TRAVELS: XXVI

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
AS you might imagine, after five weeks attending matches, dinners and media events in Britain, one gains a few extra pounds – and a better understanding of the challenges facing rugby league here.
What I am about to offer are a bunch of assumptions based on conversations with all manner of people involved in the game in the UK. If I could quote or name these people, I would have. I can’t.
What I have learned is that the situation is markedly different to the way it appears from the outside, from just reading the trade press. And it’s not as dire as it appears, either.
We are all wondering what the competition structure will be the year after next, and whether London will be involved next season. Here’s what seems, to me, to be the case:
1) EVEN THE ‘REBEL’ CLUBS SUPPORT THE NEW STRUCTURE. The clubs who have walked out of meetings aren’t necessarily against splitting Super League into three divisions mid-season – they just want to use the situation to gain more power. They will eventually agree to the proposal – as long as they get something out of it for themselves;
2) MOST SUPER LEAGUE CLUBS ARE SICK OF LOSING PLAYERS TO AUSTRALIA. Ian Lenagan says it’s a compliment to Super League that players are succeeding in the NRL and Super League – but not many of his counterparts at other clubs agree. There is a push for two marquee players per club – one overseas and one local, to help prevent the brawn drain;
3) THE GAME IS GOING TO LEVERAGE THE ADVENT OF BT SPORT AS MUCH AS IT CAN. Another way to compete with the Aussies is to get a shedload of money from broadcasters, as they have. The arrival of BT Sports gives Sky some competition and the British game plans to use that to get a significant increase in the rights, promising a better product in return. Negotiations won’t wait two years to commence – the proverbial iron is red hot;
4) LONDON ARE LIKELY TO BE BAILED OUT BY A RIVAL CLUB: It seems an established Super League club is preparing to lend the Broncos money and players. NRL CEO David Smith met Gus Mackay and Tony Rea this week to see if there was anything he could do to help.
You may have been broadly aware of some or all of these senarios but since this is my last column for the year, I thought it worthwhile to spell them out.
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SINCE last week, I’ve changed my view somewhat on the requirement that Fiji play Samoa mid-year 2014 for the right to be included in next year’s Four Nations.
As the NRL’s Andrew Hill points out, it was entirely possible that two Pacific countries would be eliminated at the same stage of the tournament, which would have left officials in a bind.
And going into a Four Nations with a 64-0 defeat to one of the other teams in it as your last result doesn’t seem very “box office”.
The real problem is that none of these deliberations were reported, so Fiji thought they had been gyped.
There is enormous interest in the international game today and the flow of information from the RLIF is, frankly, appalling.
This is one of many factors that make it impossible to accurately predict what the legacy of this World Cup will be.
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AS I said, this will be my last column for the year so I’d like to thank Paul Cunliffe and Paul Coward for giving me the opportunity.
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TRAVELS: XXV

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE great thing about the NRL’s enquiries into playing matches in England is that it gives the Commission an excuse to help the British game.
In case you missed it, colleague Brad Walter wrote this week in the Sydney Morning Herald that NRL officials are considering playing a State of Origin game at Wembley, or club games there and elsewhere in Britain.
Before this news emerged, domestic events in the UK were none of the NRL’s business – which was unfortunate given their A$1.025 billion TV deal. Now, they have an excuse to meddle constructively. NRL officials recently met what’s left of the London Broncos, for instance.
Unfortunately, I think there are a couple of miscalculations currently at work. One is to have dismissed the impact of five weeks of World Cup play on selling 74,000 seats at Old Trafford last Saturday. Those 74,000 people didn’t sign up for “an all-NRL contest” – they signed up to hopefully see England play in a World Cup final and went anyway when they missed out!
Secondly, the NFL flooded television for years before playing games at Wembley. They had a long-term strategy. The NRL has a long-term deal on a station most Londoners have never heard of.
The Origin and even Kangaroos brands are almost unknown in London and years of marketing are necessary before such a game can be a success. You invented rugby league here but in London, when it comes to sexiness the NFL is Naomi Campbell and rugby league is Acker Bilk.
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AS you might imagine, after five weeks attending matches, dinners and media events in Britain, one gains a better understanding of the challenges facing rugby league here.
What I am about to offer are a bunch of assumptions based on conversations with all manner of people involved in the game in the UK. If I could quote or name these people, I would have. I can’t.
What I have learned is that the situation is markedly different to the way it appears from the outside, from just reading the trade press. And it’s not as dire as it appears, either.
We are all wondering what the competition structure will be the year after next, and whether London will be involved next season. Here’s what seems, to me, to be the case:
1) EVEN THE ‘REBEL’ CLUBS SUPPORT THE NEW STRUCTURE. The clubs who have walked out of meetings aren’t necessarily against splitting Super League into three divisions mid-season – they just want to use the situation to gain more power. They will eventually agree to the proposal – as long as they get something out of it for themselves;
2) MOST SUPER LEAGUE CLUBS ARE SICK OF LOSING PLAYERS TO AUSTRALIA. Ian Lenagan says it’s a compliment to Super League that players are succeeding in the NRL and Super League – but not many of his counterparts at other clubs agree. There is a push for two marquee players per club – one overseas and one local, to help prevent the brawn drain;
3) THE GAME IS GOING TO LEVERAGE THE ADVENT OF BT SPORT AS MUCH AS IT CAN. Another way to compete with the Aussies is to get a shedload of money from broadcasters, as they have. The arrival of BT Sports gives Sky some competition and the British game plans to use that to get a significant increase in the rights, promising a better product in return. Negotiations won’t wait three years to commence – the proverbial iron is red hot. If Sky loses soccer, the stakes will be still higher;
4) LONDON MAY BE BAILED OUT BY A RIVAL CLUB: It seems an established Super League club is preparing to lend the Broncos money and players. NRL officials met Gus Mackay and Tony Rea last week to see if there was anything he could do to help.
You may have been broadly aware of some or all of these senarios but since this is my last column for the year, I thought it worthwhile to spell them out.
.
SINCE last week, I’ve changed my view somewhat on the requirement that Fiji play Samoa mid-year 2014 for the right to be included in next year’s Four Nations.
As the NRL’s Andrew Hill points out, it was entirely possible that two Pacific countries would be eliminated at the same stage of the tournament, which would have left officials in a bind.
The real problem is that none of these deliberations were reported, so Fiji thought they had been gyped.
There is enormous interest in the international game today and the flow of information from the RLIF is, frankly, appalling.
This is one of many factors that make it impossible to accurately predict what the legacy of this World Cup will be.
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THIS will be my last column for the year so I’d like to thank Paul Cunliffe and Paul Coward for giving me the opportunity.
read on

TRAVELS: XX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE news out of Wigan the other day prompted media reactions on either side of the globe which were, Travels believe, out of step with reality.
In Australia, Sam Tomkins’ signing with the New Zealand Warriors was downpage brief in even the most enthusiastic rugby league paper, the Daily Telegraph.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact the signing has been the worst-kept secret in the game for months, and that Tomkins is not going to a Sydney club, but we are predicting his performances will render it a much bigger story than that.
The second media reaction which we reckon will be proven as a gross under-playing is that of the signing of Matt Bowen as Tomkins’ replacement at the DW.
I watched both Super Leaguer Fulltime and Backchat and they each described Bowen as “a stopgap” who was there primarily to mentor younger custodians at the club.
I think Bowen has the potential to be a sensation at Wigan and to make the sort of impact John Ferguson did. Have you seen his last couple of games for North Queensland? He almost won that controversial, seven-tackle, game against Cronulla.
“Mango” (so called because the north Queensland town of Bowen is a mango-producing hub) is an electrifying returner of the football and has evasive skills to match those of the man he is replacing.
He looks to be over his knee problems. He is the best Super League signing in years – on name alone, the best since Luke O’Donnell or Danny Buderus.
Wigan fans and Super League pundits, don’t be so maudlin.
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CLUB Call is just fascinating.
Logic suggests that getting to choose your opponents in a final should be an enormous advantage. And Warrington’s record against Huddersfield suggests it will be.
But coaches rate psychology, and motivating rivals, so highly that they deem it worthy of distancing themselves from this advantage that has been offered to them, and which they have taken.
If you’ve ever wondered why coaches are so careful about what they say, and what their players say, and why they pin seemingly inane newspaper articles to dressing room walls, here’s your answer.
Warrington’s Tony Smith is a smart man. He knows that he can have his cake and eat it too by distancing himself and the players from their club call choice.
Barrie McDermott recently said being picked in club call did give teams an extra edge – something mere mortals like us find hard to understand because we think you’d be heavily motivated for a sudden death game anyway.
But something drives a team when they are on their last legs, like Manly was last weekend. If it’s being called out as a desirable opponent, sobeit.
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A LITTLE bit of World Cup broadcast news that has reached my ears.
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TRAVELS: XX

Travelsy STEVE MASCORD

IT’S hard to believe anyone could argue what happened at the Provident Stadium on Sunday was good for the game.

Sky’s Rod Studd sent me an email after a dramatically under-strength Huddersfield was lapped 58-6 by Bradford asking if it could happen in the NRL.

I was already planning to write something about it in the Sydney Morning Herald and my first instinct was to ask the NRL. But it only took a few moments’ thought to come up with the answer without making a call.

Under the second tier salary cap at work in the NRL, there is a limit to the value of lower grade (or feeder team) players you can use in first grade. If you are in dire straits, you can apply for dispensation – but it’s not easily forthcoming.

Penrith, in particular, have been refused permission by the League to use their own contracted players this year, because they were over their second tier cap.

Cronulla and Manly had considerable incentive at the weekend to rest swathes of players, given that their positions in the finals were ensured. Some good players were missing, too – like Anthony Watmough and Todd Carney.

But without the second tier salary cap, it would have been much worse.

”That’s right – I definitely thought about leaving out more,” Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan said after I spoke to him pre-match for Triple M and mentioned events at Bradford.

”We don’t have a problem with our second-tier cap but if there was none, you’d consider resting them all.”

There is no point criticising Huddersfield and their coach, Paul Anderson, over the omission of so many players. He was just playing by the rules. But for the RFL to say it was the best available side is ridiculous.

There is a major problem for sports administrations when it comes to medical matters. An official can’t over-rule a doctor. You get medical certificates and it’s case-closed.

Instead, as detailed above, the RFL needs to put in place disincentives to field under-strength teams. I don’t think Rod’s idea of giving teams a points start in play-offs is the answer … it stops being rugby league then.

Perhaps the RFL needs to introduced a second tier salary cap, with only a limited number of players outside the top 25 to be allowed into the first team each year and exceptions the subject of applications.

That way, if we do have to appoint an independent medical officer to check on injuries, he or she would only be called into play when such an application was made, not every time an injury looked doubtful.

The interesting thing here is that the NRL is considering axing the second tier salary cap. When I told the League’s Shane Mattiske what Huddersifield had done, he promised to raise it at headquarters.

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CAN’T wait for the play-offs to start in both hemispheres this weekend.

The Super League games are being shown on Eurosport in this part of the world and I can report the station is very keen to increase its commitment to the competition next year.

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TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

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TRAVELS: XVIII

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE Australian Rugby League Commission has today cut a deal that, in terms of participants, is far more significant than even a reunification of the rugby codes would be.
The ARLC and NRL has formed a “partnership” with Touch Football Australia, which has suddenly taken the number of participants in rugby league in this country to well over over one million.
You read that right: one million players. The NRL claims 844,000 people play the game already, although this includes schools programmes that involve one-off carnivals. The combined sport is now arguably the biggest in Australia – ahead of netball, soccer and Australian Rules.
And the announcement is typical of the administration of CEO and former Welsh banker David Smith. There were no leaks, no whispers that it was happening – just a media conference and an a release..
Touch football (I’m sure you used to call it ‘tig and pass’) is a massive participant sport in Australia, even in states where the AFL is dominant. All those men and women of all ages we see playing at dusk each in cities and towns will now be linked to the NRL.
Together, they will be able to attract more government funding and sponsorship. League players will be directed to touch teams in summer and – more importantly – vice versa. Their officials, offices and infrastructure will now also help recruit and promote full contact rugby league.
It’s a massive development for our game – but there are still recidivists who are complaining that “the commission has turned out game into touch anyway – now they’re making it official”.
The merger with touch football makes us a more inclusive sport. It hopefully allows us to cherry pick the Benji Marshalls and Shaun Johnsons of the future and prevent them playing the other code.
The boss of TFA, Colm Maguire, said: “Touch Football in Australia was born out of Rugby League and the opportunity to create Australia’s largest sporting community aligned with the NRL is as compelling as it is ambitious and fortuitous.”
If this sounds like cheerleading from me, then it comes with no agenda. Your columnist doesn’t cheer for a team, he cheers for rugby league against other sports. And this feels like we’ve won the grand final.
Unfortunately, I am told touch in the UK is linked very closely with rugby union. Having this marriage happen at an RLIF level might be problematic, but it’s worth a try, right?
Announcements like this make it more apparent why the NRL currently needs 140 staff. Trying to integrate two sports like this to maximum benefit won’t be easy. One can only wonder what other projects Smith and his men have in store.
I am glad David Smith doesn’t care what I or any other journalist writes. As long as he keeps coming up with coups like this, I am happy to be completely ignored.
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THE way in which Super League is consumed in Australia has just changed enormously.

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TRAVELS: XVII

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD

LONDON’S heavy loss on Saturday led to a reader contacting me about one of my favourite hobby horses – an English team in the NRL.
But this reader, whose given name was Leigh of Dallas (?) came at the idea from an interesting angle. What are the drawbacks of an NRL franchises based in Leeds or Manchester? That it would completely overshadow Super League and effectively relegate it to what the Brisbane comp has become.
But what if the franchise was based in London, and aimed not at league-loving northerners but Aussie and Kiwi expats in the capital?
Let’s get some of the obvious reservations you might have about the idea out of the way immediately. The travel time in Super rugby union between Dunedin and Durban is roughly similar, as is the time difference, and they manage just fine.
There is now a flight that leaves Sydney at 6am and arrives in London the same day, meaning a team could have plenty of time to acclimatise – as much or more as successful World Club Club Challenge sides have had
Of course, London Exiles (or whatever) would not be away every second week. They’d go “on tour”, playing two, three or four away games at once. Visiting teams would play the previous Friday and the following Sunday or Monday.
They would not steal every player from Super League because they would be subject to the NRL salary cap. They would not detract from Super League because they are geographically distant from most of the teams. They would earn the NRL a shedload in TV rights but not detract from the value of the existing SL rights.
I can’t see too many negatives. It’s time to get the ball rolling.
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GEORGE and Tom Burgess have just re-signed with South Sydney.
George and Sam are now pretty much the first choice props for the bunnies, ahead of Warrington signing Roy Asotasi, and this Saturday phonto (1)night they come up against the Australian pairing of James Tamou and Matt Scott when Souths take on North Queensland.
Australia coach Tim Sheens will be watching. Even at this early stage, I am told Sheens is considering picking a bigger side to take on England in the World Cup opener than the side that will eventually play New Zealand.
He believes the Kiwis’ dummy-half running will make the big fellows vulnerable against the Kiwis.
The big loser out of the rise of the Burgesses is set to be Cronulla back-rower Chris Heighington. It’s hard to see him getting a starting berth with all the talent at Steve McNamara’s disposal.
Meanwhile, the return from a pectoral muscle tear of Wests Tigers prop Keith Galloway on Monday is a big boost for Scotland. I spoke to him at training yesterday and he’s very keen to play for the Bravehearts.

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TRAVELS: XVI

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
MY favourite piece of Origin III commentary from Ray Warren came some time during the first half when the Channel Nine cameras focused on the visiting Manchester United squad.
“I don’t follow the soccer that much, Peter,” he said in reference to co-commentator Peter Sterling, “but you do.”
Sterling then went on to name several members of the Man U line-up. I don’t remember who it was because, like Ray, I don’t “follow the soccer” either.
Let’s quickly talk about the game. Queensland were fantastic, despite a hefty penalty count and everything NSW could throw at them. Terrible penalty to NSW before the James McManus try.
The streaker preventing a late Maroons try was pretty much unique in a big rugby league game. Can you imagine if it had been a Blues try disallowed? There would have been calls for a replay.
And Greg Inglis is out for up two months with a knee injury that he bravely played on with. Those tipping South Sydney to run away with the premiership had better think again.
Now back to my main point.
I’ve always been bemused by the number of feature articles in match programmes in the UK which quote stars from other sport saying how much they love rugby league.
On one hand, you could stay it smacks of insecurity. On the other, however, you have to accept that rugby league is in the shadow of what you call football in England so there is logic to the trend. These stories get the attention of casual sports fans.
But Paul Gallen even said before Origin III that one of his biggest regrets about missing the game through a foot injury was that the Man U stars wouldn’t “know my name” for 80 minutes!
Aside from stratospheric salaries, what is it about any foreign sportsman that an NRL player should envy? No other sportsman on earth goes through what those 34 players at Homebush did on Wednesday night and there were 83,000 people there for the Origin decider.
You might say I am promoting ignorance. But I’m just advocating confidence. Would an NFL player, a Serie A footballer, a Major League baseballer regard it as an honour that Ryan Giggs “knows his name”?
I have my doubts.
These remnants of a colonial inferiority complex affect Australia’s role as the leading rugby league nation. Instead of trying to spread the game, we have only recently shed our all-encompassing obsession with just winning all the time.
If Australians could think of themselves as leaders in spreading a passtime they are passionate about, rather than underdogs needing to beat England at it, our whole sport would be better off.
I can’t imagine any Australian rugby league player who has been to a Premier League game could be more impressed with the experience than the Man U footballers would have been with watching a pulsating deciding Origin game live.
But then again, who cares whether they enjoyed it? We have to stop being obsessed with what others think of us. It’s a teenage trait that it’s high time we grew out of.
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WOULDN’T it be great if we could keep Benji Marshall in rugby league by having him join a Super League club?

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TRAVELS: XV

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD

ROYCE Simmons is worried about British game and thinks it’s time the Australian Rugby League Commission puts its hands in its pockets.

Royce and your correspondent discussed this informally before we spoke on the record, and the former Hull and St Helens coach called friends in England in the meantime to make sure what he had to say was not going to be taken the wrong way.

That is: he didn’t want to look like a big noting Aussie telling the English how to run their game.

“I was lucky enough to go to England on a Kangaroo Tour and the crowds over there really opened my eyes with the singing and all their passion,” says Roycie.

“Since then I got to coach Hull and I got to coach Saints and I really like everything about English rugby league and think the world of the players, fans and administrators. Nothing can replace the enjoyment they’ve given me.”

But Simmons says the financial pressures being borne by clubs and the player drain to the NRL are big causes for concern.

“When you look at all the players going to the NRL, at first I think there will be some benefit,” he said.

“But after 24 months, I think you’ll see the damage caused by the drain will become too strong. If they take too many players, the Super League will really suffer.

“We’re finally starting to develop our game in new countries and it would be a real shame if we got to the point where there were fears one of our only two professional competitions would fall over.”

Simmons said he wasn’t sure what could be done but officials in Australia needed to start talking about helping the British game as one of its priorities.

“I get the impression at the moment that Australia does their thing, England does theirs’ and New Zealand does theirs’,” he said.

“There is no-one looking at strategy for the whole of the game.

“If they’re having tough times in England now, it’s up to us to help them. The NRL has just had a big infusion of cash, maybe they could invest in the English game or maybe some of our successful clubs could.

“I’d also like to see players shared around a lot more, with youngsters loaned in either direction. Living away from home can help a rugby league player grow up.

“I just think we need to do more. There are smarter blokes than me who can figure out what.”

Simmons is currently assistant coach at Wests Tigers and hasn’t ruled out being a head coach again. “I don’t want to be sticking my nose in where it’s not wanted but I thought it was important to raise this as an issue,” he said.

Has Roycie got a point, dear reader? Or are we being patronising again? Would you like the NRL to invest in the English game? I know what you think of dual registration with Aussie clubs..

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THANKS for the comments on last week’s column, which was basically about the Crusaders’ debts.

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