open the 2014 competition to all interested clubs in the eastern United States as well as announcing a Regional Conference in the southeast.
“Each club will become a member under the Constitution of the USARL and will have representation on the USARL board.
“The 2014 competition is expected to be based on a 10 week schedule between June and August including playoffs and a Championship Final. While the overall structure has yet to be finalized, the competition will be limited to the east coast in an effort to reduce both cost and travel with the establishment of smaller conferences within regions. The aim is for Conference schedules to operate with ALL regular season home and away games played in local regions culminating in cross-conference playoffs and and finals.”
Just last week, a leaked email from the New York Knights attacked the foreign influence in the AMNRL and 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,” said ‘G’ – who appears to be Knights coach Guillaume Cieutat.
That missive was clearly aimed at Steve Johnson, the Aussie who assembled the Tomahawks and who is also behind the Queensland western corridor NRL franchise bid. While it may appears the AMNRL is heading toward the bizarre position of running a national team but no clubs, Cunz tells Forty20 via facebook the establishment league is going nowhere.
“Why the merger fell through was totally not on us,” Cunz writes.
“All their representatives agreed with me and the AMNRL representatives to a structure on paper. Then it went sour for done reason when it went back to their clubs. I don’t know why.
“I don’t really want to focus on the past, I’m not going to get in this pointing-the-finger game like they are trying to do to us. It’s too childish
“Believe me when I say I’m personally not going to quit in trying to give what the players from both players want….and that’s a merge. We just want to play other teams like we did not to long ago.
“I have all my teams on board with my vision and what in doing here despite what the USARL tries to do to us by sending team owners emails, (making) phone calls, or by using blogs to make its look bad.”
The AMNRL will soon announce its competition structure for 2014. It continues to run the only recognised US national team. As things stand, it considers USARL players for selection after initially omitting them.
“The Rugby League International Federation has asked us to keep it updated with what we are doing,” says Illfield.
But like international rugby league elswhere, the Tomahawks don’t actually have any matches in their schedule for this year yet. And at the time of writing, neither does either competition.
Rugby league is, indeed, a funny game. So it’s probably best just to have a laugh.
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE

Kiwis To Leave No Stone Unturned

seo_cw_productBy STEVE MASCORD

SYDNEY Roosters started this season with banners festooned around Allianz Stadium bearing the rather ostentatious slogan “we play for premierships”.

On the surface of it, this is a pretty straightforward pronouncement. Who, in the NRL, does not? But it carries a certain arrogance with it – the implication that others might think they do but are deluding themselves.

If the New Zealand Kiwis were to need a marketing catch phrase for their seven weeks or so in Europe this year, it could be “we play for World Cups”.

Since lifting the trophy in 2008 with a 34-20 win over Australia in the Suncorp Stadium final, the form of Stephen Kearney’s side has been patchy.

But while it could be argued Australia and England have been concerned with each match as it has arisen, c oach Kearney tells Forty20 his team selections have always been made with the 2013 Coup du Monde in mind.

“The Anzac Tests (against Australia) have always been a challenge for us,” says Kearney, who has Penrith’s Ivan Cleary as an assistant this campaign.

“But the one thing we have focused on is the consistency of the group. If you keep changing the team around all the time, it creates problems.

“So there’s been a method in what we’ve done; to keep things consistent and bring players into the team environment with a plan in mind.”

Since the last World Cup, the Kiwis have lost to Australia 38-10, 12-10, 20-10, 30-12 and 32-12 in mid-season internationals.

“I’d argue we’ve got closer to Australia each time,” says Kearney, whose RLWC squad was unfortunately announced as we went to press (hence no mention of a certain SBW here). “Yes, the score blew out a bit in Canberra this year but I could see progress.”

To say the Kiwis sacrifice results in other matches in order to be perfectly tuned for a World Cup or Four Nations final is probably unfair. But recent results indicate they hold a few cards back; some disappointing results were punctuated by a 16-12 win over their trans-Tasman rivals in the 2010 Four Nations decider.

On the other hand, “the way we went out of the 2009 and 2011 Four Nations tournaments were, to be completely honest, disappointing,” says the coach. “They were frankly disappointing campaigns.

In ’09, a spine-tingling 20-20 draw with Australia at The Stoop was followed up by a 62-12 win in France but then the tourists crashed 20-12 to England in Huddersfield.

Two seasons later, the Australians triumphed 26-12 at Warrington, the Kiwis bounced back 36-0 at Wembley over the Welsh and then the England outclassed Kearney’s men 28-6 at Hull, in a game where Issac Luke – by his own admission – tried to break cousin Rangi Chase’s leg.

You should be spotting a common theme here.

If international series are played in Australia, New Zealand are a huge chance of winning. It’s getting to the point where such results may not even be termed ‘upsets’. If they are staged in the northern hemisphere, the men in black might as well stay home.

The last fully-fledged Kiwis tour to England and France, under Gary Kemble in 2007, was an even bigger disaster than the two sojourns just discussed. All three Tests against Great Britain were lost and France beaten by just eight points in Paris.

“In 2011, we certainly had a number of players not available due to injury,” said Kearney, assistant to Anthony Griffin at Brisbane Broncos.

“We’re in a much better position now, in terms of the players we are able to take with us.”

But Kearney does not shy away from the fact the Kiwis have a problem on tour in the UK. In the past, some players have put this down to Polynesians being more family oriented and struggling with the distances and time away.

But many Polynesians have excelled in Super League.

“We’ve done a fair bit of review on the whole thing, considering our results have not been what we wanted the last two times over there,” Kearney insists.

“There are a whole range of factors you have to take into account. I think we’re a lot further ahead in terms of the leadership group. We’ve got men like Jeremy Smith, Simon Mannering, Frank Pritchard.

“Again, we’re in a better position.”
Keeping the players’ minds on the job is a key objective of the Kiwi staff this year. To that end the side is moving base from Liverpool, to Avignon and then to Leeds.

Kearney said there was a danger of players becoming bored. “I think there’s definitely a danger of that creeping in.

“You’re away for six or seven weeks and you’re in the north of England which is not the most pleasant place in the world at that time of year,” he explained.

“So you have to re-enforce why you’re there and what you want to get out of it. We’re going to some different places and trying to embrace the experience.”

Of course, Benji Marshall was relieved of the captaincy duties months before his decision to defect to rugby union with the Auckland Blues. It must have been a big call for Kearney, considering what a big star he is, and the comments above are a strong indication of the coach hoped to gain from the decision – and what he hoped to avoid.

“If you had said to me even 18 months ago that we were going to have to go to the World Cup without Benji Marshall in the squad, you would have heard some uncertainty in my voice,” he said.

“But the fact we have players of the calibre of Kieran Foran, Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai to choose from in those positions is an indication of how far we’ve come.

“In the past we may have lacked depth in some positions that

Despite some publicity over selection battles with the island countries over some players – and North Queensland’s Jason Taumalolo choosing Tonga – Kearney insists he got every player he wanted.

And while he can’t say for sure that Australia are hellbent on avoiding a semi-final appointment with the Kiwis by winning first-up, he believes that is certainly the case for their opponents in Cardiff, England.

“If you look at England’s detailed preparation, you get a feeling about their approach to their first game,” he said.

“They’re going to South Africa, they’re putting a lot into being ready right from the start. So while I don’t know how the Australians feel about that issue, I think you can say it’s a focus for the English.”

The Kiwis face the Cook Islands in a warm-up again and Somoa in Warrington on day two of the tournament.

But it’s not even worth asking if the Kiwis would put all their eggs in the Halliwell Jones basket. We already know the answer.

They don’t play for eggs. They play for Cups.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

Shopping At ASDA And Forgetting ASADA

untitledBy 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

Original Sins

Forty20 August 201311092013By STEVE MASCORD

YOU’D imagine after 27 years writing stories like this (but better) that this hack had done everything in the boutique-sized universe of rugby league media duties.

True, I have covered games by battling tear gas in the Papua New Guinea highlands, electrical blackouts in Lebanon and hangovers in Keighley.

I even once received a text from Clinton Schifcofske as he was lining up a conversion from the western touchline at Suncorp Stadium.

But watching State of Origin from the sideline was one journalistic odyssey that had hitherto eluded me. The honour was finally bestowed thanks to Sydney FM radio station Triple M securing the rights this year and was made even more enjoyable by the fact that during the game, I didn’t have to actually say anything on air.

No doubt listeners were also grateful for this.

For Origins I and III in Sydney, I sat next to former NSW centre Ryan Girdler and a tech a few short metres from the whitewash and just watched (and Tweeted and Instagrammed). For the second match in Brisbane, it was former Maroon Ben Hannant, and I was behind him, which meant I didn’t see quite as much…..

In the last edition of Forty20, new Melbourne chief executive Mark Evans theorised that Origin “transcends” rugby league in Australia. That may have sounded to you like hyperbole but it’s not – the focus of the entire nation (yes, even including ‘heathen’ states) is on that patch of grass three times a year and the occasion radiates a visceral energy that bears almost no relation to what happens at eight grounds each weekend in the NRL.
A study of the thousands of New South Wales fans who make up Blatchy’s Blues, the supporters group that painted the northern end of ANZ Stadium their colour of choice with jerseys, facepaint and flags, has indicated very few of them are members of NRL clubs.

Yes, there are people in Australia who will go out on a winter’s night with their bare chests painted blue and wearing a ridiculous wig but who otherwise won’t go to a rugby league game.

Being so close to something which others hold in such reverence is enervating and almost intoxicating. One cannot fail to be transfixed as the teams run out to cacophonous response and stand in front of you for the national anthem, even if one is jaded by rugby league and disinterested in the result of the match that follows.

Being close does give you the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be a participant.

Throughout the series I have waffled on about how the players have, intellectually, always had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches. This behaviour has been tacitly condoned by officials, who were raking in the cash from the public expectation of fireworks.

But sitting on the sideline, you realise the imprimatur is not just intellectual. It’s primal. It eminates from the 82,000 souped-up speccies who come not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding it.

In terms of the publicity, the atmosphere and historical convention, it’s actually a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that Origin is not just one big 360 minute rolling brawl.

Of course, a lot has changed since NSW coach Laurie Daley described Paul Gallen’s high shot, followed by a flurry of punches, on Nate Myles in game one as “a great Origin moment”. Gallen was suspended, new NRL boss David Smith and referees’ boss Daniel Anderson banned fighting and four players were sent to the sin bin in game two.

The fallout from these decisions is still being felt. Former Super League referee Ashley Klein didn’t survive the series, dropped after game two. Former players everywhere decried the “sanitisation” of rugby league.

But the world didn’t end. There wasn’t a spare seat at Origin III. The Manchester United players who attended the decider didn’t complain about a limp spectacle played by pansies.

There were other sub-plots, as usual. Where else can horse-riding accidents and lewd phone calls decide the make-up of teams?

Off the field, NSW seemed to impode. Winger Blake Ferguson was charged with indecent assault and dropped, fullback Josh Dugan was with him at the time but managed to keep himself out of trouble.

Mal Meninga serving himself in backpacker bar also became a big story, for some reason. The impending birth of Johnathan Thurston ‘s first child in the lead-up to game two was compounded by a stomach virus about which remains curiously reluctant to talk.

But the central narrative was the same as the previous seven years. Origin’s entire viability was said to be in jeopardy in 2005 when NSW had dominated the series – because the concept was dreamed up specifically to make the Maroons competitive.

But after eight consecutive series wins by Queensland, State of Origin is in rude health. Such humiliation seems to be what it takes to get the attention of the cynical Sydney public. Shifting games to Melbourne, such an attractive proposition for the last 23 years, now seems like an indulgence.

Yes, Queensland’s side seems to be aging. But in Daly Cherry Evans and Chris McQueen, they have rookies at least as promising as those of their opponents.

NSW have finally dispatched with their penchant for sacking a raft of players every time they lose. This is something they appear to have the depth to do – but because Origin is for Queensland, Queensland set the cultural tone and revolving door selection policies resultantly don’t work.

Nathan Merritt’s selection for game two was widely lauded; the 30-year-old had been waiting almost an entire career for the opportunity. But although coach Daley took responsibility for telling Merritt to come in off his wing in defence, he was dropped after just one appearance.

The test of a competitive representative series is when selection cannot be used as a reward; when necessity dictates that the worthy must miss out because they are not the right people to achieve the desired result.

Australia can still select players as a reward. NSW have now learned they cannot.

At this point I have written 1000 words on the 2013 State of Origin series without mentioning the scores. NSW won Origin I 14-6,. Queensland took out Origin II 26-6 and the Maroons wrapped up Origin III 12-10.

“We’re not getting closer because last year we lost by one and this year it was two,” NSW captain Gallen deadpanned.

Am I the only person with a front seat at public events who often wonders what would happen if he interrupted them spectacularly? What if you suddenly started spewing expletives, sexist or racist epithets at a press conference on live TV? What if you ran on at a crucial moment in a match, from your seat on the sideline, and tried to tackle someone?

In conclusion, then, I’d like to mention another enriching experienced I gleaned from the 2013 State Of Origin series. Thank you, Wati Holmwood, for helping me answer this long-held question without me actually having to go out there and do it.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

Taking Out The Burgess Brothers

p1_coverBy STEVE MASCORD

WHEN Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson saw Steve McNamara at Allianz Stadium on July 1, he had a proposal for the visiting England coach.

“Trent here was hoping I could go to as many Souths games and do him a favour by taking out a few Burgess boys,” McNamara told Forty20 in the tunnel shortly after the conversation.

That’s not out to dinner, Steve explains. “Last year unfortunately I came and Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess got injured in the same game. James Graham got injured last Friday, thankfully he’s alright I’ve seen him today.”

Yes, McNamara has a reputation Down Under as something of a jinx. Whenever he shows up at an NRL ground, any Englishman within a 1 mile radius is likely to slip over on the footpath, get hit by lightning or – if he’s a rugby league player – do a knee, foot, shoulder or something.

It happened against in round 15, when stand-off Gareth Widdop suffered an horrendous injury, a dislocated hip, playing for Melbourne Storm in Monday Night Football against Gold Coast.

At least the England coach was on hand to visit Widdop in hospital the next morning. “He was surprisingly good,” McNamara says.

“ From the state he was in the previous night … obviously when they got it (hip) back in he was pretty much up and running again. And he was. He was standing on his feet, he had crutches but he could stand up. He’s a chance, he’s a chance. He’s in a real positive frame of mind, which helps.”

That’s right folks, Gareth Widdop’s World Cup hopes are not dead yet. Playing without a club game under his belt between now and then, however?

“We’d have to look at that. That would be difficult but you never say never. He’s in a really positive frame of mind, he thinks he’s a chance of being back to play some games before the end of the year

The primary reason for the visit to Oz, as you will have read elsewhere, is to spend time with NRL-based players. In future, there may be so many of them that England actually plays internationals in the southern hemisphere.

It also happens to be Origin time.

And it seems that the parallels between England and Queensland will increase as the years pass. Many of the Queensland players live and play in NSW but have no trouble raising the requisite motivation – even hate –when he interstate series comes around.

The Queensland bus driver got McNamara into the Maroons’ final training session before Origin II.

“You look at the Queensland team and the consistency and continuity over a period of time – they really look like a team, don’t they?” McNamara observes.

“Sometimes you see a rep team and all the players do different things by different systems because they just don’t play with each other.

“Queensland just look like they’re so much on the same page.

“There’s a little bit of that in us. We’re sort of the minnows. We haven’t got as many players as Australia, we probably don’t have the same sort of climate to train in (the Maroons can’t play that card) so there’s a lot of things that go against us which I think, Queensland, in their own little way, use.

“We’re the underdogs, in some regards. The players we’ve got, we’ve got fewer to chose from than Australia and New Zealand but we’ll be very tight knit, very close as a group.”

You’ll hear Steve Mac talk about that a lot. The main reason for his trips to Australia are to “take out” his players – but not in a bad way..

“We’ve had four camps back in England this year as a group of players,” he explains. “We’ve had a fair bit of time together, we’ve played a Test match, and at the end of the year when our NRL-based players come into camp, I want them to be fully up to speed. I don’t want them to feel they’ve been isolated across here. My intention is to spend as much time with those players as I can and constantly remind them of England with videos … I want them to feel as close to that group as possible, even though they’re 12,000 miles away. I’m never astonished by the patriotism they show, when I speak to them individually. When they come together as a group, they’re very, very focused on doing well at the end of the year.
“It’s our two-team mentality, something we’ve worked on extremely hard – that you feel that you play for South Sydney or Brisbane Broncos AND England – not that you play for South Sydney and England is something you do every now and then. It’s important that you feel like you’re part of two teams and that’s something we do right through Super League and that is part of our NRL players too. These players actually feel that they are England players.”

The surprising aspect of all this is that everyone in Australia seems happy to help McNamara. Seeing him at NRL grounds, he comes and goes as he pleases and seems to know everyone.

“I think there’s a real sense of people wanting England to do well,” he reckons. “There’s a history there and there ’re a lot of good memories of a lot of good English players who have played in this country and competition. And not only of how they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves and there’s a number of boys now. So there’s a real affection towards English rugby league and, yeah, I see that. The hospitality and the access to everything is incredible. I’m grateful for it.”

What is the most surprising aspect of prowling behind the scenes at an NRL game? “How many people you have in the dressingroom, that’s for one! It’s ridiculous! The press aren’t in there (anymore) but I think everyone else in the stadium is to get a piece of the action.

“The competition is very strong. It’s still not too different to our competition. There is still a gap out here between the best teams and the others. That’s been quite clear to me since I’ve been out here. As much as we talk about in England that being a problem and an issue, it’s similar. There are some teams (here) that are definitely better than the other teams.”

McNamara says England have nothing to learn from the Aussies in terms of sports science and training methods – the national team are at the cutting edge there.

“It’s just the size of the game over here and the publicity it generates and on the back of that, they have a lot of kids playing the game,” he says when pressed for other observations.

“We have between 50,000 and 60,000 participants in the whole of the country. That’s the difference. I couldn’t bear to think how many people are registered as players here. We understand that that’s where we’re at and we have to do the very best with what we’ve got and that’s what we plan to do.”

Before speaking to me, McNamara was seen chatting to Manly’s England-eligible stand-off Daly Cherry Evans. But he says there’ll be no more additions to his squad when it comes to foreign-based stars.

How about another issue: the biff. Will the crackdown on punching be carried over to the World Cup?

“I think it’s very difficult for the authorities. They do have a responsibility for the image of the game and everything else that goes with it. I think there was a quote from Sonny Bill during the week – “it’s parents’ responsibility to raise kids, not the rugby league” and I agree with that. We don’t have to clean everything up. Rugby league isn’t a black and white sport. It’s not a line in the sand where if you cross it, you’re offside. It’s not American Football where the game stops.

“Each incident should be judged on its own merits and not just …. I think there’s varying types of ill-discipline. Some deserve to be punished, some don’t. I think the referees are having that taken out of their hands in some regard and that makes it tough for them.”

Sounds like a ‘no’ then.

Forty-20 may have played a its own little role in England’s preparation when we asked if England would be in South Africa in October at the same time as the NSW Country teams. Steve didn’t know anything about the tour.

“We might get in some opposed sessions against them. Where are they playing? I’ll have to try and get a number off you.”

Always happy to help good people. If I’m there at the same time, maybe Steve can return the favour by taking me out.

I mean, you know, to dinner ….

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE

Why Is Melbourne Storm Successful But London Broncos Aren’t?

Melbourne - Gauci Bellamy EvansBy STEVE MASCORD

OF all the Brits who might one day end up running an NRL club, it’s fair to say Mark Evans would have been a long way down the list just 12 months ago.

Best known for his work with Saracens and Harlequins in the other code, Evans had played a role in London Broncos’ tenancy at The Stoop as well as helping market this year’s World Cup semi-final double-header at Wembley.

But the Welshman’s roots were deeply in the other code, where he had been involved in the Bloodgate scandal of 2009, when Harlequins were found to have been using capsules to cheat the blood bin system.

All that changed when Evans was approached early this year by New Zealander Bart Campbell regarding the Melbourne Storm. The NRL champion was up for sale and Campbell, a sports manager and marketer, was thinking of forming a syndicate to buy it from News International.

As cursory as Evans’ knowledge of rugby league was, he knew even less about Australia when he first touched down in May to conduct a due diligence investigation of the Storm.

Now a month into the job, he is uniquely placed to compare the game in Australia and the UK as a business – and also to offer an opinion on why the fortunes of Melbourne and London, who operate in apparently similar environments, have varied so dramatically.

His both an outsider and someone who has had an insider’s perspective on the running of the sport in two hemispheres.

Chatting from his AAMI Park office on a weekday afternoon, he stats with what he sees at the major difference between the two sports markets. “The Australian market is not dominated by one sport, whereas in the UK, soccer is so much bigger than everything else.

“The sports market is terrifically competitive between the four football codes (in Australia), although soccer is played in the summer so it is slightly removed in the sense that for spectators and television, it’s really competing with cricket. It competes with the other football codes for participation and does so very successfully.”

But in Australia, as opposed to the UK, “rugby league has managed to position itself, over time, as one of the two critical television sports on the Australian roster.”

We’ll dip in and out of the Broncos v Storm comparison during this story but Evans starts by pointing out the Melbourne have Broncos in the shade “partly because rugby league here is a national television product.

“You get half a million people in Melbourne watch State of Origin. That’s massively increased from where it was but you have got big events in rugby league in Australia that almost transcend the sport. The grand final and State of Origin really do … they’re sort of must-watch events.

“So there is an awareness in Melbourne that rugby league is a big sport in Australia. In the same way that people in Sydney have to accept that AFL is a big sport in Australia, you can’t avoid that, you can’t ignore that.

“So it’s a lot higher up the sports agenda, I suppose, than rugby league is in the UK.

“Even the AFL, which is financially the strongest of the codes, is having to pump huge amounts of money, amounts you couldn’t possibly spend on the development of a sport in the UK, into Western Sydney as a classic example.

“Melbourne and London? Melbourne is four million people. How do you define London? M25 London has got about nine million and, I mean, everything in Melbourne is played in the middle. They only play out of three stadia – all the rugby, all the soccer, all the Aussie Rules – all in the middle of town.

“In terms of getting to a game, it’s a lot easier than it is in London. Most of the grounds in London tend to be in the suburbs. If you’re living in Barking and you want to go to Twickenham and watch Super League, it’s not an easy trip.”

The AFL signs players from other sports and gives them to clubs, gives expansion teams preferential draft picks and decides what positions need to be filled in each club, paying the wages of those employees the club can’t afford.

“That brings us to another difference – the power at the centre,” says Evans. “Although the differences aren’t as stark in rugby league, the whole power of the league and the power at the centre, are much more along the lines of the American model.

“So, the AFL are a very powerful organisation. They run the league, they run the sport, they run everything. The NRL, not so much but still more than Premier Rugby or the Premier League. They’re a much more centralised business model, which has some advantages.

“You can be more strategic, you can try and promote the benefits across the league rather than everything accumulating to a small number of clubs within the league.”

While elsewhere in this month’s Forty20, Steve McNamara reckons the NRL isn’t as unpredictable as it’s made out to be, Evans says it’s “probably the most competitive of the football codes in Australia.

“Melbourne Storm, running second, can go to Wests Tigers last week and lose and no-one really falls over in shock. Was it a surprise? Yeah, probably. Most people would have said the Storm would win. Was it a shock? Not really. They’ve got Benji Marshall, they’ve got Robbie Farah, they’re not a bad side – and they’re running 15th.

“I suppose Premier Rugby is the closest the UK has got. That probably goes down to eight or nine (teams) – possibly. In the NRL, it really does go down 14 or 15 in the way the AFL used to but now doesn’t because of those expansion policies.

“So that’s another big difference – not just because rugby league is a bigger sport but because of the way it’s structured and organised.”

You can understand from talking to Evans the way he thinks. He’s creating a list in his head, is if for a presentation, the way journalists rank things in terms of newsworthiness even when they’re talking to their friends in the pub.

Evans reckons rugby league, administratively, is still ahead of the pack in the UK and more like its Australia equivalents than other sports.

“They’ve got a licence system, they’ve got a reasonably equal divide of central money. It’s just that they don’t have as much to play with,” he observes.

“Greater Western Sydney really aren’t competitive yet.”

Marketing is also very, very different. “ The control you have over information flow is very different, it’s probably more highly developed in the UK.

“Because the media is much more regionalised here, all the radio is local … Melbourne people listen to Melbourne radio, Sydney people listen to Sydney radio. There are no national newspapers aside from The Australian. If you live in Melbourne and you are going to watch rugby league, you’re either going to watch the Storm or you’re going to watch it on TV. You’re not going to travel to Canberra or where-ever. The same for the Warriors, the Broncos, the Knights, the Cowboys.

“There are a lot of things that the sport itself can’t control. They either come to pass over long periods of time or they accidents of geography.”

Australians, historically, have appointed commissions whenever they were in trouble. They do it for corruption and politics and business and now they have one for rugby league.

“I think it’s a very good model,actually,” Evans says. “I think that the independence aspect, while by no-means perfect and I don’t think anyone at this very early stage is saying it is, is a good model.

“This isn’t just a rugby league thing, it’s all of sport but I think trying to get good governance and good strategy from Leeds where it’s all the teams sitting around the table is very difficult.

“It’s culturally … in the UK we’ve no history of it, in hardly any sport at all. It’s not just us, it’s Europe. The closest thing we’ve got, it might be the Irish rugby union.”

Evans says scarcity of international distractions is actually a strength for the NRL as it provides “focus”.

And so back to our central question: why have the Melbourne Storm excelled and fellow exiles London Broncos floundered?

“I have a fantastic admiration for David Hughes and there are many people at that organisation trying to do the right thing and doing the right thing,” he says. “I do think that growing a spectator based sport in an area with very little tradition of that sport withoutt the sport having massive television coverage is incredibly hard.

“Look at basketball in the UK. Thousands of boys play it. We tried to get a really big basketball league going in the UK , I don’t know how many times. We failed because of lack of arenas and lack of visibility through the media.

“I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that if you look at the NFL, what did they do before bringing games to Wembley? They saturated Sky on Sunday night for five years. They created a market where people understood the product before they even tried to get people to come along and watch it live.

“There are a number of things you have to have, there is no magic formula, but a number of things we’ve talked about today, London Broncos just don’t have. It’s not a huge television sport – there are some (viewers) – the grounds are all spread out and travel’s difficult, they have a dominant code and it’s a real tough thing to do anyway, even when all those things are going in your favour.

“The simplistic saying, ‘oh, it must work because there’s so many people’ – that’s just silly. It flies in the face of all the evidence all around the world.

“There’s got to be a significant proportion of people in that population base who are aware of and understand and have some enjoyment/interest in it. That can come from playing it, it can come from watching it on television. ..

“If you haven’t got that, it’s really difficult.”

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE