Five Things We Learned: 2015 NRL Nines

dick-smith-nrl-auckland-ninesBy STEVE MASCORD

SOUTH SYDNEY CAN SURVIVE THE DEPARTURE OF SAM BURGESS

IT’S hazardous to make judgments on premiership candidacy in February and bordering on delusional to do so after a nines tournament. But it wasn’t so much South Sydney’s 18-14 win over Cronulla in a wonderfully offbeat final as little pieces of body language that foreshadowed a robust title defence. Dylan Walker approached defenders with an arrogance in his gait that indicated he knew he could beat them – then did. Adam Reynolds did the same kick over and over again, knowing it would eventually work. Issac Luke lifted a trophy after missing the grand final through suspension and simultaneously declared his elation and downplayed the reason for it. Is there a better way to transition from a championship to its defence than by winning three trophies in the intervening pre-season? Glory, Glory, Glory and finally, Glory.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S STAR REMAINS ALOFT IN AUCKLAND

RUGBY league would no more lose face in New Zealand because of misbehaving players and absent stars than the same reasons would damage the Premier League’s or NFL’s IP in Australia. More than a quarter-century after the Winfield Cup first burst onto Kiwi TV screens, the competition has a sheen of glamour on this side of the Tasman that has too often been tarnished in its birthplace. Local fans supported all teams but reserved their most cacophonous reception for the Warriors and the Kiwi Ferns women’s side, who won a three-match nines series against Australia. The tournament is locked in for five years; reading between the lines, the NRL wants to add teams and the organisers would rather not.

SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED AT CRONULLA, OTHERS HAVEN’T

COACH Shane Flanagan walked out of a close-season media opportunity when he was repeatedly asked about the ASADA controversy and many doubts have been expressed about whether anything has really changed in the Shire. The words and deeds of the Sharks at Eden Park strongly suggest they have. The “new culture” mentioned by Tinarau Arona in one interview was well represented by the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes, among others. But the Sharks are still luckless, cruelly denied in the final despite some defensive heroics and losing Nu Brown for possibly the season with a knee injury. He’ll have surgery on Monday.

THERE were enough stuff-ups in the absence of the video ref to for him not to be worrying about his future employment prospects. Jarrod Mullen succeeded in dispossessing an opponent in-goal but the try was given, Bodene Thompson was denied a touchdown for a team-mate’s knock-on-that-wasn’t and there were more. But the old Super League rule of giving the man (or men, or women) upstairs limited time to do their thang might have merit. The lack of stoppages was refreshing. Another bonus: players interviewed about officiating errors at the Nines did not know they had been dudded because they had not had time to watch the replays themselves!

NINES RUGBY LEAGUE IS NOT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL – AND THAT’S OK

MORE than 16 hours of rugby league will test even the most voracious treiziste and virtually no-one who passes through the gates at the NRL Nines watches every minute of every game. It’s de rigueur for league fans to pontificate about how superior a spectacle their sport is but even caviar and champagne get tedious if they are shoved down your throat every two minutes for an entire weekend. That’s OK. Dress up as a naughty nun, buy a pre-mixed bourbon and coke and punch that inflatable ball back up into the air. The Nines is about the party more than it’s about the football and is definitely best served with a beverage.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

Sam Tomkins Says Sam Burgess Is Leaving For “A Buzz” Not A Challenge

South Sydney - Sam BurgessBy STEVE MASCORD

ENGLAND fullback Sam Tomkins says absent team-mate and international player of the year Sam Burgess is leaving for rugby union in search of a “buzz” more than a tougher sporting challenge.

Rugby league’s Four Nations kicks off in Brisbane today in somewhat curious circumstances for the 13-man game, when England takes on Samoa and Australia meets New Zealand before an anticipated Suncorp Stadium crowd of up to 50,000.

England’s Burgess, New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams and Australia’s Jarryd Hayne each played a full season of NRL but have chosen other sports in preference to the international series.

For Burgess and Williams it’s rugby union, for Hayne it’s training alone in Los Angeles in the hope of winning an NFL contract. Samoa’s best player at the 2013 World Cup, Anthony Milford was in Australia’s train-on squad but when he missed the cut, became unavailable for the island nation even though rules would have permitted him to play.

But New Zealand Warrior Tomkins – himself a rugby union target – says league is not under siege.

“I think the NRL’s a great stage to play on,” he told The Guardian.

“The reason I left the Super League is I wanted to challenge myself on a bigger stage and a tougher competition.

amazon“Sam Burgess, he’s not going and playing in a tougher competition. He’s going to a competition that’s not as tough. But the idea of playing in the rugby union World Cup … England rugby union, they can play against Fiji and fill Twickenham with 80,000 people.

“That’s the buzz there.”

Burgess inspired South Sydney to its first premiership victory in 43 years earlier this month. England or Great Britain last beat Australia in a series the year before Souths’ previous title, during the 1970 Ashes series.

Members of the England squad were reminded how long the Australian epoch has run when the 1994 Kangaroos were special guests at the Player of the Year Awards luncheon on Thursday and highlights of that series were played at length on a big screen.

For Sam Burgess’ brothers, Souths giants George and Tom, the opportunity is there to break enough droughts in the space of two month to be accredited as rain-bringing mystics.

“We’re all fully aware of how long it has been,” said Tomkins.

donate2“We’re here for silverware. There’s no doubt about it. We’re not here to make up the numbers. We’ve come and come second or third far too many times now so, yeah, we want a trophy.”

Winger Ryan Hall added: “It’s been 44 years. It might be unknown this side of the world but we talk about it every year, it going longer and longer since we last won something.

“It means a great deal to us. Hopefully this is the year. Hopefully next year, it won’t be 45 years, it will be one year.

“This bunch of players we’ve got, I think we deserve some sort of recognition on the international scale. There’ve been some new guys come into the squad this year but the core of the group is quite similar. We’ve been together so long, we know each other so well so I think it’s about time we got something.”

Captain Sean O’Loughlin’s thigh injury means James Graham will lead England on Saturday. This marks a measure of redemption for the Canterbury Bulldogs prop, who was omitted from coach Steve McNamara’s first World Cup team a year ago due to off-field ill-discipline.

“It was frustrating more than anything but … I’ve moved on,” said Graham, who now expects O’Loughlin to be skipper permanently and said he did not harbour ambitions regarding the position.

At a match-eve media conference, McNamara said Sam Burgess has presented the team with their jerseys and that he was not taking seriously reports linking George Burgess to rugby union club Gloucester.

The Samoa coach Matt Parish said he rated Tomkins as equally dangerous to any fullback in the game, and that had spent plenty of time schooling his men in how to contain England’s young hookers, Canberra-bound Josh Hodgson and Super League Man of Steel Daryl Clark.

Samoa have been hit with disciplinary problems of their own this week, with Reni Maituia, Tautai Moga and Sauaso Sue fined $10,000 each and dropped for their involvement in a brawl outside a Brisbane nightclub.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN 

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2013 NRL grand final: SYDNEY ROOSTERS 26 MANLY 18 at ANZ Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

AFTER winning a National Rugby League premiership at his first attempt, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was none the wiser about the plans of his cross-code rugby superstar, Sonny Bill Williams.

The former All Black played a key role in the tricolours 13th premiership, his team twice coming from behind to secure a 26-18 win at ANZ Stadium in a decider that featured a rare penalty try to Manly centre Jamie Lyon and a number of other contentious calls.

New Zealand international Shaun Kenny-Dowall is believed to have played the second half with a broken jaw, with x-rays to confirm the extent if the injury.

Williams is yet to commit to the club for next season and there is intense speculation he will accept an AUD $1 million offer to box instead of playing in this month’s rugby league World Cup and then sign for New Zealand rugby union franchise the Waikato Chiefs.

“I haven’t asked him – I said ‘after the season’ but it’s only been 45 minutes,” said Robinson, who transferred from Super League side Catalan at the start of the season.

“Give us a little more time.

“After it gets past a point in a season, if he decides not to stay, that’s a huge hole you can’t fill anyway. You can’t find that type of player at this time of year, usually.

“That’s the risk you take with a player like that. He’s proved a lot of people wrong this year. We just decided to back him and we’ll do the same again.

“He can make a huge difference to a team.”

Lyon’s penalty try came three minutes into the second half and the decision looked like it would change the course of a contest at ANZ Stadium, during which his Manly side had endured the rough end of some first half calls.

Instead, Williams set up a try which lifted the tricolours back into the game and centre Michael Jennings touched down just millimetres short of the dead ball line, with seven minutes remaining, to secure victory.

The penalty try was one of a number of contentions calls at the end of a finals series that started with a seven-tackle try eliminating North Queensland.

Lyon chased Daly Cherry-Evans’ kick before he was pulled down by rival Mitchell Aubusson.

“I’ve got a try, I want to check the penalty try,” referee Shayne Hayne told video officials Ashley Klein

Six minutes later, centre Steve Matai added to Manly’s total with a converted try but just as Geoff Toovey’s side appeared set to take control, the Roosters responded with a try to Italy forward Aiden Guerra.

From the opening seconds, when Manly’s Glenn Stewart staggered out of an attempted tackle on rival Sam Moa and received medical attention before continuing, it was a grand final full of incident and contentious officiating.

Sea Eagles players claimed Sydney Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves had head-butted Justin Horo in the 33rd minute. There was definitely contact, but no classic butting action, and a previous penalty to the tricolours stood.

A penalty against Eagle Matt Ballin for tackling in the air was also highly contentious, as was a decision to award Sydney Roosters a scrum feed when their centre Michael Jennings appeared to play at the ball before it went into touch.

It was almost written into the plot that the trend should continue and when Sonny Bill Williams released James Maloney in the 60th minute, the pass to captain Anthony Minichiello drifted forwards – but went undetected – before Kenny-Dowall scored.

Well-known for his outbursts about refereeing this year, Toovey was measured post-match. “Pretty tough on the big calls again tonight,” he said.

“It was probably the lowest penalised game of the year.”

Losing halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal as man of the match.

Australia back-rower Greg Bird tweeted: “Am I the only person that finds it strange that every camera close up is on Sonny Bill. If he wins Clive I’ll retire!”

SYDNEY ROOSTERS 26 (A Guerra M Jennings S Kenny-Dowall D Tupou tries J Maloney 5 goals) bt MANLY 18 (J Lyon S Matai J Taufua tries J Lyon 3 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: S Hayne/ B Cummins. Crowd: 81,491.


Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

Five Things We Learned From … ORIGIN I

#Origin11. Origin is still a primal anachronism

RUGBY league fans completely understood how NSW coach Laurie Daley could call flurry of punches aimed at an opponent’s head as “a great Origin moment”. The army of casual viewers attracted by the game could not. As big as rugby league is in New South Wales and Queensland, Origin reminds us there are sections of society there that complete ignore it most of the time. And they are the people outraged today that you can punch someone in this sport and not be sent off. One or two hundred years from now, society standards will demand fully body contact sport be banned. In the meantime, Origin will become as clean (some would say ‘as sterile’) as club football, then club football will get less and less physical.

2. Seven Years Bad Luck Has Given NSW a Queensland-sized shoulder-chip

QUEENSLANDERS took 70 years to build up enough indignation and anger to make Origin a success. It’s taken their southern cousins seven. The concept was a product of Queenslanders moving to Sydney for money and then playing against Maroons sides chosen on residential ground. But NSW have not just mimicked the inside-ball move that gave Jarryd Hayne his try. They have replicated Queensland’s beaten-dog mentality. Instead of ‘thrashing us with our own players for seven decades’, they have ‘bullying us with their Nate Myleses for seven years’. You can tell when something has been used as a cause celebre by a rugby league team and Nate Myles was it last night.

3. The rules are still different in Origin – but less different

SHAYNE Hayne called for a penalty when the ball was thrown away after a knock on early in the contest – but fellow referee Ashley Klein over-ruled him. In Origin, clearly, you are expected to be more disappointed when you knock-on or cop a forward pass than you are in a club game, and tossing the ball away in disgust is permissible. You can also stiff-arm someone and then punch them without being sent off. But as Cameron Smith lamented, holding opponents down for an eternity seems to be out of vogue. The Queensland captain conceded his team adjusted to the NRL-style rucks in the second half. Logic dictates Origin should, and will, be refereed the same way as club rugby league before long.

4. It’s easier for a hard-working forward to play wounded than a creative back

RYAN Girdler revealed on Triple M early in the second half that NSW back rower Luke Lewis had been bed-ridden for two days with a virus. Lewis, who has also been sidelined with injury in recent weeks, was a colossus. By comparison, Johnathan Thurston seemed severely restricted by an aductor (groin) muscle strain.; he had also suffered from a virus in the build-up. Cameron Smith, who did the goal-kicking in leiu of Thurston, was reportedly battling a knee complaint but was as heavily involved as usual. Conclusion: illness effects the artisan more than the labourer.

5. It’s difficult for Greg Inglis and Billy Slater to both recognise their potential in the same team

BILLY Slater’s attempt to fool the NSW defence late it Origin I by ambling up to the 20 metre line as if he was going to take a tap before shooting off upfield illustrates what a masterful custodian he is. But these days, so is Greg Inglis. The idea that Queensland would somehow have two fullbacks on Wednesday didn’t work and Inglis hardly got his hands on the ball. When he did, he laid on a try for Darius Boyd. One of the biggest challenges for Mal Meninga and Michael Hagan between now and June 26 is figuring out how to get the best out of both of them.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

Origin I: NEW SOUTH WALES 14 6 QUEENSLAND at ANZ Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

A FLURRY of punches aimed at the head of Queensland’s Nate Myles was described as “a great Origin moment” by New South Wales coach Laurie Daley – but is likely to earn his captain Paul Gallen a suspension.

After losing seven consecutive State of Origin series, the Blues scored a gripping 14-6 win in the opening match of the 2013 series in front of 80,380 fans at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium last night.

The flashpoint came a minute before halftime, when prop Gallen hit Myles – last year’s player of the series – with a swinging arm and then landed a series of blows on the Gold Coast forward.

Gallen later said the Blues were “sick of being bullied” while first-time coach Daley commented: “That’s a great Origin moment as far as I’m concerned.

“They’ve been pushed around and they’ve done it tough for a long period.”

Gallen said: “Nate’s been the dominant Origin forward of the past few series … I don’t have to tell you some of the things he’s done to our players.

#Origin1“We didn’t want to be pushed around. That’s all there is to it. We’ve had enough of being bullied … I think someone had to stand up to him.”

But the match review committee saw things differently, charging Gallen with grade two striking, which will result in a one match ban with an early guilty plea or two games with an unsuccessful challenge.

The star of the game for NSW was back rower Luke Lewis, who has battled injury in recent weeks and was consigned to bed by a virus in the two days leading up the game.

By comparison, Queensland five-eighth Johnathan Thurston seemed severely restricted by a groin injury throughout while talisman Greg Inglis was hardly sighted.

The Blues roared to a 14-0 halftime lead on the back of tries to fullback Jarryd Hayne in the fifth minute and  centre Michael Jennings in the 36th.

Parramatta’s Hayne scored a off a short pass from Cronulla’s Lewis while Sydney Roosters’ Jennings beat five defenders on a sizzling run to the line.

The Maroons were frustrated as they tried to lift themselves back into the game in the second half, with Cameron Smith penalised for a double movement before winger Darius Boyd crossed off Inglis with 19 minutes to go.

Daley hailed debutants James Maloney and Blake Ferguson but guaranteed interchange back Josh Reynolds he would keep his spot despite failing to get on the field.

Captain Smith said the rucks were quicker than they usually are in interstate football.

“We have to … pretty much do what they do,” said Smith.

“They get numbers in the tackle, they lie all over us in the ruck. It’s almost like we were playing a club style of footy, with the ruck interpretation.

“We’d get our numbers in there and we’d be up and out, rather than holding them down a bit longer which the referees allow at this level.”

Maroons coach Mal Meninga reckoned “everyone played well – we just got outgunned early”.

The series resumes at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on June 26. “We’re going to go up there, people in the street are going to hate us, they’re going to be ripping our heads off in game two,” said Gallen.
NEW SOUTH WALES 14 (J Hayne M Jennings tries J Maloney 3 goals) bt QUEENSLAND 6 (D Boyd try C Smith goal) at ANZ Stadium. Referees: S Hayne/A Klein. Crowd: 80,380.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

Team lists:
NEW SOUTH WALES: Jarryd Hayne (Parramatta); Brett Morris (St George Illawarra), Michael Jennings (Sydney Roosters), Josh Morris (Canterbury), Blake Ferguson (Canberra); James Maloney (Sydney Roosters), Mitchell Pearce (Sydney Roosters); Greg Bird (Gold Coast), Luke Lewis (Cronulla), Ryan Hoffman (Melbourne), James Tamou (North Queensland), Robbie Farah (Wests Tigers), Paul Gallen (capt, Cronulla).
Reserves: Trent Merrin (St George Illawarra), Andrew Fifita (Cronulla), Anthony Watmough (Manly), Josh Reynolds (Canterbury).
QUEENSLAND: Billy Slater (Melbourne); Darius Boyd (Newcastle), Greg Inglis (South Sydney), Justin Hodges (Brisbane), Brent Tate (North Queensland); Johnathan Thurston (North Queensland), Cooper Cronk (Melbourne); Ashley Harrison (Gold Coast), Sam Thaiday (Brisbane), Nate Myles (Gold Coast), Matt Scott (North Queensland), Cameron Smith (capt, Melbourne), David Shillington (North Queensland)
Reserves: Corey Parker (Brisbane), Matt Gillett (Brisbane), Ben Te’o (South Sydney), Chris McQueen (South Sydney).

Referees: Ashley Klein/Shayne Hayne.

Origin I: How The Teams Compare

photo (8)Back three

PERHAPS the only weakness you can find in Queensland’s fullback-wings combination is the fact Brent Tate, who has represented his state 15 times, is playing out of position. But he does it damn well. Billy Slater is the world’s most exciting player while Darius Boyd’s off-field reticence probably does detract from his accomplishments on the pitch, but shouldn’t. Jarryd Hayne, Brett Morris and Blake Ferguson are a far less certain commodity. Fullback is Hayne’s best position but he is playing in a poorly performed club team, Morris is a proven performer but not in the best form if his career and as debutant, there must be some uncertainty surrounding Ferguson.

NEW SOUTH WALES: 7

QUEENSLAND 9

Centres

GREG Inglis is most observers’ choice as the leading player in the game today. He a brutal defender, an at-times unstoppable ball-carrier and the only possible solace the Blues can take in his presence is that he’s been at fullback for South Sydney. Apparently, he’ll pop up there at times on Wednesday. Justin Hodges admits to having considered representative retirement but will be Inglis’ centre partner at the World Cup if he doesn’t. Michael Jennings has finally found come consistency at Sydney Roosters this year and Josh Morris is an elite player – but these two aren’t quite in the same league as their opponents.

NEW SOUTH WALES 7

QUEENSLAND 10

Halves

AGAIN, despite the declarations of self-confidence from the Blues camp, the Maroons have a massive advantage on paper – and here on the internet – at the scrumbase. Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk form a double-act that stands alongside Lewis and Langer. Thurston’s slightly below average club form is the only negative. By comparison, Mitchell Pearce may have needed the positive re-enforcement of being told he had the seven shirt weeks in advance and James Maloney, like Ferguson, is a debutant with all the uncertainty that involves. Add that to the fact the Blues combination fared poorly at club level against Cronk a fortnight ago and you have a potential trumpcard for Mal Meninga’s men.

NEW SOUTH WALES 6

QUEENSLAND 9

Back row

THIS is one area where the sides seem to be level-pegging. Nate Myles was player of the series last year but his Gold Coast club-mate Greg Bird excels at this level. Ryan Hoffman is back after four years out of the interstate arena, Luke Lewis has made the most of his move to Cronulla while Brisbane captain Sam Thaiday is a passionate Origin performer and Ashley Harrison has a wonderful record in Maroon that is often undersold. These six players shape as the men who could well decide the opening match of the series. Thaiday reckons “brute force” is often the difference first up and that force will come from him and those in his position.

NEW SOUTH WALES 8

QUEENSLAND 8
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