By STEVE MASCORD
LETTNG Australian NRL players playing a role in determining the next 10 years of international matches might sound daft – but there could be method in the madness.
The NRL itself will play a huge role, of course, in determining what is played – and where – between the 207 World Cup in Australia and the 2025 tournament which will most likely (fingers, toes, tongues and all other appendages crossed) in North America.
The NRL, in turn, has chosen to consult Australia coach Mal Meninga. Now, there is a very good argument it should give David Kidwell just as much say but that’s another column.
Meninga, in turn has consulted his players. Before the England-Australia Test in London, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was to address the Kangaroos about the options set to be tabled in Liverpool at the RLIF congress.
Here’s why listening to the players may not be such a bad idea: they like trips.
I surveyed a number of them at the Four Nations series launch about where they wanted the 2021 World Cup to be held and the US had sizeable support.
Before the London Test, Australia prop Matt Scott said he’d be willing to give up the post-season break mandated by the Rugby League Players Association in 2018 if it was possible to play a touring Great Britain side.
Scott head earlier told me he wished the Australian side was able to see more of Europe during the tournament.
For what it’s worth, it is still likely to be a spring break in 2018 for the Aussies. There is a push for a full Kangaroo Tour in 2019 with perhaps an eight-team Federation Cup in 2020. That may be in America. The preferred structure is two pools of four teams, seeded, with a final.
Promoter Jason Moore has some different ideas on that structure.
But while NRL administrators are dominated by money and the clubs in in their concerns, empowering players who want to see the world might be the key to unlocking the potential of the international game at the highest level.
AT the height of the is-Wayne-Bennett-rude controversy I called the RFL to find out exactly what the great man’s job entails.
When I asked Bennett at his now-infamous London media conference if his only responsibility was to coach the team, he responded: ‘That’s exactly right.”
Asked if there was anything else in the job description, he said: “No”.
I won’t go into who I called and who called back and who I thought would call back because there are some personal relationships at work. But suffice to say three people were involved, two of whom I spoke to, and after four hours I was told there would be no on-the-record comment.
To me, Bennett is entitled to be himself. It’s not as if the RFL didn’t know what they were getting. I agree with colleague Paul Kent that if there was any additional abrasiveness during the Four Nations it could be a sign of vulnerability at the end of a difficult personal year in unfamiliar surroundings.
But the RFL needs to be accountable for the choice they made. They need to come out and say they only care about winning and support Bennett.
Or they need to have a word to Bennett about their bedside manner.
Or they need to explain why they didn’t have a word to him about his bedside manner.
To duck for cover and say nada says little for the courage or leadership at Red Hall. When the RFL challenged me on an aspect of my reporting about this issue, I challenged them back to have a go at me publicly because that would at least be be an on-the-record comment on the issue.
At the time of writing, I am still waiting.
SOME of you, with an interest in such things, might find a look at the way the media was handled during the Four Nations somewhat instructive.
The Australians held media opportunities, on average, every second day at their hotel. There was an electronic media ‘all-in’ – usually involving NRL.com, Channel Nine and Channel Seven – followed by the same player speaking to print. That was usually just News Limited, Fairfax and Australian Associated Press but anyone covering the tournament was invited.
It was possible to request interviews outside this set-up.
I didn’t go to New Zealand media opps but I’m told they were rather weird – everyone speaking at once. What I mean by that is a coach and two players facing media representatives all at once, with questions and answers flying from everywhere. Also, the Kiwis openly labelled these as being for “travelling NZ media only” – not much help when you’re in Carlisle and there are still tickets to sell in Workington.
(It subsequently transpires this designation was only supposed to deter Kiwi journos at home, trying to cover such events over the phone – not locals)
The England media opps were just as complex but in a different way. England would have a ‘media day’ once a week. In my experience, a ‘media day’ involves reporters and players mingling and talking one-on-one.
But an England media day involved the coach and three players each sitting at a desk and speaking to everyone at once. The first part of each of these was open to radio, TV and agencies. Then the cameras were told to stop rolling and newspapers took over.
The UK newspaper reporters would then collude to decide which day Mike Cooper or Josh Hodgson interviews would be run, agreeing all to quote the same player on the same day.
This system came a little undone when newspaper reporters from other countries, with other requirements, became involved. I approached with this philosophy: I would use answers to my own questions when I chose as I don’t really like being part of a cartel.
But even this approach causes some tensions.
While the England media manager could separate print from electronic, he could hardly dictate what day each story would run so it only took one dissenter for the system to fall apart.
As for one-on-one interviews, I made requests for players from Australia, New Zealand and England for Rugby League Week’s A-List feature. As I write this, I have not done a single one of these interviews.
A way to raise money for the international game, aside from a second ‘property’ such as the Federation Cup, would be for funds from a sponsorship in all internationals to be handed over to the RLIF.
There is an idea out there that the referees in all internationals across the world should be branded with a sponsorship that goes straight to the RLIF.
You’d think, with there being relatively few internationals at present, it would be easy to achieve. Not so. Red tape abounds.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
THE departure of Stephen Kearney as coach of our number one ranked nation, just weeks before the Four Nations, raises a host of intriguing questions.
One must be the inescapable conclusion that coaching a tier one Test team is a post with decisively less prestige than heading up an NRL franchise.
Wayne Bennett would never have chosen England over Brisbane, not in a month of Suncorp Stadium Friday nights.
Mal Meninga at least chose Australia over Queensland but if he was offered, say, Bennett’s job, how long would he stick around? And he also upset Papua New Guinea by walking out on them.
And even though Kearney could have been ready to start work at the Warriors’ Penrose offices by the end of November, he chose to step aside immediately he was picked to replace Andrew McFadden.
At the time of writing, David Kidwell was favourite to replace Kearney. Like Kearney, he has been biding his time as an NRL assistant and comes well recommended.
What will be interesting is how Kidwell handles the politics in the Kiwis camp. Kearney was adept at politely sidestepping questions about why the likes of Benji Marshall and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves were on the outer for periods.
He was also adept at not picking players he felt did not fit into the culture in order to attract those questions. It was the diplomatic equivalent of one of Marshall’s best passes.
Whether Kidwell inherits an sort of unspoken blacklist or gives everyone a fresh start will be extremely interesting to observe.
IT might seem self-evident but I’m still surprised that a club chief executive would come out and say it.
In a recent episode of the excellent Fox Market Watch podcast, Canberra’s Don Furner admitted the national capital’s cold weather was a key recruitment tool for English players.
Next year, Jordan Turner will join Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead at GIO Stadium
“Without a doubt there’s been a sea change in Australia,” Furner told the podcast. “People like to live at the beach and in the warmth and Canberra gets a bad rap.
“We didn’t have the beach and warm weather that could maybe attract players for less money.
“To get a kid from Manly beach or Newcastle beach to move down here, it’s not easy.
“We certainly changed our focus a while ago because we realised those guys don’t want to live here. It’s really hard for them.
“We’ve just extended Elliott and we’re signing up another one for next year actually, so we think we go all right with Englishman, they don’t mind the cold.”
Whitehead, meanwhile, said he “felt sick” conceding the penalty that allowed Cronulla to down the Green Machine in the first week of the finals.
An example of how highly Hodgson is held came from club great Laurie Daley, who said that while the Raiders could get into a grand final without the former Hull KR rake, they would not be able to win one in his absence.
MORE often than not, a day or so before this column is due I am bereft of ideas. Many of the day-to-day happenings in rugby league are cyclical, if not downright repetitive.
But there are few other areas of human endeavour, particularly those to have been pursued for 121 years, so consistently capable of jaw-dropping ridiculousness.
And so it was one Thursday morning, on Facebook, I got an alert saying “Live: Eddie Hayson media conference”. Say what?
Now, I am familiar with Facebook Live. My wedding was on it. But former brothel owners who owe millions of dollars calling media conferences? This was innovative.
Hayson had called the Sydney rugby league media together to answer allegations he had been involved in match fixing. The New South Wales police had taken the issue so seriously, it had formed a strike force to deal with the allegations.
Hayson went on to name a bikie says had given the police knowledge of his involvement. He named a bikie, Antonio Torres, as the man who sold the cops a dummy and pornography baron Con Ange as the one who embellished it to journalists.
He named the journalists whom he believed had wronged him – the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, Channel Seven’s Josh Massoud and the Daily Telegraph’s Rebecca Wilson.
Then, he allowed two them to cross examine him!
Yes, he had tried to put $30,000 into the betting account of Kieran Foran. Yes, he owed boxer Jeff Fenech millions. Yes, rugby league players, police and judges had visited his brothel. Yes he had given them “freebies”.
He gave several people money “because he liked them”. He could afford PR to stars Max Markson because he had had a few wins on the punt recently.
Need I go on?
Hayson ended up denying two allegations and confirming a dozen others – while paying for the platform himself!
I’m sure these sorts of things happen in other sports. Just can’t think of one at the moment.
LAST month we waved the flag (Stars and Stripes, of course) for the American 2021 World Cup bid. We kind of think it’s a good idea.
Of course, these things are dictated as much by money as anything else and the International Federation relies on the profits from World Cups to run the sport for the next four years.
An American World Cup with empty stadiums, little television income and a massive financial black hole would be a disaster for the game, both logistically and from the point of view of our image.
But here’s the thing.
Promoter Jason Moore plans to just give an “eight figure sum” to the RLIF for the right to run the tournament. That’s at least $10 million. Furthermore, he says he will plough another multi-million-dollar investment onto American rugby league.
Now, next year’s World Cup is currently projected to make only $7 million.
I know the offer in the UK is Stg15 million plus infrastructure. I am not sure if the infrastructure figure is conditional on Britain being granted the tournament.
But I ask you this, as a rugby league fans, would you really rather a few nice facilities than someone take on all the risk of taking the game to American and handing over a check for $10 million, making it the more successful than the previous tournament?
No doubt the RLIF would like to ease America in by giving them the new Continental Cup first. Moore doesn’t seem the sort of guy for consolation prizes, however.
Guaranteed 10 mill, no risk, America … Tweet me with your thoughts at @BondiBeat.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUR WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
BECAUSE next year’s World Cup is in Australia, expect officials to pull out all the stops to have as many NRL stars sprinked across the teams as possible.
The new CEO of the tournament, Andrew Hill, has been working on eligibility rules for years and walking a diplomatic tightrope in his dual roles as RLIF secretary and NRL head of integration.
In one ear, he’s had NSW and Queensland officials stridently refusing to budge on their oft-heard refrain ‘you must be Australian to play Origin’ which translates to “son, if you play for that country we won’t pick you’.
Then there’s the NRL’s own investment in the South Pacific, which would be far more useful if those countries had their best teams on the pitch.
And finally, there’s been his empathy for the objectives of the RLIF and the countries frustrated by the likes of Wayne Bennett barring Anthony Milford from representing Samoa with no reason given.
Now Hill can be a little more unequivocal – and it wills start with new eligibility rules at the end of the year.
Origin players will hopefully be permitted to represent tier two nations without changing their country of election.
(These changes don’t help the likes of, say, Scotland for this year).
And Bondi Beat expects Hill to go door to door, if necessary, to make sure as many of the world’s best players as possible are on show next October and November.
The question is whether a Tongan side full of players born in south Auckland, Penrith and Logan City – to use an example – is a threat to England’s chances.
It probably is.
Full strength Samoa, PNG, Tongan and Fiji teams on hard grounds during an Australasian spring will present Wayne Bennett with plenty of headaches.
One suspects another big part of Hill’s role will be ease the concerns of his colleagues in Fitzrovia and Red Hall.
LAST month we reported for you how RLWC chief executive Michael Brown was forced to resign after leaving an abusive voicemail for Penrith CEO Corey Payne.
Michael was browned off that Payne – the youngest chief exec in the NRL, only a couple of years out of playing – had claimed Pepper Stadium was snubbed for a World Cup match when in fact they Panthers had demanded half a million dollars to host one.
We thought that was typically rugby league.
But the follow-up is even less likely to happen in any other sport, or indeed field of endeavour.
Payne himself has fallen out with someone or another and is no longer involved in the game! The Panthers issued a media release referring only vaguely to “overseas business interests”.
Maybe he’s buying Salford off Marwan.
IF there’re two things rugby league fans love to moan about, it’s refereeing and the disciplinary system.
We can have match fixing and chaotic international eligibility rules and Gawd knows what else but if Johnny Appleseed got two weeks when he should have got four, the sky is falling in.
Same goes for that knock-on Warren Whistleblower failed to detect.
Here and Bond Beat Towers we try not to get caught up in such minutae. We really do. But in the last couple of weeks we have seen things get a tad daft.
First, St George Illawarra’s Welshman-cum-New South Welshman Tyson Frizell is suspended for a week for brushing a referee as he walked past.
I’d have no problem with that on its own. We don’t want to go the way of soccer in this area. But the way it is enforced Down Under is woefully inconsistent.
Then, a couple of weeks later, Gold Coast Titan Ryan James breaks the jaw of Wests Tigers starlet James Tedesco. Sure, Tedesco was falling but James still copped a grade two careless high tackle charge.
He chose to challenge, as is his right.
After he is found guilty, he and his counsel take a deep breath and begin to gather up their paper when judiciary member Royce Ayliffe says “you’ve only been found guilty”.
You mean we can still challenge the grading? Yes. And what do you know, James gets downgraded to one and doesn’t miss a match.
You touch a referee as you walk past – one week. You break a star fullback’s jaw – none. I mean, really….
ONE of the reservations many people have about the 2021 World Cup bid from America is that it does not come from the governing body, the USARL.
But have you thought about how many national governing bodies in our game CAN afford to bid for the World Cup?
Sure, South Africa made play for next year’s tournament but they used an external consultant with soccer experience all the way, Chris Botes, and basically just stood alongside him and nodded.
Even Leagues with the right business acumen in their ranks probably wouldn’t be able to attract the requisite government support
Steve Williams is the communications manager for the USARL. He recently told my Kiwi colleague: “We do not have any affiliation with Jason Moore.
“We weren’t consulted about the actual bid. This was a bid submitted to the international federation.
“We’re happy to partner with anybody who is willing to help promote rugby league in the USA.
“That being said, we are 100 per cent an amateur, volunteer based organisation so if something like this was to come along and let’s say the international federation did embrace it, we would expect them to also provide assistance and a plan to support any type of growth that would be expected.
“You’re talking about a 350 million population so … I’d consider it unfortunate if we weren’t structured properly to funnel (the interest) into development at some level.”
The places where we need to have World Cups – Japan, mainland Europe and North America – do not have viable local leagues who can submit applications.
It’s going to come down to people like Chris Botes and Jason Moore.
JUST quick note to wish all the best for the departed editor of this esteemed organ, Joe Whitley.
He was only a young lad but I’m sure you’ll agree his flair for design, in particular, was obvious and abundant.
Good luck in your next endeavour, old chap.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
I FEEL sorry for Andrew Johns.
Unless you live under a rock or follow rugby union (give me a rock any day), you’ll be aware that there’s a match fixing ‘scandal’ taking place in Sydney right now.
Two matches last year involving Manly are alleged to have been manipulated by players involved being paid A$50,000 a man.
Now, the way this has played out is a reflection of two things: the changing face of the media and journalism and the way authorities in Australia seem to behave out of political expediency.
Many fans have drawn a comparison between the so-called ‘Darkest Day In Australian Sport’ a couple of years ago, when we were told organised crime had infiltrated out dearest institutions and doping was rife.
Since then, we had had sanctions levelled at Cronulla and the Essendon AFL club but the scale of the cheating was no-where near what was initially touted.
From a fan’s point of view, this smacks of something similar.
Even as a professional journalist I can appreciate the cynicism and that’s because politicians and law enforcement in Australia seem to like to use the media to ‘smoke out’ offenders.
Apparently many of my colleagues were aware of these match fixing claims for some time but couldn’t get the story ‘up’ – that is, no-one would be quoted. This changed when the Daily Telegraph’s Michael Carayannis managed to get a line from a police spokesperson at the end of May.
Again, for whatever reason but perhaps as some kind of deterrent, further high-ranking police officers have been quoted since. In other parts of the world, I would imaging police would be far more reticent to talk but there is a ‘Wild West’ feel to the way things are done Down Under.
As for the change in journalistic practices, that is reflected in the way the story has been covered since it broke.
In the old days, naming groups of people – such as football teams – and individuals such as the ‘big punter’ and former brothel owner Eddie Heyson would have been considered actionable and therefore ill-advised.
But today, decisions are made based on what a news organisation can get away with. One former News Corporation used to say “don’t start a fight with anyone who buys newsprint (ink) by the tonne.”
The question asked is not ‘can they sue?’ but ‘are they likely to’ and ‘does that person have a good reputation that can be sullied anyway?’ Increasingly we see lines in stories like ‘the Daily Bugle does not suggest the players named in this story are guilty of any wrongdoing’ when the rest of the story suggests exactly that.
As a result, we have seen detailed allegations of exactly who is supposed to have done what and which games and clubs are allegedly involved, when such stories would never have been printed in the past.
What does all this have to do with Andrew Johns?
One report suggested Manly blamed a former great no longer on the club staff for introducing Heyson to the club.
Johns, who has a number of media gigs, stepped up and said such allegations were ridiculous and he had done nothing of the sort.
By responding to the allegations, he outed himself. The reporters no longer needed to refer to him as “a former great”. They could name him – and so in the next day’s paper he found the allegations against him spelt out in greater detail but someone who was not named.
It’s a great three-card trick – put allegations you cannot publish for legal reasons to the target of those allegations and if they are denied, you no longer have any obligation to protect the aggrieved party.
No doubt Johns felt his time at Manly was positive and he left on good terms (he’s now an advisor at Sydney Roosters). Now one of his former ‘mates’ is trying to blame him for match fixing and he has no idea who it is.
That can’t be fun.
AT the time of writing, it appeared Zac Hardaker’s likely new home would be Canberra, where Jack Wighton is the likely fullback.
(I actually once had a copy of Rolling Stone with Jack White of the White Stripes on the cover at a Raiders game one day. It was only after Wighton had left the stadium that I realised what a great photo opp that would have been),
Wighton, from Orange in the NSW central west, is a likeable lad. Perhaps too likeable as indications are that the curry he has been getting from fans on social media recently has been getting to him.
Wighton made a couple of ugly errors against Canberra but also engineered the win. “Forget all those voices in your head and listen to mine,” is what coach Ricky Stuart claims to have told him at halftime.
A move to the centres or even to stand-off would relieve Wighton of the burden of playing in rugby league’s loneliest position.
WHILE on Stuart, there’s a juicy rumour going around that he is going to be the new coach of Lebanon, in place of Darren Maroon.
Maroon quit just a couple of weeks before the recent international against the Cook Islands when was told his position would be reviewed after the match.
He had previously believed he would be in the post until after the World Cup.
Now, Stuart has not always been painted as a fan of international football, with many a developing nation coach wishing he was more charitable about releasing players.
But if there is any duplicity there, it seems to almost be de rigeur ….. right, Wayne Bennett?
ALL is not going smoothly with the World Cup.
Recently, governing bodies poised to send teams to the ‘Festival Of World Cups’ – students, women, armed forces, wheelchair etc, were contacted by the organisers
Each participant was going to have to find extra funds because various hoped-for revenue sources had not eventuated.
Meanwhile, Suncorp Stadium was awarded the final with little or no fanfare.
While on the World Cup, it’s a shame Cook Islands won’t be involved, purely from a playing talent point of view.
Brad Takairangi, Jordan Rapana, Tepai Meoroa and Zeb Taia have all been among the season’s top performers in the NRL.
But, as you may have anticipated, Rapana and Taia have already declared their intention to try to make the New Zealand side.
Filed for:RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
THE clubs may not like it but do we now have enough English players in the NRL to revive a mid-season Test?
There is absolutely no reason why the Kiwis should not play while Origin is on, aside from the fact clubs would declare war if they had to stand down their New Zealanders along with their Maroons and Blues.
Even without the stand-down, though, the Test could be played on a Friday in the May split round.
The problem in the past has been opposition. But there is now enough Englishmen to need only a handful of others to take the long flight Down Under.
Of course, there is ideological issue of handing out England shirts to people who may not have earned it yet.
But as colleague Brad Walter pointed out to me after we watched Sam Burgess’ competitive return in round one, you could have a Great Britain selection that includes Ireland’s Tyrone McCarthy and any number of Scotland ‘heritage players’ such as Kane Linnett and Lachlan Coote.
What do you think?
WHAT about ‘The Bunker’, then?
Firstly, it looks like nothing so much as Mission Control at Cape Canaveral. It’s a real shame Chris Houston has left for Super League as I’d love to hear them say “we have a problem, Houston”.
I am someone who is extremely cynical about adding more apparatuses to officiating when you are always going to get human error.
But having said all that, I like what I’ve seen so far. It’s an improvement. And it puts the NRL even further ahead of Super League.
MANY readers will be of the opinion that sport’s borders are set in stone and expansionary efforts by rugby league are bound to fail.
Upon my return to Oz, I saw a convincing rebuttal of that argument in the UFC. Walking to Allianz Stadum for South Sydney-Sydney Roosters, I overheard a lad being told he was looking forward to having a few friends around for a fight from Las Vegas.
No mention of the 108-year-old derby taking place up the road.
In the UK, darts provide us with an example of a sport that can grow its market share and cultural relevance.
Sadly we don’t seem to have a united strategy at all – or if we do, we don’t have the resources to even consider putting it into practice.
IN Australia there is a thing in television sports coverage called “fair use provisions”.
This means that any website or television station can post highlights from any sporting event, whether on not they have the rights.
So while the BBC, for instance, will have still photos of soccer matches they do not have rights to, in Oz they would be allowed by law to show video from those games.
That’s why Australian newspapers declined accreditation for the last rugby union World Cup – because the IRB wanted them to sign away those rights. So the reporters just bought tickets and interviewed players at their hotels.
One suspects Super League would prefer the fair use provisions were introduced in the UK – the one-pointer on the hooter was a great advert for our game.
It’s probably the best rugby league story in the world and it’s going unwritten.
Belgian officials brought some Brussels City Council officials to the World Club Challenge on February 21 and they were so impressed with the sport that are going to sink further resources into promoting it.
In Molenbeek, a hive of extremist activity and a place where police centred their manhunt after the Paris attacks.
Rugby league has a wonderful record in underprivileged areas of channelling aggression more positively.
I’m hoping to visit Brussels this year to chase up this story.
THE round one NRL clash between Wests Tigers and the Warriors was dubbed the Ivan Cleary Cup by one cynic – because he’d be coaching whoever lost.
True to their form in recent seasons, it was the Aucklanders who fell a long way behind. Fought back, but still lost.
Cleary may not have a steady coaching income at the moment but he’s holding the whip hand when it comes to his future employment prospects.
It wouldn’t surprise if Hull KR sounded him out after sacking Chris Chester; even if Cleary went back to the NRL next year he could probably do some good things in East Hull in 2016.
WHILE Super League continues with one referee, Down Under we have two in a competition which is planned to be scrapped!
Two referees are in use for televised Under 20s matches and all finals. In round one, because there was only one of these, they threw two whistlers at the Sydney Roosters-South Sydney Holden Cup match, just for practice.
Now when we compare this to England … well, lets start with televised under 20s matches and work backwards from there.
And the editor had the hide to ask for 500 words on the biggest differences between rugby league in Australia and in the UK. I could have written 50,000.
GREG Inglis walked out of the dressing room at Allianz Stadium in round one with his eye on the prize – the fading sunlight at the end of the tunnel.
GI had already done a media conference and studiously avoided meeting the eyes of any of the waiting media.
Then a young Channel Nine reporter stopped him and directly requested a chat. He stopped, considered the request and eventually agreed.
Thurston has set such a high standard of accessibility over the past 12 months that he has almost shamed his colleagues into arresting the sad decline in co-operation with the media throughout the NRL.
He’s even allowed himself to be photographed at home and while in the UK recently did everything of which he was asked – and more.
JT knows that being in Townsville doesn’t help him when it comes to maintaining his profile and that he needs to go an extra yard to ensure his maximises his post-career employment prospects.
Throw in his game-day interaction with kids and he’s setting a high standard for everyone else.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN News Corporation gave up its first and last rights over NRL satellite TV, we heard the expression that rugby league was “in control of its own destiny”.
The decision to surrender those rights supposedly cost Rupert Murdoch’s righthand man in Australia, Kim Williams, his job.
We had heard the same thing when News stopped being a half-owner of the game in Australia.
Yet we still had games being shown on delay, in low definition, on Channel Nine. We still had the Fox Sunday games kicking off at 2pm so they could be over before Nine’s delayed telecast started at four.
It didn’t feel like rugby league was in charge of much at all. At least not the NRL, which still seemed to be run for the sake of the broadcasters.
In England, the recent Baskerville Shield series was a success with good crowds – but the days of three Tests being played at Wembley, Old Trafford and Elland Road seem long gone.
With new streaming opportunities, British rugby league also believes it has “control of its own destiny”. But what does that actually mean?
Put another way, if you were rugby league, what would your New Years Resolutions be? Let’s have a shot.
A WORLD NINES CIRCUIT
IT was interesting that the recent RLIF strategic plan, ‘World Rugby Nines’ got a mention. Given that rugby union don’t play nine-a-side, perhaps we are about to make an attempt to reclaim that word that makes up half of our name. Semantics aside, we’ve now been talking about an off-season circuit for long enough to have acted upon it. The blueprint is already there – rugby union sevens. We use second tier players and those who are recently retired or off-contract. The developing nations pick their best and the games are therefore competitive. I am sure Duco Events, the smart people behind the NRL Nines, would love to be involved. Maybe the first year there are only two or three events – Abu Dhabi, Perth and Las Vegas – but it builds. And the beauty of it is that we use our other properties to leverage nines carnivals “You want an NRL match? An Origin? Let’s see how you go with a Nines tournament first”. As Hot Chocolate said, everyone’s a winner!
GIVE THE RLIF MORE AUTHORITY
THE appointment of the RLIF’s first full-time CEO was another milestone for the game – and we can’t expect miracles from David Collier overnight. But the spectacle of Super League CEO Blake Solly trying to get the first Anglo-New Zealand Test on Australian television a few hours before kick-off, and the feudal nature of refereeing appointments for those games, were rather unedifying. There are two countries with power in international rugby league – Australia and Britain. And if the Australians have little appetite for that side of the game, then there is a danger of the RLIF office being dominated by the country in which it resides. A real RLIF with teeth would be able to censure the RFL, something which is hard to imagine under current circumstances. Get rid of bilateral Test series completely. Have them run by the RLIF, with profits passed onto the countries involved as required. We need something more than a front for government funding.
FIX THE NEW END-OF-SEASON SCHEDULE
JAMES Lowes complained that The Qualifiers put too much pressure on his part-time players in one game but isn’t that what professional sport is all about? Most of our leagues worldwide have a final rather than handing out trophies on a first-past-the-post basis. The real problem with the new system in the UK in 2015 was that clubs were able to stockpile their teams at the end of the season, employing the same degree of cynicism that always swarmed around promotion and relegation like flies at a litter bin. The Super League teams absolutely should not get stronger when they are about to play opposition that was already spending less money. You would not be able to sign a whole new squad of players for the NRL semi-finals, would you? The bottom of the top division was also a little ho-hum for the tail end of the season, wasn’t it? Solutions on a postcard, please.
A CEASE-FIRE BETWEEN PLAYERS AND AUSTRALIAN AUTHORITIES
THREATS of awards night boycotts and even industrial action are almost annual events these days in Australia, where players complain they are overworked. Never mind that those in Super League play 10 more games a year. The NRL agreed to a 25-game schedule, still with five-day turnarounds, without consulting them and now the RLPA has hired a high-powered AFL man as its new CEO. In Australia, rugby league is a grab for cash. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is … well, it’s not an agreement at all. When the NRL tried to mandate a 30-game season for all players, the players mocked Shane Richardson for trying to help them. A few months later, they’re screaming the house down because the season’s too long. Any cease-fire is certain to be temporary.
SEPARATE ORIGIN AUSTRALIAN SELECTION FROM ORIGIN
THE old school coaches and administrators Down Under are scared. While many other attempts to modernise and streamline the competition structures and representative programme have been greeted with enthusiasm, the simple measure of not requiring all Origin players to commit themselves to Australia has been greeted like it’s a heresy. It works like this: the RLIF does not recognise State of Origin in any way. It’s only Australia that requires dual-eligible players like Aquila Uate, James Tamou and Aiden Guerra to swear allegiance to the green and gold before they don maroon or blue. This allows Australia to retain players using the $30,000 per game appearance fee. You cannot play Origin unless you lived in NSW or Queensland before the age of 13 but international selection criteria, across all sports, are far less stringent. The solution is simple: let Origin players represent any (maybe just tier two) country for which they properly qualify. Those who fear this either don’t understand it or want Australia to have an unfair leg-up.
SUPER LEAGUE SHOULD PUSH INTO THE AUSTRALIAN MARKET
BETWEEN 20,000 and 40,000 people get up at 5am in Australia to watch Super League. The vast majority of them know nothing about this magazine. They don’t know who Blake Solly is. They have no idea there are podcasts, radio programmes and sponsors of Super League trying to reach them. While the denizens of Salford Quays struggle to get national mainstream media attention – the midweek papers are increasingly devoid of rugby league – there is an insatiable hunger for the game Down Under. The most gambled-upon Super League game of the year is the 1pm match on Magic Weekend – because Australian fans have just finished watching Super Saturday on Fox. Super League should play more matches in this time slot and work more closely with their Fox in Australia so the matches are mentioned during NRL broadcasts and other rugby league programmes are not put up in competition with them. Super League should open an office in Sydney and Super League clubs could even sell perimeter advertising to Australian companies, as happens in soccer with overseas sponsors.
STAND UP TO OTHER SPORTS
WE’VE been warning for as long as we can remember that if rugby league did not get off its backside it would be swamped by other sports. When Sam Burgess can walk out and try international rugby union on for size, when the Dally M medallist is happy to train with an NFL team rather than play our sport, when Sonny Bill Williams can go from Allianz Stadium to Soldier Field and Twickenham in a matter of weeks, when Tom Burgess can trial for an NFL contract while he is under contract with South Sydney, you know the warning has come true. We are, globally, second division and trying to avoid further relegation. We need to stand up for ourselves in places like Dubai, where the local rugby union authorities want to run league comps and – so far – the RLIF seems to be appeasing them. We’re under siege. The barricades need manning.
REAL CULTURAL CHANGE
READ the letters page of any rugby league publication. Talk to clubs and players and administrators and media people. No-one is happy, everyone is moaning. Being a ‘working class game’ is what’s great about rugby league – but it’s perhaps also a big part of what’s wrong with it. In order to progress, the game needs to learn from its rivals, to embrace the ‘big end of town’, to leave behind the bogans and whippets. If you want violence, go watch extreme sports. If you only want to make money out of the game, we’re not giving you any. If you want to start a rebel league, start one. If you want to abuse referees, don’t come back. If you want to stay in suburban grounds, we’ll be at the big ones with corporate boxes and decent toilets. See you. We’ll take the hit. Someone needs to grab rugby league by the scruff of the neck, drag it out of what sometimes seems like a ghetto, and damn the consequences. The alternatives are obscurity and irrelevance. And if that person pays with his job, like David Smith did, we’ll just wait patiently until the next messiah comes along.
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
IT’S a rather strange dichotomy: players in Australia have never been better paid yet nor have they ever been more militant.
Maybe Bruce can change their name to the St George Illawarra Steelers?
FURTHER to my earlier item about Gary Carter, as I write this I have just come back from visiting him in the Royal London Infirmary.