TRAVELS: XXVI

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
AS you might imagine, after five weeks attending matches, dinners and media events in Britain, one gains a few extra pounds – and a better understanding of the challenges facing rugby league here.
What I am about to offer are a bunch of assumptions based on conversations with all manner of people involved in the game in the UK. If I could quote or name these people, I would have. I can’t.
What I have learned is that the situation is markedly different to the way it appears from the outside, from just reading the trade press. And it’s not as dire as it appears, either.
We are all wondering what the competition structure will be the year after next, and whether London will be involved next season. Here’s what seems, to me, to be the case:
1) EVEN THE ‘REBEL’ CLUBS SUPPORT THE NEW STRUCTURE. The clubs who have walked out of meetings aren’t necessarily against splitting Super League into three divisions mid-season – they just want to use the situation to gain more power. They will eventually agree to the proposal – as long as they get something out of it for themselves;
2) MOST SUPER LEAGUE CLUBS ARE SICK OF LOSING PLAYERS TO AUSTRALIA. Ian Lenagan says it’s a compliment to Super League that players are succeeding in the NRL and Super League – but not many of his counterparts at other clubs agree. There is a push for two marquee players per club – one overseas and one local, to help prevent the brawn drain;
3) THE GAME IS GOING TO LEVERAGE THE ADVENT OF BT SPORT AS MUCH AS IT CAN. Another way to compete with the Aussies is to get a shedload of money from broadcasters, as they have. The arrival of BT Sports gives Sky some competition and the British game plans to use that to get a significant increase in the rights, promising a better product in return. Negotiations won’t wait two years to commence – the proverbial iron is red hot;
4) LONDON ARE LIKELY TO BE BAILED OUT BY A RIVAL CLUB: It seems an established Super League club is preparing to lend the Broncos money and players. NRL CEO David Smith met Gus Mackay and Tony Rea this week to see if there was anything he could do to help.
You may have been broadly aware of some or all of these senarios but since this is my last column for the year, I thought it worthwhile to spell them out.
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SINCE last week, I’ve changed my view somewhat on the requirement that Fiji play Samoa mid-year 2014 for the right to be included in next year’s Four Nations.
As the NRL’s Andrew Hill points out, it was entirely possible that two Pacific countries would be eliminated at the same stage of the tournament, which would have left officials in a bind.
And going into a Four Nations with a 64-0 defeat to one of the other teams in it as your last result doesn’t seem very “box office”.
The real problem is that none of these deliberations were reported, so Fiji thought they had been gyped.
There is enormous interest in the international game today and the flow of information from the RLIF is, frankly, appalling.
This is one of many factors that make it impossible to accurately predict what the legacy of this World Cup will be.
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AS I said, this will be my last column for the year so I’d like to thank Paul Cunliffe and Paul Coward for giving me the opportunity.
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TRAVELS: XXV

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE great thing about the NRL’s enquiries into playing matches in England is that it gives the Commission an excuse to help the British game.
In case you missed it, colleague Brad Walter wrote this week in the Sydney Morning Herald that NRL officials are considering playing a State of Origin game at Wembley, or club games there and elsewhere in Britain.
Before this news emerged, domestic events in the UK were none of the NRL’s business – which was unfortunate given their A$1.025 billion TV deal. Now, they have an excuse to meddle constructively. NRL officials recently met what’s left of the London Broncos, for instance.
Unfortunately, I think there are a couple of miscalculations currently at work. One is to have dismissed the impact of five weeks of World Cup play on selling 74,000 seats at Old Trafford last Saturday. Those 74,000 people didn’t sign up for “an all-NRL contest” – they signed up to hopefully see England play in a World Cup final and went anyway when they missed out!
Secondly, the NFL flooded television for years before playing games at Wembley. They had a long-term strategy. The NRL has a long-term deal on a station most Londoners have never heard of.
The Origin and even Kangaroos brands are almost unknown in London and years of marketing are necessary before such a game can be a success. You invented rugby league here but in London, when it comes to sexiness the NFL is Naomi Campbell and rugby league is Acker Bilk.
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AS you might imagine, after five weeks attending matches, dinners and media events in Britain, one gains a better understanding of the challenges facing rugby league here.
What I am about to offer are a bunch of assumptions based on conversations with all manner of people involved in the game in the UK. If I could quote or name these people, I would have. I can’t.
What I have learned is that the situation is markedly different to the way it appears from the outside, from just reading the trade press. And it’s not as dire as it appears, either.
We are all wondering what the competition structure will be the year after next, and whether London will be involved next season. Here’s what seems, to me, to be the case:
1) EVEN THE ‘REBEL’ CLUBS SUPPORT THE NEW STRUCTURE. The clubs who have walked out of meetings aren’t necessarily against splitting Super League into three divisions mid-season – they just want to use the situation to gain more power. They will eventually agree to the proposal – as long as they get something out of it for themselves;
2) MOST SUPER LEAGUE CLUBS ARE SICK OF LOSING PLAYERS TO AUSTRALIA. Ian Lenagan says it’s a compliment to Super League that players are succeeding in the NRL and Super League – but not many of his counterparts at other clubs agree. There is a push for two marquee players per club – one overseas and one local, to help prevent the brawn drain;
3) THE GAME IS GOING TO LEVERAGE THE ADVENT OF BT SPORT AS MUCH AS IT CAN. Another way to compete with the Aussies is to get a shedload of money from broadcasters, as they have. The arrival of BT Sports gives Sky some competition and the British game plans to use that to get a significant increase in the rights, promising a better product in return. Negotiations won’t wait three years to commence – the proverbial iron is red hot. If Sky loses soccer, the stakes will be still higher;
4) LONDON MAY BE BAILED OUT BY A RIVAL CLUB: It seems an established Super League club is preparing to lend the Broncos money and players. NRL officials met Gus Mackay and Tony Rea last week to see if there was anything he could do to help.
You may have been broadly aware of some or all of these senarios but since this is my last column for the year, I thought it worthwhile to spell them out.
.
SINCE last week, I’ve changed my view somewhat on the requirement that Fiji play Samoa mid-year 2014 for the right to be included in next year’s Four Nations.
As the NRL’s Andrew Hill points out, it was entirely possible that two Pacific countries would be eliminated at the same stage of the tournament, which would have left officials in a bind.
The real problem is that none of these deliberations were reported, so Fiji thought they had been gyped.
There is enormous interest in the international game today and the flow of information from the RLIF is, frankly, appalling.
This is one of many factors that make it impossible to accurately predict what the legacy of this World Cup will be.
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THIS will be my last column for the year so I’d like to thank Paul Cunliffe and Paul Coward for giving me the opportunity.
read on

TRAVELS: XX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE news out of Wigan the other day prompted media reactions on either side of the globe which were, Travels believe, out of step with reality.
In Australia, Sam Tomkins’ signing with the New Zealand Warriors was downpage brief in even the most enthusiastic rugby league paper, the Daily Telegraph.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact the signing has been the worst-kept secret in the game for months, and that Tomkins is not going to a Sydney club, but we are predicting his performances will render it a much bigger story than that.
The second media reaction which we reckon will be proven as a gross under-playing is that of the signing of Matt Bowen as Tomkins’ replacement at the DW.
I watched both Super Leaguer Fulltime and Backchat and they each described Bowen as “a stopgap” who was there primarily to mentor younger custodians at the club.
I think Bowen has the potential to be a sensation at Wigan and to make the sort of impact John Ferguson did. Have you seen his last couple of games for North Queensland? He almost won that controversial, seven-tackle, game against Cronulla.
“Mango” (so called because the north Queensland town of Bowen is a mango-producing hub) is an electrifying returner of the football and has evasive skills to match those of the man he is replacing.
He looks to be over his knee problems. He is the best Super League signing in years – on name alone, the best since Luke O’Donnell or Danny Buderus.
Wigan fans and Super League pundits, don’t be so maudlin.
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CLUB Call is just fascinating.
Logic suggests that getting to choose your opponents in a final should be an enormous advantage. And Warrington’s record against Huddersfield suggests it will be.
But coaches rate psychology, and motivating rivals, so highly that they deem it worthy of distancing themselves from this advantage that has been offered to them, and which they have taken.
If you’ve ever wondered why coaches are so careful about what they say, and what their players say, and why they pin seemingly inane newspaper articles to dressing room walls, here’s your answer.
Warrington’s Tony Smith is a smart man. He knows that he can have his cake and eat it too by distancing himself and the players from their club call choice.
Barrie McDermott recently said being picked in club call did give teams an extra edge – something mere mortals like us find hard to understand because we think you’d be heavily motivated for a sudden death game anyway.
But something drives a team when they are on their last legs, like Manly was last weekend. If it’s being called out as a desirable opponent, sobeit.
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A LITTLE bit of World Cup broadcast news that has reached my ears.
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TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

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Renewing Your Vows With Rugby League

WembleyBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league is beginning to engage in what high school economics taught us to call “vertical integration”.

We have bought out a participant sport that provides us with players and fans, and gives our own participants somewhere to go when the bones creak too much: touch football.

The NRL no longer just provides content for broadcasters, it has become one itself via its ipad app. The Rugby Football League in England effectively has its own television station on YouTube. The NRL plans to break stories itself on its own website when the new media unit gets up and running.

Vertical integrations is buying up the raw materials – the mines and farms – and also the points of sale – shops and markets.

But it’s also about buying the means of transport in between and this reporter’s annual trip to the Challenge Cup final at Wembley has convinced him that rugby league should get involved in the travel business.

Because when you’re renewing your vows, when you’re visiting Mecca, then the church should be in on the deal.

“It’s unbelievable.,” says Wigan’s former Parramatta, Cronulla and Canterbury halfback Blake Green, standing in the mixed zone media area at Wembley after his side’s 16-0 win over fumbling Hull.

“The crowds over here are so loud. There’s lots of singing, they’re very passionate. Obviously the national anthem is not my anthem but the crowd were right into it.

“It’s such a special trophy, this Challenge Cup. It’s well documented about the famous players who have played in the game and we were made aware of that by some of the old Wigan players during the week.”

But the real attraction of Wembley is not the game. The venue has something to do with it but is only part of the magic.

The real thing that should attract at least a small group of Australian fans each year is the part the Challenge Cup final plays in the identity of northern England, the culture that gave us rugby league and therefore defines what we are as a sport.

Imagine if Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra did not exist and Melbourne was the undisputed political and cultural capital of Australia. But rugby league was still enormously popular in NSW and Queensland.

In this parallel universe, when a major rugby league event was staged in Melbourne, we would behave differently. It would perhaps be the only time many of us went there each year.

As a group under-represented on the national stage, it would be more than a football game to us. It would be like a pride parade for the provincial hoards from north of the Murray, a show of strength and vitality. We would go even if our team was not playing, we would feel a camaraderie with the fans of rival clubs that we don’t currently experience in the NRL.

Once a year, we would celebrate our “otherness”, the way minorities across society do.

If you’re looking to sum up what Wembley is, it’s someone raised in Warrington, living in Boston Massachusetts and wearing a 1980s vintage Brisbane Norths jersey to the Challenge Cup final, where he sits in roughly the same seats every year with his uncle and Londoner mate.

That fellow happens to be my best friend.

You don’t get much more northern, Wigan and rugby league than the coach of the cherry and whites, Shaun Wane. He played prop in the 1987 World Club Challenge win over Manly and was the first British coach to win the Cup since 2005.

“I woke up this morning and thought ‘to win this would be an absolute dream’,” he said. “We won nothing last year – we won the League Leaders’ (minor premiership) – and got hammered for it.

“I was very keen that all the players knew we are the most famous club in the world and I wanted them to write their name into the history of the Wigan Warriors – and they’ve done that.”

For Wigan, climbing into the royal box to collect winners’ medals is almost an entitlement. They’ve now done it 19 times. But that doesn’t mean it happens by itself.

“(Sean O’Loughin), who’s not played for many, many weeks – his Achilles tendon was sore and for him to come out and play like that was outstanding,” said Wane.

“Sam Tomkins is another one. Ben Flower is another one who was all jabbed up to play.”

For Hull, the only saving grace was their defence. They kept pushing the ball to the edges in slippery conditions and paid the price – repeatedly.

Coach Peter Gentle, the former Wests Tigers assistant, has also had to contend with speculation over his future. He said the thrill of being at Wembley will be something he doesn’t appreciate for “years ahead.

“Look, it’s a great occasion,” said Gentle. “But we’re just extremely disappointed we didn’t give ourselves a chance with what we did with the ball.”

Down the track, even Peter will be grateful he was there. But don’t believe me – make the trip yourself next year.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

TRAVELS: XVIII

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE Australian Rugby League Commission has today cut a deal that, in terms of participants, is far more significant than even a reunification of the rugby codes would be.
The ARLC and NRL has formed a “partnership” with Touch Football Australia, which has suddenly taken the number of participants in rugby league in this country to well over over one million.
You read that right: one million players. The NRL claims 844,000 people play the game already, although this includes schools programmes that involve one-off carnivals. The combined sport is now arguably the biggest in Australia – ahead of netball, soccer and Australian Rules.
And the announcement is typical of the administration of CEO and former Welsh banker David Smith. There were no leaks, no whispers that it was happening – just a media conference and an a release..
Touch football (I’m sure you used to call it ‘tig and pass’) is a massive participant sport in Australia, even in states where the AFL is dominant. All those men and women of all ages we see playing at dusk each in cities and towns will now be linked to the NRL.
Together, they will be able to attract more government funding and sponsorship. League players will be directed to touch teams in summer and – more importantly – vice versa. Their officials, offices and infrastructure will now also help recruit and promote full contact rugby league.
It’s a massive development for our game – but there are still recidivists who are complaining that “the commission has turned out game into touch anyway – now they’re making it official”.
The merger with touch football makes us a more inclusive sport. It hopefully allows us to cherry pick the Benji Marshalls and Shaun Johnsons of the future and prevent them playing the other code.
The boss of TFA, Colm Maguire, said: “Touch Football in Australia was born out of Rugby League and the opportunity to create Australia’s largest sporting community aligned with the NRL is as compelling as it is ambitious and fortuitous.”
If this sounds like cheerleading from me, then it comes with no agenda. Your columnist doesn’t cheer for a team, he cheers for rugby league against other sports. And this feels like we’ve won the grand final.
Unfortunately, I am told touch in the UK is linked very closely with rugby union. Having this marriage happen at an RLIF level might be problematic, but it’s worth a try, right?
Announcements like this make it more apparent why the NRL currently needs 140 staff. Trying to integrate two sports like this to maximum benefit won’t be easy. One can only wonder what other projects Smith and his men have in store.
I am glad David Smith doesn’t care what I or any other journalist writes. As long as he keeps coming up with coups like this, I am happy to be completely ignored.
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THE way in which Super League is consumed in Australia has just changed enormously.

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TRAVELS: XVII

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD

LONDON’S heavy loss on Saturday led to a reader contacting me about one of my favourite hobby horses – an English team in the NRL.
But this reader, whose given name was Leigh of Dallas (?) came at the idea from an interesting angle. What are the drawbacks of an NRL franchises based in Leeds or Manchester? That it would completely overshadow Super League and effectively relegate it to what the Brisbane comp has become.
But what if the franchise was based in London, and aimed not at league-loving northerners but Aussie and Kiwi expats in the capital?
Let’s get some of the obvious reservations you might have about the idea out of the way immediately. The travel time in Super rugby union between Dunedin and Durban is roughly similar, as is the time difference, and they manage just fine.
There is now a flight that leaves Sydney at 6am and arrives in London the same day, meaning a team could have plenty of time to acclimatise – as much or more as successful World Club Club Challenge sides have had
Of course, London Exiles (or whatever) would not be away every second week. They’d go “on tour”, playing two, three or four away games at once. Visiting teams would play the previous Friday and the following Sunday or Monday.
They would not steal every player from Super League because they would be subject to the NRL salary cap. They would not detract from Super League because they are geographically distant from most of the teams. They would earn the NRL a shedload in TV rights but not detract from the value of the existing SL rights.
I can’t see too many negatives. It’s time to get the ball rolling.
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GEORGE and Tom Burgess have just re-signed with South Sydney.
George and Sam are now pretty much the first choice props for the bunnies, ahead of Warrington signing Roy Asotasi, and this Saturday phonto (1)night they come up against the Australian pairing of James Tamou and Matt Scott when Souths take on North Queensland.
Australia coach Tim Sheens will be watching. Even at this early stage, I am told Sheens is considering picking a bigger side to take on England in the World Cup opener than the side that will eventually play New Zealand.
He believes the Kiwis’ dummy-half running will make the big fellows vulnerable against the Kiwis.
The big loser out of the rise of the Burgesses is set to be Cronulla back-rower Chris Heighington. It’s hard to see him getting a starting berth with all the talent at Steve McNamara’s disposal.
Meanwhile, the return from a pectoral muscle tear of Wests Tigers prop Keith Galloway on Monday is a big boost for Scotland. I spoke to him at training yesterday and he’s very keen to play for the Bravehearts.

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