Original Sins

Forty20 August 201311092013By STEVE MASCORD

YOU’D imagine after 27 years writing stories like this (but better) that this hack had done everything in the boutique-sized universe of rugby league media duties.

True, I have covered games by battling tear gas in the Papua New Guinea highlands, electrical blackouts in Lebanon and hangovers in Keighley.

I even once received a text from Clinton Schifcofske as he was lining up a conversion from the western touchline at Suncorp Stadium.

But watching State of Origin from the sideline was one journalistic odyssey that had hitherto eluded me. The honour was finally bestowed thanks to Sydney FM radio station Triple M securing the rights this year and was made even more enjoyable by the fact that during the game, I didn’t have to actually say anything on air.

No doubt listeners were also grateful for this.

For Origins I and III in Sydney, I sat next to former NSW centre Ryan Girdler and a tech a few short metres from the whitewash and just watched (and Tweeted and Instagrammed). For the second match in Brisbane, it was former Maroon Ben Hannant, and I was behind him, which meant I didn’t see quite as much…..

In the last edition of Forty20, new Melbourne chief executive Mark Evans theorised that Origin “transcends” rugby league in Australia. That may have sounded to you like hyperbole but it’s not – the focus of the entire nation (yes, even including ‘heathen’ states) is on that patch of grass three times a year and the occasion radiates a visceral energy that bears almost no relation to what happens at eight grounds each weekend in the NRL.
A study of the thousands of New South Wales fans who make up Blatchy’s Blues, the supporters group that painted the northern end of ANZ Stadium their colour of choice with jerseys, facepaint and flags, has indicated very few of them are members of NRL clubs.

Yes, there are people in Australia who will go out on a winter’s night with their bare chests painted blue and wearing a ridiculous wig but who otherwise won’t go to a rugby league game.

Being so close to something which others hold in such reverence is enervating and almost intoxicating. One cannot fail to be transfixed as the teams run out to cacophonous response and stand in front of you for the national anthem, even if one is jaded by rugby league and disinterested in the result of the match that follows.

Being close does give you the opportunity to imagine what it would be like to be a participant.

Throughout the series I have waffled on about how the players have, intellectually, always had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches. This behaviour has been tacitly condoned by officials, who were raking in the cash from the public expectation of fireworks.

But sitting on the sideline, you realise the imprimatur is not just intellectual. It’s primal. It eminates from the 82,000 souped-up speccies who come not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding it.

In terms of the publicity, the atmosphere and historical convention, it’s actually a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that Origin is not just one big 360 minute rolling brawl.

Of course, a lot has changed since NSW coach Laurie Daley described Paul Gallen’s high shot, followed by a flurry of punches, on Nate Myles in game one as “a great Origin moment”. Gallen was suspended, new NRL boss David Smith and referees’ boss Daniel Anderson banned fighting and four players were sent to the sin bin in game two.

The fallout from these decisions is still being felt. Former Super League referee Ashley Klein didn’t survive the series, dropped after game two. Former players everywhere decried the “sanitisation” of rugby league.

But the world didn’t end. There wasn’t a spare seat at Origin III. The Manchester United players who attended the decider didn’t complain about a limp spectacle played by pansies.

There were other sub-plots, as usual. Where else can horse-riding accidents and lewd phone calls decide the make-up of teams?

Off the field, NSW seemed to impode. Winger Blake Ferguson was charged with indecent assault and dropped, fullback Josh Dugan was with him at the time but managed to keep himself out of trouble.

Mal Meninga serving himself in backpacker bar also became a big story, for some reason. The impending birth of Johnathan Thurston ‘s first child in the lead-up to game two was compounded by a stomach virus about which remains curiously reluctant to talk.

But the central narrative was the same as the previous seven years. Origin’s entire viability was said to be in jeopardy in 2005 when NSW had dominated the series – because the concept was dreamed up specifically to make the Maroons competitive.

But after eight consecutive series wins by Queensland, State of Origin is in rude health. Such humiliation seems to be what it takes to get the attention of the cynical Sydney public. Shifting games to Melbourne, such an attractive proposition for the last 23 years, now seems like an indulgence.

Yes, Queensland’s side seems to be aging. But in Daly Cherry Evans and Chris McQueen, they have rookies at least as promising as those of their opponents.

NSW have finally dispatched with their penchant for sacking a raft of players every time they lose. This is something they appear to have the depth to do – but because Origin is for Queensland, Queensland set the cultural tone and revolving door selection policies resultantly don’t work.

Nathan Merritt’s selection for game two was widely lauded; the 30-year-old had been waiting almost an entire career for the opportunity. But although coach Daley took responsibility for telling Merritt to come in off his wing in defence, he was dropped after just one appearance.

The test of a competitive representative series is when selection cannot be used as a reward; when necessity dictates that the worthy must miss out because they are not the right people to achieve the desired result.

Australia can still select players as a reward. NSW have now learned they cannot.

At this point I have written 1000 words on the 2013 State of Origin series without mentioning the scores. NSW won Origin I 14-6,. Queensland took out Origin II 26-6 and the Maroons wrapped up Origin III 12-10.

“We’re not getting closer because last year we lost by one and this year it was two,” NSW captain Gallen deadpanned.

Am I the only person with a front seat at public events who often wonders what would happen if he interrupted them spectacularly? What if you suddenly started spewing expletives, sexist or racist epithets at a press conference on live TV? What if you ran on at a crucial moment in a match, from your seat on the sideline, and tried to tackle someone?

In conclusion, then, I’d like to mention another enriching experienced I gleaned from the 2013 State Of Origin series. Thank you, Wati Holmwood, for helping me answer this long-held question without me actually having to go out there and do it.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

BONDI BEAT: September 2013

September 2013By STEVE MASCORD
THE big debate in Australia at the moment is on how the State of Origin juggernaut is completely overshadowing, and causing serious damage to, the NRL.
Attendance figures at club games have plummeted over the six weeks that the interstate series occupies and a week or two either side of it, when we have split rounds
Bondi Beat talks about scheduling far more than we should. You’ve already read here about we would like to have the Origin games played on weekends and internationals built around those weekends, with players returning to their homelands as happens in soccer.
The big stumbling block is that the Australian game has already accepted at total of $1.025 billion in television rights money from a free-to-air operation and a pay operator.
The pay operator, Fox Sports, wants club games each weekend. The free-to-air company, Channel Nine, wants to keep Origin on Wednesday night where it has a captive audience and can attract premium advertising dollars.
Bondi Beat has been told the current set-up was “driven” by the NRL, so they’re unlikely to push for a change. And the current TV deal doesn’t expire for four more years….
Now, one of the suggestions thrown up is to give Fox and Nine a DIFFERENT club competition during Origin. Sure, some players will be missing but it won’t interfere with the premiership and will hopefully attract fans with a novelty factor that is sorely missing at this point.
This week’s column comes to you from Jamaica, where I am enjoying a bit of a break after working every day bar one for five months.
You would imagine my reaction at turning on the TV to see my room has US network Fox Soccer Plus, which featured an enthralling Super League derby match between Saints and Wigan the other night. You would imagine I was horrified and threw something at the TV – but in fact I was enthralled.
Eddie Hemmings thought it was “boiling hot” at Langtree Park. He’d have received little sympathy from viewers in Negril.
Fox Soccer Plus also broadcast an NRL game between Sydney Roosters and Cronulla played in front of a huge crowd of empty plastic seats and ending in a less than enthralling 40-0 result.
Here’s what we are building up to: despite the disaster of 1997, is it time to bring back a variant of the mid-season World Club Championship?
Of course, we could never call it that. Never agaon. But what about the Champions’ League – the top two clubs from the previous season in England and Australia, plus the Warriors representing New Zealand and the Dragons representing France.
Meanwhile, the rest of the sides in Super League and the NRL could play ‘on the road’ games in a Cup competition. Some Challenge Cup games could be played in the northern hemisphere.
Maybe clubs completely unaffected by Origin could continue to play NRL matches in the southern hemisphere, but only in frontier areas. Or we could have a cup competition of our own.
Instead of being three weeks apart, the Origins could be separated by only a fortnight, which used to be the case.
Look, the key to all this is convincing Fox and Nine to accept something other than premiership NRL matches for four weekends. If that hurdle can be overcome, then a whole world of opportunities opens up for us with international club and Test fixtures.
I have my doubts they can be convinced. But I didn’t think an Australian TV network would ever ASK for a Tonga-Samoa game either. I hope I’m wrong again.
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MY ‘ead ‘itter here at RLW Towers thought a Burgess Brothers feature was somewhat overdue, focusing on the amazing rise of George.
He was right. But the reason you’ve not been reading many of those – anywhere – is that George Burgess is pretty much off limits to the media, save the occasional fulltime interview.
And that was before he was featured in a nude photo online and smashed a signpost through the window of a hapless Cairns car.
The NRL does have strict new media guidelines but they do not force given players to speak. There are minimum numbers of “media opps” over the course of a week but clubs think nothing of exploiting that situation by having their press sessions all at the same time, on the day of a State Of Origin decider.
Tony Smith prepared his team for the last World Cup by allowing media representatives into the sheds at lead-up games, because that’s how they did things in Australia.
But the practice was already on the way out by the time England arrived for the tournament and at most venues, with most teams, it is now firmly a thing of the past.
Oh for the American NFL system, when the media are allowed dressingrooms after games but at training sessions. Interestingly, Souths are one club who can see the benefit in that – but they aren’t going to do it while everyone else doesn’t.
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THE easy thing to do after the NRL grand final would be to jet out to London and take in some warm-up matches.
But since when was the easy thing the most fun?
Instead, Bondi Beat is contemplating a quick trip to Vanuatu to see the fledgling nation take on the Solomon Islands, then a dash to Pretoria, where NSW Country will play South Africa some time around the 19th, then to Angeles City in the Philippines.
The Tamaraws will host Thailand and Japan in a triangular tournament around that time. And there is still enough of a window there to be Cardiff for the kick-off of the World Cup.
Oh, and KISS are playing Tokyo’s famous Budokan Arena on October 23. Just saying….
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OK, a bit of a survey now: how many of you would like to be a professional rugby league player?
I don’t mean that question to be in any way esoteric. If you could wake up tomorrow a first grade rugby league player, would you take the option?
I would not. Here are the key reasons: short career span, high risk of injury, the inability to do what I do now, which I enjoy and …. drug testing.
Not that I am a pill popping party animal or a steroid freak. I just don’t want people watching me pee. I don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night by someone asking for a blood sample or a vial of urine.
Johnathan Thurston and Gareth Widdop recently complained about, variously, a child being woken up and a dinner going cold because of unannounced visits by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency.
I have sympathy for them, I really do. Thurston’s agent, Sam Ayoub, has a good point about there being little difference between a 6am visit and a 9am visit.
But increasingly, being drug tested at all hours – and having people watch you pee – is part of being a professional athlete. If you don’t like heights, don’t be an airline pilot and if you don’t like that, do something else.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

The A-List: ANDREW FIFITA (Cronulla, City, NSW, Indigenous All Stars & Tonga)

Fifita,Andrew%202013NRLHBy STEVE MASCORD

WHEN Andrew Fifita talks about “the coal train”, he’s not making a reference to Dave Taylor. He’s talking about an actual coal train.

“It’s when we were down in Griffith that I found it,” the NSW prop says, recalling a vivid childhood memory. “Not walking around but jumping on the trains … there was that one big coal train and it would only go five K’s an hour.

“Instead of walking, it would have been a good 2 km into town, you’d just sit on the back of the train. It would have been going about walking pace.

“We jumped the fence. All the boys would run over and jump on it.”

I’m not quite sure how we got onto the coal train. I think it may have been a question about how the 194cm prop managed to keep the weight on after years of struggling to maintain his bulk.

He admits a previous interview in which he said beer was a great assistance in this area was “not good for the kids”. Jumping a safety fence in a determined pursuit of laziness? Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.

In any case, it’s entirely likely that Fifita doesn’t even know that Gold Coast forward Taylor is called “the Coal Train”. He hadn’t even heard of at least one of his team-mates in the Origin decider a couple of weeks ago, he admits.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the footy growing up,” says Fifita, who passed up a promising rugby union career (and riding coal trains) to join Wests Tigers in 2010.

“I wasn’t the type to sit there and watch a footy game. It was tough to match the faces to the names. Even McManus , I just met him (before Origin III) and I didn’t know who he was.

“I was asking ‘who’s James McManus?’ I know a few from playing against them and that but to be honest I didn’t know who he was. Everyone’s saying he’s top tryscorer….

“I follow basketball a bit, I’m not a big fan of it. NFL… a bit of everything. Aside from that, I just like watching movies and chilling out.”

As A-List moves into its fifth year, we’re noticing a discernible trend among players in interview situations.

When the Johns Brothers were at their peak, they finished a game with a message in mind. They were canny enough to realise they weren’t speaking to journalists but to fans and the sort of leadership and influence they exercised in a team environment could also be applied to the general public.

Then, with the Super League War, we had the age of the soundbite, with players trained to use the question as part of their answer for the sake of TV and their comments sounding impressive but completely lacking any substance.

Then we had the era of scandals and gossip, when our players shut up shop completely.

Almost 20 years later, there are signs that the philosophy of our stars has come the full circle. Men like Fifita and last week’s featured player, Josh Reynolds, have stopped being scared of us and are instead trying hard to offer considered insights into themselves and their motivations, believing that being viewed positively by readers, listeners and viewers will be to their personal benefit.

phonto (1)“I’m still learning the game,” Andrew says at one point. “I got a lot of pressure from family and friends, saying ‘get your fend out, go do that, I want to see the x-factor back’. Flanno (Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan) has always said to me ‘when we’re coming out of our own end, go dead straight. Who cares? Don’t worry about the fancy stuff. But when we’re inside the 40 and going towards the tryline and in our good ball, do whatever you want’.

That’s right, whatever he wants. “Do a runaround, “ Fifita laughs. Or maybe a chip and chase? “I’ll give one a go. I’ve had a few in my time.”

Fifita remains wide-eyed about the Origin experience – and ambitious about what it can deliver.

“I walk past the rooms and I see some of the guys like Mitchell Pearce doing extras, Jarryd Hayne was stretching … doing the little things like icing up and for me, as an inexperienced person, I was going ‘wow, this guy’s really professional’.

“Now I know why Flanno’s always saying to prepare like a professional. I’ve never ever done that stuff. I guess, coming into Origin, it’s a big thing for me and I’ll learn a lot. I didn’t care if I was in the 17, as long as I got 18th man or something like that. Just to be close to Origin, I would learn something.

“I used to be professional but I wasn’t that professional. It’s a whole other step. I think I still have a long way to go. I’ll stretch in my room now, if I get a little niggle I’ll ice up.”

How many Origin players have memorised the pools at the 2013 World Cup? Fifita believes he should be allowed to represent Tonga if he misses out on Tim Sheens’ side.

“I really pushed to play for Tonga this year (mid-season) but they wouldn’t allow it. They’re in … I wouldn’t say the hardest pool. They’re in a good pool. If you wanted to be in any pool playing for Tonga, you want to be in that pool. I really feel they’ve got a really strong chance of getting in the semi-finals. They’re going to have a tough time with Scotland and Italy but…”

Why did his twin brother David sign with Cronulla instead of Melbourne? Just ask and you’ll get a straight answer.

“Melbourne were offering him a two-year deal but they wanted to train him up this year and give him a go next year,” Andrew responds.

“I really wanted to help him and show him the way I’ve learned and I really wanted him to be with me and his family and all the family back here. I couldn’t see him going down there on his own. He just got back from France. I said ‘give it a year, you can always do that next year. If they really want you bad, they can grab you’.

“I’m real proud of him. He’s been training by himself when he gets up, does his extras and things like that. “

And on why he is determined to make the most of every opportunity: “Football can end at any time. I realised that when I was playing with Simon Dwyer. That was shocking, that’s when I realised football could be over like that. I could be gone in a flash.

“It was a bad way to go out of the game. He’s still trying to get back into the game. He’s only 24 this year. You never know. My thoughts are with him and I think he could make it back if he really tried.”

So, to finish up: what transformed Andrew Fifita from train-hopping hobo to barnstorming Blue? We glean two things here, one straightforward, another not-so-much…

“I guess the family has come into the scenario and knowing you’ve got to take every opportunity you can,” he says. “… when it came down to it, I just put my head down and I wanted to achieve much more than first grade. I had a dream of playing first grade and I got it. Then I saw an opportunity there for more than first grade. I’ve knocked two of them off and I wish I could get the third one … and Australian jersey.”

The second? Actually, appendicitis which resulted in Fifita being rushed to hospital for surgery just over a year ago. In fact, Cronulla doctor Dave Givney organised the surgery from the sideline during a State of Origin match in which he was acting as NSW medico.

Givney wasn’t in the Blues camp this year but Fifita says it’s a direct result of the ailment that he was. “When I got my appendix out, I was watching the game. I think I was watching Warriors and I was watching the way they played. It was good to sit out from a game …

“The following week we went up to Brisbane and I went as 18th man. I knew I wasn’t going to play because I just got my appendix out but I sat in the coaches box and I watched again and I came back from that week off and I started … doing my job.”

Andrew Fifita is still on that coal train, figuratively anyway. And it’s going a lot faster than 5 KPH.

“I still feel young and if I could stay in those rep teams for years to come, I would. That would be the best thing. It’s everyone’s goal. Once you’re up the top, you don’t want to come back down.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: JOSH REYNOLDS (Canterbury & NSW)

Canterbury - Josh ReynoldsBy STEVE MASCORD

GRUB Henderson plied his trade on Sydney’s violent rugby league fields in the 1980s. His brutal style of play constantly landed him in front of the judiciary, got him in trouble with officials and eventually ended his career prematurely.

Grub Henderson did not exist.

He was a figment of the imagination of former Manly and South Sydney player Matt Nable, who immortalised him in the 2007 motion picture, The Final Winter.

One day at Belmore Sports Ground, an oval on which Henderson would no doubt have spilt litres of blood, a player from that very era approached a young Bulldogs player called Josh Reynolds at training.

“Jim Dymock, he came up to me and he got it from the footy movie, The Final Winter. He said there was a character in there and he reckons he played like me. His nickname was the Grub.”

Reynolds is talking to A-List in Coogee. “It stuck. Everyone here, I get called it at home, everything. It doesn’t worry me.”

While the movie plot demanded ‘Grub’ be the last of a dying breed, Reynolds is proof the type of footballers who inspired the character and his comedy equivalent, Reg Reagan, aren’t quite an extinct species yet. If anything, the Canterbury halfback is leading a renaissance.

In fact, the 24-year-old is considered such a champion of rough-as-guts suburban footy that the coach of the NSW Residents side that played Queensland in last Wednesday’s Origin curtain-raiser asked him to address his team beforehand.

They won. It must have worked.

“It was sort of just … in high school, I just never really got a look-in because there were just better players out there than me,” says Reynolds, the man who got 14 minutes in Origin II for NSW after warming the bench for the first match.

“I … knew that for a fact. When I was, 16 or 17, I just sort of said to myself ‘I’m going to have to probably train a bit harder than everybody else because I haven’t got the natural talent, natural strength, natural build of a footy player’.

“It hurt me in school. I was never really in the top sides. I was playing B grade and things like that. I would see my mates – I was at Kogarah Marists in St George – who were playing rep football, making Harold Mats, and I was just floating. So I sort of had to knuckle down and work harder and make a few sacrifices.

“I love to pride myself on my dedication. I really try and work on my game as much as I can. You know how some guys don’t like a lot of people giving them advice? I take everyone’s advice and just use it how I like.”

Reynolds doesn’t seem to distrust the likes of me as much as most of his fellow professionals have over the past decade. His listens intently, says ‘you’re right mate’ a few times and shows no signs of being bored by the interrogation.

Already, his relationship with representative football has been fraught. He was picked by City, reportedly passed a fitness test, only to be withdrawn from the clash with Country by his club. Actually, those involved deny that’s how it happened –they say he didn’t actually pass the City medical.

Then there was his role as a paid spectator in Origin I, his 14 minutes in the return encounter and being released from camp five days before last Wednesday’s decider.

Again, Reynolds is old school. He liked Origin even when the rest of us weren’t that into it and is still enraptured with it even though it didn’t show him as much love as it could have.

“For me, myself, growing up, I was into it a lot but I noticed other people weren’t into it as much as I was,” he explains.

“It was that fast, I was just trying to get in there. It’s a bit hard. In the position I’m playing, I can’t really adapt to the game. I’ve just got to go out there and straight away try and make a bit of an impact. I went out there and I was just trying to lift the boys a bit.

Does his selection mean he’s the second string halfback to Mitchell Pearce, the next in line? That means an opportunity next year is likely after the series defeat. “I don’t think it does,” he says.

“I think I got this role because maybe I can cover a couple of positions. Two years ago, I didn’t know what my best position was, whether it was half, hooker, a bit of lock.

“Who knows? One day I might get in the six or the seven for NSW. It’s definitely a goal of mine but I enjoy playing at 14 as well.”

Time to mention another two of Grub Henderson’s contemporaries – former Bulldog Terry Lamb and Reynolds’ current coach, Des Hasler. Both were known as utilities – and their representative opportunities were probably adversely affected as a result.

“I don’t think being in any representative side can be a negative, whether you’re number one playing fullback or you’re 18th man,” Reynolds responds, almost shocked at the suggestion his versatility could in some way be a curse.

“It’s such a privilege to be part of it and it’s got such history and culture

“If I’m playing OK footy, if my foot’s in the door now, I’m a 14 … and if Laurie (Daley) needs me in a six or a seven or whatever, he might have the confidence to put me there.

“… for me it would never be a negative. If, like you said, that’s how I play my whole career at 14 … if I’m lucky enough to be there every year, I’ll be over the moon.”

Where are Josh Reynolds’ KB Cup, Winny Reds, Huttons Footy Franks cred REALLY underscored? When you ask him about the value of the flashy Holden Cup against the blue collar NSW Cup, whose rep coach asked him to give the boys a speech.

“For me, it’s NSW Cup,” he answers, swiftly. “It’s 80 per cent better footy, just because it’s a lot tougher. I remember playing 20s and it’s obviously a good concept because you’re 20 and you’re playing at all these awesome grounds and you’re playing before first grade and you’ve got a bit of TV time. Everyone loves that.

“To play in that arena is awesome but then you play NSW Cup and you’ve got guys that are seasoned veterans coming back there when they’re not getting a run in first grade. It’s hard.

“(But) I think it should be switched back. Premier League should be the game before first grade.

“It’s like an apprenticeship. If you’re in the 20s and you’re getting picked from 20s to go straight to first grade, you’ve missed those NSW Cup guys. It’s not a good feeling, if you’re playing in the NSW Cup, when guys from 20s might get the jump on you and you might have the same talent.

“I definitely think you should learn your trade and go 20s, premier league and first grade.

“Rip Taylor … said ‘look, have a word to them about coming through’. It’s an example of someone who back in the day wasn’t much of a player but I’ve tried to work hard on the little things and work hard on my game.

“It’s the hardest time of your life, playing 20s – and NSW Cup. You’ve got to work, obviously, then you’ve got to go straight to training. You’ve got to be really strong in the head. Everyone has bad days at work and then you’ve got to go to training and get smashed and people yell at you and things like that.

“You’ve got to switch off and remember what your goal is – to get to the peak of the NRL. I think that’s where I just sort of snuck through. There were guys who would say ‘I can’t be bothered. I’m going to go to training and put in a 50 per cent effort’.

“I tried to get to training every day, even if I was digging holes all day, with a clear head and a positive attitude. It’s tough period in your life but it definitely pays off.”

It has for this Grub. Even if Grub Henderson had existed, the title of the movie would remain a fabrication. There’s plenty of winters left for footballers like him.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The Origin Scheduling Conundrum

State Of Origin 2013By STEVE MASCORD

ANOTHER Origin series is gone – but we didn’t even wait until it was half over before we started calling for mass changes.

Although the concept has been around since 1980, and we’ve tried many venues, days of the week and gaps between matches, it seems we will never be satisfied with the series – even though it captures the imagination of the whole country and makes the game millions of dollars.

The problem, of course, is the impact on our club competition. Last weekend, 2012 grand finalists Canterbury and Melbourne met at the grand final venue and five of the best players across the two sides were unavailable.

The larger sums clubs pay their players, the more unpalatable this seems. Of course, more and more of players’ wages come from club grants, which in turn comes from TV rights, so there is a quite reasonable argument we should find it MORE palatable, but….

Then there is the small matter of the length of the current NRL TV deal. We’re in the first season of a five year deal and RLW has been told that while some things are negotiable (which games are on the representative weekend, for instance), others (um, Origin) are not.

While much of this is hung on Channel Nine, who own State Of Origin rights, many of the changes being proposed would also upset Fox. The pay television operator shelled out for club football every weekend and that’s what it expects.

NRL head of football operations Nathan McGuirk tells RLW just about every scenario was considered and discussed before we ended up with the current arrangements – confirming our contention in last week’s Big Issue that we’re stuck with what we have until 2017.

He points out the league got plenty out of the negotiations, like guaranteeing just one Friday game the week after Origin and making sure it required very few players to back up.

But let’s go through some of the pros and cons of the ideas that have been tossed up already anyway, since they might provide a glimpse into our future, post current TV deal.

The NRL’s Nathan McGuirk says: “The NRL widely consulted with our Clubs and stakeholders throughout the process of negotiation for the Television broadcast deal. The outcome of our five year agreement was a great one for the game in terms of revenue generated that will fuel the growth of our game and Clubs into the future.

“The detail of the schedule saw a number of changes that have been implemented throughout the representative season for both welfare of players and reducing the effect of Origin on the competition.

“Origin remains the biggest television sporting property and there would be real concerns with any tinkering which could affect the strength of Origin and also the Competition in general.”

THREE ORIGINS ON CONSECUTIVE WEEKENDS

PROS: Clubs have star players available for all games; suspensions in games one or two apply in Origin first; NRL does not have to compete with Origin for publicity over three weeks; an end to split rounds and byes

CONS: Fox paid $500,000,000 for club football and would have none for a month; Nine paid even more for their component that included Wednesday night Origins because there is a captive national audience on that night; Star players have less time to recover from injuries; Origin has less time in the spotlight so is worth less to sponsors; Merchandise manufacturers say it’s not enough time to market supporters’ gear and so would also pay less.

THREE ORIGINS ON CONSECUTIVE WEDNESDAY NIGHTS WITH NINES OR KNOCKOUT CLUB COMP

PROS: Keeps games on highest-rating evening for TV; removes inequalities created by NRL players being unavailable; opportunity to create new competition and unearth new revenue streams; opportunity to push into new markets with Nines/knockout competition; Origin players get distraction-free preparation.

CONS: Fears clubs would not field strongest possible side in Nines/knockout competition; Unlikely Fox and Nine would be satisfied with sub-standard competition; Sponsors and fans would also be sceptical of substitute competition; Either a longer season or fewer NRL games, impacting on either player welfare or commercial returns; Likely breach of television contract.

WEDNESDAY-SUNDAY-WEDNESDAY ORIGIN CONFIGURATION WITH NO CLUB FOOTBALL

PROS: Maintains current camp lengths; Keeps two Origins in Nine’s preferred time slot; No players stood down from club games; longer total series time for sponsors, jersey manufacturers, etc; No club football distractions; gives the majority of NRL players a mid-season break; suspensions in games one or two served initially in Origin.

CONS: Three-to-five weekends without any content for Fox Sports; hands over three to five weekends to rival sports; shorter exposure period for sponsors and merchandise manufacturers.

CURRENT CONFIGURATION BUT WITH NINES/KNOCKOUT COMP DURING ORIGIN PERIOD

phonto (1)PROS: Clubs aren’t forced to play premiership matches without their stars; Gives hope to teams out of premiership running; Opportunity to reach new revenue streams and markets with new competition formats; Provides club content for broadcasters during Origin period.

CONS: No indication that broadcasters have any interest in substitute competitions; Doubts over support from coaches, sponsors and fans; Studies show 1997 mid-season World Club Challenge alienated fans from domestic Super League and many did not return following its completion.

FIVE STATE OF ORIGIN GAMES

PROS: Increased revenue for the game; increased national exposure; bargaining chip to push through some of the initiatives above with television companies; Massive payday for players; Expansion opportunities.

CONS: Lengthens season; More damage to club competition with teams having less access to players; Negative impact on player welfare; Public relations disaster – makes officials looking like they are exploiting players and fans for greater profits; Dilutes content and damages heritage.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: JAMES MALONEY (Sydney Roosters, Country & NSW)

James Maloney/wikipedia
James Maloney/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD

HERE’S the thing about James Maloney. Call it a life lesson, if you wish.

If you believe what you read, his brashness hurt him in Melbourne. He walked into the joint and treated superstars like he had known them all his life, taking the Mickey out of professionals who weren’t really even sure who he was.

They didn’t like it, so the story goes. But he didn’t change.

And four years later it was the very same qualities – brashness, confidence – that got him selected for NSW for all three Origin games of the series and made him the first Blues five-eighth to ever win on debut.

It would be easy to describe it as an example to all of us who are put under pressure to change. The example being, “don’t”. A-List sets out to discover if it’s all that simple.

“I suppose I’m not too shy in meeting people and things like that,” Maloney, who was 22 when he was at the Storm in 2009, says as we sit down in the foyer of the Coogee Crowne Plaza

“It never sort of phased me. There’re a few stories from the Melbourne days that have been reported and they’re a bit glorified, I think, but they’re based on truth. There’s some truth to them.

“It was all just … I walk in, I am who I am and that’s the way it was. I got on with a lot of the boys down there – sweet. I suppose when I first got in, they might have been like that but I have a good relationship with most of the boys down there.”

Maloney played only four first grade games for the Storm but one of them was his proudest moment. He made his debut two months after his father, country football star Brian, died following a long illness. It was Brian who encouraged Maloney to join the Storm.

The decisions to join the Warriors and then to sign with Sydney Roosters a year in advance, however, “Jimmy” made on his own. They required confidence – a quality that may have rubbed some in Melbourne the wrong way – and they have borne fruit. Spectacularly so.

James doesn’t seem a huge fan of this subject, his supposed cockiness, but he admits it has helped him in recent times.

“I think that being confident and backing your ability and that … I think that’s a big part of how you go on the field and I suppose coming into an arena like State Of Origin, there’s so many quality players around that you can’t afford to be overawed,” he says, through a lips that are only just healing from a horrible laceration suffered in Townsville.

“….otherwise you’re not going to be there long. Playing in the halves, it’s part of the territory. You’ve got to be able to control things and push blokes around the park and tell them what to do so, yeah, I suppose it helps being like that.”

Maloney’s story so far is one of a man who may not have reached his current heights if not for taking the right turn at various intersections. Then again, other choices may have led him to greater success, earlier, too.

Geography – Orange to Ourimbah to western Sydney and onto Melbourne and Auckland – played a role. So too, as things turn out, did climate.

“I was born in Orange and then when I was 10, moved to the Central Coast and grew up there,” he says. “We were at Orange and a few of mum’s brothers were on the Central Coast and she had family in Newcastle. I think they were sick of the cold out there. They wanted to get closer to the coast so that was the main reason.

“I first came into Sydney through North Sydney. My last year, in the 20s, I came down and played with North Sydney

“Under 9s was my last year out at Orange then obviously I grew up playing at St Edwards Ourimbah on the Central Coast. It was a school (side) but they also had a club side on the weekend.

“Sport, as a kid … you love playing sport and dad being a footballer, he used to coach me through a lot of my early years. You just sort of fell into it I suppose. I always wanted to play footy. Mum wouldn’t let me when I was real young.

“It wasn’t until under eights, not until I was eight. “

Maloney was in the fulltime squad at Parramatta in his first year there, 2007. But an ankle injury put paid to that campaign. “It was my first real injury and, being a young bloke, I sort of stuffed around with it and didn’t take the rehab and the physio as seriously as I should have,” he concedes.

So the next year, he found himself with feeder team Wentworthville. “We had Joey Galuvao, Jeremy Latimore, Brod Wright, Johnno Wright. We’re still good mates,” he recalls.

“I had a couple of games where I was on standby to make my (NRL) debut but it didn’t quite happen. I think, at the time, I thought I was playing good enough footy to earn a crack. I was off contract, (Michael Hagan) wanted me to stay but the opportunity in Melbourne came up. I spoke to my old boy about it and he was pretty keen. We looked at it and he said ‘there’re not many footballers that go to down to Melbourne and don’t improve as footballers’ and that was sort of the reason for going there.”

He was close to an Origin call-up a number of times in his three years at the Warriors (2010-12). Maloney’s signing with the Roosters with a year left at Mt Smart prompted widespread debate on the current rules regarding transfers.

“I don’t like the fact that you can change your mind,” he says, when asked about the NRL’s refusal to register a contract any earlier than June 30 the previous year.

“I think that’s pretty ordinary. I think that if you’re going to do something, that’s what you do. Signing 12 months out, that’s a hard thing. There’s no real … I haven’t come across a perfect system. They tried the June 30 and I think everyone knew there was plenty (of negotiation) going on before June 30. As soon as June 30 hit, there were 20 contracts being registered on that day, so it’s a hard thing to police. If you’re going 12 months out, being able to change your mind and renege and all that is a bit … it causes dramas. Personally, it didn’t bother me signing 12 months out.

“I had security for the next year plus three on top of that so I had four years sorted out. It’s good to know, now with kids and a family, you’ve got to plan things. If I was going to Queensland, I can’t just pick up and move. So as far as the players are concerned, I think it works for them.”

The Roosters did try to get him to cross the ditch early. “We asked the Warriors and they said ‘no, you’re here for your contract’ and that was the end of it”.

As we said earlier, it was be easy to contend Maloney’s refusal to be anything other than team joker has served him well. But he does seem to have toned it down. At the Warriors he would try to distract team-mates who were being interviewed.

At the Roosters and the NSW camp, he’s more….respectful.

Despite what this story may have been trying to argue up til now, Maloney says listening to criticism is important. So is filtering the brickbats that are constructive from those that are not.

“I think there’s a mix,” he says, when pressed.

“You don’t want to be a person who says ‘this is me, beat it. That’s my way of doing things’ but I think in general I’m an easy person to get along with.

“I think, everywhere you go in terms of different clubs, footballers, they’re all very similar. Whether you know them before you get there, it doesn’t take long before you form those bonds.”

Still a life lesson, then. Just not a cliché…

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

BONDI BEAT: August 2013

RLW August 2013By STEVE MASCORD

IT is 11.12pm and I am sitting in the Suncorp Stadium press box surrounded by half-empty bottles, programmes covered in scribble and colleagues who are concentrating intently and attempting to meet deadlines that I’m pretty sure they won’t.

This is the only copy I will file from Origin II, which finished in a 24-6 win to Queensland over New South Wales.

I am convinced I saw history tonight. I hope I did. And I feel like I am surrounded by people who insist the world is flat. I almost typed “By Copernicus” at the top of this column.

(The disciplinary just came through. Justin Hodges contrary conduct no suspension, Trent Merrin striking one week if guilty, Billy Slater cleared, in case you were interested).

As I sit here, I am thinking about how tonight may be remembered. This could be a landmark year for our game, regardless of what happens at the World Cup. This, 2013, could be The Year Rugby League Cleaned Up Its Act.

The night before the World Club Challenge, what seems an eon ago, I attended a fans night at Headingley where everyone was up in arms (well, if they used their arms, it wouldn’t be a problem) about the banning of the shoulder charge.

Firstly, I tried to explain, there are legal implications to ignoring the blanket advice of doctors. Secondly, society is slowly becoming more gentrified. Last year before the Autumn Internationals game in Hull, your correspondent visited York where I learned the racecourse had been positioned to take advantage of the crowds who already attended the executions.

It was a double-header – the races following the one that rolled into a basket.

I am convinced, dear reader, that in two or three centuries, rugby league itself will be banned as too brutal and violent. Think about it – in the same time period we have stopped finding the spectacle of seeing someone hung, drawn and quartered a bit of a giggle.

In the meantime, it’s down to how we manage our steady demise along with other body contact sports. Do we want to become like UFC – a sport played only at the top level by highly trained professionals who risk life and limb for our amusement? Or do we want to continue to compete with other mainstream sports as a pastime for participants?

It’s a decision we had to come to eventually. The boffins at NRL Central were faced with it after Origin 1, when Paul Gallen stiff-armed Nate Myles and then punched him repeatedly in the head.

Think about it. A completely new administration. An interstant competition that had always been run on a nudge and a wink and one which turned over a massive profit.

A dilemma for sure and an outsider, Welsh banker David Smith, effectively had to decide between giving up on mums and dads and showing a “don’t try this at home” PSA before State of Origin, or rebuilding a bridge between junior football and the professionals that collapsed in Australia a couple of decades ago.

He chose the latter, saying he wouldn’t tolerate the series turning into a “rolling brawl”. And the referees’ coach, Daniel Anderson, said anyone who threw a punch in the second game of the series would be sent to the sin bin.

But with tensions simmering over Gallen, who stayed on the field after his “indiscretion” in Sydney but was suspended for one match, how would the referees handle it if there was an all-in brawl?

There were whispers that the players would muddy the waters by all rushing in if things got, as Stevo would put it, “tasty”.

But until the 54th minute, it looked like we wouldn’t find out. When tensions rose until that point, players grabbed each other by the jersey and jostled.

But then Brent Tate pushed Trent Merrin, the Blues forward – yes – punched him and players rushed in as if that had been the plan all along. How they reacted moved the goalposts when it comes to violence in rugby league.

From my perspective, I hope they’ve been moved forever.

Four players – Tate, Merrin, Greg Bird and Justin Hodges – were sent to the sin bin. Bird and Hodges were dispatched for rushing in, Tate for starting the whole thing. Merrin actually did what they had all been warned not to and punched someone.

The Queenslanders were pointed off first – and I’m sure a rain of beer cans straight out of the 1980s would have ensued if they were still selling the things.

The reaction from commentators like Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis said “this is Origin, I can’t believe it” while rival coach Mal Meninga and Laurie Daley called for the NRL to re-examine its stance and Gallen described events as “embarrassing”.

“No-one goes out there to fight but it’s a tough game,” said Daley.

I found myself shaking my head, thinking “they just don’t get it. It’s not 1988 anymore”.

A straw poll of journalists as they left this press box (leaving me alone now, at your service, dear reader) found only one who agreed with me. He is a pugilist of some note and said “I watch boxing to see people hit each other. These blokes can’t fight. I watch football to see football”.

One of the others, who I won’t name because he didn’t know he would be quoted, said ‘Mascy, what if they do all this to win back the kids, they don’t come, and all the fans are lost in the meantime?”

But that’s not the point, see? Blokes who are not wearing boxing gloves standing in the middle of a packed stadium punching the bejesus out of each other while drunken bloodthirsty hoons cheer is UNCIVILISED. It’s sub-human. If we saw it on the streets, we should be horrified.

And if we’re not, our children and grandchildren will be.

It’s just wrong.

To me Johns, Daley, Lewis and Meninga may as well have been denying an object heavier than air can fly or that the sun is at the centre of the solar system. How the referees acted tonight (OK, poor Tatey copped the rough end of the pineapple) is self-evidently the way our society and our sport is going.

As I got in the lift to come back to the press box, a colleague told me he saw ARLC chairman John Grant talking intently to operations manager Nathan McGuirk in a small operations room down below.

It’s entirely possible the League will backpedal in the face of pressure from coaches, players and the media. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. It means they lack the requisite cohunes for the time being.

There is no putting the cleaning up of our game into reverse.

Rugby league is the second or third most popular sport in Australia with regard to television ratings and attendances but ranks seventh for participants.

Why? One, because it is a hard sport to play. That’s not going to change. But two, because it is dangerous and violent and parents don’t want their kids to play it.

This afternoon I spoke to the chairman of a Brisbane Queensland Cup club who said young players were increasingly coming from poor areas with participation rates in affluent suburbs dropping off alarmingly in recent years.

Young Polynesians from modest backgrounds see the game as a career option, maybe one of few before them. Are they the only people we want in our game in future – youngsters who put pressure on themselves to succeed that in a couple of sad cases this year became intolerable?

If we still want people to play rugby league for fun, then tonight had to happen and I’m glad I was here to see it.

Goodnight all. It’s 12:41am. See you at Wembley.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD