By STEVE MASCORD
FAR & WIDE’s favourite club, the Toronto Wolfpack, will make their full competitive debut this weekend in the Challenge Cup.
We thought we’d be waiting until March 4 when they take their National League One bow against London Skolars at New River Stadium but now we don’t have to wait that long.
The BBC will live stream the Challenge Cup third round tie against Halifax amateur side Siddal.
Siddal is only about six kilometres from the Wolfpack’s UK base at Brighouse. The match will be shown on the BBC website at 1pm UK time on Saturday.
The Challenge Cup is, of course, rugby league’s most famous knock-out competition and a good Cup run could see the ‘pack take on Super League opposition in later rounds.
IT’S a week now since colleague Robert Burgin brought you the shattering news in these pages that the planned Emerging Nations tournament to be run in conjunction with the World Cup had been blocked.
The most worrying aspect of his commendable double-paged feature from the point of view of Far & Wide is that a number of un-named countries are considering breaking away from the RLIF.
On one hand, I can feel their anger and frustration. But on the other, with rugby league so close to getting recognition from Sport Accord and the IOC, any splintering could be disastrous.
Interestingly, next year is a “rest” springtime for the NRL’s Australian players, which means the international calendar will be relatively sparse. A properly-funded Emerging Nations tournament in Australia (the RLIF have promised some money as compensation for the disaster this year) could be successful, particularly if the RLWC is a hit.
You could even make some of these games worth something – perhaps offer a wildcard entry into the qualifying series for the 2021 tournament.
Hopefully, sanity will prevail but if I had wasted all that time planning something, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and been humiliated in front of sponsors and government officials, I’d be threatening rebellion too.
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By STEVE MASCORD
WELCOME to the most exciting season for at least four years for any Far & Wide reader – a World Cup year!
While there may be a little doom and gloom around the domestic campaigns in each hemisphere, if you’re a follower of the international scene you’ll probably have never been so positive about the sport of rugby league.
The Toronto Wolfpack make their competitive debut in Britain’s National League One on March 4, having been hugely impressive in two pre-season matches.
In December their trialists, drawn from North America and the Caribbean, beat Yorkshire amateur club Brighouse Rangers on the bell. The search for talent over the past six months was filmed by a production crew called Last Tackle and will be coming to your screens this year.
Then in January the contracted players were unfortunate not to beat Challenge Cup holders Hull at their home of KC Stadium. More about all that in the accompanying story in this edition of RLW.
But the thing we’re all really focused on is the World Cup at the end of the year. The main tournament’s going to be shown in Australia on Channel Seven and seems to be coming together well, with sponsors being announced all the time.
The side-tournaments have had it a little rougher.
The qualifying process for the Women’s World Cup was, frankly, a bit of a joke. France were kicked out for no reason and – also for no apparently reason – Canada was included. Then we had a Pacific Qualifying Tournament that was so hastily arranged that every country bar one boycotted it.
That’s except the Cook Islands, who showed up and didn’t have to play anyone to get through to the World Cup!
A group of countries who missed out on World Cup qualification, or who aren’t yet ready to take part, decided it might be a good idea to hold an Emerging Nations tournament at the same time. They were soon told there would be absolutely no funding for them.
The RLIF did, however, approve the idea – perhaps in the very reasonable expectation it would never happen because of the expense involved, what with travel, insurance and accommodation.
To everyone’s amazement, the likes of Malta and Greece got things to the point where they were ready to make an announcement. Then – nothing. Far and Wide hears that because there are so few actual World Cup games in Sydney, there is a concern that this side tournament could steal some of its thunder.
Surely they can’t be trying to “un-endorse” something that is clearly good for the game?
ANOTHER big milestone which seems ahead of us this year is rugby league finally being recognised by Sport Accord.
If you live in Australia this might be hard to believe but in most places on earth, rugby league is not legally a separate sport from rugby union.
This means people trying to start the game in a new place can legitimately be stood over by rugby union, with Sol Mokdad’s 13 nights in a Dubai jail a particularly disgraceful example.
League’s recognition has been delayed twice. We’re up again in April.
By STEVE MASCORD
LETTNG Australian NRL players playing a role in determining the next 10 years of international matches might sound daft – but there could be method in the madness.
The NRL itself will play a huge role, of course, in determining what is played – and where – between the 207 World Cup in Australia and the 2025 tournament which will most likely (fingers, toes, tongues and all other appendages crossed) in North America.
The NRL, in turn, has chosen to consult Australia coach Mal Meninga. Now, there is a very good argument it should give David Kidwell just as much say but that’s another column.
Meninga, in turn has consulted his players. Before the England-Australia Test in London, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was to address the Kangaroos about the options set to be tabled in Liverpool at the RLIF congress.
Here’s why listening to the players may not be such a bad idea: they like trips.
I surveyed a number of them at the Four Nations series launch about where they wanted the 2021 World Cup to be held and the US had sizeable support.
Before the London Test, Australia prop Matt Scott said he’d be willing to give up the post-season break mandated by the Rugby League Players Association in 2018 if it was possible to play a touring Great Britain side.
Scott head earlier told me he wished the Australian side was able to see more of Europe during the tournament.
For what it’s worth, it is still likely to be a spring break in 2018 for the Aussies. There is a push for a full Kangaroo Tour in 2019 with perhaps an eight-team Federation Cup in 2020. That may be in America. The preferred structure is two pools of four teams, seeded, with a final.
Promoter Jason Moore has some different ideas on that structure.
But while NRL administrators are dominated by money and the clubs in in their concerns, empowering players who want to see the world might be the key to unlocking the potential of the international game at the highest level.
AT the height of the is-Wayne-Bennett-rude controversy I called the RFL to find out exactly what the great man’s job entails.
When I asked Bennett at his now-infamous London media conference if his only responsibility was to coach the team, he responded: ‘That’s exactly right.”
Asked if there was anything else in the job description, he said: “No”.
I won’t go into who I called and who called back and who I thought would call back because there are some personal relationships at work. But suffice to say three people were involved, two of whom I spoke to, and after four hours I was told there would be no on-the-record comment.
To me, Bennett is entitled to be himself. It’s not as if the RFL didn’t know what they were getting. I agree with colleague Paul Kent that if there was any additional abrasiveness during the Four Nations it could be a sign of vulnerability at the end of a difficult personal year in unfamiliar surroundings.
But the RFL needs to be accountable for the choice they made. They need to come out and say they only care about winning and support Bennett.
Or they need to have a word to Bennett about their bedside manner.
Or they need to explain why they didn’t have a word to him about his bedside manner.
To duck for cover and say nada says little for the courage or leadership at Red Hall. When the RFL challenged me on an aspect of my reporting about this issue, I challenged them back to have a go at me publicly because that would at least be be an on-the-record comment on the issue.
At the time of writing, I am still waiting.
SOME of you, with an interest in such things, might find a look at the way the media was handled during the Four Nations somewhat instructive.
The Australians held media opportunities, on average, every second day at their hotel. There was an electronic media ‘all-in’ – usually involving NRL.com, Channel Nine and Channel Seven – followed by the same player speaking to print. That was usually just News Limited, Fairfax and Australian Associated Press but anyone covering the tournament was invited.
It was possible to request interviews outside this set-up.
I didn’t go to New Zealand media opps but I’m told they were rather weird – everyone speaking at once. What I mean by that is a coach and two players facing media representatives all at once, with questions and answers flying from everywhere. Also, the Kiwis openly labelled these as being for “travelling NZ media only” – not much help when you’re in Carlisle and there are still tickets to sell in Workington.
(It subsequently transpires this designation was only supposed to deter Kiwi journos at home, trying to cover such events over the phone – not locals)
The England media opps were just as complex but in a different way. England would have a ‘media day’ once a week. In my experience, a ‘media day’ involves reporters and players mingling and talking one-on-one.
But an England media day involved the coach and three players each sitting at a desk and speaking to everyone at once. The first part of each of these was open to radio, TV and agencies. Then the cameras were told to stop rolling and newspapers took over.
The UK newspaper reporters would then collude to decide which day Mike Cooper or Josh Hodgson interviews would be run, agreeing all to quote the same player on the same day.
This system came a little undone when newspaper reporters from other countries, with other requirements, became involved. I approached with this philosophy: I would use answers to my own questions when I chose as I don’t really like being part of a cartel.
But even this approach causes some tensions.
While the England media manager could separate print from electronic, he could hardly dictate what day each story would run so it only took one dissenter for the system to fall apart.
As for one-on-one interviews, I made requests for players from Australia, New Zealand and England for Rugby League Week’s A-List feature. As I write this, I have not done a single one of these interviews.
A way to raise money for the international game, aside from a second ‘property’ such as the Federation Cup, would be for funds from a sponsorship in all internationals to be handed over to the RLIF.
There is an idea out there that the referees in all internationals across the world should be branded with a sponsorship that goes straight to the RLIF.
You’d think, with there being relatively few internationals at present, it would be easy to achieve. Not so. Red tape abounds.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By 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.
“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.
“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
By STEVE MASCORD
IN locations as diverse as Bray, Ireland, Prague, Czech Republic and Tokyo, Japan, our international season got underway at the weekend.
In Bray, the Irish Wolfhounds were taking on Malta and the home side ran out 56-10 winners. It was only in the dying stages they ran away with the match, however with the score 22-4 at halftime and 34-10 with 18 minutes to play.
Greece have had a tough year domestically, with the country expelled from the European Federation for a number of administrative irregularities.
But they have shown their fighting qualities with a successful visit to the Japanese capital, winning 74-0.
The game was played on an artificial surface in front of a vocal crowd of a couple of hundred. Australia-based players now proceed to Athens for a number of rugby league events.
In Prague the Czechs went down heavily to the visiting Ukraine, 64-12. The Ukraine won the earlier match 46-6, meaning they will be the side to progress in the World Cup qualifiers.
AN innovative series played over the weekend was the Capitals of Europe Nines in Budapest.
The tournament at Epitok Sports Field featured teams from London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Belgrade, Paris, Vitez and Budapest.
London Warriors took out the event. Hungary are taking part in the Cabramatta Nines next year.
MEETINGS are continuing aimed at having Emerging Nations curtain-raisers for next year’s World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
There now appears to be an alternate plan under consideration – a seven team Emerging Nations World Cup played in western Sydney.
The matches would all be played between November 20 and 25, with venues to include Pepper Stadium and Campbelltown Stadium.
FORMER international Marc Palanques has joined the RLEF board as a representative of France.
Elsewhere, Wests Tigers’ Daniel Burke, alongside Jordan Grant and James Mirceski are newcomers to Serbia’s squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers – starting with this weekend’s visit to Wales.
Spain have also called up a couple of foreign-based stars, Hull’s Joel Laynez and Leandre Torres of French outfit Palau XIII.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
THE departure of Stephen Kearney as coach of our number one ranked nation, just weeks before the Four Nations, raises a host of intriguing questions.
One must be the inescapable conclusion that coaching a tier one Test team is a post with decisively less prestige than heading up an NRL franchise.
Wayne Bennett would never have chosen England over Brisbane, not in a month of Suncorp Stadium Friday nights.
Mal Meninga at least chose Australia over Queensland but if he was offered, say, Bennett’s job, how long would he stick around? And he also upset Papua New Guinea by walking out on them.
And even though Kearney could have been ready to start work at the Warriors’ Penrose offices by the end of November, he chose to step aside immediately he was picked to replace Andrew McFadden.
At the time of writing, David Kidwell was favourite to replace Kearney. Like Kearney, he has been biding his time as an NRL assistant and comes well recommended.
What will be interesting is how Kidwell handles the politics in the Kiwis camp. Kearney was adept at politely sidestepping questions about why the likes of Benji Marshall and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves were on the outer for periods.
He was also adept at not picking players he felt did not fit into the culture in order to attract those questions. It was the diplomatic equivalent of one of Marshall’s best passes.
Whether Kidwell inherits an sort of unspoken blacklist or gives everyone a fresh start will be extremely interesting to observe.
IT might seem self-evident but I’m still surprised that a club chief executive would come out and say it.
In a recent episode of the excellent Fox Market Watch podcast, Canberra’s Don Furner admitted the national capital’s cold weather was a key recruitment tool for English players.
Next year, Jordan Turner will join Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead at GIO Stadium
“Without a doubt there’s been a sea change in Australia,” Furner told the podcast. “People like to live at the beach and in the warmth and Canberra gets a bad rap.
“We didn’t have the beach and warm weather that could maybe attract players for less money.
“To get a kid from Manly beach or Newcastle beach to move down here, it’s not easy.
“We certainly changed our focus a while ago because we realised those guys don’t want to live here. It’s really hard for them.
“We’ve just extended Elliott and we’re signing up another one for next year actually, so we think we go all right with Englishman, they don’t mind the cold.”
Whitehead, meanwhile, said he “felt sick” conceding the penalty that allowed Cronulla to down the Green Machine in the first week of the finals.
An example of how highly Hodgson is held came from club great Laurie Daley, who said that while the Raiders could get into a grand final without the former Hull KR rake, they would not be able to win one in his absence.
MORE often than not, a day or so before this column is due I am bereft of ideas. Many of the day-to-day happenings in rugby league are cyclical, if not downright repetitive.
But there are few other areas of human endeavour, particularly those to have been pursued for 121 years, so consistently capable of jaw-dropping ridiculousness.
And so it was one Thursday morning, on Facebook, I got an alert saying “Live: Eddie Hayson media conference”. Say what?
Now, I am familiar with Facebook Live. My wedding was on it. But former brothel owners who owe millions of dollars calling media conferences? This was innovative.
Hayson had called the Sydney rugby league media together to answer allegations he had been involved in match fixing. The New South Wales police had taken the issue so seriously, it had formed a strike force to deal with the allegations.
Hayson went on to name a bikie says had given the police knowledge of his involvement. He named a bikie, Antonio Torres, as the man who sold the cops a dummy and pornography baron Con Ange as the one who embellished it to journalists.
He named the journalists whom he believed had wronged him – the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, Channel Seven’s Josh Massoud and the Daily Telegraph’s Rebecca Wilson.
Then, he allowed two them to cross examine him!
Yes, he had tried to put $30,000 into the betting account of Kieran Foran. Yes, he owed boxer Jeff Fenech millions. Yes, rugby league players, police and judges had visited his brothel. Yes he had given them “freebies”.
He gave several people money “because he liked them”. He could afford PR to stars Max Markson because he had had a few wins on the punt recently.
Need I go on?
Hayson ended up denying two allegations and confirming a dozen others – while paying for the platform himself!
I’m sure these sorts of things happen in other sports. Just can’t think of one at the moment.
LAST month we waved the flag (Stars and Stripes, of course) for the American 2021 World Cup bid. We kind of think it’s a good idea.
Of course, these things are dictated as much by money as anything else and the International Federation relies on the profits from World Cups to run the sport for the next four years.
An American World Cup with empty stadiums, little television income and a massive financial black hole would be a disaster for the game, both logistically and from the point of view of our image.
But here’s the thing.
Promoter Jason Moore plans to just give an “eight figure sum” to the RLIF for the right to run the tournament. That’s at least $10 million. Furthermore, he says he will plough another multi-million-dollar investment onto American rugby league.
Now, next year’s World Cup is currently projected to make only $7 million.
I know the offer in the UK is Stg15 million plus infrastructure. I am not sure if the infrastructure figure is conditional on Britain being granted the tournament.
But I ask you this, as a rugby league fans, would you really rather a few nice facilities than someone take on all the risk of taking the game to American and handing over a check for $10 million, making it the more successful than the previous tournament?
No doubt the RLIF would like to ease America in by giving them the new Continental Cup first. Moore doesn’t seem the sort of guy for consolation prizes, however.
Guaranteed 10 mill, no risk, America … Tweet me with your thoughts at @BondiBeat.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUR WORLD