WHITE LINE FEVER Column: December 2016/January 2017

p1_coverBy STEVE MASCORD

THE real question in the current imbroglio between the NRL and its clubs is not who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong.
It’s which group is worse.
Firstly, the basics. The clubs are trying have Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant ousted. They have the required votes. What they are angry about is a promise to give them 130 per cent of total player payments from 2018 being broken when Grant came back from the Rugby League International Congress in Liverpool.
A memorandum of agreement was “taken off the table”, causing a group of chairman to walk out of a meeting at Moore Park’s League HQ in Sydney. Subsequent meetings were postponed when the chairmen refused to show up.
Let’s start with the clubs. They have all their player wages and travel expenses covered by head office but only one of them returned a profit last year. Why? Because they spend so much money trying to out-do each other via high-priced coaches, cutting-edge technology and expensive scouting networks.
In most cases the clubs run their own local junior leagues, too. They have under 20s sides and a reserve grade team of some kind. In Sydney, any short-fall is made up by grants from Leagues Clubs, which are basically giant poker machine palaces that get tax breaks precisely because they support junior rugby league.
The entire structure of the traditional Sydney clubs is mired in the past, when players played for beer money and TV rights were worth a few thousand dollars.
Now to the so called “Independent Commission”.
Australians love a “commission”. Forming one is what they do when there is perceived to be a problem with something. There’s the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the Australian Football League Commission, etc, etc.
All eight members of the commission are independent of the clubs. Under chairman Grant, in its four years the ARLC has performed an almost complete clean-out of the NRL, on the back of an army of consultants picking the brains of existing staff members and using the information to appoint those staffers’ new bosses.
Grant’s big mistake in promising the 130 per cent of player wages to the clubs is that he underestimated their deviousness and desperation. Now the clubs stood to make more money, the more the players were paid – so the players and clubs were suddenly allies and the central body became a giant cash cow.
But the question has to be asked: if the clubs are truly calling for Grant’s head because he’s shown incompetence, then why didn’t they point it out to him in the first place instead of pulling the wool over his eyes?
Like in England, rugby league in Australia needs blowing up and starting again. Like just about everywhere, it’s a cargo cult driven by self-interest.
In truth, the clubs should just be shells. Twenty five players, a capped staff selling tickets and sponsorships and that’s it. Everything else should be run from head office. The best model for the sport would be the lean teams making money for the the rest of the game, franchises in the true sense.
Junior development would be run centrally, players would change clubs via a draft.
But would I trust THIS head office not to make a mess of this fantasy scenario? Definitely not….

Filed for FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

White Line Fever column: December 2016

forty20-magazineBy STEVE MASCORD

OVER the next four months, I have a book to finish.
It’s working title is Fifty-two and the kind folk here at Scratching Shed have agreed to publish it. To those of you who pledged your support on Kickstarter, I thank you.
Now, fifty-two is about to expose me to something of an adventure. According to the premise of the book, I have to attend at least one rugby league game a week for an entire year.
I’ve gone close before, covering – say – a Papua New Guinea tour of France that went until the last week in November and then fronting up for a trial match at Gosford in the middle of January. I saw plenty of winter rugby league in Britain in the early nineties, on one occasions going from a Premiership final at Old Trafford to a Winfield Cup game in Perth five days later.
But I’ve never quite done a full year. I’ve never attended a Boxing Day or New Years’ game in England. I’ve never NOT had a Mad Monday, even if the flamboyance with which I celebrate it has dimmed with the passing years.
So the week after the Four Nations final at Anfield, I’ll return to London for a couple of days and then set off for the south of France. I am not quite sure what I will see as I find the fixture list on the French Federation website rather baffling.
But I am expecting baguette, Kronenberg and long, cold nights in front of the laptop until mid-January, punctuated by Christmas with the in-laws in Tipperary and a food hangover at somewhere like Headingley around the end of the year.
What do I hope to achieve? What insight can be provided by chasing 13-a-side rugby each weekend for year?
While watching the year’s NRL Nines at the home of Wigan Observer and Rugby League Week writer Phil Wilkinson, he asked me “do you think you actually like the game, or just all the things around it?”
It was a very prescient question.
What attracted me about rugby league to start with was the iconography; the footy cards we swapped at school, the intro music to Seven’s Big League with Rex Mossop. I parried that into a career, where if you could get someone to say something interesting you would put it in the third paragraph of a newspaper story, paraphrase them in the first paragraph and live the Life of Riley.
amazonBut did I ever fall in love with the aesthetics of the game? Certainly, I wouldn’t be the first person you would go to for a view on attacking patterns and defensive responsibilities. That was just never my thing.
By going to early round Challenge Cup matches, NSW Cup finals, internationals in Wales and America and – finally – domestic matches in France I hope to divorce the artifice surrounding big time pro rugby league from the game itself.
I hope to get reach genuine, objective conclusions about the sport’s strengths and weaknesses as a spectacle. I have already discovered that I find comfort in the cadence of a rugby league match – but also that I find few games so engrossing that I won’t allow myself to be distracted.
That is one of many essential truths I’ve spent the last two-thirds of a year pursuing for this project. It’s a ridiculously ambitious concept for someone who has never written a book before.
I should have just eased my way in with, say, The Sean Rutgerson Story.
So if you’re a French rugby league game this winter and see a shivering Aussie, come up and say hello.
I’ll be looking for material.
Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE
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White Line Fever column: Toronto Wolfpack

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-9-54-35-amBy STEVE MASCORD

THE things that stuck out were the names. Young trialist Bomaly Costanby. Local NRL and Super League-savvy photographer Marvin Dangerfield.
We’re not at Leichhardt Oval or the DW, Toto.
When I first heard the Toronto Wolfpack were holding open trials (‘tryouts’ in the North American lexicon) across the continent, I was desperate to attend one.
But it was only the previous evening, standing under a tree at Eden Park, Wilmington Delaware, that I realised it was possible.
A Toronto Wolfpack delegation, including coach Paul Rowley and director Adam Fogerty, had been standing there waiting for the United States-Canada international to start. They were holding a tryout the next day at EE Garthwaite Stadium, Conshohocken – about 20 minutes’ drive from here – they told me.
Eden Park is not to be confused with it’s Auckland namesake. It’s a chopped up old paddock. The players got changed in the carpark, they had to break into a box to turn the lights on and the crowd numbered in the double figures.
And while the rugby league itself was quite engrossing, Wollongong-domiciled US Hawk Junior VaiVai racing away to secure a 20-14 win with two minutes left, the event was a bit of a damp squib (although the halftime food was delicious … and free).
So I held few high hopes as I took an Uber from Essington, Pennsylvania to the home of the Philadelphia Fight the next day – having been up all night blogging the NRL grand final for the Sydney Morning Herald.
But the immediate signs were good.
A Wolfpack banner at the quaint suburban ground, a documentary crew of four, the coaching staff in smart black-and-grey attire and numbered vests for the hopefuls.
amazon“I was named after Bob Marley – honestly,” says winger-in-waiting Costanby.
“I was just playing rugby union for four months. I’ve been working really hard from 4am every day and I thought I could test my skills out here, see what I can do.
“I just love everything rugby can offer a person. I’m kinda greedy. I just feel like rugby can give me a good life, you get a little pay cheque and you can have fun.
“It’s good to go out and battle with my mates.”
By the side of the pitch, an Atlanta Rhinos player is talking State of Origin and hit-ups. On the field, Rowley is presiding over three-on-two drills, schooling the triallists on unders plays and inside shoulder responsibility.
I admit, I learned a thing or two listening to him.
Rowley won’t move to Canada at all. The pre-season camp will be in Europe and they won’t play a home game until May.
Leaning over the fence with a pipe is Fogerty, the former Halifax, St Helens and
Warrington prop who was also a heavyweight boxer and movie star (once knocked out on screen by Brad Pitt).
Along with being a director of the new club, he is involved in Last Tackle – the production company turning these tryouts into a documentary. One fellow from Samoa is told to answer the question again and leave his country of origin out of the answer, mentioning only Ohio.
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donate2“It’s a story of redemption – giving these athletes in North America a chance at a sport they may not know much about,” says the Huddersfield resident.
“Only have a percent make the NFL, who leave college. We’ve got thousands and thousands of college athletes.
“It’s not X Factor. We’re not in it to show people up and make fools of people. We’re going to pick 15 of what we think of the best and bring them to England.
“They’ll be whittled down from there. It’s not a voting system where people ring in. They’ve got to have something special that we think we can mould into being rugby league stars.
“We want it to go out in everyone’s front room around the world.”
The Wolfpack are still regarded by many in Britain as a bizarre joke that will be lucky to last a season.
“People have got to take it to heart in Canada,” Fogerty admits. “We need to fill the stadiums for the home games and have them get behind us.
“You’re only as good as your supporters, in a way. They money men won’t keep throwing money into it forever and ever if it’s not financially viable.
“But we’re here because we believe in it.”
An hour in Conshohocken, and I believe again, too.

Filed for: FORTY 20 MAGAZINE

WHITE LINE FEVER Column: Four

By STEVE MASCORD
THIS time last year, Darren Lockyer and Jamie Peacock were tackling each other in the Four Nations. Yesterday, they met in London to tackle the vexed issue of rugby league’s eligibility rules.
Of course, the retired captains of Australia and England (Peacock is still playing for Leeds) had a little prompting from NRL.com when we caught up with them at the  offices of London PR firm Fast Track, who have been hired to promote the 2013 World Cup.
Lockyer is in the United Kingdom as part of his role as the ARLC’s ambassador for international rugby league. He has been mobbed at functions in Leigh, Wigan and Hull – requiring security to get him out of a banqueting suite on one occasion.
Eligibility shapes as one of the biggest issues in the game in the 12 months until the World Cup, to be hosted by England and Wales.
Lockyer says players who miss out on selection for Australia, New Zealand and England must be allowed to play for other countries.
“Those developing nations at the moment need all the support they can get and if we can get the services of some NRL players, that’s only going to benefit them,” the record-breaking five-eighth told us in a sixth-floor boardroom on Victoria Street, before doing a host of phone interviews.
“Once they get a black and white picture around eligibility for Origin, that will be a good thing for the game. But when we’re trying to develop countries like Papua New Gunea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Wales, all those countries … I think having these players who have had NRL experience but can’t represent Australia … well at this point in time, it’s the right thing to do to allow those guys to play for other countries.
“Once those countries get a foundation and become a lot stronger, then we should look at altering the rules. But at this point in time, we need to make as many nations as we can competitive against the so-called Big Three.
“We’ve got to face the facts that our game, at an international level, has still got a long way to go. We need to put things in place where we can get it to a point where we don’t have to have these issues.
“At the moment, eligibility rules are relaxed in a World Cup year. That’s the right thing to do.”
Peacock, who retired from representative football earlier this year, offered even more forthright views – supporting calls from Origin and Australian eligibility to be separated.
“With guys like (James) Tamou, he should play for New Zealand and New South Wales,” said Peacock, “That rule needs to change over there.
“If you’re born in New Zealand or have New Zealand parents but you play your first club football in NSW or Brisbane … I think (Origin) is killing (international football) a bit, really.
“And if you had a bigger international scene, you wouldn’t have it as much. Players think they won’t get the chance to play the big teams so they choose to represent Australia or England or New Zealand.”
And the man who captained Great Britain in its last Test before the home countries were split, in 2007, said a return to the famous red, white and blue strip would
stop the drain of players from Wales, Scotland and Ireland to England and its feeder team, England Knights.
“That’s down to losing Great Britain – pure and simple,” Peacock said. “If you had Great Britain playing every four years, you wouldn’t see that.
“You’d see the players who can play for Scotland, play for Scotland. You’d see the players who can play for Ireland, play for Ireland and you’d see the guys who can play for Wales, play for Wales.
“And then once every four years, you get together for Great Britain. These guys will play in a strong side against Australia.
“Great Britain is an unbelieveably big brand … hugely after the Olympics … and should be brought back, not every year but every four years.”
Lockyer, whose trip is mostly funded by the NRL, will enjoy a holiday in Hong Kong on his way home early next week. He says his first year of retirement has been an adventure.
Television, he said, was “nerve-racking. You have to learn a whole new set of skills.
“At the start of the year, the enjoyment wasn’t there for me and I probably questioned whether it was the way to go or … did I really want to be doing this?
“But as the season wore on, I got a bit more comfortable and obviously the guys I played a bit of footy with … and guys I haven’t worked with before, once I got a bit more comfortable with them, I started to enjoy it.

read on

WHITE LINE FEVER Column: Three

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By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN children at a Manila orphanage were told yesterday that the men in front of them did not represent “the rugby you know about”, it seemed par for the course.
Outside of Australia, New Zealand and Britain, it’s an achievement if people know there is just one form the game, let alone two.
“No,” explained the facility’s administrator, Ms Kumi Kobayashi, “rugby is a drug that they sniff. It’s like a glue. We have to explain to them that these boys have nothing to do with that.
“The orphans here were either abused or abandoned. They are street kids, picked up by social security services and brought here. We try to get them training to get a job, and at 17 they go back out there.”
Kumi is the cousin of Gold Coast hooker Matt Srama, whose exploits in the NRL she has read about from clippings sent by her auntie. Matt had already returned to Australia by the time the Philippines rugby league team visited the Nayon ng Kabataan Welfareville Compound in Mandaluyong City yesterday.
His brother, England-based hooker Luke, took charge of the two hour session with around 30 energetic kids, who were put through catching, passing and kicking drills before being handed t-shirts and tiny koala bears.
“We had David Beckham here late last year,” Kobayashi told NRL.com as children swerved and stepped in the distance and hiphop music played over a PA system in a covered courtyard, protected by armed guards.
“There was him and about 12 members of his entourage. There was a five minute photo opportunity and he did pose with the (orphanage) soccer team but then he was gone.
“Some of the kids were disappointed. They wanted his autograph but you couldn’t get near him.
“When Matt came the next month, he stayed until every kid had his photo taken with him or he signed something. Today, with all these boys here, the kids will remember for a long time.”
Sydney Roosters forward Sam Bernstom, one of the quietest men in the squad which beat Thailand 86-0 on the weekend in the first rugby league international played in Asia, couldn’t contain his smile throughout the visit.
At one stage, the lanky 197cm back rower hoisted a youngster onto his shoulders and they waded through a group playing basketball to execute a slam dunk. On another occasion, he was buried under a pile of children so big he – and by extension, new tricolours chief executive Brian Canavan – had cause for genuine concern.
“It’s anything but sad,” said Bernstrom.
“The kids here, they’re all so excited to see us and it’s a great honour to be here.
“Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces, it’s really enlightening. It’s my first time to the Philippines as well. It’s an awesome experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Not only were the orphans enthusiastic but may showed a natural affinity with the game, taking up full-bodied tacklking without being asked to and displaying the sort of evasive skills that impressed the Philippines (knowns as Tamaraws, or bulls) coach, Clayton Watene.
All players paid their own way to Thailand and Manila – although having Philippines Airlines as a sponsor helped – and for their own off-field kit. Coaches and managers each put in several thousand dollars from their own pockets.
While the crowd in Bangkok was tiny, they are convinced they are making headway in the Philippines. This Saturday, there’ll be a nines tournament on a decomissioned airforce base.
As the players, drawn from all levels of competition in Australia and the UK, walked through the dusty streets outside the orphanage to hail cabs, they stopped for coke drunk from a plastic bag so the shop could claim the bottle refund. And NRL star Kevin Gordon put his Centre Of Excellence training to good use by helping push a food cart up a hill.
But for young Australians whose parents had left the Philippines for a better life, the impact of the experience only then started to sink in, with expressions like “that’s really brought me down a level” heard in taxis on the way back to well-to-do Makati.

WHITE LINE FEVER Column: Two

By STEVE MASCORD

‘NEXT try wins!” came the call from the Philippines side as a scrum packed near the end of the first ever rugby league international in Asia yesterday.

The scene was the Royal Thai Police Stadium, Bangkok, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. The score? Philippines 80 Thailand 0.

In front of a crowd of family and friends, a Filipino side including Gold Coast Titans stars Matt Srama and Kevin Gordon had run in 14 tries against an opposition made up mainly of local rugby union players.

The call, from an anonymous Filipino player, was intended to motivate his team-mates to keep their brave opposition scoreless as the Thais fed the final scrum.

But there was still something more at stake.

Between them, Matt Srama and his brother Luke had scored 26 points. They were one of five sets of brothers in the side. Kevin and Dennis Gordon, had scored 22.

The scrum was won by the Thais but they couldn’t hold onto it. Both benches were told the game was over. But before the siren could sound, Titan Kevin Gordon was in the clear – as we have seen so many times in the NRL – and he ran 65 metres before converting to edge his clan ahead of his club-mates’.

“My two goals got me close to my brother, anyway” said Kevin.

Meanwhile, Matt and Luke Srama got to play together for the first time.

“First time ever – we’ve been waiting for this day for years and years and years,” said Luke, who played hooker yesterday.

“We didn’t think it would ever happen but it finally has.”

Matt: “He reminds me of myself when I’m playing hooker – really tough, gets in there, popped the ball out four or five times. He gives me tips when I go back to Gold Coast.”

This was no explosive arrival for our game in a new region – but it was an arrival nonetheless. Some things that people imagine about international development games are better in reality. Other things are probably worse.

The commitment of the players, the nerves of the coaches and staff, the intensity of the warm-ups and the talk – it’s like anything we see in the winter months in Australasia. Players from pub competitions (or not playing at all this year) run out alongside highly-paid professionals, put their bodies on the line and new friendships are forged.

On the other hand, crowds are impossible to predict and often tiny, facilities are commonly poor (‘this shed is still better than Brookvale,’ a filipino wag commented) and everyone has to pitch in when it comes to lugging equipment, marking lines, filling up drink bottles and booking training facilities.

Playing international rugby league outside the top four countries mixes the passion and emotion of the game’s highest levels with the menial, humble chores of its lowest. There is no room for prima donnas or superstars.

People say it’s a waste of time and, says Srama, “I’ve got to admit, I was probably one as well.

“But the coaching staff, the Filipino rugby league, have all done a great job and hopefully we can promote the game over there a little bit in the Philipines.

“There are a lot of juniors coming through. Now there is a benchmark out there that there’s a team. When I was a kid, I would have loved it if there was a Filipino league team.

“We’re part of the first one ever.”

Referees are also often a problem at this level – thankfully they weren’t yesterday with the world’s first husband-and-wife officiating team in any sport taking control. They featured in a large story in the UK’s Observer yesterday morning – getting almost as much space as a Wembley or Old Trafford final.

Asked about the experience of controlling a match with partner Kasey – on the occasion of their second wedding anniversary – Gavin Badger said: “I didn’t get to have a go – she just kept taking everything.

“It’s just the way she looks at me sometimes.”

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WHITE LINE FEVER Column: One

By STEVE MASCORD
IN Townsville on Sunday, it was like the circus had left town. 
All that was missing was a few tumbleweeds blowing down Flinders Street, past the Mad Cow which will no doubt feel the effects of the end of the rugby league season as much as any business in Australasia.
Nate Myles was on his way to Braith Anasta’s wedding (landing half an hour before the ceremony). Johnathan Thurston was heading to New York with tickets to the World Series. Tim Sheens has the small matter of a job for next year to sort out.
Reporters and referees and cameramen and sound operators will see their families for the next twenty weekends or so. Sports nuts will turn their attention to cricket and whatever big-ball sport can come across as trendy enough for the summer months this year.
And it will be easy to forget that when the circus leaves down, it doesn’t cease to exist.
It finds another paddock, and up goes the tent again. Tackling pads, strapping, ballwork, tickets, interviews, precision and pain in roughly equal doses – they’re our tapeses and elephants and ghost trains.
This week in Bangkok, Thailand and Port Vila, Vanuatu, the caravan rolls on.
Titans Kevin Gordon and Matt Srama plus South Sydney’s Andrew Everingham will represent the Philippines against Thailand on Sunday at the Royal Thai Police Stadium.
It’s the first full international ever held in Asia and also possibly the first time a husband-and-wife refereeing team will control any sporting event of note.
NRL ref Gavin Badger was asked to take up the whistle for the game. He asked if his wife Kasey, who has controlled Toyota Cup games, could join him. The Thai Rugby League said yes.
After the game, a selection of Filipino players – hopefully including the NRL trio – will conduct coaching clinics in and around Manila, as well as visiting an orphanage. Next year, while 14 countries compete in the World Cup, these two plan a return bout on a military base outside the Filipino capital.
Next Saturday, Melbourne’s Justin O’Neill will be part of Vanuatu’s first home international, against Greece at the Port Vila Municipal Stadium. Also in the Vanuatu side are Jake and Joe Meninga, nephews of Queensland coach Mal.