STEVE Mascord is a renowned rugby league journalist who may be the game’s greatest fanatic … and he can’t really cop State of Origin, calling it “an unedifying, crass sell-out”.
Read the Touchstones book extract here
Read the Touchstones book extract here
By STEVE MASCORD
CANTERBURY chief executive Raelene Castle has blasted the 11th hour call-up of Josh Morris as “not very reasonable” and suggested split rounds now operate as a de facto salary cap.
Nineteen-year-old Reimis Smith – with an entire match the day before under his belt – had to drive to Canberra to make his debut on Sunday when Blues centre Josh Dugan pulled himself out of last night’s opening interstate match due to an elbow complaint.
“The etiquette in place at the moment is we just have to release our players for Kangaroos and Origin,” Castle tells League Week.
“But in reality, when you’re running a professional competition, to expect us to do that on the morning of a game when we’re 300 km away and our NSW Cup team has played yesterday is not very reasonable.
“If we played (Saturday), they would still have called J Moz up (Sunday).
“The rules need to be documented, they need to be looked at and thought about … the impacts for all parts of the competition, not just Origin.”
Smith may now go doing in league history as the man who ended an era when the game punished clubs in order to keep Origin in a commercial advantageous television time slot.
“The three teams who have lost the most players all lost this weekend,” Castle said.
“The Broncos, the Cowboys and the Bulldogs – five, five and three (players), four for us on the morning, have all lost.
“So you’ve got to question: is this another form of salary capping? The teams that don’t have many players involved in Origin end up with points they may not have otherwise got.
“You’ve got to question the impact for the credibility of the NRL.
“Origin’s amazing. Everyone knows that. Commercially it’s really beneficial. We all know that. But when you look at the actually integrity and credibility of the NRL competition over 26 weeks, you have to question whether this is the right outcome.”
Interstate football was put in midweek some 45 years ago to minimise impact on clubs. With the advent of Origin, it was discovered to be a ratings bonanza.
By the late eighties, players were being stood down from the previous weekend’s club round – defeating the entire purpose of the games being played on Wednesdays in the first place.
“Maybe we have (re-examined it) but not enough,” said Castle. “The fact is we’ve tried to under the new TV deal in 2018.
“But I think we’ve got to ask the question again.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
JAMES Maloney says the endorsement of Brad Fittler as NSW Origin I five-eighth is no consolation for Country’s poor showing in what will probably be the second-last match ever against City.
Fittler, who represented the Blues 31 times, reckons Cronulla’s Maloney is the stand-out candidate to wear the six jersey on June 1 at ANZ Stadium.
But Maloney, 29, tells RLW: “I supposed it’s a nice endorsement to have but I said it leading into this game: my whole focus was to get a win.
“And I’m pretty down at the moment because it wasn’t the case. That’s what this week was all about.
“It was getting a win for Country and we didn’t do it.”
Speaking on radio Triple M at fulltime, Fittler – coach of victors City – said: “Right now at the present time, we’d have to say James Maloney at five-eighth.
“Early on, he had us in all sorts.
“The game got away and he most probably … I’m not sure how urgent he got personally but … the game got away and that wasn’t due to his fault.
“He’s most probably in the best form out of all of them.”
Fittler said halfback was a more vexed position because of the lack of in-form candidates. “I think Adam Reynolds is a fantastic player but the last couple of games, the kicking game, the backbone of his game, has been a bit down,” he said.
Because of a change in the NRL TV deal in 2018, City-Country has only one game to go for the foreseeable future and Country needed to win both remaining matches to draw level on the all-time ledger since the concept went Origin.
“I would have loved the (City-Country) game to stay. Hopefully there’s still room for it on some form.
“It means a lot to the country. I think the turnout here showed that and a lot of the boys enjoyed playing in the week. I know our boys had a ball this week.
“They had a lot of pride in the jumper and that’s why we’re all hurting now because we couldn’t get the result.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
SO the guys from the Full 80 Podcast are calling it a day. “Do you think some of the passion has gone out of the game?” one of them asked me on their last episode.
“Like, we still follow our teams, but……”
You’ll hear plenty of people say the game is going soft, that it’s being run by suits, that it just doesn’t feel the same.
The Full 80 fellas, well they’re doing what everyone else is threatening to … packing up, going home. They probably have other reasons, too – but are they right? Has the game lost something?
About this time last year, RLW asked me to write about my personal highlights of the season. It’s an indulgence, I guess, but one which I hope you find bearable.
When I go back through 2015, I find plenty of experiences that were truly visceral, not anodyne or sterile.
Rugby league lost fans during the Super League War and it will lose some during what I term a peaceful coup. It is being cleaned up, repackaged for a wider market, made safer for t new world. It will lose more.
But many of those of us who love the game believe it is more than punching and shoulder charging. We have always believed it deserved a wider appeal and we are excited to think it might finally happen. If all you ever liked about the game was the grubby stuff, you didn’t really like the game at all.
So here they are: a few highlights of 2015 that prove rugby league still got passion.
February 22: SOUTH SYDNEY 39 ST HELENS 0 at Langtree Park
“RUSSEL Crowe Snubs Oscars For St Helens” read the incredulous UK national newspaper headlines as the South Sydney owner sprinkled some stardust on the old Merseyside glass-making town. It was the culmination of a three day World Club Series, with Warrington taking on St George Illawarra and Brisbane meeting Wigan in the first expanded such competition in 18-years. This was the only lopsided game. Crowe being interviewed by Brian Carney and leading over the fence of the corporate box to sign as many autographs as possible? Priceless.
May 3: NEW ZEALAND 26 AUSTRALIA 12 at Suncorp Stadium
A BIT of financial belt-tightening by yours truly meant I had written off attending this, as much as it would hurt to miss any international. But then the rain came. The Anzac Test supposed to be played on Friday night but the players were told to go back to their hotel when Suncorp became a rice paddy. So I took it as a sign and hopped on a plane. And what an old-school day Sunday was – sunny, Sunday afternoon Test football and the Kiwis underscoring their recent dominance with a convincing win. Thankyou, mother nature.
BACK in the day, Canterbury were such a welcoming club to young reporters. Barry Nelson and Peter Moore were almost fatherly when you would ring them up and visit their dressing rooms. So going back to Belmore in June was like stepping back into cadet lectures. It was a night of old faces – so many that when I ran into the owner of The Australian bar in New York, my head almost exploded in confusion. Interviewing Josh Reynolds with the crowd chanting his name and walking to the eastern side as the Dogs performed their team song in front of the hill – unforgettable stuff. Canterbury has been a conduit for many years through which people new to this country celebrated their Australian-ness.
June 17: NSW 26 QUEENSLAND 18 at Melbourne Cricket Ground
I’VE not chosen this because of the result. Although I was born – and live – south of the border, I’m not the world’s biggest Blues fan. I flew in from Europe the morning of this match and going back to the MCG, as part of a 91,513 crowd, was quite an experience. Highlights of the evening included running into Scotland coach Steve McCormack in the NSW sheds and the bizarre sight of NRL media strategist Peter Grimshaw competing in a Family Fued episode that was showing in the press box! Origin on the road is a winner.
August 2: ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 46 NEWCASTLE 24 at Kogarah Oval
AS a sportswriter, there is a scary age you reach when you realise you covered the entire PLAYING careers of today’s COACHES. I was there when Dragons boss Paul McGregor played for City Seconds after just a handful of first grade games. And I’ve been on tours with Danny Buderus, I’ve even seen him play in Jacksonville for Leeds. On a sunny winter’s afternoon, this was a reminder of a life well spent as Buderus jpined the coaching ranks. “It’s lonely up there,” he said, when I eventually got hold of him after his animated catchi-up with is mate “Mary”.
August 29: LEEDS 50 HULL KR 0 at Wembley Stadium
RUGBY League turned 50 on an average day in London, and 80,000 of us got an average Challenge Cup final. Not only did Leeds set a new scoring record against poor Hull KR, but winger Tom Briscoe posted an historic five-try haul. But none of that mattered. What we will take away from the day was Lizzie Jones, widow of Wales halfback Danny who died playing the game he loved in May, performing the hymn abide with me. Thirty seconds into her performance, the whole stadium erupted in applause. It was the most spine-tingling moment I can remember at a rugby league match.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
IN the middle of this interview, Jarryd Hayne’s answers get shorter. It seems like he’s had enough.
Your correspondent has to spell it out: ‘this story has to run to about 1500 words, that’s why I’m asking lots of questions’. There’s a brief nod, and the answers get longer again.
It’s a neat encapsulation of what some people say makes the 21-year-old Parramatta flier tick. There’s a story they tell around South Sydney, about how Hayne’s father Manoa Thompson was worried he would sleep through his alarm and miss a early training session at Redfern.
So he drove to the oval the night before, pulled up in the carpark – and went to sleep there, knowing someone would wake him up as they walked past his car. An apocryphal story, perhaps, but like father, like son. Jarryd Hayne marches to the beat of his own drum and the route he takes to success on the football field is rarely the conventional one.
But he doesn’t leave success waiting. The two of them, Hayne and success, almost always meet at the appointed place and time and get on famously. In fact, Hayne’s best friend in most teams is success.
A-List won’t bore you with stories of pet dogs, banter with team-mates, shopping malls and nearby AFL stars this week. We got Hayne at a NSW media opportunity – a bit before most of the fourth estate descended – and the details make for tedious reading.
The Fiji fullback is sat in one of those cubbyholes they have in the home dressingrooms at Sydney Football Stadium, wearing regulation NSW training gear, and talked into a digital voice recorder.
So after experimenting with Rolling Stone-style profiles and sub-headings, this week we’ll utilise another old journalistic favourite – the Q&A:
A-List: You’ve come into Origin camp on the back of Parramatta’s 23-6 loss to Wests Tigers. How do you reflect on that game?
Hayne: “We were a bit rusty, I was a bit rusty myself. It was probably our worst performance all year so I was a bit disappointed but I had a bit of a virus, a stomach bug at the end of the week and that didn’t help. I got it on Friday. We trained pretty late and then we had a sauna session after. We were out in the cold, when I was pretty sweaty. Then Saturday, Sunday I was a bit rusty and I wasn’t sure if I was going to play or not.’’
A-List: How would you sum up the year at Parra? And also your own year?
Hayne: “It’s been tough. It wouldn’t help any club to go through what we’ve been through. To not be coming last is a pretty good effort. To lose our halfback, to lose Feleti (Mateo). To lose one halfback, get a good combination going, and the lose another from the halves combination … it was very tough, it’s really taken it’s toll on the team. The state we’re in now, we’ve pretty much got to play our best every week to be competitive.’’
A-List: You’ve had a new coach coming in and changing things over the summer, there’s blokes off contract who do don’t know what they’re doing next year. Does that have an impact out on the field?
Hayne: “Yeah, it’s tough – especially when you’ve got guys who have been here for a while and they’re not sure if they’re going to be there next year or not. That’s what the coach is there to do. He wants players that he wants there. At the end of the day, it is what it is. There’s always fors and against. Obviously I’m going to lose some mates over the summer because they’re going to move on. I think he’s bought really well with (Shane) Shackleton and (Justin) Poore. I don’t know if he’s looking for anyone else….’’
A-List: You’re probably playing the best footy of your career right now. Is that how you thought 2009 would pan out? How would you describe the year for you personally and what’s changed?
Hayne: “I don’t know, just attitude. I’ve taken it upon myself to do a bit more and I’m a bit more confident in the team and I’m sort of take a bit more control of the team.’’
A-List: And being fullback must be a big boost to you as well…
Hayne: “Yeah, I’m rapt, I’m loving it. I hope to stay there, yeah.’’
A-List: For people why have never done it, tell us what it’s like to run out in an Origin game. What was it like running down that tunnel for the first time? Did anything surprise you?
Hayne: “Yeah, (it’s great) just being able to do it. You know it’s going to be fast, you know it’s going to be intense. Just being out there and in the moment, it’s good, it’s an awesome buzz. It’s one of the best feelings you can get, running out in the Blues jersey. You’re playing against the best players. The main thing is that everyone’s on the same level. From the intensity in training to just the little things, you don’t see the same things at club level you see at Origin level.’’
A-List: Are you more worried about making a mistake in Origin than you are in club football?
Hayne: “Oh, 100 per cent. It’s Origin footy. You can’t make mistakes, pretty much. A mistake, it takes something little to change a game.’’
A-List: But you are a creative player, you take risks. Does that affect your mindset going into an Origin game, if you are more worried about making a mistake?
Hayne: “No, not really.”
A-List: But in your first year of Origin, you tapped the ball infield and Queensland scored. How hard is it not to dwell on things like that?
Hayne: “Not that pass. I thought I was doing good for the team. I thought it was a 40-20, they’d scored two tries, we were on the back foot and I knew when it went out it really would have rattled us. It wasn’t like I was trying to do a magic play or I was trying to do something arsey or silly. That’s not why I did it.‘’
A-List: Everyone else is talking about four series in a row for Queensland. Are you fellas thinking about it a lot?
Hayne: “Yeah, of course. We don’t want want to play in the team that has been beaten four series in a row so it’s a major factor. I think the team we have now should be up for the task.’’
A-List: Tell us about how the side lifted in Melbourne after a poor period in the first half?
Hayne: “I think we were playing like that the whole game but sort of just weren’t getting the lucky chances we were getting in the second half. ‘’
A-List: Have you watched your no-try back on many occasions since then?
A-List: And what are your thoughts when you watch it back?
Hayne: “What everyone else says. It’s a try.’’
A-List: What can we do to prevent those sort of mistakes happening again.
Hayne: “If there’s a touch judge there, what’s the point of going to the video ref? He didn’t put his flag up. So if he doesn’t put his flag up, why are we going to the video ref, you know what I mean?’’
A-List: So they should show more faith in the officials on the field?
A-List: You’ve played just one Test for Australia. At the end of the year there’s a Four Nations and a Pacific Cup? Would you like to play for Fiji again?
Hayne: “No, I think I’ll just stay with Australia this year. The World Cup was something special but I think you can only change a certain number of times in a certain amount of years. I’ll probably stick with Australia and if I don’t get selected I’ll go on a bit of a holiday.’’
A-List: When you say your attitude is different this year, what do you mean?
Hayne: “Before, I used to eat rubbish the day before the game. Now I’m eating right seven days a week and looking after my body a bit more, not going out as much. Just a bit more focus on footy. When I first came into first grade I was a bit young and got a bit sidetracked with the partying.’’
A-List: Was there a single thing that changed your outlook?
Hayne: “Just the World Cup. I really appreciate what I have and how many people wish they were in my shoes so that’s something that really drove me. Seeing the Fijian boys, how proud they were just to play for Fiji. To see them, puting the effort in and the enthusiasm they had really made me feel I should be doing more for myself.’’
A-List: And I suppose you were thrust into a leadership role there whether you wanted one or not.
Hayne: “I think that really helped me because I brought it back to Parra. The thinks I was doing in the Fijian team I was puting it upon myself to do with Parra. It’s obviously affected me in Parra as well.’’
A-List: And before that, you just considered yourself another footy player?
Hayne: “Oh, being young you don’t really want to be really stepping up and taking charge of a team. You had a whole lot of people there who had been around for a while and you just sit back and let them do their thing and you just finish it off at the end of it – which in ’06 I did. We had good halves and a good centre in Luke o’Dwyer who just looked after me. They all sort of left so I had to step up.
A-List: You will forever be known as the man who was shot at in Kings Cross. Is it still fun being a footy player or has scrutiny made it just a business?
Hayne: “Of course. I wouldn’t swap it for the world. It’s just a bit different now compared with back in the day, what the older players used to get away with. It’s a bit hard when you hear all these stories about what they used to get up to. Now, it’s like if you do anything near that you pretty much wouldn’t have a contract. It’s tough. It’s a new generation, a time when things are changing. We’ve just got to get used to it.’’
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Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
THE London Broncos will be competing in Super League next year after agreeing to a ground sharing arrangement at Barnett – but what sort of side will they field? And can the NRL’s reported Wembley ambitions finally breath life into rugby league in the capital after 30 years of hand-to-mouth toil?
Some Broncos sides over the years have grossly underachieved after shipping in big names from Australia and New Zealand so we can only hope the opposite is true and a team of young locals can outstrip everyone’s – admittedly very low – expectations in 2014.
Which brings us to colleague Brad Walter’s recent story about the NRL planning an Origin game at Wembley.
To suggest 74,000 people attended the World Cup final looking for “NRL-style rugby league” would be more than a little egotistical on the part of the commission. They went looking for … a World Cup final. And most of them bought their tickets when England was still a chance of being there.
The expression is “build it and they will come” not “throw it out there and they will come”.
Even the mighty NFL had to saturate television in the UK for years before moving games to Wembley. To think a sport that struggles to get 2000 people to The Stoop every second week can suddenly attract 92,000 for a game between two Australian states is nothing short of extreme Antipodean hubris.
That is not to say we should abandon the idea altogether.
The beauty of it, in fact, is that the NRL now has an incentive to help the British game, and London in particular. If it truly believes it can make money out of the biggest city in the world where our sport has a professional club, then it should get on board and help that club.
This could take the form of scholarship arrangements for young Australian players, an investment in the club, outright ownership coaching assistance and pre-season training camps in either hemisphere.
Certainly the NRL will find it hard to capture the imagination of rank-and-file Londoners as something more glamorous than the flat cap-and-whippets northern game they know rugby league to be as long as it remains on obscure Premier Sports.
But ee had the answer first: NRL helping London. With the prospect of making some money, we now have the question.
CHEERLEADERS seem to be going the way of differential penalties and five-minute sin bins, and I know many of my female colleagues won’t miss them.
FROM his tongue stud to his South Sydney playing number tattooed on his neck, Chris McQueen is the archetypal ‘Nu Skool’ rugby league player.
So when he talks about Facebook and ‘the biff’ in the same sentence, he bears listening to.
“I actually saw someone on Facebook last night say ‘bring back the biff’,” says McQueen, 26, perched the the Café On The Park in Redfern, “and I sort of thought to myself: ‘those days are gone’.
“We’re all professionals. No-one goes out on the field and says ‘I’m going to punch someone and hurt someone’. It’s not why we play the game.
“We play the game for success, we play the game for our brothers and for our mates. It’s not about fighting.
“I’m sorry, I know that might disappoint some of the old guys but that’s the way it is.”
For a man who eschews violence, loves Nu Metal and experiments with facial hair the way most of us change clothes, the South Sydney back rower’s football actually seems to have more in common with the past than the current age of hulking wrestlers.
South Sydney old timers see Ron Coote and Norm Proven in the uncompromising, upright running style and tough defence of this former winger.
Now a Queensland State of Originsback rower and set for a pay rise because of it, the Kingaroy product’s success has been a result of three transitions, two of them extremely difficult.
Here, for A-List, he outlines how each of the big moves transpired:
ONE: “The move to Brisbane, I found that pretty easy. My mum has been in Brisbane forever. Also, I did the move to Brisbane with my two best mates from school – Aaron and Ryan Brown, they’re twin brothers. They’re as close to me as my real brothers. I spent my whole life with them. I grew up with and worked with them. I played with them, got a job with them, we went to school together, we were in all the same classes.
“We all moved together to play with Wynumn Manly. I’ve got their names tattooed on my leg, that’s how close we all are.
“You go straight into the team environment and straight away you’re meeting guys, you’re making new friends. It’s not like just moving somewhere with no-one and not having the opportunity to meet people so I found that pretty easy.”
TWO: “When I moved to Sydney, that was a bit harder. Coming into a first grade squad, I didn’t know anyone. I was very shy around the boys. I’d never been to Sydney, just didn’t know my way around and I just felt lost. It took a while, it took a few months but once I got to know the boys and the season came around and we started playing and that sort of thing, it all just happened a lot easier.”
THREE: “Moving to being a winger and an outside back to back row … I played a bit of back row the year before last under (John Lang) but that was more just due to the fact we had so many injuries and a few suspensions throughout the year. That was never going to be a permanent move. When (Michael Maguire) gave me the tap on the shoulder and said ‘I want you to play back row’…. Yeah I was keen to give it ago but it wasn’t a smooth transition. It took a lot of hard work. I had to get my defence up to scratch, I wasn’t fit enough, I struggled with it. I got dropped for five weeks or so … going back to the Bears was a good opportunity to play long minutes and that helped.
“There was a game last year, it was the second time we played the Bulldogs … and I was 18th man and Eddy Pettybourne got hurt. He pulled out, I went into the team and I sat on the bench the whole game.
“Madge said … it was a tight game and he wasn’t sure if I’d have handled it out there. I sort of said ‘have you given any thought to putting me back on the wing? I think I could do a job on the wing for the team’. He dismissed it straight away, he wasn’t interested.
“If he had said (then) ‘yeah, I’ll give you a crack’, we wouldn’t have known what I could have done as a back rower. I guess none of this would have happened, I don’t know where I would have been as a winger.”
Sattler and Provan probably wouldn’t have talked about loneliness and their own failings as a footballer in an interview. But today’s kids have no such reticence.
Through it all, McQueen’s biggest supporter had been his father Kevin. Now a road worker in Cairns, Kevin was born in England – meaning his son is eligible for Steve McNamara’s men – and has 17 tattoos.
Kevin supports Manly, the only other NRL side to show interest in Chris and has already found space for a couple more tatts: one for a bunnies premiership, and one for his son’s (Australian!) World Cup selection.
“He was covered in tatts,” Chris jnr says of his dad, with visible fondness.
“I got my first one when I had just turned 17. The guy that’s done all my tattoos, I used to live with him. He used to live near my old man. He moved from Kingaroy to the Sunshine Coast so we spent a weekend down at his place and he gave me my first tattoo.
“Especially being from a country town, no-one really had tattoos. I was the first of my friends to get a tattoo. Now you look around, even look around our dressing room, more people have tattoos than don’t.
“The tattoos reflect your personality. You can sort of make that link: ‘oh, he’s a bit of a rocker and he has tatts’. But they’re completely separate. You see people from all walks of life with tattoos.
“I’ve seen my old man covered in tattoos. As long as I can remember in my life, he’s been covered so I never gave it a second thought. People might judge but as I say, nowdays everyone’s got tattoos.
“I think a bit of the stigma and the bad reputation has gone from people with tattoos. I wasn’t too worried about it.”
Nevertheless, one of the first pieces of ink Chris got in Sydney was something of a gamble. He smiles at the memory.
“I played four first grade games and got the (‘1070’) tattoo on my neck, which is something I’d never regret, no matter if I left the club or whatever had have happened,” he explains.
“It was always going to be my first club and it was always going to be my first NRL number so it’s always going to be special for me. A couple of weeks after I got the tattoo, I did my knee again – did my ACL – and that was the start of the 2010 season and I was off contract at the end of that year so I was a bit worried, only having four first grade games under my belt and missing the whole second season of that contract, that I was just going to be let go.
“But they came to me pretty quick, the club. Russell (Crowe) actually spoke to me and said they were going to give me another shot, give me another one-year contract which is what happened.
“I feel like I’m a part of the club now.”
Aside from decrying the biff, McQueen is careful what he says on social media and has so far managed to stay away from the front of the paper. But after his debut Origin season this year, there were reports he – to put it bluntly – wanted more money.
“Madge actually came to me after that Origin period and he’s big on player welfare and that sort of thing,” McQueen recounts.
“… and (he) said he would have a look at that. He’s big on paying players what they’re worth. For an Origin starting back rower, Madge – I guess – has an idea in his head about how much he should be paid. We’re going to look at it during the off-season. I know that Madge and the club will do the right thing by me so I’m not pressing the issue. I know we’ll get it sorted out.
“We’re all working really hard. We all love it bit it is really tough so for a club to look after the player and approach them before the player has to approach the club, I think that’s a really good sign.”
There are good signs everywhere for Chris McQueen. Just ask him to show you.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
MATT Gillett squints in the sunshine at Moore Park. We’re standing under a tree but it doesn’t provide much shelter on a balmy Sydney spring day.
And he recounts a pledge his Brisbane Broncos coach, Anthony Griffin, made two years ago, standing in the sun on a field just like this, with his charges gathered around.
“He wasn’t going to be looking anywhere else for any other players,” says Gillett, 25. “That gave us boys a bit of confidence, that he was going to stick with us.
“He said it across the park, to everyone. ‘He’s happy with the group that he has there. He’s not going to go look anywhere else’. It was earlier, the first year.
“He’s always had that. He’s had the faith in all the players who were there at the club.”
That was 2011. The Broncos went to within one match of the grand final that year. The following season it was eighth, this year 12th. The pledge has softened, the promise made to the core of Griffin’s 2008 grand final Under 20s team has expired.
Ben Barba is coming. Anthony Milford might be as well, and after that Cameron Smith. Gillett, who was there that day two years ago, understands the reasons things won’t be the same now.
“Obviously now we’ve got a couple of players coming to the club and a few players moving on also,” he says, gently.
“It’s good for the club, we’ll have a few players moving in there also and it is definitely going to move us.
“People would be asking (Griffin) the questions, not the players. There’s a lot stuff that goes on behind doors that he wouldn’t tell us about. There’s probably a lot of pressure on him at the moment, as of the last year and the year before.
“He’s a great coach, mate – there’s no doubt about that. It’s just the players putting in and doing that bit for him and understanding how it works. We all get along well there.”
The realisation that things had to change, that the 2008 Under 20s side would not win Brisbane an NRL premiership, has been the major off-field development of 2013 for Australia’s most popular rugby league club.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” Gillett says when I ask about the impact of players like Corey Norman, Scott Prince and Peter Wallace edging towards the exit during the Broncos’ 2013 campaign.
“It probably was a bit of a distraction, obviously Princey retired at the end of the year and had his final year with us, Peter Wallace leaving after being at the club for a long time. But it’s all part of what the business is about. It’s football. Any of the players, or the coach, can be there one day and be gone the next. That’s just the way it is and we have to move on with that. I do feel sorry for some of the players who have to leave, obviously they’re good mates and that sort of thing.
“We’ll still be friend outside of football.”
Gillett is a straightforward, friendly sort of fellow. If you’re looking for an indication of his character, then take his decision to stay with his mates at Wests Arana Hills when he first had the chance to join the Broncos Colts.
“I was there in the pre-season and during the year and halfway through the year I went to the Broncos and played a few games there with Hook,” he says, when asked to recount the story.
“I was playing back at Arana and our team got to the grand final at Wests and the Broncos … the next week, it was the start of their finals campaign. I decided to go back and play with my mates at Arana that I thought was the right thing to do.
“I left the Broncos. I had to tell Hook what I was doing and he wasn’t too happy and didn’t understand what was going on.”
The decision left Gillett tumbling back down the pecking order – but his startling ability was such that he was never going to be down there long. “I went to Norths the next year to play Queensland Cup and Ivan (Henjak) gave me the opportunity to do the pre-season,” he recalls.
Blessed with immaculate footwork, a deft offload and ability to pull off thunderous hits, Gillett was a boom commodity in his debut season of 2010, winning the Dally M rookie of the year. He was also considered one of the most acute cases of Second Year Syndrome of recent seasons, although he didn’t play badly in ’11 by any means.
Rather than “bounce back” like a character out of a clichéd pulp story, he’s found his own equilibrium.
“I’ve got a lot better … understanding the game more,” he says. “Having a few years under the belt playing NRL footy is a big thing and I think, for the young blokes who come through, after a couple of years they’ll realise the same thing. Once you are a regular first grader, you do get used to it and the body does react to the game.
“I used to come off the bench and play limited minutes. Now I’m starting at the Broncos which I’ve been loving this year. Cementing a back row spot at the club has been be a big thing for me and it’s going to be another tough ask next year.”
Rather than feel the pressure to make an immediate impact, Gillett now gauges his effectiveness over the whole 80 minutes.
“I’m still trying to get that off-load out when I can but I’m playing a bit smarter footy now, now that I’ve been here a couple of years. I’m just picking the times to do that sort of thing.”
And the bell-ringers are harder to pull off now the shoulder charge is banned. “I got away with one when we played Newcastle. (Akuila) Uate ran straight at me and I panicked. He was running pretty fast. I just put the shoulder like that. It wasn’t intentional but he dumped me off anyway and went away. “
But Matt has had things going in in the background which put trite accusations of Second Year Syndrome into perspective.
In July 2009, his friend and Bribie Warrigals team-mate Todd Parnell was king hit and killed outside Bribie Island Leagues Club. Since then, Parnell’s mother Jenny has been to watch many Broncos home games as the case got bogged down in the courts.
In the past couple of weeks, it has reached some kind of closure. There were reports of a clash between Parnell’s family and that of the accused, Wally Hung, when the verdict was handed down.
“He got sentenced to seven years – the same sentence he got last time and can apply for bail in 2015, in December,” says Gillett.
“Tony, Todd’s dad, is the one who rang me up the other day and told us what was going on. He seemed pretty down at the time, as you would (be). It’s definitely been a tough time for them, with the case dragging on, so I suppose they would be happy that it’s been sorted out now.”
Gillett gives the impression he is not overly happy with the sentence. “You think that if he gets bail in two years … I can’t comment on what the result was so… yeah.”
Just as he still likes returning to Bribie to “get away from football”, Gillett will be able to escape everything this week with his second trip to Papua New Guinea, for the Prime Minister’s XIII’s annual clash with the Kumuls on Sunday.
That’s why we’re here at Moore Park, for training.
“It’s pretty awesome,” he says with a smile. “You get the luxury of playing with other players from other clubs and meeting new fellas and just learning from other players.
“Seeing what type of blokes they are off the field is a good thing as well. Everyone’s a good fella off the field. Some of the boys are a bit of a pest on the field. Everyone tries to put everyone off their game.
“It’s all part of the game …. happy days. “
YOU’D imagine after 27 years writing stories like this (but better) that this hack had done everything in the boutique-sized universe of rugby league media duties.
True, I have covered games by battling tear gas in the Papua New Guinea highlands, electrical blackouts in Lebanon and hangovers in Keighley.
I even once received a text from Clinton Schifcofske as he was lining up a conversion from the western touchline at Suncorp Stadium.
But watching State of Origin from the sideline was one journalistic odyssey that had hitherto eluded me. The honour was finally bestowed thanks to Sydney FM radio station Triple M securing the rights this year and was made even more enjoyable by the fact that during the game, I didn’t have to actually say anything on air.
No doubt listeners were also grateful for this.
For Origins I and III in Sydney, I sat next to former NSW centre Ryan Girdler and a tech a few short metres from the whitewash and just watched (and Tweeted and Instagrammed). For the second match in Brisbane, it was former Maroon Ben Hannant, and I was behind him, which meant I didn’t see quite as much…..
In the last edition of Forty20, new Melbourne chief executive Mark Evans theorised that Origin “transcends” rugby league in Australia. That may have sounded to you like hyperbole but it’s not – the focus of the entire nation (yes, even including ‘heathen’ states) is on that patch of grass three times a year and the occasion radiates a visceral energy that bears almost no relation to what happens at eight grounds each weekend in the NRL.
A study of the thousands of New South Wales fans who make up Blatchy’s Blues, the supporters group that painted the northern end of ANZ Stadium their colour of choice with jerseys, facepaint and flags, has indicated very few of them are members of NRL clubs.
Yes, there are people in Australia who will go out on a winter’s night with their bare chests painted blue and wearing a ridiculous wig but who otherwise won’t go to a rugby league game.
Being so close to something which others hold in such reverence is enervating and almost intoxicating. One cannot fail to be transfixed as the teams run out to cacophonous response and stand in front of you for the national anthem, even if one is jaded by rugby league and disinterested in the result of the match that follows.
Being close does give you the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be a participant.
Throughout the series I have waffled on about how the players have, intellectually, always had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches. This behaviour has been tacitly condoned by officials, who were raking in the cash from the public expectation of fireworks.
But sitting on the sideline, you realise the imprimatur is not just intellectual. It’s primal. It eminates from the 82,000 souped-up speccies who come not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding it.
In terms of the publicity, the atmosphere and historical convention, it’s actually a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that Origin is not just one big 360 minute rolling brawl.
Of course, a lot has changed since NSW coach Laurie Daley described Paul Gallen’s high shot, followed by a flurry of punches, on Nate Myles in game one as “a great Origin moment”. Gallen was suspended, new NRL boss David Smith and referees’ boss Daniel Anderson banned fighting and four players were sent to the sin bin in game two.
The fallout from these decisions is still being felt. Former Super League referee Ashley Klein didn’t survive the series, dropped after game two. Former players everywhere decried the “sanitisation” of rugby league.
But the world didn’t end. There wasn’t a spare seat at Origin III. The Manchester United players who attended the decider didn’t complain about a limp spectacle played by pansies.
There were other sub-plots, as usual. Where else can horse-riding accidents and lewd phone calls decide the make-up of teams?
Off the field, NSW seemed to impode. Winger Blake Ferguson was charged with indecent assault and dropped, fullback Josh Dugan was with him at the time but managed to keep himself out of trouble.
Mal Meninga serving himself in backpacker bar also became a big story, for some reason. The impending birth of Johnathan Thurston ‘s first child in the lead-up to game two was compounded by a stomach virus about which remains curiously reluctant to talk.
But the central narrative was the same as the previous seven years. Origin’s entire viability was said to be in jeopardy in 2005 when NSW had dominated the series – because the concept was dreamed up specifically to make the Maroons competitive.
But after eight consecutive series wins by Queensland, State of Origin is in rude health. Such humiliation seems to be what it takes to get the attention of the cynical Sydney public. Shifting games to Melbourne, such an attractive proposition for the last 23 years, now seems like an indulgence.
Yes, Queensland’s side seems to be aging. But in Daly Cherry Evans and Chris McQueen, they have rookies at least as promising as those of their opponents.
NSW have finally dispatched with their penchant for sacking a raft of players every time they lose. This is something they appear to have the depth to do – but because Origin is for Queensland, Queensland set the cultural tone and revolving door selection policies resultantly don’t work.
Nathan Merritt’s selection for game two was widely lauded; the 30-year-old had been waiting almost an entire career for the opportunity. But although coach Daley took responsibility for telling Merritt to come in off his wing in defence, he was dropped after just one appearance.
The test of a competitive representative series is when selection cannot be used as a reward; when necessity dictates that the worthy must miss out because they are not the right people to achieve the desired result.
Australia can still select players as a reward. NSW have now learned they cannot.
At this point I have written 1000 words on the 2013 State of Origin series without mentioning the scores. NSW won Origin I 14-6,. Queensland took out Origin II 26-6 and the Maroons wrapped up Origin III 12-10.
“We’re not getting closer because last year we lost by one and this year it was two,” NSW captain Gallen deadpanned.
Am I the only person with a front seat at public events who often wonders what would happen if he interrupted them spectacularly? What if you suddenly started spewing expletives, sexist or racist epithets at a press conference on live TV? What if you ran on at a crucial moment in a match, from your seat on the sideline, and tried to tackle someone?
In conclusion, then, I’d like to mention another enriching experienced I gleaned from the 2013 State Of Origin series. Thank you, Wati Holmwood, for helping me answer this long-held question without me actually having to go out there and do it.
Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE