BONDI BEAT: October 2013

RLW October 2013By STEVE MASCORD
GIVEN that this is the October edition of Bondi Beat, it would be rude not to lead on a little competition which, our sources tell us, will be played in England, Wales, Ireland and France at the end of the month.
The messages about the World Cup so far this year have been somewhat mixed. On one hand, we’re told ticket sales have been good – particularly for the final. The TV deals seem pretty sensible and there have been some good promotions, notably in Trafalgar Square the day before the Challenge Cup final.
On the other hand, as I type this we still have no sponsor, ticket sales to some of the matches appear to be an abject mystery and a high profile player seems to drop out each week, be it through a defection to rugby union, an injury or a preference for professional boxing.
But we’re all still keen, aren’t we? It’s the second-oldest World Cup in any sport, we repeatedly tell the doubters. And Aussie fans on the piss in Limerick ….who’s miss that?
This is an era of lists. People who run websites only need to put: “Six reasons why jockstraps are better than undies” on Twitter or Facebook and the readers come flooding in.
So, in no particular order, here is Bondi Beat’s Five World Cup Predictions That Probably Won’t Come True:
1. ENGLAND TO WIN OPENER AGAINST AUSTRALIA. This is one of the most important England-Australia games of any series for yonks because a win will put the host nation on the other side of the draw, avoiding New Zealand. By predicting this result, I’m predicting an Australia-England final;
2. DRAMA OVER RULE INTERPRETATIONS. The fact rugby league has become two, or even three, distinct sports will be highlighted. General warnings, two referees, playing the advantage, fighting and more – they are all policed differently across the competing countries. We won’t get away with it when everyone comes together;
3. TONGA TO BE THE BEST TEAM OUTSIDE THE TOP THREE. They flogged Samoa earlier this year in Sydney and will only be stronger, although Justin Hodges’ injury will almost certainly cost them any hope of getting Michael Jennings.
4. TOURNAMENT TO TURN A MODEST PROFIT AND GIVE US A FULLTIME RLIF. The RLIF having an office and a fulltime staff has been a Holy Grail for internationalists for decades. There seems to be a fair chance that it will actually happen if things go according to plan this month and next;
5. THE TOMAHAWKS TO STRUGGLE. Hello, America. Having the world’s most powerful nation in the World Cup is great for them, and for us. But they just don’t seem to have enough experience in their roster and the move to embrace players from the rebel USARL may have just come too late.

THE thing about writing a column about events in international rugby league is that by the time most people read it, things have completely changed.
Take the announcement that Malta would host Italy during September. Some financial guarantees were not forthcoming and the game was called off.
Or the exciting news that Sydney Roosters star Daniel Mortimer was playing for Wales in the World Cup. Apparently they can’t find his grandmother’s birth certificate and now it’s a non-goer.
This Rugby League World is cover dated October and in the third weekend of October, the Asia Cup is pencilled in to take place at Clark, Angeles City, in the Philippines.
But at the time of going to press, Bondi Beat had reservations that it would actually take place. The Thais need to raise a significant amount of money to get there and then there is the question of who, exactly, “the Thais”, are.
There are two groups claiming to run the game in the kingdom, even though there has only ever been one game played there. One of the groups recently had the other’s Facebook page taken down.

MY recent week in England around the Challenge Cup final was chock full of wonderful experiences that proved to me the sense of wonder and glamour I felt reading this magazine (when it was Open Rugby) as a child was not misplaced.
There was a wonderful night out at the St George pub on Borough High Street, next to the Shard, with members of the travelling Australian cricket media as well as assorted friends from as far afield as Zimbabwe to kick things off.
That Challenge Cup final itself was a great day, rain and second half aside, and the evening concluded with an Ethiopian meal to celebrate the birthday of colleague Andy Wilson (I think it was his 21st).
On a trip north on the Bank Holiday Monday, I was able to strolling into St Helens training ground on Hard Lane (fitting address for a rugby league team, methinks) to be greeted by some friendly faces before cornering Paul Wellens for a profile story which will appear in Australia.
Then, in an experience which felt surreal to someone who sat up watching blurry satellite coverage of the Challenge Cup final and read breathlessly of open-top coach homecomings as a child, I texted Pat Richards, caught the train to Wigan north-western, and conducted an interview in Jumping Jaks as celebrating fans interrupted with photo requests.
My mate, Boston Mass. Resident Jim Savage, who was my pen pal from Open Rugby magazine all those years ago, was home for the Cup and Monday night was spent with assorted friends and family in the Blue Bell in Warrington town centre.
The next morning it was a disturbingly early train journey across to Leeds for a bleery-eyed appearance on Sky’s Backchat programme. The train journey back to London with Stevo was worth the 48 hour round trip to the UK in itself.
And the following day, I sat on the grass at London Broncos’ Roehamption training fields with Jamie Soward, discussing his career’s weird recent trajectory.
How can we stay mad at rugby league for long, when it has given us so much?
.
REMEMBER at the start of the year, when we all agreed that the big problem with the World Club Challenge was that it was only organised when we knew who is in it?
Oh, there was a ‘working group’ comprising messrs Richardson, Lenagan, Hetherington, Doust and Moran and we were assured the bad old days were behind us.
OK, a quick question. Where is next year’s World Club Challenge being played? And where? Who’s sponsoring it? What TV channel is it on?
We sort of know that it’s going to be somewhere south of the equator on the third weekend of February. But that’s it. Melbourne will want it in Melbourne, South Sydney will want it in Perth, etc, etc.
Is that any way to run a serious sporting competition that decides the world champions in a major professional sport??
.
A QUICK thanks to Danny Kazandjian, the man who runs the RLEF, for inviting me in to discuss media with the various delegates just before Wembley.
It was fascinating to hear the South African bid for the World Cup, which presented 13 stadia which could all hold more than 40,000 people and members of the successful FIFA World Cup bid.
It’s no doubt too soon to hold a World Cup in South Africa. But as with the WCC item above, we can’t fly by the seat of our pants and run around in our own backyard forever.
Twitter: @BondiBeat

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

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

THE BIG ISSUE: #57

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THE great thing about social media is it allows you to gauge the general mood of communities, including the rugby league community.

It’s not a completely accurate gauge. Many people in the rugby league community don’t really like social media that much. So it’s a younger sample, probably urban, etc, etc. I’ve noticed, for instance, more people tweet about what’s on Triple M than the ABC.

Be that as it may, the prevailing mood after the Challenge Cup final at the weekend was embarrassment. As a group of people, we were red-faced.

Here was our game on one of the biggest stages in world sport and what we served up to millions of viewers was a knockon-a-thon. The second half, in particular, was a bumbling mess.

The occasion’s biggest star, Sam Tomkins, wasn’t able to show us much of those sizzling kick returns – mainly because of the slippery surface which made it difficult for anyone to get a good footing.

And although they defended stoutly, Hull hardly looked like scoring as they dropped the ball so often it was if they thought they were playing basketball and doing so was mandatory.

Maybe you didn’t watch that game, so let’s touch on a few more examples. Parramatta being flogged by 60 on free-to air television. Lucky that one wasn’t live on Nine or we might have missed some tries in the commercial breaks.

How about some of the games on Friday TV this year involving lowly teams and big scores? Again, we are embarrassed and want someone to do something so that rugby league puts its best foot forward and shows casual observers it’s as great a spectacle as we know it is.

But in a dodgy Wembley club on Empire Way on Saturday night, I spoke to people who had not been to many, if any, live rugby league games before.

And they couldn’t understand what we were whinging about.

“Lots of action”, “faster than union” and “very entertaining” were expressions I heard from the uninitiated.

We assume our love of the game makes as biased in favour of it – but it also makes us harsher on rugby league in the same way you will quarrel with a relative more readily than a complete stranger.

Rugby league at its worst is still a brutal, skillful, epic game played by very brave, fit men. Rugby league at its worst still better than many, many other sports at their best.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 24

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

TOMKINS GOING NOWHERE

WE long ago just started assuming that Sam Tomkins is joining the New Zealand Warriors next year. But at one point, his coach at Wigan Shaun Wane was supposed to be going as well. Wane has now extended his tenure at DW Stadium – and had it extended by another year as a result of Sunday morning’s Challenge Cup final victory. And according to Wane, his fullback is going nowhere. “He’s a contracted player with us,” Wane told Joy Of Six. “I’m hoping he’s going to be here next year and I don’t see that changing”. Team-mate Blake Green said he had a gut feeling on Tomkins’ intentions but didn’t say what it was while Parramatta-bound Lee Mossop reckoned Tomkins was “a closed book”. What did the man himself say? Nothing. Media were kicked out of Wembley before he emerged from the dressingrooms.

SOME THINGS DON’T CHANGE

MELBOURNE’S 60-point mauling of Parramatta only fuels the perception that we have a lopsided competition. This has led to a number of proposals for change, including the Eels coach Ricky Stuart calling for the return of reserve grade. But stats guru David Middleton recently conducted a study of average margins in premiership games going back to 1908. He also tried to assess the evenness of competitions in the salary cap era by looking at the number of teams who won 50 per cent or more of their games. The results, published in the current edition of Rugby League Week, show very little change over the years. The average margin in 1908 was 14 points, this season it’s 15.4. In 1925., the average margin was 6.7 points but Souths won the minor premiership by such a stretch, mandatory finals were introduced the following year!

SHOULDERING RESPONSIBILITY

THE North Queensland-Newcastle game was a microcosm for the debate over the shoulder charge rule and allegations of diving. Referees say the deterrent to players staying on the ground is that the video referee can only intervene if the offending player deserves being reported. The tackle on Brent Tate, which stunned the Cowboys centre, was worthy of a penalty only. Tate didn’t take a dive but the way in which it was dealt should have discouraged others from doing so, even though the lack of a penalty was somewhat unjust. On the other hand, Kade Snowden’s challenge on Ray Thompson would have brought stern action in any era, regardless of whether shoulder charges were banned. He clearly made contact with the head – Thompson suffered a broken jaw.

ON REFEREEING

IF THERE is one inequality in the way we use the video referee in rugby league, it was summed up when Gold Coast’s Albert Kelly took an intercept defending his own line – something that is generally physically impossible – and streaked away from the Warriors defence. Nearing the tryline, it was as if he was looking for someone to tackle him. Why? Because if he had been pulled up short and the Titans scored on the next tackle, the video referee would not have the power to go back and check if he was onside. The old cliché, ‘what if this decides a grand final’, comes to mind. Video referees should be able to tip to referees in this circumstance. On the BBC on Sunday morning, we had the video referee mic-ed up and his discussions with the on-field officials broadcast. What do you think?

PRESSURE DOWN

COLLEAGUE Peter Fitzsimons touched a raw nerve by going over the records of South Sydney coach Michael Maguire and prop Jeff Lima with wrestling and extreme tactics. Some would say if you go into a game with an injury, you have to expect it to be targeted. But most would argue that targeting a specific injury with an illegal tactic or manoeuvre is different than just running at someone and is beyond the pale. That being the case, should we take intent into account in handing down charges and suspensions? Is illegally attacking someone with a known injury a case of bringing the game into disrepute? We will only find out the level of premeditation years after players retire, when they start spilling the beans. If there are beans, media men and judiciary members will look back with a good deal of regret at have gone easy on the nastiness.

JA, THE WORLD CUP

IT may seem like the longest shot in sport but South Africa are serious about staging the 2017 World Cup. Your correspondent witnessed a detailed presentation from the SARL in London Friday night, to countries attending the European Federation AGM. I’m not sure how much I can repeat but suffice to say the Africans are bullish and intend to use major stadia, 13 of which hold more than 40,000 people. Even with 60 per cent ticket sales, they are confident of turning a massive profit. And each country would get a fairly significant grant from the organising committee, which includes key members of the syndicate that attracted the FIFA World Cup. But in a country where the Olympic Committee still refuses to recognise that there is more than one rugby code, would anything like 60 per cent of tickets be sold? We can’t keep holding World Cups in England and Australia but 2017 is probably too soon to take a leap of faith like this.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

Challenge Cup final: WIGAN 16 HULL 0 at Wembley Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

FORMER Wests Tigers assistant Peter Gentle referred to a reporter as a “boofhead” for suggesting he was about to be sacked after seeing his Hull side pummelled in the Challenge Cup final.

Coaching intrigue at the joint venture extends even to former employees, with Gentle – who was scathing in his assessment of his team’s performance in the rain-marred 16-0 shutout – saying the club’s owner Adam Pearson had assured him his job was safe.

New Zealand Warriors target Sam Tomkins scored a wily 79th minute try in one of few highlights of an error-strewn encounter, with Wests Tigers signing Pat Richards booting four from four in front of 78,137 fans.

Asked whether he expected speculation over his position to resurface, Gentle – Tim Sheens’ long-term assistant at Concord – told the post match media conference: “Some boofhead writes something in the paper, it gives you blokes a bad name.

“You should ring him and ask him where he gets it from.

photo (13)England coach Steve McNamara, veteran Aussie Brian Smith and former Hull import Craig Fitzgibbon have been linked to the post. Gentle later told Fairfax: “The owner’s come and seen me, he says he doesn’t know where it’s come from. I’ve got two years to go and he expects me to see them out.

“It’s funny that it came out the week of the (Hull) derby and a fortnight before the Challenge Cup final. I think someone’s playing some silly buggers.”

Persistent rain in London, which washed out play in the Ashes Test, provided one of the most mistake-ridden big games in either hemisphere for years.

Ian Thornley crossed for Wigan after a scrum win on 20 minutes and the score remained at 6-0 for the break.

Shortly after the resumption of play, Richards kicked a penalty goal and he added another on the hour, before Tomkins underscored the victory with a ducking, weaving touchdown from close range at the end.

Media were asked to leave the stadium before Tomkins emerged from the shower, meaning he was not grilled on his plans for 2013 and suggestions he has already signed for the Warriors.

Other highlights included Tomkins cartwheeling spectacularly in the air in a collision with Danny Tickle and Wigan’s Josh Charley running down Hull fullback Jamie Shaul when he looked certain to score.

“The most disappointing thing is we didn’t fire a shot,” said Gentle. “We were guilty of panicking.

“We can probably use the same gameplan (next time against Wigan) because we didn’t get to use it today.

“I didn’t think we could be worse in the second half but the boys proved me wrong.”

Wigan centre Darrell Goulding was carried off on a stretcher but was later reported to have suffered nothing more serious than concussion. Wigan coach Shaun Wane said five or six of his charges “would not have played if it was a Super League game” due to injury, but gave little detail.

Wane has also been linked to an NRL move but his one year contract extension was itself extended by club owner Ian Lenegan after the victory to include 2015.

Wane and his captain, Sean O’Loughlin, said criticism of the club’s squad’s after losing Brett Finch and Jeff Lima last year had galvanised the players.

WIGAN 16 (Ian Thornley, Sam Tomkins tries; Pat Richards 4 goals) beat HULL 0 at Wembley Stadium. Referee: P Bentham. Crowd: 78,137.

Filed for SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 23

The Joy Of Six1. WHAT PRICE COMPASSION?

SHOULD a player who gains compassionate leave profit financially from it? According to NRL head of football operations Todd Greenberg, capping payments made to a player released on compassionate grounds – perhaps for the term of the original contract he escaped – will be discussed as part of the salary cap review. Another suggestion was to hand the difference in any contract back to the player’s former club, as compensation. This might work if, say, Ben Barba or Anthony Milford go into the Brisbane’s cap by NRL decree at a higher price than Canterbury or Canberra would be paying them next year. In that case, the difference between that figure and the cap amount could be paid by Brisbane to the Bulldogs and Raiders. “Compassionate grounds, if that (release) is awarded by clubs, they may well make the decision that the commercial terms don’t change,” Greenberg said on the ABC

2. WHAT HAPPENS IN BRISVEGAS

BRISBANE coach Anthony Griffin and his media manager, James Hinchey, are friendly, down-to-earth, likeable fellows. But their approach to talking about the – very necessary – recruitment going on at the club right now is curious. Even after signings have taken place, such as that of Sydney Rooster Martin Kennedy, there is no announcement. Peter Wallace and Scott Prince being told they are in reserve grade, or the club’s interest in Ben Barba and Anthony Milford, are treated as if they are figments of the media’s imagination – but never denied. And on Friday, Josh Hoffman was stopped almost mid-sentence while talking to television cameras . Fans have a right to know who a club is talking to and letting go. If you can’t comment because talks are at a delicate stage, why not say “I can’t comment right now because talks are at a delicate stage”? Melbourne’s squeamishness about anything concerning their departing assistant coaches is equally mystifying.

3. BRENT TATE: ORIGIN MADE ME

BRENT Tate won’t be retiring from State of Origin and wants Australia’s World Cup selectors to know it. Tate has heard coach Tim Sheens will be picked a team with a view to the future; his future will still including playing for Queensland. “I’m very mindful of where I am with my body but at the same time, I think Origin makes me a better player,” said Tate after the 22-10 win over Gold Coast. “Being around that environment, it takes me to another level. It would be really hard for me to to say ‘no’ to it. I feel as if I’m not quite ready (to quit). On the World Cup, he said: “I’d love to go, although I know Tim has said there’s a bit of an eye on the future. I was part of the last World Cup and it would be nice to be able to go there and right a few wrongs. If I get a chance there, I’ll be the first one with my bags packed.”

4. NATIONAL INFORMATION MINISTRY

THE NRL’s ill-advised crackdown on what is arbitrarily deemed “excessive” criticism by coaches of referees will be put to the test today when Geoff Toovey’s post match media conference from Friday is examined. It used to be that you had to question the integrity of a match official to cop a fine; now you pretty much only have to upset the NRL. How can reporters rely on the NRL to enforce media regulations and free speech at clubs when the administration itself indulges in censorship? On a more positive note, the ARLC will attempted to make the link with touch football an international association by encouraging the RLIF to make contact with touch’s international governing body, FIT. We’ve rapped the NRL over the touch footy deal but here’s another brickbat: officials travelling around Sydney in chauffeured cars isn’t a great look.

5. BEING JOHNATHAN THURSTON

YOU may have wondered exactly when Johnathan Thurston turned from a footballer to a role model and ambassador; the sort of fellow who spots kids in the crowd during games and tells the ballboy to hand them a signed kicking tee. The Closing The Gap round, of which he is a frontman, seemed an opportune time to ask him. “When I had that misdemeanour of getting locked up in Brisbane (in 2010),” he said on ABC when I asked. “It didn’t only just affect myself. It affected my fiancé Samantha, my parents, my brothers, my sisters, my family. That’s when I really had a good, hard look at myself and the legacy I wanted to see when I leave football. I’ve got a four-year deal and I want to make the most of these four years because after that, you know, I’ll be in the real world.”

6. MELBOURNE BALLS TAMPERED WITH AGAIN

MELBOURNE have become the victims of ball tampering for a second consecutive week, it is alleged. Last week it was Sam Burgess fiddling with Chambers’ willie, this week it was Knights officials lubricating the pigskin with water. Storm halfback Cooper Cronk complained to referees Jared Maxwell and Brett Suttor that the Steedens had been placed in water before kick-offs and this had lead to at least one knock-on. Melbourne officials did not want to add to the allegation when contacted late Sunday. Co-incidentally, while Sam Burgess is currently serving a two-week suspension for tampering with Chambers, the last known example of interfering with a ball in the NRL was perpetrated by his England team-mate, James Graham last year. Graham rubbed his legs in vaseline, primarily to make him harder to tackle but with the perhaps unintended incidental result of making balls harder to handle too. OK, enough.

And a bonus ‘zero tackle’

7. GREEN GRASS OF WEMBLEY

NEXT weeks’ Set Of Six will come to you from Wembley Stadium, where Wigan and Hull are preparing to take part in a rematch of one of the top two matches I’ve ever seen, the 1985 Challenge Cup final that pitted Peter Sterling (black and white irregular hoops) against Brett Kenny (cherry and white). Playing half for Wigan will be former Parramatta and Cronulla man Blake Green and NRL talent scouts should be glued to Eurosport to check his form. Just about every Australian who signs with a Super League club these days has a get-out clause and experienced halves aren’t really thick on the ground. Blake’s agent Isaac Moses is flying to London for the game but no doubt in a different part of the plane to your correspondent. We’re cheering for Hull though, on account of Mark ‘Ogre’ O’Meley having an opportunity to win something special in his last season.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD