THE BIG ISSUE: #29

By STEVE MASCORD
SO this is the off-season, and what have you done?
It’s as predictable as a Mad Monday atrocity that columns like this will pop up about now, trying to sum up where rugby league finds itself, some 117 years on from that little drink at the George where we all decided we’d had enough of those stuffy buggers at Twickenham. But despite the predictability factor, we’re going have a go anyway.
Certainly, the health of rugby league depends very much on where you are looking from. In NSW, Queensland and – we’ve got to say – Melbourne, there is every reason to puff out our chests and bound into spring with limitless optimism.
A good little barometer of the (apparently) rude health of the game is the rugby league museum. It was all set to open in 1994, with Illawarra legend Michael Boltsequestered in The Rocks to be its first curator. Then the Super League War happened, the money was redirected into players’ pockets and Bolter went back to Wollongong.
This year, almost 20 years on, the museum finally opened in Rugby League Central. It’s a powerful metaphor for recovery. We have finally picked up where we left off in 1994, when rugby league was flying so high in this part of the world that even rugby union in New Zealand was under threat.
The biggest symbol of this is, of course, the $1.025 billion TV deal. This is such a huge amount of money that at least four times my fingers have refuse to believe it and typed “million” by mistake. It’s $1,025,000,000 folks! That’s a lot of beer and pizza.
But I fear the big story of 2013 will be the people who have promised us that money, Channel Nine. The financial pages indicate they (and Newcastle Knights owner Nathan Tinkler for that matter) have plenty of financial problems. The Knights have a bank guarantee – where would the game be if Nine was not able to fulfil its obligations?
The previous administration of the NRL – under David Gallop – deserves more than half the credit for the work it did to secure the deal. The Commission itself hasn’t really given us much of a glimpse of its personality yet.
It changed the finals system, said it wasn’t too happy with referees or the Bulldogs on Mad Monday … but seven months on still seems to be getting its head around the myriad issues involved in the sport. There’s lots of dray powder at Moore Park still. Not insisting on live TV coverage seems a bit expedient.
At the time of writing, radio and digital rights were still pending. Let’s hope supporters can buy a season pass to their favourite team and watch every game online, as overseas sports fans can. Speaking of overseas, the offical online streaming service is a mess with fans buying one thing and getting another. This must be fixed.
The ARLC also has a few battles to fight with the players. The RLPA under Dave Garnsey will get stronger and they don’t like the way Origins were pencilled in for mid-week without them being consulted.
The Commission also brought in some new media regulations this year. Public affairs manager John Brady’s opposition to these for many years, on the basis that if they came in some clubs would only do the bare minimum, was in many cases proven correct. After a thawing in relations between players and the media over the past five years, Mad Monday at Belmore put things back to square one.
Internationally, things have arguably never been healthier.
Your correspondent saw Cook Islands play Lebanon two weekends ago, Australia take on New Zealand last Saturday and this weekend he’ll be in Bangkok for Thailand v the Philippines. Then it’s the United States against a Queensland Indigenous side before the final two games of the triangular series in the UK.
The World Cup draw for next year is already out and organisers are confidently predicting hundreds of thousands of spectators for the tournament. There is talk of a new elite comp in France.
Yes, there are challenges. England were forced to stay home this (southern) spring, Italy pulled out of a European Cup sponsored by Alitalia and the game remains divided in the United States.
It would be great if the RLIF was better resourced and could offer blanket sponsorship and television opportunities. At first, Tweeted questions about the Cooks-Cedars game being on television seemed naive. But NSW Cup and Toyota Cup are on tele and not internationals? It’s not a dumb question at all.
But, as I keep saying, volunteers trying to start our sport in new territory are the true heroes of rugby league and deserve all our support.
The place where our game seems to be facing its biggest challenges are in its birthplace, the UK. We all know about the Stobart naming rights deal, which was brought to a premature end. Bradford survived closure by the skin of its teeth. There are whispers of other clubs being in severe debt. The Autumn Internationals don’t look like engaging many people and the Exiles concept looked tired in only its second year.
But the cuts at the BBC which were expected to severely restrict rugby league coverage don’t look like doing so at all now. Attendances are up, Sky is still on board, the Super League grand final was a wonderful spectacle and plenty of people from outside the game – from Bradley Wiggins and Rio Ferdinand down – are lining up to sing its praises.
The game below Super League grows apace. Melbourne Storm can only dream of the success in junior development that the south of England has enjoyed.
Even in England, things can only get better and look like doing so.
So many times since 1895, our sport has appeared on the cusp of a golden era only to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. First World War, Depression, Vichy government, international transfer ban, Super League War, correspondence that went unanswered, opportunites that went untaken, thuggery that went unchecked.
Here we are, despite all that, on the cusp again. Selfishness and greed are, as always, just a step behind us and gaining. They are always clearly visible in the rear view mirror, our own personal grim reapers.
Can we not only outrun them but actually put some distance on them this time, with more fuel in our tank than ever before?
Another year over, a new one just begun.

RLW Season Review: SOUTH SYDNEY

By STEVE MASCORD

THERE’S one stark fact that tells the story of how South Sydney’s season ended. Insiders say the bunnies didn’t have a soft tissue injury for the entire season – until their halfback tore his hamstring 26 minutes into the preliminary final against Canterbury.
“And we were matching the Bulldogs, set for set,” winger Nathan Merritt reflected. Some in the bunnies camp are confident they would have won had Adam Reynolds stayed on the field. Others concede Canterbury would have been hard to hold out anyway. We’ll never know.
But that only tells the story of how Souths’ season ended. It doesn’t tell the story of how the season was played – which was bravely, entertainingly and even stirringly. In the lead up to the preliminary final, Souths jumpers of every era from no sponsor at all through Smiths Crisps to today were dug from the bottom of closets and worn proudly to work, school or just to the corner shops.
Souths – at one stage dismissed as a millionaire’s plaything – had evoked the sort of solidarity that once led to the streets of Sydney being blocked by protesters. The disaffected, the lapsed supporters were back and the achievements of the team encouraged them to stay.
“Our fans, they like to see a team that tries,” says chief executive Shane Richardson. “That’s all they ask. And I can’t think of one game this year where the team didn’t.
“Our physio and medical staff did such a good job during the year that in our final game we had a full squad. So to have the game influenced by the sort of injury we didn’t have all year … well ‘disappointing’ is an understatement.”
After the 32-8 defeat to Canterbury on September 22, disappointment was evident. But in the post-match media conference and in the dressing sheds, it was eclipsed by something else that was almost palpable – pride.
“Greggy (Inglis) trying to stop that try right at the end – that’s what this club is all about now,” said coach Michael Maguire.
“As a playing group and as an organisation, we’re proud of where we’re heading. We’ve learned a lot of lessons this season and we’ve fought through various adversities at times.
“We’ve had wins and losses and I’m very pleased with the way the players have fought back after those situations. I’m pleased with the season but I also know as a team we’ve got a lot in front of us, to keep working.”
Co-captain Michael Crocker summed up 2012 (16 wins, eight losses) succinctly and perfectly: “We’ve come a long way in 12 months.
“We’re all about building our own history and our own culture and we’re all really proud of what we have achieved this year. Obviously we’re disappointed with the result (against Canterbury) but we were beaten by a better team. We know we have to work on that, work hard in the off-season and make sure we’re better next year.
“The support … 70,000 people … the support for us all year has been outstanding. It’s great for the game to have all those people here tonight, great for the club to have that support behind us.”
South Sydney players seemed to tacitly accept that they were in the top four sides in the NRL – which is a great improvement from 2011 (11 wins, 13 losses) – but not the top two.
“It’s been enjoyable definitely,” says the talismanic Greg Inglus. “Obviously it was a bit of a surprise to a lot of people, the switch to fullback (for me). It wasn’t a surprise to me. Michael Maguire tossed that up the first round of the season. I just had to work on my game, keep developing throughout the year.
“We’ll get back into the tough work of the pre-season, get a good pre-season under my belt and get ready to go back next year. Hopefully Sammy (Burgess) gets picked for the English side. He (plays for them) for a month and hopefully Luke Burgess gets picked as well.
“The best thing about this is we can take these feelings now. It sort of drove us, the finals loss in Melbourne. It really hurt us. We had to get back. We fought our way back but it’s the same – we’re very disappointed with the way it went (against Canterbury) and I think it will drive us through the whole off-season.”
Winger Nathan Merritt has seen some VERY lean times at Redfern. He says they won’t return any time soon and that fans which were once considered fickle will now be diehard.
“In previous years, we haven’t had too much support behind us,” said Merritt. “This year, we’ve strung a couple of wins together, played some good football, finished in the top four and we had a lot of support from our fan base.
“It was great to see from our perspective. We definitely love the crowd getting behind us and it definitely helps out on the field.
“I definitely think they will (stay). We’ve got a great squad behind us and we’ve just got to keep improving each year. This year was a great boost from last year.
“We’ve just got to take it forward to next year now. We’ll have a big pre-season and take that on board ….  I think the fans will stay around because we’ve pretty much got the same kind of squad around and we’ll be competitive next year.
“We had a good experience in the finals for this year. We’ve got to take that on board, remember this pain and how much it hurts and take it into 2013 and improve on what we have to do to get to the grand final and win it.”
Hear that? Whether Souths ever stopped being the pride of the league is debatable. But even after falling a week short in 2012, Souths now have pride in themselves.

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  • RLW Season Review: SYDNEY ROOSTERS

    By STEVE MASCORD

     “THERE is a tendency,” says Sydney Roosters chief executive Steve Noyce, “to get a false sense of security from the idea that once you have made the tough decisions regarding the coach, it’s like waving a magic wand and it will fix everything.”

    It’s not easy for Noyce to rake over the coals of 2012. Just eight wins, lots of penalties (against, of course) and errors, a couple of heart breaking defeats on the bell and a shocking 50-12 flogging by North Queensland in Darwin.

    Any season that ends with a coach leaving early is not a good one.

    “There are some positives off the field but professional sport is about on the field, it’s about winning,” says Noyce. “If you don’t make the finals, then it hasn’t been a successful year.

    “Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was a deserving winner of the Jack Gibson Medal – he has really improved this year. There’s Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tautau Maga and Daniel Tupou at the end of the year. There’s the Toyota Cup side making the preliminary final and Newtown the grand final.

    “But we can’t continue to rest on the fact that the future looks bright and our players are young. It’s time to shut up and get the job done.”

    Prop Martin Kennedy’s season is another one of the year’s positives, culminating in his selection for the Australian train-on squad. But he speaks bluntly and constructively about the disappointments of the season.

    “Fans see losses like the ones against the Dragons and the Rabbitohs as demoralising – and players are exactly the same,” he says. “To be up there among the top teams early in the season and then losing games by such small margins, so late, is shattering.

    “But the flipside of all that is that if we were two or three per cent better in those matches, we’d have been in the final eight and from there, anything can happen.

    “That’s something for us to take into the pre-season and into next year.”

    Kennedy says there are important things for supporters to understand about the mountainous penalty counts. ]

    “The hardest thing for someone to understand who doesn’t play football is how, when you are under the pump out on the field, you try to make up for it by doing things you wouldn’t normally do,” he explains.

    “So holding on for five or 10 more seconds in the tackle seems the same as running harder. If you can do something that’s a little bit outside the rules to help your team, you want to do it to try and help your team-mates out.

    “We’re not trying to give away penalties or lose the game but that’s what ends up happening.

    “It’s something we are really going to have to discuss in the pre-season because doing that doesn’t work. The referees are so much in the money now that you get caught every time. We have to make sure we don’t do things outside the rules when we’re under pressure.”

    Kennedy says the Roosters’ players feel terrible about Smith’s departure. “I have really struggled with it, expecially now that so many of his assistants are going too,” he says. “Even when Braith (Anasta) announced he was leaving, that was bad. He had been here for so long and I really took it hard.

    “We all know it’s easier to move on the coach than it is to move 17 under-performing players. It cut us deep and will drive us next season.”

    Kennedy has no trouble identifying which defeat stung the most. “Yes, up in Darwin was definitely a lowlight to the season,” he said. “But as a Roosters fan growing up, you never want to lose to Souths.

    “Losing to Souths – you don’t want that, whether it’s by one point or 30. So I would say that was the worst.”

    Noyce said it is down to individuals to assess how they contributed to the downfall of Smith, who he described as “a thoroughly decent human being”.

    “I didn’t see Brian dropping balls, missing tackles or – at my level – making bad buisiess decisions,” he said.

    “Hopefully it can be a catalyst for people to look at whether they took a short cut here, didn’t work hard enough there, didn’t engage with the group enough, whatever. If that happens, something positive will come from it.”

    But thinking a change of coach will bring a change of fortune? “If you think that,” says Noyce, “you’re destined to fail.”

    Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

     

    LA GUNS – Hollywood Forever

    Album review: LA Guns – Hollywood Forever

    By STEVE MASCORD

    THERE are no hard and fast rules for an eighties hair metal band aiming to eke out a living this decade.

    Some, like Motley Crue, have studiously avoided the nostalgia circuit and aligned themselves with young bands. Others, like Whitesnake and Def Leppard, have their pre-Sunset Strip heritage as English blues and metal (respectively)  bands to fall back on.

    There are those like Tyketto and Junkyard who have day jobs and tour in their vacation time. But for the likes of Ratt, Queensryche, Slaughter and LA Guns, it’s a fulltime job that now involves keeping their support base’s  attention, one fan at a time, via social media and the speciallist press which has been chased out of the physical realm and onto the internet.

    As many readers will be aware, until recently there were two LA Guns, one headed by Phil Lewis – the singer from the band’s late eighties heyday – and the other by founder Tracii Guns. To the relief of confused punters everywhere, Tracii’s version is apparently now on ice indefinitely.

    Hollywood Forever is from Lewis’ version and it’s a timely reminder that this genre is still turning out quality material – even though the mainstream has long since moved on. If you liked the new Van Halen album, dig a bit deeper to the likes of LA Guns and you won’t be disappointed.

    The biggest compliment you can pay a band from the big haired eighties (Motley Crue might consider it an insult) is that the album sounds like the last twenty years never happened. That is certainly the case here – Phil Lewis is probably the number one torch-barer, anywhere,  for the Strip scene of the eighties and Hollywood Forever would have been a massive album back then.

    Its biggest strength is its diversity. “Hollywood Forever”chops along metallically at at a cracking pace, “Eel Pie” is a sleazy grinder and “Sweet Mystery” is a dreamy radio ballad – and that’s just the first three tracks.

    “Burn” is the sort of glammy blues lament meant to blast from convertables back when the riots were the number one topic of conversation in Lala Land and the “Vine Street Shimmy”  is the sort of song that makes you visualise the video clip (all low-slung guitars and sneers) even though there actually isn’t one.

    My favourites are “Dirty Black Night”, a monster of a chugga-chugga glam rock epic that dares you to listen passively without the slightest nod or smile, and “You Better Not Love Me” which is a perfect example of the commercial LA metal genre.

    People thought these eighties metal bands recorded catchy songs to get on the radio and please the record company execs. Maybe they even used this excuse themselves as an alibi for “wimping out”. But the radio and the execs are long gone – and the hooks keep coming because that’s actually the sort of music these guys like.

    read on