Bondi Beat: December 2015

RLW DecemberAFTER the snorefest that doubled as the Second Test in London, maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to tinkering with the rules of rugby league.
Instead of asking ourselves how we can make our game more exciting, maybe we really need to look at how we can make it less boring.
The NRL is our peak club competition and many of the rule changes and interpretation adjustments come from that part of the world.
But the NRL has supreme athletes who can rise above the mundanity of a pre-programmed style of play to entertain us. Without them, we just get the pre-programmed style of play.
I am not trying to be disrespectful to the Kiwis who took the field at Stratford when I say it may have actually been possible to fit them into an NRL team salary cap.
Without Waerea-Hargreaves, Foran, Johnson, Mannering and Vatuvei they lacked the sort of players I spoke about – those who can rise above sheer athleticism with their skill and flair.
Should we be tailoring our whole sport for these few players who transcend what can often be monotony?
Or should we be making games that do not boast these stars better to watch, and leave the NRL to do what it wants? Should we be rewarding tries scored through the hands by awarding bonus points according to the number of passes in the movement?
God forbid, should we ban hit-ups or drives in junior matches?
At the start of the series, Steve McNamara said England and New Zealand would play with more flair than an NRL game. Clearly, that only applies when the series is not on the line.
To see them both play like Australian club teams, minus the superstars, was very disappointing indeed.
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WE finally have a strategic plan for the game worldwide and, as always, the interesting stuff is in the fine print.

The document released after an RLIF meeting in Paris was big on ideas and short on detail but here’s a few things that stood out to me (both within the document and whispers around the edges):

1. The expression “Rugby World Cup Nines” appeared several times, Are we about fight for the use of the word “rugby”? That would be great;

2. Target two G20 nations. These must surely be the United States and South Africa, although Canada will be fighting hard to be included;

3. The new tournaments, to be known variously as Federation Cups, Intercontinental Cups, Continental Cups and Confederation Cups, are unlikely to involve Australia UNLESS they are nines;

4. By 2025 the RLIF wants half the teams in the World Cup to be capable of making the final. You can bet that they won’t be repeating only half the teams can make the final when the 2025 tournament kicks off;

5. Somehow, 30 more rugby league-playing countries have appeared on the map overnight, including Burundi.
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Of course events on the field in London paled by comparison with the shock we all felt regarding the attack on our colleague Gary Carter.

I was not aware of what had happened until I arrived at the Olympic Stadium on match eve for the respective captain’s runs.

Gary was supposed to be there. The Press Association’s Ian Laybourn broke the news to me and it was hours before I could properly process it.

In these situations you always read about what a nice person someone is but Gary is possibly the most generous man in our trade on either side of the world.

I have lost count of the number of times he has dropped me at my hotel after matches, going miles out of his way.

amazonBefore I did my most recent NRL 360 appearance, I called him for some background and he ended up giving me about three stories!

In some ways it’s still difficult to process. I’m looking forward to visiting him when the series is over and I’ve got some time in London.

I’m sure I speak for everyone reading this when I say I’d do anything necessary to help Gary and his brave wife Gemma during his recovery.

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ONE thing that has really stood out during the Anglo-New Zealand series has been the quality of the pre-match entertainment.

Sure, one wag had a point when he said using choirs of local schoolkids in London cost little or nothing and sold a shedload of tickets to their parents.

But the use of fireworks, marching bands, anthem singers and the mic’ing up of the haka have all been first rate. Understated and classy.

A FEW days before the Third Test, England back rower Brett Ferres sat down with at few of us for what is known in the biz as an “All-in”.

No punches were thrown.

donate2Phil Thomas of The Sun, filling in for our stricken Gaz, asked if there was a sense of a missed opportunity with the loss in London in the wake of the poor performance of the England rugby union team.

“I’ve no interest in rugby union,” he replied, “especially after recent events”

When I pressed him if he was talking about that sport’s treatment of Sam Burgess, he replied: “You can read into that what you want”.

I’m with Brett. I honestly don’t care who is to blame for what when Sam Burgess was playing rugby union.

I’ve no interest in the sport. He’s a league player again so I’m interested in him again.

Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD 

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Five Things We Learned: 2015 NRL Nines

dick-smith-nrl-auckland-ninesBy STEVE MASCORD

SOUTH SYDNEY CAN SURVIVE THE DEPARTURE OF SAM BURGESS

IT’S hazardous to make judgments on premiership candidacy in February and bordering on delusional to do so after a nines tournament. But it wasn’t so much South Sydney’s 18-14 win over Cronulla in a wonderfully offbeat final as little pieces of body language that foreshadowed a robust title defence. Dylan Walker approached defenders with an arrogance in his gait that indicated he knew he could beat them – then did. Adam Reynolds did the same kick over and over again, knowing it would eventually work. Issac Luke lifted a trophy after missing the grand final through suspension and simultaneously declared his elation and downplayed the reason for it. Is there a better way to transition from a championship to its defence than by winning three trophies in the intervening pre-season? Glory, Glory, Glory and finally, Glory.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S STAR REMAINS ALOFT IN AUCKLAND

RUGBY league would no more lose face in New Zealand because of misbehaving players and absent stars than the same reasons would damage the Premier League’s or NFL’s IP in Australia. More than a quarter-century after the Winfield Cup first burst onto Kiwi TV screens, the competition has a sheen of glamour on this side of the Tasman that has too often been tarnished in its birthplace. Local fans supported all teams but reserved their most cacophonous reception for the Warriors and the Kiwi Ferns women’s side, who won a three-match nines series against Australia. The tournament is locked in for five years; reading between the lines, the NRL wants to add teams and the organisers would rather not.

SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED AT CRONULLA, OTHERS HAVEN’T

COACH Shane Flanagan walked out of a close-season media opportunity when he was repeatedly asked about the ASADA controversy and many doubts have been expressed about whether anything has really changed in the Shire. The words and deeds of the Sharks at Eden Park strongly suggest they have. The “new culture” mentioned by Tinarau Arona in one interview was well represented by the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes, among others. But the Sharks are still luckless, cruelly denied in the final despite some defensive heroics and losing Nu Brown for possibly the season with a knee injury. He’ll have surgery on Monday.

THERE were enough stuff-ups in the absence of the video ref to for him not to be worrying about his future employment prospects. Jarrod Mullen succeeded in dispossessing an opponent in-goal but the try was given, Bodene Thompson was denied a touchdown for a team-mate’s knock-on-that-wasn’t and there were more. But the old Super League rule of giving the man (or men, or women) upstairs limited time to do their thang might have merit. The lack of stoppages was refreshing. Another bonus: players interviewed about officiating errors at the Nines did not know they had been dudded because they had not had time to watch the replays themselves!

NINES RUGBY LEAGUE IS NOT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL – AND THAT’S OK

MORE than 16 hours of rugby league will test even the most voracious treiziste and virtually no-one who passes through the gates at the NRL Nines watches every minute of every game. It’s de rigueur for league fans to pontificate about how superior a spectacle their sport is but even caviar and champagne get tedious if they are shoved down your throat every two minutes for an entire weekend. That’s OK. Dress up as a naughty nun, buy a pre-mixed bourbon and coke and punch that inflatable ball back up into the air. The Nines is about the party more than it’s about the football and is definitely best served with a beverage.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

FAR & WIDE: October 2014

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD
JACKSONVILLE Axemen owner Daryl “Spinner” Howland says a successful move to the NFL by Jarryd Hayne could be a massive boost for rugby league in the States.

While there’s been plenty of hand-wringing within the game over the departure of a current co-Dally M holder, Howland says such an attitude is “crazy”.

“At the start of this year 49 per cent of Americans said they were fans of the NFL,” Spinner tells Far & Wide. “That is about 150 million people. If only one per cent of them become aware of the NRL or rugby league that is positive.

“If rugby league messes this up for the fear of losing a player, they are nuts. The NRL should be all over this and supporting Jarryd Hayne anyway that creates media attention towards them.

“Just one per cent is all they need to interest. That is 1.5 million potential new fans, and it will cost them nothing more than some effort in joining some media and PR dots.”

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ONE fellow who caught the eye at the recent Mitchelton Nines was Latin Heat back rower Ken McKenzie.

Born in Guyana, the big man was light on his feet, ferocious in defence and highly skilful. He’s a prison guard in one of Queensland’s toughest institutions and owns a massage business that has stopped him realising his potential until now.

Even some of his team-mates weren’t sure where Guyana is; it’s above Brazil, on the Caribbean.

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IT’S not just the Four Nations kicking off this weekend.

The European Cup continues with Ireland hosting Scotland in Dublin while France take on Wales in Albi.

In recent results, Greece beat the Czech Republic 68-16 in Athens, Thailand downed Norway 46-6 in Bangkok and Nuie outclassed Philippines 36-22.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: 2015 NRL Nines

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

THIS COULD BE MAGIC, SAY NINES ORGANISERS

COUNTING their dollars after a second wildly successful NRL Nines, the promoters have set their sites on a “Magic Weekend”, with an entire round of matches played at Eden Park. St George Illawarra hooker Heath L’Estrange, who has played in the British equivalent, pushed the idea to Set Of Six early Sunday and Duco Events’ David Higgins responded: “That’s a great idea and one about which I have already spoken to (business partner) Dean Lonergan. It would be a big success for the game. We have a good relationship with the NRL now and something I’m sure will be raised.” While Higgins said he had an open mind about adding teams to the Nines in future season, he didn’t sound keen. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?” he mused. “There is great purity to what we have now.”

CRONULLA CULTURE NEEDED AN OVERHAUL, SAYS ARONA

THERE are those who are cynical about the extent of any changes that have occurred at Cronulla since the ADASA controversy. But according to forward Tinarau Arona, the strong showing at the Nines was a testament, not to a distraction-free preparation as the popular narrative ran, but to the extent of how much things have been rebuilt. “It was more for us to play (in response to) the changes at the club, the change of culture,” he said. “We’ve worked hard in the off-season in cleaning up things on and off the field.” Asked to expand he said: “We’ve gone through a lot, obviously, last season and worked at being professional on and off the field.”

PATRICK MICHAEL HUNT

GOT an embarrassing middle name no-one knows about? Just as well you didn’t play in the Nines. The online link for official team lists seemed to include names straight of the passports of NRL stars. Jason Taumalolo is actually Vaai Taumalolo, the real first name of Young Tonumaipea is Yee-Huang., Chanel and Peter Mata’utia are really Chanel and Peter Mata’utia—Leifi and Isaah Yeo is Issah Ferguson-Yeo, amusing team-mate and radio commentator Jamie Soward. Wait, there’s more. “Nene” may be an unusual first name but the winger’s real Christian name is Bosam. And we’re guessing that aside from the tournament organisers, the only person who calls Josh Dugan “Joshua” is his mum.

WALLAROOS PLAY ROLE IN ROOSTERS SUCCESS

WOMEN’S sport played a bigger role in events over the weekend than it would appear at first glance. The girls involved in the three womens’ nine-a-side games at Eden Park thrilled the crowds but the Australian women’s rugby union sevens team also contributed to Sydney Roosters getting to the penultimate round. “One of the staff at the Roosters, her partner is Tim Walsh who coaches the women’s sevens,” said Roosters boss Trent Robinson. “He came in for a day and gave us some tips and told us how he would play the nines.” The Roosters concentrated last year on the World Club Challenge but earned more from getting to the finals at the weekend. “The players get a fair share, I think they keep thinking about the dollar signs at the end of each game.”

MOEROA’S ATOL

PARRAMATTA’S Tepai Moeroa was born in the Cook Islands, raised in New Zealand and lives in Australia. According to the way of the rugby league world, that would be – in reverse order – the countries he would want to play for. But not this hombre. Asked after a blockbusting try against Newcastle on Saturday to which nation he intended to pledge his loyalty, the giant 19-year-old said: “Cook Islands”. He’d chose the Cooks ahead of the big two, if they came knocking? “Yeah. That’s where I’m from so I’d represent the home country.” Good man Tepai – we need more like you.

SUPER BOWL SATURDAY

IT wasn’t quite the University Of Phoenix Stadium but Canberra’s Jack Ahearn bought a piece of the NFL to Eden Park at the weekend – two pieces, actually. The 22-year-old was wearing a pair of flash silver and blue boots as he scored the try that stunned the Warriors on Saturday afternoon. “They’re NFL boots, actually,” he said. “I got them from the US when I was over there. The boys bagged me about them but I think they were good luck today. I think I’m the only one, I haven’t seen anyone else wearing them.” Immortal Andrew Johns and new NRL official Shane Richardson spend the weekend at the real Super Bowl.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

FAR & WIDE: Number One 2015

Far & WideBy STEVE MASCORD
TOP flight rugby league is kicking off early, and in unusual surrounds, this Sunday when Leeds play the United States Pioneers at the University of Northern Florida in Jacksonville.
The Rhinos have been to Florida for pre-season camps three times previously. On this occasion, they have brought in several players from their new sister club in the US, the Atlanta Rhinos, to train with them.
The really historic aspect of the game is that this is the first time the Pioneers are taking the field as the official representatives of the governing body in the US, following the collapse of the AMNRL.
It was the AMNRL that sent the Tomahawks to the 2013 World Cup. The USARL has taken over the running of the national side.
The Rhinos have taken a number of supports with them for the game. Kick-off is at 2pm local time.
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FRENCH Federation president Carlos Zalduendo was recently part of a government delegation – headed by president François Hollande, to Australia.
donateAfter returning from the trip, Zalduendo declared his intention to strengthen his federation’s ties to the Pacific.
“We want to work again with New Caledonia, where we had a presence less than ten years ago, involved in player, coach and referee development,” Zalduendo said.
“This could be an excellent way to bring New Caledonia closer not only to its South Pacific neighbours.”
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ANOTHER big event coming up is the Reconciliation Nines in Redcliffe on January 24 and 25.
Thailand is the only international side currently taking part and they are looking for recruits. Hit them up on Facebook for details.
amazonThere’s another Nines tournament coming up in Mexico in February.
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DANNY Brough was recently voted Scotland’s player of the year.
The Huddersfield Giant continues to choose the Bravehearts over England – and the SRL continues to be grateful. Gold Coast’s Luke Douglas was the 2013 winner of the award.

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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

BONDI BEAT: March 2014

South Sydney - Sam BurgessBy STEVE MASCORD

THE issue of Sam Burgess’s departure from South Sydney has prompted much analysis and hand-wringing about his place in South Sydney, England, the NRL and rugby league in general.
Why is he leaving, as appeared likely at the time of writing? How much will he be missed by these four institutions? What does it say about each of their futures?
Let’s deal with each one by one.
Burgess is an important player at Souths, probably their best after Greg Inglis. There has been speculation his “love of the spotlight” has made him unpopular there. I don’t know about that; what I do know is that his onfield brain explosions have increasingly been costing his team and his temper is a concern to all.
It’s a trait that has shown no sign of abating.
The documentary on Burgess which was shown before last year’s grand final was part of his third party agreements with the club. Colleague David Riccio has speculated the coaching staff at Souths were unimpressed with it.
Had it not been aired, the club would have been in breach of the salary cap for blocking a legitimate third party deal. Coaches focus too much on external things and it’s self perpetuating – you use some inane quote to motivate your side and then you have to prevent your own players from giving inane quotes. Why don’t we just have a truce, furchrisakes?
But that’s another column. Souths will miss Burgess but they’ll replace him. They’ll do well to win a comp with him this year.
England will miss Sam Burgess much, much more. He was their best player in the World Cup and it’s hard to see another forward with the footwork and power of Burgess emerging any time soon. Can he play in this year’s Four Nations? A big question.
England rugby union snaring Burgess is a big victory in the battle of the codes for them. However, is Burgess quick enough to play centre in the 15 man game? Do you even have to be quick to play centre in rugby union? I’d have to watch it comment and that’s a sacrifice I’m not prepared to make!
In short, the NRL and rugby league in general will not blink with Burgess’ exit. It will flutter an eyelash in Sonny Bill Williams direction when he does the same, but that’s all.
The dogs are barking but the caravan moves on, as Alan Jones once said.
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AS usual, I spent the pre-season in the UK. Moving the World Club Challenge forced me to go back to Oz earlier but it was great to see the Super League season open at DW Stadium.
The debate about the new television deal is intriguing.
It was like the original Super League War all over again; Sky put money on the table to secure the long-term rights of rugby league (and other sports) immediately. It was clearly not going to be there forever. Unlike 1995/6, however, there were no demands regarding the restructuring of the game (we hope).
So while Red Hall is copping flack for allegedly railroading the clubs into accepting the deal, how much more would they be copping had they thumbed their noses at Stg200 million?
The concern is that BT Sport and Sky Sports will eventually have to call a truce in the battle over European rugby union. They’ll have to share content. And when that happens, the market value of other sports will go down.
That belief powered the decision to accept Sky’s offer. We can now sit back and see whether it was an accurate or inaccurate belief.
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THE proposed Great Britain tour of Australia and New Zealand next year is proving somewhat problematic.
While the good rugby league folk of the British Isles are excited about something that has not happened since 1992, the antipodeans seem largely unmoved. I mean,
Cameron Smith did say in his World Cup acceptance speak that the squad had enjoyed its time in “Britain and Wales”. England and Britain are interchangeable to many foreigners, including Americans.
The result is that the NRL and NZRL seem in no hurry to confirm the trek. Then again, we’ve had no confirmation of this year’s internationals either, have we?
A couple of years ago, there was talk of the Lions heading south of the equator but no-one would have them. Could it happen again?
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AN update on next year’s World Club Challenge is in order, perhaps.
As previously reported, South Sydney and Brisbane have agreed to be the second and third NRL sides to head to the northern hemisphere in February. They would play the second- and third-placed Super League sides on the Friday and Saturday before the WCC proper.
The new information I have to hand regards the lead-up games. South Sydney are set to play Brisbane at Barnett in a major boost to our code in London.
And the NRL premiers will play Catalan in Perpignan en route to England. What a great promotion – the sort of things other professional sports have been doing with exhibition games for years.
By the way (I almost typed ‘BTW’ there – derr) if the WCC is to be taken seriously, surely the prize money has to go back up from Stg25,000 – hardly a fitting purse for the world champions in a professional sport.
The real put of gold at the end of the WCC rainbow is the clubs being allowed to sell their own TV rights. Which brings me to this proposal: if Ian Lenagan and Marwan Koukash are so confident the elite clubs should determine their own destiny, why not let them start by running the expanded WCC?
It needs year-round attention to realist its potential.
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WHILE the NRL was spending a fortune on bodyguards for its stars at the Auckland Nines, a little tournament in western Sydney was picking up the slack for the lack of international development being promoted across the Tasman.
World expansion pinup boys Canada travelled down under for the first time and we also had the likes of Fiji, Niue, Cook Islands, Fiji, the Philippines, Portugal, Thailand, Greece, Malta, Japan and South America’s Latin Heat going around.
Auburn Warriors beat the Philippines 14-8 in the final.
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WHAT really happened in America to scupper the planned merger of the AMNRL and USARL?
Bondi Beat has heard two principal theories. One, the USARL delegates came to believe the AMNRL delegates had not been democratically elected by their clubs and had lost faith in the process and two, the USARL clubs got cold feet about an independent body determining their fate.
Either way, it sounds terrbly rugby league, doesn’t it?
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ONE of the first places I went this past off-season was South Africa, where a NSW Country side was on tour.
There was scarcely 300 people at the stadium for the game against the Rhinos and one of them was Jock Colley, the CRL chairman. Jock was an irrascible fellow, not afraid to upset the suits from the city when he felt the bushies were copping a raw deal.
To mix a metaphor, he wasn’t afraid to get off the gravy train and rock the applecart.
He made the annual City-Country game interesting by speaking his mind in the lead-up when it came to unco-operative clubs and players who didn’t believe in the cause.
So it was a shock on the opening day of this season in England to learn Jock had collapsed during an evening walk. He was airlifted to Sydney, placed on life support, and later passed away.
You’ll be missed Jock. We need more like you.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

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