THE BIG ISSUE: #53

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
IN these pages and others, throughout the winter months, you’ll read about the underbelly of rugby league.
It’ll be broken contracts, feuds between coaches, administrators and players, payments in brown paper bags, media bans, shoulder charges, fights, horrible injuries and people being sacked.
And it will be increasingly easy to believe that everyone in the game is bitter, greedy, compromised, violent, shady or just plain cranky.
But it’s not like that. Certainly, Graham Murray was not like that.
The last time this writer followed a team so closely he watched parts of some games through the gaps between fingers held nervously over his eyes, Graham Murray coached that team.
It was 1992 and Muzz’s Illawarra Steelers had made the finals, meaning I would rather quit my newspaper job than be sent to the Olympics during the play-offs.
We had the sort of relationship where it was difficult to know where on the record stopped and off the record started, and it got us into trouble occasionally. Murray instinctively sought out people he thought had a sense of fun and was naturally wary of those he thought had none.
His success with the Steelers was built on making the pub a compulsory stop after every training session, even if you didn’t drink. Players were so loyal to him they didn’t consider leaving – until the competition expanded in 1995 with all the money that entailed.
I was fortunate enough to be there for the preliminary final in ’92, the World Club Challenge final in ’97, at Wembley in ’99, the 2000 grand final and sat next to him when the Cowboys returned to Townsville for grand final week in ’05.
They were big, big moments in his life and – as colleague Dean Ritchie wrote on Monday – were experiences he was eager to share with friends who will never get to scale those heights. His memories became ours’.
It’s wrong to say Murray never experienced conflict, although there was probably less of it than most other coaches who achieved so much. Like many people who are intensely sociable and outwardly positive, he challenged those who he saw as introducing negativity to his life needlessly.
If you wrote a story before a big game that he didn’t like, or was involved in a conversation with someone who had criticised him, he’d challenge you about it. He didn’t want the great life rugby league had given him to be tarnished.
The night Melbourne was stripped of two premierships in 2010, I watched the evening news with Muzz, his wife Amanda and daughter Cara at their home in Townsville.
Barbecuing sausages that night, it was apparent that Muzz was happy with his role in Queensland rugby league administration, comfortable with his legacy and satisfied that none of the love and affection that enveloped him could be taken away.
He was at peace with a life well spent. Forget the daily intrigue – that’s what Graham Murray gave rugby league and what rugby league gave him.
He should have had many, many more years to savour it.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #52

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

ANOTHER Origin series has come and gone (sorry, ‘done and dusted’ has now entered the Corny Cliche Pantheon) and what have we learned? Has anything changed or is it the same as it ever was?

The Big Issue actually believes it was something of a landmark series, with philosophies, administration and power balances changing in such a way that the effects will be felt for a decade or more. Here’s a few of the reasons:

1. ORIGIN PROBABLY ISN’T PLAYED UNDER DIFFERENT RULES ANYMORE

THE idea that you could ‘get away with more’ in Origin, without anyone ever saying what those things were, was ridiculous. At the very least, it didn’t stand up to the standards of transparency and accountability we apply to everything else in the modern world. When four players were sent to the sin bin in Origin II, those days were over; Queensland captain Cameron Smith said as much after the game. Not a moment too soon.

2. OFFICIALS NOW ACCEPT ORIGIN IS THE GAME’S FLAGSHIP

FOR years, rugby league authorities were happy to rake in the money from interstate football without forcing it to take responsibility for the example it set at every level of the game. See point one. I know this is not a popular viewpoint but the punching crackdown indicates that the ARLC realise there are responsibilities that come with putting an event in front of the whole nation and making shedloads from it. Just call the backlash growing pains.

3. NSW HAVE MOMENTUM

HAVE a look at some of the scores in this year’s curtain-raisers and age group interstate matches. When it comes to junior strength, the pendulum is swinging back towards the Blues. It’s no wonder Queensland are targeting players with dual eligibility – such as for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. In the years ahead, they’ll need everyone they can get. NSW are also more stable in their selection policies at the top level, declining to hit the panic button after losing Origin II

4. SYDNEY AND BRISBANE HAVE A STRANGLEHOLD ON HOSTING MATCHES

FROM the point of view of getting the attention of the Sydney public, losing seven series in a row was probably the best thing NSW could have done. Big crowds for Origins I and III at an 82,000-capacity arena suggest it’s going to be hard for other capitals to wrest games away in future. Big Issue has been a champion of taking an Origin a year to Melbourne – but the fever pitch interest in Sydney is starting to change our minds.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #51

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

BIG Issue has detected a strange phenomenon over the past eight weeks. While casual sports fans have been frothing at the mouth about Origin, rusted-on rugby league fans have been reacting with similar fervour about Origin’s negative impact on club football.

The fact is, we were all having quite a jolly time before Origin came along, weren’t we?

And, as pointed out elsewhere this week, no sooner did the interstate series start than teams providing many players hit the wall, those providing none or few hit a purple patch and crowds and ratings dropped.

But the reason for these ills is the same as the one that has us unable to watch one Sunday afternoon game live – even on the NRL’s own ipad app – or listen to a Friday night game on radio other than the one that’s on TV.

Or have a Sunday afternoon grand final. That is: money offered to the ARLC by Channel Nine.

The Commission may position itself as aloof from the political and PR demands to which the previous administration was accused of being slave but the expectation of a one billion-plus payday must have created enormous pressure on the new boys and girls last August.

After all, one of the key provisos under which our system of administration changed was that we had been undersold as a television product, partly because the NRL was half-owned by a media company.

And the comparisons with the AFL’s TV contract was going to be a litmus test.

So when Nine gave the ARLC the chance to get over the finish line – providing Origin stayed where it was, Sunday football stayed on delay, other coverage was blacked out to protect their delayed telecasts etc – the carrot was too big and juicy to turn down.

The ARLC got a few better conditions out of the deal, fixed scheduling being one of them. The representative weekend stayed after looking like it was on life support.

Of course Origin should be on weekends. Interstate football was only shunted to midweek in the first place because no-one cared about it. Of course clubs should not be denied access to their own players. On every level, that’s patently ridiculous.

But this is a five year television contact. Trying to somehow negotiate our way out of providing its key components to the broadcaster is fraught with danger.

Our soul is sold. We get it back in 2018.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #50

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S coincidental but instructive that we are going to Darwin, Mackay and Perth with NRL games the weekend after matches in Sydney attracted 11,167, 5288 and 6,271.
Yes, it was wet and hostile at ANZ Stadium, Leichhardt Oval and Centrebet Stadium – but they were still poor attendance figures which will be easily eclipsed at the three ‘on the road’ venues this weekend.
On page 30 of this week’s RLW, you’ll read how fixtures will in future “jump out” of the draw as ones which invite relocation, and how the NRL will make the arrangements rather than the individual clubs.
Two of the poor-drawing games above – South Sydney-Canberra and Wests Tigers-Melbourne – fit the bill as potentially average crowd-pullers, although Leichhardt Oval is imbued with such romance people would go there to watch almost anyone play.
Make no mistake, we will get the same outcry about shifting games away from traditional home grounds as we got about the death of the shoulder charge and Origin violence.
But when you hear the bleating about robbing the people of their local team, try to remember how few people there were at times.
When Rupert Murdoch swept into our game in 1995, he – or his people – determined there were too many teams in Sydney. At first, they wanted one or two mega-Sydney teams but when they proved too hard, they recruited a few and left the rest to rot.
If another media mogul was looking to invest in rugby league and checked out last weekend’s games, he would have come to the same conclusion: too many teams in Sydney.
We, of course, now realise it’s not that simple. The popularity, history, brands and emotional connections inspired by the Sydney clubs are just not accurately represented by those who show up each week.
We can have our cake and eat it too – especially with $1.025 billion in the bank.
We can keep the Sydney clubs we cherished as kids and still expand the game and this weekend is showing us how – by taking those clubs to people who appreciate the opportunity to see them in the flesh.
If those people show enough interest, then one day they get a team of their own. That’s how it should work and that’s how it will work under the new stadia policy.
And if American baseball and English premier league soccer want to bring their events to us, then the lesson is clear. To stay afloat in this shrinking world, we also have to take ours’ to them.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #49

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league has taken two important steps over the past fortnight towards realising latent potential – which is what the ARLC was put there to do.

Yet neither decision was actually taken by the commission.

NRL referees coach Daniel Anderson took the first of them, announcing that anyone throwing a punch at the top level would likely be sent to the sin bin from now on.

Many of you disagreed with this edict but it was the reason for it that was most telling. “We need to make sure our game can recruit young kids,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a duty to the community and to people involved in our sport.”

Why, in our sport, do we never talk about participation rates? I’ll answer the question for you: because they’re terrible. We’re in the top three for general popularity but in Australia we are eighth for participation.

Until recently, the women’s game – using an example – got almost no help from the traditional governing bodies. We deliberately kept participation and the NRL at arm’s length, probably because we fair so poorly in the former and were a tad embarrassed.

The choice the game’s administration had to make got down to this: do we have a “don’t try this at home, these are paid professionals” warning before every telecast or do we take ownership of our comparatively poor performance as a participation sport and use the popularity of our stars on television to improve the situation?

As a spectator, you just want to be entertained. So you may not like Anderson’s crackdown. But rugby league has responsibilities that extend beyond entertaining you. That’s why players are held to different standards of behaviour than actors and musicians – because people have given up their time along with way to get them to where they are.

Rugby league in not UFC. There’s no “grassroots” UFC with parents manning the canteen each Saturday morning. Maybe the NRL will lose a few spectators for the Hills District Under 10s to gain a few participants. And perhaps in the first year of a five year TV contract is the best time to make that sacrifice – because the money’s already in our pockets, isn’t it?

Which brings us to the second decision, which wasn’t even made in Australia.

The Rugby League International Federation sold the television rights to the World Cup to International Management Group, guaranteeing a big pay day for the RLIF which will hopefully filter down to the countries who need it most.

IMG’s responsibility then is to make a profit, not help rugby league.

In the case of selling the UK free-to-air rights to the BBC, the game’s interests will be served pretty well anyway given the enormous audiences that deal will deliver.

In the case of selling the pay TV rights in Britain to Premier Sports … maybe not so much, given that the channel is a small start-up with a comparatively tiny audience.

But when it comes to Australia and Channel Seven, the benefits could be enormous.

If reconnecting the grassroots game with the professional sport is crucial, then ramping up international football is absolutely essential for us to make meaningful growth in the years ahead.

With more than 100 NRL stars likely to be playing in the World Cup between October 26 and November 30, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for colours, concepts and brands of our national teams to be embedded in the minds of rugby league fans and the wider sporting market.

Philosophically, I’ve never agreed with the NRL’s position that sticking with one commercial broadcaster gives you greater support across the board. Nine do a fine job on the NRL but this is a capitalist society and competitive tensions get the best out of everyone.

Unconfirmed reports said one of the reasons for the financial disaster of the 2000 World Cup was that when a rights broker tried to sell the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, the broadcasters there claimed they already owned it through their domestic deals.

Finally, 13 years later, we have got our house in order in that respect. The international game is a position to call its own shots. BIG step forward.

In the cases of both decisions discussed here, certain interest groups had to be snubbed. In Anderson’s case, it was the blood thirsty biff fiends who only tune into Origin for the stinks.

In the case of the World Cup TV rights, it was the network that only wanted to show Australia’s games and, via that stance, suggested rugby league has ideas above its station and is not to be taken seriously as an international sport.

The worst thing about the belief that rugby league only has the biff going for it and will always be a joke internationally is that the game’s administration itself – by its inaction – seemed to actually agree.

Thankfully, belatedly … not any more.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #48

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD
NEXT Monday, Gold Coast are going to play Melbourne at Skilled Park. It second versus fifth, a crucial game which should draw a huge crowd.
…except, that is, for one small factor. There will be no Origin players involved.
Big Issue is confident that after this television deal, or the next, this ridiculous situation will be remedied. Let’s face it, Origin is only on during the week because interstate football was once so low key they didn’t want it to interfere with the premiership.
Now, it is so important that we stand players down from the previous round of club games – and still have it in the middle of the week! It doesn’t make sense does it ? Aside from the fact that somewhere along the way, the TV stations discovered a goldmine.
So, at some stage, the game will have enough financial clout and independence to end this split round idea, where the very organisations that pay the players – their clubs – don’t have access to them.
In the meantime, though, what do we do?
The answer may lie in the 16,118 who attended Sunday’s South Sydney-Gold Coast game at Barlow Park in Cairns. That’s more than the Titans get most weeks in Robina.
Sure, the Origin players were on deck but I’d be willing to bet their absence wouldn’t have shaved too many off the gate.
We want split round games to mean more and we want to take more games to provincial areas. Let’s solve both problems with one solution. Around Origin time, all they seem to care about in the big smoke is the interstate battles.
So let’s take our club football to the people who will still care – to places like Mudgee, Cairns and Perth.
It just seems logical.
.
STILL in Cairns, it was a touching story on Sunday about how Greg Inglis and Albert Kelly used to play together in the street, using a Coke bottle.
It was a timely reminder that the game we see on TV – in which Inglis and Kelly came face to face to decide a contest – is the same one the kids play.
And that’s what stiffening the rules surrounding fights is all about – reclaiming that link. What if the parents of the next Greg Inglis or Albert Kelly stopped them playing because of the Gallen-Myles fight?
That’s not really hypothetical … odds are, somewhere in Australia, it happened.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #47

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

STATE Of Origin is a con. Our greatest contest is built on a giant hypocrisy whose time is just about up.

This column is not chiefly about whether its author was offended by Paul Gallen stiff-arming, then repeatedly punching, Nate Myles last Wednesday or about whether the incident was bad for the kiddies.

We’ll get to those things in due course anyway.

It’s about the inherent dishonesty of selling tickets, advertising and television rights on the promise of violence and then punishing those tho deliver it.

You talk about the leadership displayed by Paul Gallen last week and I’ll agree – he displayed plenty of it …. on Thursday night when he said if he was going to be suspended for fighting in an Origin, the NRL shouldn’t use footage of it to promote game two.

Last year I asked referees boss Bill Harrigan – on the record – whether Origin was played under a different set of rules. He wouldn’t give me a straight answer.

In these pages, rival captains Gallen and Cameron Smith contended you could get away with more in Origin. No-one in officialdom contradicted them.

Why? Because the cash registers were already ringing. The silence of officials on these issues plays to the bloodlust of fans happy to hand over their cash in the hope of a brawl, a stiff arm or a head butt.

At least in boxing and UFC, you get what you pay for.  They’re not going to suspend someone for hitting someone else. If the rules are different in Origin, spell it out – you can stay on the field after throwing a punch, you can hold down in the tackles longer, you can commit some professional fouls, you can niggle.

Tell us.

What other business would try to sell you something without describing its product? What other multi-million dollar industry is run on a set of rules and regulations that are never written down?  There were some in the past but they didn’t survive.

Fellow columnist Mark Geyer is the personification of this duplicity. He was told to do as he pleased in an Origin in 1991 and was then banned for five weeks, costing him a Test jumper. He was conned. Now we are all being conned.

“Why can’t we just accept a set nudge-nudge, wink-wink rules like we always have?”, I hear you ask. Because it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of anyone but us. We used to have Kingswood Country and Love Thy Neighbour on TV too. Times have changed.

People who don’t understand rugby league didn’t comprehend  why some things last week were allowed to happen. And all we could say in response was “it’s Origin”.

Now, how DUMB did we all sound saying that? Turns out, we didn’t really understand it ourselves, because no-one even told US!  How primitive and unprofessional is it that referees run out under implied pressure not to give penalties “because it’s Origin”?

Like I said, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And as a spectator sport – leaving aside participants – we are trying to attract new people and become a truly national game.

At best, as an activity without any sound logical or moral basis, Origin is a guilty pleasure – like a smoke behind the bike rack at school or an illicit affair. And guilty pleasures don’t last.

Secondly, Origin is played on Wednesday night specifically because families are watching – that’s why Nine pays the big bucks – so we can’t abrogate our responsibilities to families after copping the cash to keep it midweek.

The kids don’t go out to the park, while their mums work in canteens, to play UFC every Saturday morning.

Rugby league is in the (right now awkward) position of being both a community activity and a knock-em down, drag ‘em out professional sport played by super athletes. Kids can’t be formula one drivers on the weekend but they can imitate rugby league players.

I was not personally offended by what Gallen did. But I wasn’t offended by Russell Packer either. I don’t have kids, I am a crap barometer of community standards.

Here’s what should happen to satisfy community standards: David Smith should sit in front of a camera and tell the nation: “State Of Origin will never be played under a different set of rules again. There are no separate rules.

“If you are watching State of Origin hoping for violence, please switch the channel and watch something else. We don’t want you. Thank you.”

After that, we figure out if rugby league itself needs to sacrifice any more to keep attracting young players. Win back the mums, by all means.

But first, end the hypocrisy.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK