THE BIG ISSUE: # 28

By STEVE MASCORD
IT’S not unusual for grand finals be contested, and celebrated, in an atmosphere of vindication and even vengeance.
In 2010, multiple St George Illawarra players and their coach made reference to the label of being “chokers” after the club’s first premiership. In 2003, Penrith coach John Lang said “you reward cheap shot merchants” – a reference to the injustices he felt the media had visited upon his son, Martin.
But if any premier in the history of the game could have been a short priced favourite to thumb their noses at the world after winning a title, it was the Melbourne Storm.
Twitter and twitpic were fringe sites used by very few people when this reporter snapped a shot of the Storm celebrating their premiership triumph over Parramatta in the middle of ANZ Stadium hours after the grand final in 2009. A few months later, that piece of silverware and everything they won two years previous were stripped from them for salary cap abuse.
As a group, they were labelled “cheats”. Whatever your theories about what occured, it beggars belief that the majority of the squad knew the minority were getting hidden payments. Yet they all had money thrown at them when they played away, had to compete for nothing and – justly – lost team-mates to other clubs.
I had only one person in the Storm rooms say to me on Sunday night that they hoped they would get credit for this premiership. It was said politely and sincerely, not sarcastically or maliciously.
In the post-match media conference, Stormers Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith called reporters by name, honoured the Courier Mail’s Steve Ricketts by allowing him the final question of his final assignment before retirement, and spoke for 17 minutes, which I’m pretty sure is the longest presser of the season.
In the sheds … well, they invited hundreds of fans, sponsors and members and media into the giant warm-up room. Beer was flowing, families mingled, everyone smiled and the noise could no doubt be heard down the hallway in the rooms of the vanquished.
This is what grand final rooms used to be like – before the Super League War and all the bitterness and rancour that followed.
This was a room which the Dragons locked reporters out of two years ago. Storm players spoke to as many people who wanted to speak to them and posed for as many photos as anyone’s memory card could hold.
You might say: “So should they, they’ve just won a comp”. But that’s not the way things are anymore.
The reason for all this is, clearly, the captain and coach. Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith are not grudge-holders, mindgame players or in any way Machiavellian. Bellamy is not a manipulator, as so many in his profession are. Smith is not precious or selfish.
Those who dismiss the Storm as soulless have clearly had very little to do with them.
To me, the Storm’s culture is the most distinctive in the entire competition. A driven, expletive-spewing, but completely straight coach and a bunch of players who he has motivated not by pushing their mental or emotional buttons and playing games with them but by leading by example and showing his passion at every turn.
If most coaches are icebergs, Craig Bellamy levitates 100 metres above the water. It’s all there to see – warts and all.
When other coaches fear they are losing their mojo, they do – and their jobs follow soon afterwards. Players sniff weakness and stop responding. When it happened to Bellamy, halfback Cooper Cronk told him to snap out of it because the losses were his – Cronk’s –  fault. Does that sound like a souless club to you? Like a flimsy News Limited shopfront?
The Melbourne Storm could have fuelled their campaigns this year and last on a bottomless supply of negativity and bile. Instead, they chose to take the higher ground – and for that they should be universally admired.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Cronk Tells Bellamy To ‘Snap Out Of It’

Cooper Cronk/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD COOPER Cronk’s decision to confront coach Craig Bellamy and tell him to “snap out” of wallowing in self-doubt was the turning point of Melbourne’s season and put them back on course for a redemptive premiership.
Bellamy commented after Sunday’s grand final triumph that Cronk “had a shot” at him as the Storm sunk to six losses in seven games late in the season – but gave away no details.

But a Storm insider tells Rugby League Week: “Craig thought he had lost his mojo. He thought he wasn’t reaching them any more.
“The reason he has been so successful at the club is that he leads the way and expects high standards of others. So when he stopped being like that, listening to the players too much, the players missed it. Cooper told him to snap out of it, to take charge again.”
Storm corporate ambassador Robbie Kearns last week suggested in RLW one of Cronk’s tactics was to say he was responsible for the defeats, not the coach. “He said ‘oh mate, the difference was for those six weeks after Origin, we were that mentally drained that the next four or five weeks, they weren’t willing to do the hard yards on the track’,” Kearns said.
“This is in August, they’d been doing it since January. He said he went off that a bit. He was just turning up going through the motions.”
The conversation between Bellamy and Cronk not only begot a premiership – it could have given us one of the game’s next great coaches with Cronk pulling exactly the right psychological rein at the right time.

GF For The True Believers, Says Hinchcliffe

By STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE warhorse Ryan Hinchcliffe says this week’s grand final berth is for the 23,906 fans who turned out on April 25, 2010, to support the Storm after they were stripped of two premierships.

While most of the Victorian franchise’s players have shied away from discussing the salary cap scandal in the lead-up to Sunday’s grand final against Canterbury, Hinchcliffe says the way the team has fought its way back from what many thought would be extinction was something to be proud of.

“That game after the salary cap and I think (24,000) Victorians showed up to support us – we’re certainly part of the landscape down here now,” the representative utility forward says.

“We’ve had a lot of support for the club, for us as a group, to be able to bounce back and fight our way back and it’s just really rewarding.

“It’s been a long  road – we’ve had our downers. There’s obviously 2010 but we’ve moved on from that, we’ve learned from that I think we’ve built a lot of resilience from that.

“That’s carried us well this year.  We had a tough period and it’s that fighting spirit that’s got us back into this position – and we’re in the GF.”

When the Storm took the field on the ANZAC weekend two years ago, their sponsors had dumped them and logo had been removed from the shirts. Other sponsors logos were covered with tape and there were doubts they would even survive the season.

“There was never any doubt from the players’ point of view,” Hinchcliffe said.

“There might have been media speculation that there was doubt. We knew that we had a strong supporter base down here. We knew that we had a good coach and we knew if we got the opportunity to play in the competition again – which we always knew we would – that we train hard and we prepare well and if you do that, you give yourself a chance of winning games .”

Doubts arose again this year when Melbourne lost six from seven games.

“We always had faith – we were trying hard, we were probably just trying too hard at times,” said Hinchcliffe.

“Full credit to all the boys in this team. We’ve had to work really hard to get to this position. The games that we’ve won, these last few games, we’ve had to work really hard. Against Cronulla, we just managed to come back.

“Sometimes when you start pre-season, it’s so far away that you don’t really think about it. You get towards the back-end of the year and it starts to pop in your head. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. It’s why we play the game. It’s a team sport and to be able to achieve the ultimate as a team, it’s probably the most rewarding thing you have as a footballer.

 “That’s what we’ve done over the past couple of years and we get the opportunity now to get the big reward.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Reports Of Manly’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

George Rose/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD

DES Hasler’s departure was suppose to leave Manly on its knees with players lining up to leave.

So even though the Sea Eagles’ premiership defence came to a hault last Friday night, players hailed the year as a success as they qualified for the final four and stars like Brett Stewart and Kieran Foran signed on to stay.

“It happens with every successful side,” prop George Rose said in the wake of the 40-12 preliminary final loss to Melbourne  Your value goes up and the salary cap doesn’t.

“It makes it hard. It’s good that all the boys want to stick together and have tried to stick together.”

Darcy Lussick is off to Parramatta, Tony Williams to Canterbury and veteran Brent Kite could be forced into retirement by the salary cap.

But Hasler’s replacement, Geoff Toovey, had a successful debut season.

“It’s been a great year for me and I think the players have done a fantastic job under the circumstances throughout the year to finish the competition in fourth place,” said Toovey.

“It’s a big achievement, I think…

“They’re a great senior playing group who really helped me out this year and full credit to them as players and as a team.”

But those factors don’t save the Eagles players from having an empty feeling in their stomachs.

“Any other team in the comp would be happy to finish in the top four, you know, but coming off the success of last year, you just want that feeling again,” said Rose.

“:Everyone sets high benchmarks for themselves but when you’ve won the comp the year before, you want to do that again. If you’ve come fourth one year, you want to come third or better the year after. I guess this is a little step back …  it is the top four though, so we’re still a quality side.

“Next year, we want to go better than the top four.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Merritt: I Wish Maguire Was Here Years Ago

By STEVE MASCORD

WINGER Nathan Merritt says he wishes coach Michael Maguire had joined the club “six or seven years ago”.

While Merritt’s comments after Saturday’s 32-8 preliminary final defeat to Canterbury were interpreted as deeming the season a failure, the man who made his debut for the Bunnies in 2002 is excited about what has been achieved.

“From my experience, I’d loved to have had Madge around five, six, 10 years ago at this club,” said Merritt, 29.

“This club’s been lacking someone like Madge for years. Madge has got so much passion and belief in us and it rubs off on us.

“He showed his authority straight away, just the way training was … he took it up 10 levels from what we’d done previous years.

“He changed a lot of the club. The whole thing, he changed it around, just the way he controlled the team. He makes the team gel together and the bond is a lot closer this year.

“As you can see, we’ve been competitive all year.”

While fans decried a possible eight-point try (Canterbury only got six from it) awarded after a challenge from Sam Burgess, and the loss of halfback Adam Reynolds in the 26th minute, the players themselves reckoned they were beaten by the better team.

Burgess said of the eight-point-try: “I’ve not seen one of them for a long time but the refs call it as they see it … I don’t think it would have made too much of a difference to the overall score. It’s irrelevant.

“Losing Adam, whose been a huge part of our team all year, is not ideal. We lost a little bit of direction, lost a bit of shape.

“Adam didn’t deserve to finish that way, He’s had a cracking year. He’s certainly taken charge of the play throughout the year. For him to finish that way is obviously sad for Adam. I feel for him. He’d certainly have added something to our team. His kicking game is a big part of what we do.

“We certainly missed him but we’re not taking anything away from the Bulldogs.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Dessy Lets His Guard Down Just a Little

By STEVE MASCORD

THIS morning, at the grand final breakfast, we finally saw a glimpse of what makes Des Hasler great.

Normally, we see the Canterbury coach begin every media conference with a statement – regardless of the question – insist his team is under the radar, dismiss probing questions cheekily and then say ‘thanks’ and get up before heading for the door.

He did try to set the tone for today’s on-stage interview early – “It’s about the players, we’re here to honour the papers on both teams,” – but then the man poised to be the first in the history of the premiership to win consecutive titles with different clubs went on let his guard down just a little.

At Doltone House (actually, it was Doltone Tent), under questioning from host Warren Smith, Hasler displayed humour. “Are you referring to the calves blood of a couple of years ago?” he said, when asked about his use of sports science.

“They’re cows now.”

More tellingly, though, Hasler allowed himself to be passionate. Instead of deflecting a question about the role of psychologist John Novacs, he told the audience how Novacs not only worked with players but with office staff, coaches and even sponsors.

“A rugby league club is like a community,” he said.

With patients from Sydney Childrens Hospital on hand, Hasler added there was “synergy” with one of the club’s sponsors, Camp Quality. He explaimed how a message of positivity worked equally well with footballers and cancer sufferers. It was inspiring stuff – and a side of Hasler at odds with his obsessive, secretive image.

At first, the crowd seemed unread for a gag from the Canterbury coach. Diners laughed uneasily. It’s that unexpected eloquence, humour and insight which no doubt holds enormous sway over his players – and which outsiders rarely see.

For years, grand final teams have fought a psychological battle to see who could appear the most relaxed at the grand final breakfast. This is where the two prize fighters size each other up, looking for signs of nervousness or uncertainty in their opponent.

The way Hasler effortlessly glided from being evasive to having the 700 guests in the palm of his hand would have been unsettling for Storm fans and maybe even staff and players. He did, however, have competition in the stand-up comedy stakes.

“My roomie is Justin O’Neill,” said Melbourne fullback Billy Slater, when asked what he would do the night before the game. “He’s pretty cute so I might cuddle up to him and watch a movie.”

When co-host Matthew Johns asked his former protege, Cooper Cronk, if he celebrated his triumphs by jumping around his bedroom in his undies, Cronk told Johns: “I don’t celebrate like you.” Johns responded: “Have you been looking through my window again?
And when Wests Tigers Toyota Cup coach Todd Payten was asked about Marika Koroibete, he said: “Being a front rower, I never really thought a winger could be so valuable.”

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THE WRAP: NRL 2012 Finals Week Three

By STEVE MASCORD

WHO knows? Anthony Watmough might be right about Josh Reynolds and every other player in the comp hating him.

But in a grand final week that threatens to be particularly anodyne, journalists love the unaffected 23-year-old Canterbury five-eighth. He’d win any popularity contest in the press box, hands down.

Watmough told Reynolds at a scrum on the first night of the finals: “You do dumb shit, no wonder everyone hates you … everyone hates you, you idiot”

In a media huddle at ANZ Stadium after Saturday night’s 32-8 preliminary final win on Saturday, Reynolds was asked by a reporter if he would be able to find an opposition player who actually didn’t mind him.

“I hope so, there might be a few,” he laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out, see how I go.”

The next afternoon on radio, he reckoned he had spent the morning ringing around, looking for support among his fellow professionals.

“I made a few calls –they haven’t picked up unfortunately,” he said, chuckling.

Perhaps what rankles the pivot’s rivals is what Petero Civoniceva’s Australian team-mates once saw in Kiwi enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves – a ‘lack of respect”.

Reynolds behaves like he has been in first grade for years – and that it’s no big deal. His irreverance carries off the field, where he refuses to be a cliché-spewing automaton even in a week in which coaches want their players to be exactly that.

Reynolds doesn’t respect the credo of saying nothing in interviews – and he has the termity to get away with being interesting without it causing him any grief, while others try to honour a mental list of what the coach doesn’t want them to say.

Josh isn’t flying under the radar. He’s not going over it either. He seems to be disbelieve that the radar even exists.

“It’s been an adjustment – obviously your life changes when you’re playing in the top grade,”he says.

“But I’ve always said that if it ever did happen, I wanted to stay the same person. There are people out there who … it might go to their heads. I don’t know what for.

“Obviously it’s a great thing. You walk down the street and a kid comes up to you and you can put a smile on his face for the rest of the week.

“It’s definitely a privilege and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

As a youngster himself living in Belmore, Reynolds supported Sydney Roosters. No-one in his family supports the Bulldogs and when I suggested on air he might like to spend Sunday morning scalping his ticket allotment, he agreed it sounded like a good idea.

But he recalls: “In 2004 when they made the grand final, I actually went down to Belmore and there were people on the roofs of the shops, people in the back of utes, going crazy.

“It’s going to be a big week and I can’t wait.”

Last Saturday night, he said, he saw it again – from a different perspective.

“It was unbelievable. I had mum and dad calling me, saying ‘are you sweet to get home?’ because I only live up the road and people were going crazy.”

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