The Biggest Season-to-season Form Reversals In Premiership History

rlwBy STEVE MASCORD (with research by David Middleton)

THE salary cap is often given credit for the fact we have had 10 different premiers since 1998 – but you can’t thank the salary cap for what Cronulla have done this year.

Maybe you can blame ASADA.

From wooden spooners in 2014 to eliminating the reigning champions in the first week of the finals in 2015, it’s a feat that has perhaps not really sunk in yet. We’re all taking it ‘one game at a time’, right? How will it be remembered? We love giving things context here at RLW.

In these days of fulltime professionalism, we perhaps expect things to go more or less according to plan. In the 1930s, when the premiership was played for beer money and there were only a handful of teams, we’ll believe such feats were possible.

But not now.

In the AFL (then VFL), Fitzroy actually finished last AND won the competition in the SAME year. It was 1916, and all but four clubs had withdrawn from competition due to the Great War.

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So the same four teams played the regular season, and all of them made the finals. That’s how Fitzroy performed a feat we are never likely to see again, even if it does sound better as a trivia question than a real achievement.

In rugby league, we have only ever had a team go from last to lifting the trophy the next year on one occasion – Western Suburbs in 1933-34.

But there’ve been some pretty big form reversals over-all – very few of which we can fairly attribute to the salary cap. Where would you slot the Sharkies into this list?

1. 1. NEWTOWN 1928-29

THE 1928 had no official minor premier but that didn’t matter to Newtown, who were last, . with just one win from 12 matches. This was the year where an administrative dispute led to the League deserting the Sydney Cricket Ground for Sydney Sports Ground (now Allianz Stadium, although the field ran east-west). And there, the first-ever night match was staged post-season, nine-a-side, without the approval of the administration. But anyway … the 1929 Kangaroos left halfway through that season and it could be argued this game the Bluebags something of a leg-up. The Bluebags finished clear fourth, beat St George b a point in the major semi-final and went down 30-10 to South Sydney in the decider. The outhouse to the presidential suite, if not the actual penthouse.

2. WESTERN SUBURBS 1933-34

KANGAROO Tours were actually an early version of the salary cap! Back in the 1930s, there was no question that international football was more important than the club scene and the Test side could hardly just hop on QF 1 to London. So, up until the time the Roos left in July, Wests had won four of their six games and had drawn another. After the team left, they did not win again. Gone were backline stars Frank McMillan, Cliff Pearce, Alan Ridley, Les Mead and Vic Hey. When they returned the following year, the Magpies made up for lost time. In a year which saw University begin a run of 42 consecutive losses (and the league ban radio broadcasts because they believed it was affecting crowds), Eastern Suburbs and Wests each finished on 24 competition points, with the black-and-whites taking out the premiership final against the Roosters, 15-12. That’s the feat the boys from the Shire were trying to match this month and next.

3. SOUTH SYDNEY 1955

LIKE Fitzroy above, South s squeezed their highs and lows into a single season. After nine rounds they were equal last, having won just three matches. They did not lose another for the rest of the regular season, finishing fourth to slip into the finals. It was a magnificent run – they actually could not have afforded to drop a game during that nine-week run. It is immortalised (pun intended) in the second-last game of the home-and-away rounds when Clive Churchill broke his arm against Manly but still kicked the winning conversion on the bell. In the grand final, the bunnies played the minor premiers and defending champions Newtown and they were without Churchill and Greg Hawick. The 12-11 win made it five GF triumphs for captain Jack Rayner.

advertise here4. PARRAMATTA 1962

WHAT would happen today if a side collected SIX consecutive wooden spoons? Perhaps that’s where the salary cap does even up the competition! That was Parramatta’s dismal run from 1956. But in 1962, they didn’t just get off the goot of the table – they made the finals! The man behind it was Ken Kearney, a 1947-48 Wallaby who had switched codes with Leeds and returned to play for St George in 1954. It was a classic early case of a coach remodelling a club, like Wayne Bennett at the Dragons years later. Parramatta coaxed him away from Saints for just three years, with ’62 being the first, and he changed things for the better. But in a reminder of how slowly the wheel turns in sport, they would have to wait until ’81 for their first premiership.

5. EASTERN SUBURBS 1966-67

SYDNEY Roosters proudly celebrate the fact they’re the only side to have competed every year since 1908. There’s a new book about their glory years, The House That Jack Built, that has tricolour pride pouring from its pages. But if the Roosters could miss one of those seasons, then they would no doubt choose 1966. Eastern Suburbs lost 18 from 18 that year. Then Gibson started as coach, and they finished in the top four, before being eliminated by Canterbury in front of 47,186 fans at the SCG. This was the first year for Penrith and Cronulla in the premiership and the first year of limited tackle football (four). Gibson welcomed innovation and dealt with these changes better than most.

6. CANTERBURY 2008-09

In 2008, Canterbury finished a round inside the top eight on only three occasions out of 26. They ended up last, with five wins and 19 losses in the year Sonny Bill Williams walked out for France.. Coach Steve Folkes did not survive to see the following year, with injuries and high profile departures given as the contributing factors. They led Sydney Roosters 20-0 at halftime and lost. Brett, Kimmorley, Josh Morris, David Stagg, Michael Ennis, Greg Eastwood and Ben Hannant joined the club the following year, Kevin Moore took over as coach and the Doggies finished second before being eliminated 22-12 by Parramatta.

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7. MELBOURNE 2010-2011

SLUGGED a wad of cash, two premierships and all their competition points in 2010 for their infamous salary cap breach, the Storm showed what they were made of the following year. The loss of Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Brett Finch, Aiden Tolman, Jeff Lima and Brett White prompted many to predict they would struggle but Craig Bellamy’s men won the minor premiership with 19 wins from a possible 24. In the play-offs they beat Newcastle before losing to the Warriors in a preliminary final, 20-12. It’s a season that set the tone for everything that came afterwards for the Storm, and perhaps made a statement about the bona fides of what had happened before. A year later they would win a premiership which no-one has since taken off them

8. SOUTH SYDNEY 2014

RUGBY league’s greatest comeback story – ever. Kicked out of the competition in 2000 and 2001 in an episode that because a cause celebre for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, the team named after depression street hawkers selling rabbit carcasses returned in 2002 and stumbled around for a few mediocre seasons (three straight wooden spoons) before actor Russell Crowe and businessman Peter Holmes a Court bought the joint in 2006. The Rabbits returned to the finals almost immediately and last October, Sam Burgess became the first South Sydney player to accept the medal named after one of its greatest, Clive Chruchill, when he led Souths to break a 44-year premiership drought despite a broken cheekbone. Sharkies, that is going to take some beating.

Malcolm Andrews writes:

“My first daily column for the Telegraph in 1983 was an interview with Wests winger Alan Ridley (of the early 1930s) urging the NSWRL not to kick Wests Magpies out of the Premiership. And interesting bloke. I wish I had accepted his offer to take away the diary he kept on the 1933-34 Kangaroo tour.

I have a feeling I read somewhere about Frank ‘Skinny’ McMillan that he ended up broke and used to cadge a few pennies for a beer at the Ashfield Hotel, just around the corner from Pratten Park, the Magpies home ground.

I lived 100 yards from Pratten Park and that’s why I always followed them. My first match was in 1953. That was the year when they won the wooden spoon, 12 months after winning the premiership.

The premiership win is unique in that they were coached by the former Test referee Tom McMahon – it was his first and only year as a coach. A perfect record. It was also the year that referee George Bishop is said to have backed Wests against the red-hot favourites Souths.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Nigel Wood: We Should Never Have Let Union Call Itself ‘Rugby’

Wood, NigelBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league’s most senior official says the sport made a grave mistake by surrendering the word “rugby” to the 15 man game.

While in Australia “rugby” almost always means rugby union, it is still used to describe both sports in England, where the split in codes was along geographical grounds and the rules were identical for the best part of a decade from 1895.

Nigel Wood, the chairman of the Rugby League International Federation, says he’s dismayed that international rugby union has now rebranded itself “world rugby”.

“I think our sport gave up the title of ‘rugby’ too cheaply long ago,” said Wood, also the Rugby Football League chief executive, in the current edition of Rugby League Week.

amazon“This (rugby league) is a sport where the first Rugby World Cup took place in 1954.

“Just to concede that ground some time ago was a tactical mistake. Do I think that there’s much that the sport can do about it now? Probably not. But I think it’s a disappointment.”

The RLIF recently appointed David Collier OBE as its new chief executive.

Wearing his RFL hat, Wood recently announced an ambitions set of goals for the sport in England – including winning the 2017 World Cup in Australia.

In our interview with Wood on page 36 he admits having held talks with the Australian rugby union over a hybrid match at Wembley – but insists it was never a serious plan.

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Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

FIVE LESSONS FROM THE 2014 FOUR NATIONS

photo (2)By STEVE MASCORD

SAM Devereux was a referee. He would wear a cap during matches, which made him look almost exactly like AC/DC singer Brian Johnson, fresh out of a time machine.

Referee Sam Devereaux/Photo: Otago Witness

Referee Sam Devereux/Photo: Otago Witness

In 1928, the expatriot Englishman controlled a rugby league Test at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin. Until the just-completed Four Nations, it was the most recent Test played in the coastal South Island city.

A former Leigh and St Helens player, Devereux had settled in New Zealand and become the chief plumbing inspector for Dunedin City Council.

We were actually better at appointing neutral referees for internationals in 1928 than we are now. Phil Bentham, who controlled the New Zealand-England game at the magnificent Forsyth Barr Stadium on November 8, was also from Leigh – but unlike Devereux, had no connection at all with the Shaky Isles.

And had Bentham wanted to send off a Burgess during that gripping 16-14 Kiwis victory, he had two to chose from.

Our man Sam dismissed English forward Bill Burgess back in ’28. Despite this, England won – but Sam (Devereux, not Burgess) received a bad review for waiting too long to act.

He never controlled another game, quitting the sport entirely. His descendants told the story to the Otago Times as Test football returned to Dunedin for the first time in 86 years last month.

Why kick off this Four Nations review with such an obscure anecdote?

The story illustrates that some things don’t change in rugby league and other things change dramatically – and which ‘things’ are which is almost completely random, because very few people in the game have a long-term perspective on events.

The 2014 Four Nations has the capacity to prompt a paradigm shift for our sport, away from the parochial focus on club football, away from the belief that we can’t survive without our superstars, away from the idea that player burnout cannot be resolved, away from squeezing every last bit of juice out of the heartland orange.

But when that Test was played in Dunedin in 1928, there had been one just four years before. There was no reason to suspect they would have to wait another 86 years.

We either learn from things or we don’t. It’s up to us if we take anything of value away from the fantastic Four Nations, which finished with the Kiwis winning a gripping final, 22-18 over Australia at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on November 15.

Here are the things we should remember, or else this clipping will be used as another historical oddity in the year 2100 when we go back to Dunedin again.

  1. INTERNATIONAL SPORT IS BIGGER THAN ANY INDIVIDUALWITHOUT Billy Slater, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess, Anthony Milford, Johnathan Thurston, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, James Roby, Justin Hodges and the rest, the 2014 Four Nations was tipped to be “a yawn”. Yet 47,813 saw Samoa push England all the way and New Zealand thrash Australia at Suncorp Stadium to kick things off. The 25,093 attendance at the final made it a record-drawing Four Nations tournament. The reason is simple: in the eyes of the general public – as opposed to rugby league fanatics – international sport sits above club sport and always win. It has a lure all of its own; the jumper is more important than the face.
  2. amazonRUGBY LEAGUE CAN BE SOLD OUTSIDE THE BIG CAPITALSA RUGBY league tournament in Australasia without a single match in Sydney or Auckland? It worked. This occurs in tandem with the previous point: international competition helps us reach exactly the people who are somewhat immune to our charms as a club sport. The 18,456 crowd at WIN Stadium on November 9 for Australia-Samoa was the biggest for any event in Wollongong this year. On top of – literally – the 16,912 at Whangarei’s Toll Stadium for New Zealand-Samoa on November 1 were two people up a tree. And of course, we returned to Dunedin after a rather long absence. Test football can widen our horizons within countries that already play the game, by giving us credibility that teams representing suburbs can never provide.4. 3. OUR SPORT COULD, AND SHOULD, BE MORE ENTERTAININGHISTORICALLY, rugby league swings from attack-focus to defence-obsession. The Four Nations should trigger a swing back towards attack – it sometimes embarrassed  the NRL as being safety-first, structured and beset with wrestling. The Kiwis, in particular, seem to relish playing against anyone but Australia, and discarding the percentages in favour of skill, speed, and daring. Their games against Samoa and England were epics. But coach Stephen Kearney has made them adaptable, too: they can beat the Aussies at their own game and did so on consecutive occasions for the first time since 1953. But Samoa and England were arguably better to watch than the finalists. We need to incentivise entertaining play and discourage five hit-ups and a kick.

    4. SAMOA ARE (MAYBE) OUR FOURTH COMPETITIVE NATION

    donate2AT the 1995 World Cup, Wales played England at an Old Trafford semi-final that attracted 30,042 people – including busloads of fans from the Valleys who have long since forgotten us. The English won by the respectable – for the Welsh – score of 25-10. In 2000, the Welsh led Australia at halftime in their semi. Yet the Dragons have not kicked on and we should be wary of getting carried away with Samoa for the same reason. Nonetheless, in their worst showing they were still 20 points better than in their only previous match against Australia. With Anthony Milford on board, it is reasonable to suggest they may have beaten England and New Zealand. The Kiwis need local, competitive opposition because internationals are the only way they make money. They may well have found an enduring new rivalry.

    5. THE CANCELLATION OF THE 2015 LIONS TOUR WAS POINTLESS

    TOP State of Origin players wanted next spring off to rest their weary bones. But a whole heap of them – 12 from Australia’s winning 2013 World Cup squad – took this year off as well! We had a successful, competitive tournament without them. If another 12 cried off in 2015 and the dozen unavailable this year returned, logic dictates Australia would be no more or less competitive against the first Lions tourists in 23 years – who were told to stay home. Great Britain were to play tour games in the bush, travel from Brisbane to Sydney by bus and maybe provide the first-ever opposition for the proposed Pacific All Stars. What a terrible waste of an opportunity. Now tours are supposed to be returning – after the 2017 World Cup – just when the Four Nations finally comes into its prime. There is enormous pressure on Scotland in 2016 to match the feats of Matt Parish’s Samoans.

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What Did South Sydney’s Premiership Victory Really Mean?

TrophyBy STEVE MASCORD

LOTE Tuqiri’s face is ringed with digital voice recorders. He has a black premiership t-shirt over his sweat-soaked cardinal and myrtle South Sydney jersey. He admits retirement is tempting.

And then the dual international, who played in a grand final for Brisbane 14 years ago, is momentarily stuck for words. He’s trying to explain how South Sydney fans have made him feel part of this, this…..

“Movement,” Tuqiri says finally. “That’s what it is.”
We all think we know why South Sydney’s drought breaking premiership victory, finishing in a 30-6 grand final win over Canterbury at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, was so transcendent.

We all have different theories.

For some of us, it was all about Sam Burgess, chaired off by his team-mates in an unintentional re-enactment of how John Sattler left the SCG after a comparable feat of bravery 44 years earlier. One with a fractured cheekbone, one a shattered jaw.

Sattler’s coach that day was Clive Churchill. Clive’s widow, Joyce, presented Burgess with the man of the match award struck in Churchill’s honour, making him the first Souths player to win it.

Sam told in the lead-up to the game that his mother Julie had once mentioned she wanted to live by the sea. Now her four sons were big name athletes in one of the world’s foremost seaside cities, and they had granted her wish, although Sam was about to leave for rugby union.

Maybe we think it was those 43 years since the last Rabbitohs premiership; Souths had not won one in the colour television era. In 1971, most people back at the leagues club listened to a radio commentary of the 16-10 win over St George, with a transistor positioned next to a PA microphone.

Perhaps you see it as a triumph of the public will; the bunnies were excluded from the competition for two years and 50,000 people marched to save them in 1999. Maybe it was win for those people over big business – some will never forget News Limited’s involvement in the decision to exterminate the bunnies.

“We finally beat you,” a fan tweeted to Rupert Murdoch early on Monday morning.

Every Hollywood script needs an A-List actor. Russell Crowe’s takeover of the club he supported as a child, and the return on grand final day of the estranged George Piggins, who led that 1999 march, entranced tens of thousands.

And maybe the fairytale of the people involved is enough for you, Shane Richardson moving from Penrith for “a challenge”, Wayne Bennett turning the Bunnies down, Michael Maguire starting from scratch, Greg Inglis aborting a move to Brisbane when no-one met him at the airport.

There was Issac Luke, forced to watch from the sidelines following a suspension (“He shook hands with the judiciary at the end of the hearing and said ‘this is about the team’,” Maguire opined) but still photographed in a playing jersey at fulltime, his replacement Api Koroisau who won a premiership in his final game at the club.

John Sutton, long-suffering Rabbitohs lifer? “I can’t describe how happy I am – it’s been a long journey,” he said. “When Madge first wanted me to be captain, I wasn’t too keen.”

And also Alex Johnston, the kid who played Greg Inglis in a TV commercial, Ben Te’o, Sam Burgess’s flatmate also off to rugby union at fulltime. “Sometimes it takes decisions – Sam leaving and Ben leaving,” said Maguire.

“It’s tough to take when you first get that but they want to do it for each other and I think that’s been a big driving force.”

The list goes on. Crowe is probably lobbying for funding for the movie as you read this.

But Lote Tuqiri is right. What South Sydney’s victory represents more than anything is a movement, a cause, a triumph of the collective over almost every conceivable obstacle.

donate2There are more noble causes, I guess: world peace, freedom from hunger, saving the whales.

But Souths have been a cause for all the reasons above – and more – since they were kicked out of the premiership.

Strip away the hype and machismo and most football premierships are just that; a bunch of well played but exceedingly brave men finishing ahead of 15 other groups of same.

It’s not your imagination, it’s not hype and hyperbole to say this one was different. It was.

It’s been a class war for what was once a down-at-heel part of Sydney. It has represented the struggle of indigenous people in that city and nationwide.

It’s been a banner under which those who felt marginalised, ignored or victimised could march – for 15 years now. While the rabbits were out of the premiership, cab drivers would refuse to pick up at Murdoch’s Fox Studios.

But much more than people need a fullback to love, a media baron to despise, an old bell to revere and that black and white photo of Satts in 1970, they just need something to believe in, something to fight for, a reason to get up tomorrow.

Anything; a cause – or as Lote referred to it – a movement. Souths were the perfect storm of nostalgia and emotion. We live in an era of mass terror, mass stupidity, mass fear.

On the weekend we got mass elation.

“The last couple of minutes on the field were pretty emotional,” said Burgess, whose agent Chris Caisley slipped into the back of the press conference room as he sat down.

“I had the pain, I had the knock to my head, the feeling of being victorious. It overcame me at the time. Just to share the moment with the guys on the field, it was really emotional, the feelings that run through your body at that moment in time.

“Everyone who’s been involved in turning this club around …. I guess that’s why I feel emotional.

“It was tears of joy, certainly.”

Souths knew they had ridden the crest of a wave. They were going to share their success with as many people as possible.

“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve spoken about the history of Souths,” said Maguire. “It’s part of what comes with Souths – Satts and Ronny Coote and Bob McCarthy. I could go on and on and on with all of those players.

“To recognise the past is a big part of what builds a club and they’re as much a part of this, along with everyone else who’s played for Souths. The community … it’s just been a ride.”

Shane Richardson is the first chief executive or club secretary to win premierships at different clubs. He watched the game with his son Brent and good friend, former Essendon CEO Ian Robson, from the players enclosure.

At fulltime, Richardson received 163 test messages from around the world – not including the two friends who flew in for the game from the United States and his brother who arrived the previous evening from Barcelona.

“What stands out in my mind?” he tells RLW. “Seeing the looks on the faces of Greg Inglis and Sam Burgess. I had never seen them cry before.

“It wasn’t just joy or relief, it was elation.

“I looked out at some 50,000 people and you know what? In the past people might say you didn’t know them. I knew them all. If they are members, I have their email addresses, I know their names, I know who they are.

“That was a very special feeling.”

As has become customary, the South Sydney players took the premiership trophy to the centre of ANZ Stadium around midnight on Sunday. They formed a circle, their chants echoed through the empty arena and champagne sprayed everywhere.

Richardson wasn’t there. Long gone. He had to make sure Souths Juniors was ready for the party, that security was tight and there was no trouble.

Next day, he was in his office by 9am. There was a fan day, a tickertape parade and the Red & Green Ball to organise. This is just the start for Souths, not the destination, as far as he is concerned.

“Souths Juniors was amazing after the game,” he enthused. “There was no trouble. What is the best way to describe it?

“I’ll tell you: you know that black and white film of the girl skipping down the street at the end of the second world war?

“Like that.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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DISCORD 2014: Can Duncan Thompson’s ‘Contract Football’ Save Rugby League?

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
EARLY in a recent Super League game, commentator Paul Cullen remarked: “We’ve been going for 10 minutes and there’s not a blade of grass that’s not been stood on”.
Leaving aside the double negative, you can picture the sort of game Cullen was describing – touchline to touchline attack, from the outset.
Now, I’ve already said that I could not remember a better weekend of football, given the comebacks and razor-edged finishes of the two preliminary semi-finals we had in the NRL.
But plenty of blades of grass went undisturbed.
The structured nature of NRL football could be one reason why the game is better to watch on television than live, in the view of all the people who also left seats at Allianz Stadium undisturbed.
The physical nature of the sport, which is harder to detect from the stands, is highlighted by tight camera shots while the ball movement – a feature of Australian football – is rather limited.
Result: you’re better off watching it at home.
Step right up, Ben and Shane Walker.
The brothers, both former first graders at a number of clubs, have turned back the clock almost a century and have employed at Ipswich Jets a style of football favoured by Duncan Thompson, who captained North Sydney to their only two premierships in 1921 and 1922.
It’s called “contract football” and it works like this: you have a ‘contract’ to pass the ball to your team mate if he is in a better position to me.
“If you played structured football, the way they do in the NRL these days, you make it easier for the defence to get three men into the tackle to do all that stuff I don’t like – wrestling,” Walker told Discord.
“The way we play, we test the defensive like three or four times on a single tackle. The defence can’t get enough numbers in to wrestle and we play off the back of it.”
Thompson, who died in 1980, once said: “Contract football is flowing football – it has no relation to bash-and-barge stuff – it is what rugby league is all about, or is supposed to be.”
Ben Walker says he learned about it growing up in Thompson’s home down, Toowoomba, where it was passed down from generation to generation.
He also says t works.
“It would work better in the NRL, where you can train fulltime,” he said. “You need players who can catch and pass under pressure – but mostly just catch and pass.
“That actually takes a lot of work these days. I have had our players say to me after watching an NRL game on TV ‘we would have towelled them up playing our style of football’.”
The Jets fielded seven rookies in their final 17 man squad of the year; they made the finals this year and next year they will employ their free-flowing style even more.
“I won’t say which NRL game I am talking about but one of those at the weekend, they played block play, block play, block play, kick.
“You could have defended it with your eyes closed.”
,
MY MEMORY tells me Greg Mackey was a player who pre-dated my career as a journalist; someone from whom I sought an autograph but never a quote.
The facts tell a different story; he was at Illawarra for three years that I was covering the game, albeit all of them as a casual reporter at AAP while still in highschool.
“Bluey” was such a good player, I must have interviewed him many times.
But I prefer to think of him as an untouchable footy hero, a flame-haired five-eighth who won a match with an intercept fresh off the plane for the Chatillon club in Paris – not before momentarily stopping when an “idiot” in the crowd blew a whistle.
These were days, for me, when football players and administrators could do no wrong. If I knew about off-field “atrocities” and official incompetence, a rarely paid it any mind.
I just lived for Sunday afternoon at 3pm when men like Bluey would take to Wollongong Showground and throw outrageous cutout passes, chip and chase from their own quarter and upend much bigger men.
These, days, the fact that they lost most weeks seems inconsequential.
Steelers legend Michael Bolt says he last saw Blue on Thursday, and he had “a cheeky grin”. That’s good to know, because it’s the way I remember him too.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

World Cup: UNITED STATES 32 COOK ISLANDS 20 at Memorial Ground, Bristol

By STEVE MASCORD

AFTER 60 years of false dawns and half a decade of bitter civil war, American rugby league celebrated its finest hour in a midweek West Country rain squall at Bristol’s Memorial Ground.

When Mike Dimitro’s American All Stars toured Australia in 1953, there were overtures for the United States to be invited to the first World Cup – in France – the following year.

Their eventual exclusion became the first of a litany of snubbings, missed opportunities, hair-brained schemes and outlandish promotions for rugby league in the land of hype and glory since.

But when the Americans finally made it to the Coup Du Monde on Wednesday, they made their mark and declared afterwards there was finally something to build on and end the bitter internal wrangling and cycle of disappointment.

Late tries to prop Mark Offerdahl and halfback Craig Priestly secured a 32-20 win for the Tomahawks over a Cooks side including NRL stars Drury Low, Issac John, Dylan Napa, Brad Takairangi, Dylan Napa and more.

“To be honest, it’s probably the proudest win I’ve been involved with,” said Penrith’s Clint Newton, who as the son of golfer Jack was born in Myrtle Beach.

“Everyone thought we were just here to make up the numbers.

Key figures in American league had roundly criticised the number of heritage players selected by the Tomahawks, with incumbent captain Apple Pope missing the squad altogether.

Coach Terry Matterson and players called on the detractors to support them now the Tomahawks off to a winning start. “if they could just be here and see the bond the boys have built,” said Matterson, “it’s amazing”.

Newton added: “USA Tomahawks needed to field the best possible team to give it the exposure it needed to hopefully grow the game in the States.

“By that result tonight, hopefully people will say ‘this is something we can persevere with.

“I’d like to think (critics) will get behind us. Instead of throwing the knives in, let’s support it and be positive.”

When five-eighth Takairangi scored after only only six minutes, the portents were not good for an American team drawn from everywhere between the NRL and Hawaiian rugby union.

But winger Bareta Faramaimo dashed over off halfback Priestly in the 13th minute and then former Parramatta and Gold Coast winger Matt Petersen took his chance on the other side of the field.

Canterbury’s Low tied it up at 10-10 for the break and, as was the case the previous night with Tonga, Cook Islands seemed destined to win comfortably.

But when Tomahawks captain Joseph Paulo dotted down after regaining a kick a minute after the resumption of play, it was clear the US were not willing to fill the role of unlucky losers.

The sides exchanged tries before the moments that defined the event: replacement Offerdahl taking captain Joseph Paulo’s pass to score in the 71st minute and then Priestly winning the race to the ball two minutes later.

Cooks coach David Fairleigh said his men “lost some ball control at critical moments. This competition so far has been one of upsets.”

UNITED STATES 32 (Bureta Faraimo, Matt Petersen, Joseph Paulo, Tui Samoa, Mark Offerdahl, Craig Priestly tries; Paulo 4 goals) beat COOK ISLANDS 20 (Brad Takairangi, Drury Low, Lulia Lulia, Domique Peyroux tries; Rapana 2 goals) at Memorial Ground, Bristol. Referee: Ben Thaler (England). Crowd: 7247.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

Round One: Champs & Chumps

Hill, ScottBy STEVE MASCORD
MELBOURNE Storm are the most successful round one team in the history of the NRL – and the reason is simple.
Since the club was founded in 1998 – the same year the competition was rebranded – getting bashed for 80 minutes has been a relief compared to what the players endured during the pre-season.
Melbourne have only ever lost one game on the opening weekend of the season, a 14-6 defeat to the Warriors in Auckland after returning from the first World Club Challenge of the current batch, a thrashing of St Helens at the start of 2000.
“At the Melbourne Storm, you are put tested mentally every day – to a far greater extent than you are in matches,” says five-eighth Scott Hill, who played 177 games for the club between 1998 and 2006.
“So when you get to a game situation, you are raring to go. The training has tapered off and you are confident that if you stick to your processes, you’ll be successful. After what happens in the pre-season, you’re just happy to have football underway.
“You know how much it’s going to hurt, but you also know it’s not going to last forever. Once the season starts, it’s a matter of maintenance.
No-one trains harder than the Storm but in 2000, the long trip to England – before it was a common pre-season practice for the NRL premiers – may have had an impact.
It was the night their football manager, Michael Moore, died when he fell into Auckland harbour. Hill can’t say for sure why the game was lost, because the death of Moore overshadowed everything else that weekend.
“There are memories from that weekend that will live with us forever,” he says.
But Hill – who with 29 has made the most offloads in round one NRL matches – does believe that the Storm’s rugged pre-seasons also insulates them against injury. “If you look at Wests Tigers last year, by round three or four they had 11 players out or something,” said the man who will soon start a new life as a player agent.
“That, to me, indicates they didn’t prepare hard enough for the season.”
League Week asked Sportsdata to assess the performances of all teams on the opening weekend of the premiership since the NRL was born in 1998. That means we had results for St George, Illawarra, Western Suburbs, Balmain, Adelaide, North Sydney and the Northern Eagles as well as the current 16 franchises, and the feats of certain individuals who love the start of the season.
We also had a look at previous opening-round match-ups between the sides playing over this (long) weekend.
Sydney Roosters have played South Sydney 11 times in round one, the tricolours winning eight of these matches; that has helped the Bondi boys become the second most successful opening-week team, with a 75 per cent success ratio.
Like Melbourne, the Roosters have lost to the Warriors. But these the Aucklanders’ overall record is a paltry 26.7 per cent! Who says there is no such thing as bogie teams?
Let’s look at some of this weekend’s other clashes.
Canberra and North Queensland have met once, with the Raiders taking the spoils; Cronulla and Gold Coast have met once, with the Sharkies winning; Manly and Melbourne met once as you already know who won that; Newcastle and Penrith have played twice with the Knights successful on both occasions.
The Warriors and Parramatta have done battle four times, with honours split, while St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers have been drawn against each other three times, and the Dragons are yet to have any luck.
After Melbourne and Sydney Roosters, Newcastle (68.8 per cent) and Brisbane (62.5) have also fared well in round one.
While the Roosters owe much of their success rate to their dominance of the Bunnies, it’s no longer a fixture the ‘Pride of the League’ are hung up on.
“In the old says, we needed a good performance in the Charity Shield and again in round one to pump up our memberships, or season ticket sales, and sponsorships,” said Souths CEO Shane Richardson.
“Things are different now. We take more of a whole-of-season approach. That’s not to say we don’t want to win, though. I’m not saying we don’t care about the result.”
Rabbitohs winger Nathan Merritt clearly likes round one; he has scored 13 tries in eight games, while Melbourne fullback Billy Slater – in doubt for the clash with Manly but always fast out of the blocks – has posted 11 in 10 appearances.
North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston needs 18 more points to bring up a round-one century, with Canterbury icon Hazem El Masri having bagged 104 during his career.
If we imagine round one of the premiership is a competition unto itself then our roll of honour includes Luke Burt with most points in a match (28), Parramatta with the biggest winning margin (58), Jordan Atkins with the most tries in a match (four), Luke Bailey (14) with the most appearances, Nathan Hindmarsh with the most tackles (396 and ready to be overtaken by Cameron Smith), Matt Ballin with the most sin bin stints (two), Luke Burt and Corey Parker booted the most goals (20).
Seven players have been sent players sent off: Geoff Toovey, John Hopoate, Brad Fittler, Ben Walker, Paul Aiton, Sonny Bill Williams and Ali Lauitiiti.
Johnathan Thurston needs only one try assist to lead that category. The man who holds Wests Tigers’ record for most first round points, with 20, will be watching this weekend’s events from the sideline. He is 2GB commentator Joel Caine.
Of the existing teams, Penrith have the worst round one record with a win ratio of just 25 per cent. Darren Lockyer is responsible for the most line breaks.
The draw for round one, of course, is not fair. South Sydney and Sydney Roosters have played each other so often simply because the game is a big draw and can generate a lot of income. Ditto Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra, while the Broncos and Cowboys have met eight times, the Sharks and Dragons three times, Newcastle and the Northern Eagles three times, Parramatta and Penrith thrice as well.
Since 1998, most of these rivalries have had a dominant team and one trying to catch up – and the results at the start of the season have merely reflected that.
So if there’s anything lasting about round one, anything you take away from reading this, perhaps it is not about records or training regimes or scoring trends. Maybe what we we should remember most at this time each year is Michael Moore, a popular footy man who lost his life on this weekend 14 years ago.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Rugby League’s Sliding Doors Stay Open At Old Trafford

WCfinal programmeBy STEVE MASCORD

THIS afternoon, you will witness the climax of five weeks’ rugby league which will, in all likelihood, change the sport forever.

International competition is responsible for ‘Northern Union’ rugby spreading to Australia and New Zealand in 1907, thanks to Albert Baskiville’s daring All Golds tour of Britain.

And perhaps Baskiville (the spelling of his name was later altered to ‘Baskerville’) would have opened up new territories for the game upon his return to New Zealand. Who knows? He may have taken an all star line-up, spearheaded by Lance Todd and the opportunity to make a few bob, to South Africa or America in the first decade of the last century.

But Albert Henry Baskiville died at the age of just 25 in Brisbane, at the tail end of the All Golds tour which sowed the seeds of rugby league  to kick off in Australia the following year.

And for most of the century that followed, England, New Zealand and Australia kept our game pretty much to themselves. Maybe the pneumonia, contracted by Baskiville on a ship from Sydney to Brisbane, was a sliding doors moment for rugby league – and the door closed tight on further expansion for decades.

The first Australian team to visit the United Kingdom the following year, 1908, spent a month in Wales and played Tests in Birmingham, London and Newcastle and a match against a Northern Union selection in Glagow.

But generally speaking, expansion has been sporadic and uncoordinated. The United States sent a team to Australasia and France in 1953, South Africa toured Australia 1963, Australia toured Italy – who had already taken on Britain and France – in 1960.

There were many, many more sliding doors moments for the code during this period: correspondence unanswered, important events ruined by weather, poor administrative decisions, short-sightedness, personal misfortune and the impact of events outside the sport.

The next great movement towards expanding the game’s boundaries came with the advent of the World Sevens, a tournament run by Sydney lawyer Colin Love from 1988. Not only did the Sevens encourage the Australian Lebanese and Italian communities for form teams, and then forge links with people in their home countries, but it reignited the sport in South Africa, the United States and Russia.

And it gave us the country that has made the last two World Cup semi-finals, Fiji. They were backed by no less than General Sitiveni Rabuka when they fronted up at the Sydney Football Stadium in 1992.

It was on the back of this third epoch of expansion that the 1995 World Cup was staged in Britain, with Keighley gasping at the skills of the the Fijians, kick-off at Wigan delayed because of the throng outside and Old Trafford packed for an England-Wales semi-final.

The 2000 tournament, also in the UK, was dogged by terrible weather and transport chaos and, in retrospect, probably over-reached in terms of venues and number of teams.  It was another eight years before the second oldest World Cup in sport was again held, and the 2008 tournament in Australia put the concept back on an even keel with strong crowds and the greatest moment in Kiwi league history.

The 2013 version has been something else again.

Exciting double-headers in Cardiff and London, the unforgettable comeback by Samoa in Warrington, the United States’ Wiggles-inspired success in a bid to #shocktheworld , Scotland’s brave run to the quarter-finals, the stirring pre-match rituals of the island teams, Italy’s greatest side ever and a clash for the ages between New Zealand and England last Saturday.

France got a standing ovation when down 42-0 in Avignon, a rugby ball autographed by Julian Assange was raffled by activists in Wrexham, Sonny Bill Williams performed a personal lap of honour in Leeds and the Irish sung ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ as a late night flight carrying themselves and the Australians took off from Shannon Airport.

But my personal favourite memory was Fiji’s Eloni Vunacece, accompanied by a pint-sized mascot during the anthems in atrocious conditions at St Helens, rubbing the shoulders of the youngster to keep him warm.

For 107 years, international rugby league has been a poor cousin to the club game to which it gave birth. But the colours, personalities and rituals of our national teams have taken root in the game’s mainstream consciousness this month and last.

They’ll stay there. A giant has awoken.

AH Baskiville’s body was returned to New Zealand for burial back at the dawn of international rugby league. His remains were interred at Karori Cemetery.

But his spirit has arguably never soared so high as it will at Old Trafford this afternoon.

WORLD CUP XVII

1. Matt Russell (Scotland)
2. Ryan Hall (England)
3. Jarryd Hayne (Australia)
4. Greg Inglis (Australia)
5. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (New Zealand)
6. Joseph Paulo (United States)
7. Shaun Johnson (New Zealand)
13. Paul Gallen (Australia)
12. Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
11. Sam Burgess (England)
10. FuiFui MoiMoi (Tonga)
9. Issac Luke (New Zealand)
8. Mose Masoe (Samoa)

RESERVES:

14. Johnathan Thurston
15. Joey Leilua
16. Brett White
17. Luke Douglas

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD CUP 2013

THE JOY OF SEVEN: Finals Week One

se7enBy STEVE MASCORD
BEARING BAD NEWS
SHOULD referees be told at halftime if they have committed a major error in a big ticket match that has the potential to affect the outcome? The argument in favour of informing them is that they are likely to find out anyway, with video officials, reserve referees, strappers and even spectators coming into contact with them at the break. The argument against is that even if they don’t feel pressure to square up, there will be a perception to that effect which can be plausibly denied if they are not aware of their error. Neil Henry and  Shane Flanagan each decided against telling their players about the seventh-tackle try. “It’s like coaching players, you have to take into consideration what makes people tick,” video referee Justin Morgan said on ABC when asked whether it is common practice when asked whether it was common practice to tell referees at halftime of their stuff-ups.

SWINGS, ROUNDABOUTS AND EMPTY STANDS
LAST week we wrote about how rugby league has a habit of solving one problem, and then revisiting an old one as a result. The NRL insisted the double header was not a result of this interminable cycle, that they wanted it regardless of the AFL’s intentions. OK, we liked the double-header so well done. How about this? Finals in week one are poorly attended because teams in two games have a second chance. We respond in 1999 by introducing a system under which most week one games are potentially sudden death. This is scrapped as unfair. We return to a formula where the elimination games are clearly identified – and the crowds stay away. Back to square one? (Doesn’t explain the poor crowd on Sunday though).

CENSORS CENSORED
IS the NRL seriously suggesting that a coach who throws up suggestions of a conspiracy involving the administration and referees to influence the result of matches won’t be fined next year? The NRL censors have come badly unstuck with the seventh tackle drama. Neil Henry stopped short of saying he believed the conspiracy theories; under the previous League policy, that may have just saved him. But under this year’s crackdown on “excessive” criticism, it’s an insult to the intelligence to say he didn’t “step over the mark”. The only defence was that the situation justified the reaction – and that’s the very reason the NRL itself overstepped the mark in its draconian censorship.

BETTER OFF ALONE
ONE of the few positives at the weekend for the NRL administration was the double-header, which produced two fantastic games and a memorable atmosphere. Or was it? As it turns out, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was not a fan. “I thought we could have filled that (stadium), just a Manly-Roosters game, if it was ticketed as that,” said Robinson. “It was a big clash, we could have done that better. Logistically, it was fine but I’m not sure if the crowd was as big as it could have been. From a Roosters point of view, I thought it could have been done differently from the NRL.” The combined attendance on Saturday was 32,747.

SHARP RETORT
PARRAMATTA chairman Steve Sharp has backed suggestions by Nathan Hindmarsh and Matthew Johns that Eels players were not all that unhappy to see coach Ricky Stuart leave. “I think the players were looking for a fresh start,” said Sharp. “I think that influenced Ricky’s decision. It may have been on his mind and influenced his performance.” Sharp also had this to say about Denis Fitzgerald’s offer to become involved in the club again: “Denis and other people who have been working behind the scenes to downtrod (sic) our club over the last few months need to take a bit of a holiday.” On players who reportedly have get-out clauses, Sharp said on ABC: “I’ve had no contact with any player managers saying they are not bringing their players to the club. In fact, if they don’t want to come to our club, I don’t really want them there.”

AND IN OTHER NEWS
ON a bad weekend for officiating, it’s worth noting that an innovation helped get two decisions right in one of the Under 20s finals. With the scores tied between Brisbane and Wests Tigers near the end of regulation time at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, Brisbane received two penalties in kicking distance. On each occasion, Wests Tigers used the ‘captains challenge’ facility being employed in Holden Cup this year and on each occasion, the joint venture won. The match went into overtime and Wests Tigers kept their season alive. The captains’ challenge is almost certain to be used in first grade eventually. Intriguing, though, than in identical circumstance in the NRL, the result would have been different.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT
IT’S always bitter sweet when your favourite parodist joins the mainstream. And so it was when Denis Carnahan, the man behind the “That’s In Queensland” jingle, became part of the match-day entertainment at the weekend. Denis had to learn the words to “Give Your Love To A Cowboy Man” pretty promptly. But the implications of meeting those you send up was more stark when was asked to write and perform a song at the Canberra Raiders’ annual presentation night. A Raiders fan, Carnahan was initially given carte blanche when it came to subject matter. But as the Green Machine came a cropper, the list of taboo subjects – from Pineapple Cruisers to ASADA – got longer. He must have done a good job; the lyric sheet is destined for the pool room of club patriarch John ‘JR’ McIntyre.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD