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
advertise here

BONDI BEAT: December 2016

By STEVE MASCORDrlw-december-2017

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.
amazon
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.
advertise here
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.
donate2
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

 

BONDI BEAT: November 2015 – The differences in RL media between Australia and the UK

RLW Nov 2015By STEVE MASCORD

I’VE held off writing about this subject for years now because I feared offending colleagues: the different ways in which rugby league is covered in Australia and Britain.

But this year’s Super League grand final presented a couple of extremely stark examples of the contrast and I just couldn’t let the opportunity go by once more.

Two incidents stick out for me. One, Danny McGuire’s apparent knock-on before Joel Moon’s 26th minute try, and Liam Farrell shoving McGuire into the advertising hoardings as he crossed eight minutes later.

I asked Wigan coach Shaun Wane about the former at the media conference. I refrained from asking McGuire about either incident when he came to the presser because I wanted to get him on his own. No-one else asked and as I write this I haven’t had the opportunity to ask Danny one-on-one.

The video refereeing decision to award the Moon try decided a competition – make no mistake. While Wigan winger Joe Burgess complained about the call, very little was written about it.

donate2Compare this to the NRL grand final, where North Queensland won but there was plenty of chatter about whether Johnathan Thurston was illegally dispossessed before a Jack Reed try.

A contentious video refereeing decision that decided a premiership would be headline news for days in Australia – inestimably bigger than Wayne Bennett’s complaints about golden point time, as an example.

Over the years, I’ve gained a better understanding about why this difference in approach exists. There are several reasons but they all revolve around rugby league being a much bigger sport in Australia.

The reporter covering an NRL game assumes most of his readers saw the match. He tries to find something different to tell them over their bacon and eggs.

A journalist at a Super League game assumes the exact opposite: most readers DID NOT see the game. He or she must use their allotted word count to explain the basics which an Australia hack can gloss over – who won, how and why.

For Australian readers who wish there were more stories about Joe Blow being a good player and the match being very entertaining – there’s your reason. When you’re popular, scrutiny really does come with the territory – in an almost mechanical way.

However, I have also sensed over the years that rugby league reporters in the UK are – perhaps largely subconsciously – protective of the sport. I may be completely wrong but I would guess at least some of them would be embarrassed to highlight a grand final being decided by an officiating error.

I am not qualified to judge the performance or decisions of my colleagues and I avoid doing so at all times.

advertise here
But I do wonder if sometimes this well-intentioned positivity robs coverage of some of its drama and colour. Would Burgess’s comments screaming from the front page of the specialist press on the Monday after the grand final have hurt anyone?

It was a story – not just content, which is what far too much of the daily churn of sports coverage today has become.

Another factor which I have seen in second-tier sports – in Australia, that’s soccer – that affects the coverage is a lack of competition.

You are always going to get the same space in the paper, regardless of what you write so there is more incentive to not miss something than there is to get something different.

Your sports editor is focused on the big show, not you. He’s only going to notice if you stuff up. The secret to a peaceful life is to collude with your rivals and write the same thing every day.

I am not saying this happens in the UK – because rugby league isn’t even in most national papers on weekdays anymore.

But I have even seen it recently in Australia. Journalists covering the NRL feel under appreciated with the collapse of the newspaper industry. They don’t travel anymore, they have to get copy in early regardless of quality.

So they have taken to cutting corners – sharing the duties of transcribing quotes and doing away with the old tactics and gamesmanship that used to be a hallmark of the trade.

Last season a journalist misheard a quote on his digital voice recorder and the misquote appeared in every newspaper the next day because the reporters were transcribing for each other.

.

THE upcoming World Cup qualifiers in South Africa and the United States present some interesting questions regarding eligibility.

Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah wanted to play for Lebanon in Brakpan (that’s where the games actually are – not Pretoria, which sounds better).

He was told by RLIF liason officer Tas Baitieri he would be sacrificing his New South Wales jersey if he did so.

Regular readers of this column would be aware of my position on this: it’s ridiculous. State of Origin’s integrity has been propped up by recent rule changes that mean you must have lived in NSW or Queensland before the age of 13 to play.

Why should NSW or Queensland care what country you represent beyond that? Only if they want to use Origin to stockpile players, which is precisely what is happening.

It’s my understand that part of the new ‘whole of game’ proposal before the NRL right now is to separate Origin from the Australian team – but it has precious little support from key figures who see New Zealand’s international dominance as a reason to use the system to Australia’s advantage.

Having said all that ….

You cannot take part in World Cup qualifiers without meeting a minimum level of domestic activity. But once you are in the qualifiers, the availability of fulltime professionals can make your national team completely unreflective of how much rugby league is played at home.

Wales has more players than the United States but lost to a Tomahawks side full of foreign-based players at the last World Cup.

As a sport, we need to ask ourselves whether we are comfortable with teams getting into the World Cup with players who have only visited that country fleetingly. Once the tournament is on, I guess we want to see the best players on the pitch.

Part of me thinks it’s a good thing that Lebanon will not have Farah’s services in Brakpan against a South African side that has a selection policy of not picking anyone who has never played the sport domestically.

The Cedars will still win – just not by as much.

The RLIF showed its own view of this by making the top seven teams from the last World Cup automatic qualifiers for the 2017 – pointedly snubbing the US.

But making the rules up as you go along, while a time honoured rugby league practice, isn’t terribly professional.

How do we write a consistent rule that gives us strong national teams that have connection to their domestic competitions? Answers on the back of a postage stamp….

@BondiBeat

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

THE JOY OF SIX: International Season Week One 2014

The Joy Of SixSANDOW SIN BIN

WHEN we went to Parramatta with claims Chris Sandow had played in an aboriginal knockout and been sent off for a shoulder charge followed by an elbow, Eels CEO Scott Seward told us: “He had permission to play. He passed a medical and the coach gave him his blessing. Chrissy has told us he was sent to the sin bin for a shoulder charge on a childhood friend. It was a bit of a joke between them.” But bootleg video on YouTube above appears to show a dismissal – with the elbow chiefly to blame. When Seward put this to Sandow, he insisted he wasn’t aware he had been sent off, only sin binned. We can’t find any record of a judiciary hearing. The title for the Murri Carnival at Redcliffe two weeks ago changed hands when it was discovered the winners, Murri Dingoes Blue, fielded a player who mistakenly believed his drugs suspension had expired. Parra’ refused permission for Joseph Paulo and Bereta Faraimo to play for the US in the Mitchelton Nines on Saturday.

PUNCHING ON 1

WE have often heard this year that “little guys wouldn’t be pushing big guys if they could still be punched”. It was just a theory until the Super League grand final, when little Lance Hohaia pushed big Ben Flower, then lunged at him with a raised forearm. As we know, Hohaia punched Flower twice, the second time when he was on his back, possibly unconscious. They both missed the rest of the game, leaving St Helens to limp to victory as they have all year. Had Flower – who left Old Trafford before fulltime – not opted out of Wales duty, he could at least have counted the upcoming European internationals against what will no doubt be a mammoth suspension. Condemnation of Flower has been widespread and almost unanimous. Soccer star Joe Barton Tweeted he had “little sympathy” for Hohaia because of the provocation, but later stressed he did not intend to defend the Welshman.

PUNCHING ON 2

LIKE Wigan’s Super League campaign, the proud 15-year-plus history of the United States Tomahawks may have come to an end with a punch at the weekend. The USARL is taking over running the game in the US and is likely to dispense with the old AMNRL trademark, meaning it was all on the line when the Americans trailed invitational side Iron Brothers 8-4 with three minutes left in a Nines quarter-final in Brisbane. The Tomahawks got the ball back but sometime-cage fighter Tui Samoa took umbrage to something a rival said and punched him. Water carrier Paulo – banned, as we said, by Parramatta from playing – helped separate them, Samoa was sent to the bin and Brothers scored again to eliminate the US 14-4.

GRACIOUSNESS AND GAFFES

AND what a mixed bag we had for rugby league public speaking at the weekend. On the plus side, congrats to departing Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin, the club’s player of the year Ben Hunt and CEO Paul White for their oratory at the club presentation. “Ben Hunt was entitled to test his value on the open market but he didn’t,” White told around 500 guests. “Although at a backyard barbecue I was at, he did get his message across to me by changing the words of the Status Quo song to ‘down, down, prices are down”. Griffin said: “Whatever I do now, I’ll be a competitor. But I’ll never be a critic of this club or the people in it.” On the negative, St Helens’ Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, at fulltime on live TV: “I’m absolutely buzzing. I could fucking swear”. Yes, he said those words – in that order.

WORLDWIDE LIVE

SOUTHS chief executive Shane Richardson has savaged the running of the international game in Britain’s The Observer. “I look at the state of international rugby league and it just makes me angry,” Richardson – citing the departure of Sam Burgess as a symptom of the problem – said. “I know from the years I’ve spent in the game, and the contacts I’ve made in business, and the places I’ve been around the world, that there’s a potential to do so much more.” Nevertheless, Greece played their first home international at the weekend, beating the Czechs 68-16 in Athens, the Philippines defeated Vanuatu 32-16 on remote Santo and Norway were preparing to meet Thailand in Bangkok. Next weekend, Latin America faces Portugal and Fiji takes on Lebanon, both in Sydney while Tonga take on PNG in Lae and the European Championships commence.

RETIRING ON A HIGH

REPORTS of veteran rugby league photographer Col Whelan’s retirement were greatly exaggerated last year. The NRL weren’t quite ready to take over Col’s operation and he went around in 2014 for one last season – wearing a South Sydney cap to every game. NRL rules prohibit media from wearing club merchandise but the media areas are full of uniformed club staff posting on social media, an inconsistency the irascible snapper sought to highlight. At fulltime on grand final day in the bunnies rooms, players became concerned Col had stopped shooting. He was crying with happiness. At the Red and Green ball, Whelan presented every player with a disc containing 120 photos of their life-defining triumph. What a way to go out – enjoy your retirement, Col.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Six Highlights Of The 2014 NRL Regular Season

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD

THERE Is something unnatural – even mean-spirited – about the finals.

For 26 weeks, rugby league is just THERE. Some weekends, there aren’t eight NRL games but no matter how well or otherwise your team plays, there’ll be a match to watch again in a minimum of a fortnight

That’s 24 matches in all – pain, sweat, ecstacy, danger, drama and heartbreak. Leave aside the commercial aspect and look at it as a football competition – 1920 minutes are played purely for the right to make the finals.

Once there, the maximum number of minutes of football you will be afforded is 320. The mathematics, therefore, answer the most basic of questions: how much more important is a final than a regular season match?

Six times more important. Every minute in a final is worth six during the home and away rounds. Put another way, the NRL season is the equivalent of running six times around a track to decide whether you make the final one-lap sprint, and what your handicap will be.

But it’s those six laps that often give us our best stories and our memories. Those six laps are what makes a season for most of us, not the hare-like sprint at the end.

From a logic standpoint, the play-offs are clearly an artifice – a construct intended to add excitement and therefore profitability to the back end of a sporting competition. We are often told performances under the pressure of sudden death are “the true test” of a team.

Who says? Why? Surely how many tries and goals you score, and how few you concede, are more impartial barometers. That’s why Manly coach Geoff Toovey said the minor premiers were not given enough credit.

Here at League Week, we’ve tried to redress the balance this week by recording and honouring the players and teams who passed the post first in 2014.

A football season is often described as “a journey” but for your correspondent, it has been many. At the time of writing, I have travelled 162,922 km this year, mostly in pursuit of rugby league.

A season for me is a blur of airports, insane taxi-drivers, rental car desks, wifi passwords and hotel loyalty programmes. What do you ask Greg Inglis after he scores the try of the century? How do you report Alex McKinnon’s injury when no-one will talk about it? How do you get Steve Matai and Anthony Watmough to comment on reports they’ve just asked for a release?

Here are my moments of the season – from the point of view of a travelling hack trying to cover them for radio, newspapers and the great Rugby League Week. They are feats which weren’t only observed, they were lived (your favourite memory may have missed the cut for a simple reason – I wasn’t there).

April 14: MELBOURNE SCORES AFTER THE BELL TO BEAT ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA

THE NRL would later confirm fulltime should have prevented the Storm scoring the winning try in a 28-24 win. Working for Triple M, your reporter grabbed the winning scorer – Young Tonumaipea – right on fulltime. Unfortunately, we were on the same frequency as another outlet, meaning Young sounded like he was broadcasting from Venus. The mobile phone was quickly produced, and interviews were submitted by email. The trouble with the clock was not immediately obvious but Dragons coach Steve Price told us on air: “When I thought it was zero, he still hadn’t played the ball. We were truly the better team tonight – by far.”

April 20: BIG PAUL VAUGHAN BAGS A TRY ON THE DEATH TO BEAT MELBOURNE’

WE were on the scene within seconds of the Italian International danced nimbly between defenders to score the try of his life. “I just picked up the ball, I don’t know what happened, it happened so fast,” said Vaughan after the 24-22 victory.. “I think there was a loose ball, I saw a couple of lazy defenders and skipped across and gap opened up and I went for it. I thought it might have been a possible obstruction.” It was the Raiders’ third win of the year – they would find them harder to come by over the balance of the camptain.

April 25: GREG INGLIS SCORES LENGTH OF THE FIELD SOLO TRY BEATING SIX DEFENDERS

THERE was a collective withholding of breath in the Suncorp Stadium media box as Inglis set off on this run for the ages. Surely, he won’t get there – will he? Even gnarled hacks applauded when he did. Coming to the South Sydney dressingroom doors later in the evening, Inglis said: “I think anyone can score one of them. You’ve got Benny Barba …you see a try like that from (Michael) Jennings over the years at Penrith. You just see all these naturally gifted players. It’s a bit unfortunate in our game that you don’t see enough of it.” He came close with another beauty in the return encounter.
June 7: CRONULLA WINS FROM 22-0 DOWN

CRONULLA’S season has been bleak by any measure. The ASADA controversy and suspension of coach Shane Flanagan meant 2014 was a write-off from the start. When they arrived at Suncorp Stadium in late Jun,e captain Paul Gallen had publically questioned whether caretaker Peter Sharp was giving 100 per cent. No-one expected them to win and they duly trailed 22-0 after 27 minutes. What followed seemed impossible; the Sharks started their comeback just before halftime and won 24-22. “I think it’s a turning point for the club – it doesn’t matter where we finish this year, and in my career – where we’ll remember when everything turned around,” he said. Days later, Carney would be sacked over the bubbling incident.

June 15: CRONULLA WINS FROM 24-0 DOWN

GENERALLY speaking, I don’t cover Sydney games for the newspaper. There are enough rugby league reporters in Sydney. But when they Sun-Herald gave me one, it was a doozy. Eight days after the biggest comeback in the Sharks’ 47 year history, they broke the record again – by beating the reigning premiers and world champions. Not only that, they did it without Sharp, Carney and captain Paul Gallen. Jeff Robson scored the winner with three minutes remaining, and the Roosters crossed with 11 seconds on the clock but the try was disallowed because the referees were unsighted. “I thought I got it down,” Mitch Aubusson said. Cronulla’s round 25 display in Townsville almost got the wooden spooners three mentions here.

JULY 20: RISE FOR ALEX

NEVER mind that Newcastle lost their home game to Gold Coast, 28, on the Rise For Alex weekend. McKinnon’s injury was the saddest event in the careers of most of us. I covered the match and will never forget that night and what I witnessed and heard from the sidelines. But the Rise For Alex round was a testament to the compassion of the rugby league community and a platform for a brave, stoic young man who has already made a difference n the lives of so many and will continue to be beacon. The character, bravery and hard work of Alex McKinnon and those around him was best thing about 2014, and will remain so no matter what happens over the next four weekends.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

BONDI BEAT: August 2014

RUGBY-LEAGUE-WORLD_AUG-14By STEVE MASCORD

JOURNALISM is full of new experiences, even after 400 issues of this esteemed organ. For the first time in my career, I am about to write a column which attempts to rebut another column written by the guy paying me for this column. 

Most of you will know the back story.

I recently wrote a yarn saying rugby league had a terrible image. League Publications chief Martyn Sadler responded on totalrl.com saying – I think – that I was wrong. Or that I shouldn’t have written that, anyway.

Rather than make this tit-for-tat throughout, which will age very quickly, I’d like to develop this column into a discussion about what is really at the core of rugby league, what its soul means to you and how that differs from myself and Martyn.

That is something people might still find interesting when the 800th RLW rolls off the presses.

This debate has laid bare the fact that some people believe the game is being “taken from them” by poorly behaved players, while others believe pandering to the media and moral outrage would take it from them.

But first, the good thing about Martyn’s piece, which I liked very much, was that he posed a series of questions to me.

Firstly, the story was not prompted by a Tweet from a player agent. His language simply gave me a way into the subject. His comment was made several hours before the Todd Carney photo emerged.

Secondly, I did not “put the boot into rugby league players generally”. There is a paragraph there, which Martyn excludes, where I point out I have praised the behaviour of most players many times before.

The column is about rugby league’s image, mainly in Australia, and the influence of player behaviour on that image.

Martyn completely misses the point when I say a development officer in Hobart suffers when an NRL player stuffs up. It’s not that the development officer thinks less of the sport, it’s that everyone he is trying to sell it to is scared off!

Since the column appeared, grassroots people In Tasmania, Germany, Greece & Thailand have contacted me to thank me. Shannon Crane from Thailand said a 14-year-old boy came up to him and asked “what’s bubbling?”. Simon Cooper sent me a German language clipping about Carney.

These people believed their largely unrewarded efforts were being undermined by badly behaved professionals.

I was also contacted by two extremely high profile former coaches, two well-known former Test players and an ex PR at a pro club. They said I had not gone too far. The PR said the behaviour he witnessed put him off the game “for life”.

Martyn the SMH is a sister paper of  The Age. They print the same stories. Rugby league is a mainstream sport in Australia. All stories are written with the expectation they will be read by the wider public, including those who dislike the game. As a writer, if it’s what you believe to be the truth, the opinions of the publisher and the reader do not matter.

You, however, usually write for the converted. My aim was deliberate  – to upset insiders by pointing out to them the way the product of rugby league was seen by everyone else, in front of everyone else.

Someone said to me that Martyn’s main error was to confuse the game with the product. I have chased the game all around the world. I’ve seen and experienced all those wonderful things Martyn speaks about. Visiting a Filipino orphanage with young men who had never been to their  parents’ home country will live with me forever.

But I firmly believe the product of rugby league is poorly positioned in Australia.More of that later.

Martyn asks if I feel ashamed of rugby league. Yes Martyn, at times I do. And despite your belief that I was playing to the gallery of AFL and rugby union apologists, if you look at comments at the bottom of the column and elsewhere, you will see many other rusted-on league fans in this country feel the same.

One fellow even felt inspired enough to write an open letter to David Smith, detailing the extent of his embarrassment.

Do Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson make me ashamed of being Australian and a journalist as well? Yes! They do! But I remain both nonetheless.

Martin mentions scandals in other sports, as others have. But in Australia, rugby league would already have a down-market image even if players behaved, because a history we all have some understanding of.  It’s the lower class rugby here, too.

What bad behaviour does is confirm those prejudices.

That’s where I want this column to go, if there’s room. The huge question we face is: do we just accept our place in the world as a fact of life or do we move to alter our entire demographic?

The AFL aren’t trying to win over rugby league and rugby union fans. They’re trying to convert their kids. They built infrastructure, visit schools, give things away and they have an aura of being cool, genteel and family oriented.

And parents in NSW and Queensland see them as being less “bogan” than rugby league, which is always in the news for badly behaved players. Sure,.it’s in the news because it’st he biggest show in town – but every times someone stuffs up, it plays into their hands.

I believe the AFL will win this war unless we dramatically overhaul our image. The NRL can either be the flagship for a community pursuit or an extreme sport.

A Canberra fan answered some of Martyn’s comments for me. To the point about Ed Ballis: “Yes I can Martyn. It happened after Carney led police on a high speed chase through Canberra after running a red light, while having a suspended licence, then running away from his car to leave Steve Irwin carrying the can – what happens is Carney got let off by The Raiders, The NRL and the courts, as long as he didn’t do it again. ”

To the point about Richard Scadamore:” Barking at women outside All Bar Nun wasn’t particularly complimentary. But then again, nor was pissing on someone else’s neck in the men’s room.”

Martyn once wrote that players who take performance enhancing drugs should not be labelled cheats – which I frankly found outrageous – so we are not going to ever agree on many of the points raised here.

But I believe rugby league is a sport of noble origins that has a fatal flaw. It’s biggest strength is that it is a working class game but its biggest flaw is that for 119 years it has been a gravy train for too many people with no other way of making a quid.

Decisions have been short term-selfish and narrow-minded.

Somehow we have to not only amputate those on the gravy train but also those who facilitate or even ignore them.

The answer to the question of what makes it “our game” is straightforward: it’s not. By the time we get to 500 issues, maybe we’ll have realised it’s everyone’s and have eliminated those who want to keep it mired in a past which NEED NOT have any relevance to the next generation.

.

I was going to write this column about Jim Savage, who is my closest friend and who I first met as an Open Rugby penpal in 1986. 

Jim is now a bartender in Boston, Massachussetts.He buys a season ticket at Warrington every year, even though he can’t go (and if he does, he buys another ticket).

His father stood on the terraces at Wilderspool, so did his grandfather. He was disgusted by the Carney episode.

He inspired my original SMH column.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD