BONDI BEAT: December 2014

December 2014BBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S not overstating things that there has been something of a paradigm shift in out game as a result of the recently-completed Four Nations.

I have a favourite saying about the warring factions within our game: the parochial populists and the outward-looking anoraks: if the meek are to inherit the earth, then the geeks will get rugby league.

And with Jarryd Hayne, Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess walking out on us all at the same time, the non-geeks are finally starting to get it. Fencing ourselves off and resigning ourselves to always being a regional sport just isn’t an option.

It never has been, but they couldn’t see that.

It works like this: the NFL and Major League Baseball and European soccer bring their teams to our doorsteps and try to make money from us. The money we usually give them would otherwise have gone to sports that were locally traditional, like rugby league.

As globalisation steps up a gear and networked media becomes the norm. those traditional local sports will either continue to lose bigger slices of their market share, or they can go into the markets of other sports and steal something back.

There will eventually be no local sports, local music or local arts. There will just be sport, music and art. The very real long-term choice rugby league has is to be a sport, or be nothing.

That rugby union international between the United States and New Zealand recently was astonishing: 65,000 people watching something that has no history in that society was a watershed moment, up there with the NFL at Wembley.

Sonny Bill Williams went straight from our loving embraced to playing before 140,000 on successive weekends in Chicago and London. Wow.

The ignoramuses can no longer deny that expansion is essential for our game’s survival, and that international competition provides us with the best vehicle to carry us down that road.

Now. Plenty of people commenting on rugby league in Australia and New Zealand are general sports followers rather than devotees of our game. Normally, they should be summarily ignored in talking about our battles with other sports, because it’s a war in which they have invested nothing.

But even some of these cynics are finally admitting that the club season is too long, that international football has enormous potential and that – God forbid – Australia should actually be playing next year.

We have Samoa to thank for this breakthrough. We have been searching for a credible fourth nation for a generation. Eligibility laws should naturally accommodate Samoa as a result, allowing State of Origin players to represent them.

That’s the plan: for Origin players to be free to represent tier two countries, but not New Zealand or England.

Secondly, the Four Nations was on the way out with one – at most – planned between 2017 and 2021. We may have to rethink that now. And what happens when the invited country finishes above one of the big three – and we kick them out of the next Four Nations anyway?

Thirdly, it would seem we don’t need big stars to successfully promote an international series any longer. Australia were missing 12 World Cup stars and still attract great crowds in Brisbane, Melbourne and Wollongong.

The Geek Revolution has begun.

THIS column is called Bondi Beat, which means it is supposed to be about Australian rugby league. From time to time we write about how British rugby league looks from Bondi (like, you really have to squint to see it).

Taking those parameters into account, writing about England’s Four Nations campaign may seem a bit of a stretch. For a start, the closest game to Bondi was in Wollongong, which for the hipsters around the seaside suburb may as well be Sierra Leone.

But what the heck. We’re going to make some observations anyway.

England were probably the best team to watch in the tournament, just edging Samoa. They played with daring and skill and speed and seemed to create overlaps on the fringes of opposition defences with ease.

They have solved their problems in the halves. Matty Smith and Gareth Widdop are an accomplished pairing. Kallum Watkins is all class, Josh Charnley and Ryan Hall were outstanding and the Burgess boys plus Jason Graham make for a ferocious pack.

Daryl Clark enhanced his reputation.

They lost for the same reasons all emerging teams at any level do so. You have to pay your dues to rugby league karma. Good, emerging teams, always hit a “luck wall”. If they stick at what they’re doing, they burst through the other side.

With Josh Hodgson in mind, maybe we should call it a “luck door”.

I’ve thought long and hard about Steve McNamara’s claims to keep his post. I’ve come to this conclusion: they had want to have someone very good lined up as a replacement if they are going to punt him.

I didn’t agree with much of what he did from a PR point of view at the World Cup but there is ample evidence his team is building up to something very worthwhile on the pitch.

.

SO just who is Mike Miller, the American rugby union official who turned down our top job – the CEO of the Rugby League International Federation?

Before he was at the IRB, Miller was head of sport at the BBC. That did not go well – complaints against him from his own staff were leaked to the Mirror.

In rugby union he seemed to do well. He got the sport back into the Olympics, expanded the Sevens, boosted the women’s game and introduced a strategic investments programme.

The World Olympians Association, where he is now CEO, seems a rather cushy job. The man who had the casting vote in offering the job to him was an outside consultant, with Australia’s David Smith and the RFL’s Nigel Wood deadlocked on the issue.

To say it was a blow to Wood that Miller took his time responding, and then declined, is a gross understatement.

Members of the appointments committee were so busy with their own backyards during the interview process that they repeatedly broke appointments.

So when they finally got around to offering Miller the job, he took his time in responding. And presumably, he was not overly impressed with what he was being asked to get involved in.

But the committee doesn’t seem to have its act together since, either. You would have thought they would have gone to the second best candidate, offered it to him, and got on with things. If that did happen, then things have since ground to a halt again.

Rugby league is not a member of Sports Accord and it does not have tax exempt status. Given that it doesn’t even have a CEO, you could argue it doesn’t deserve either.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

FIVE LESSONS FROM THE 2014 FOUR NATIONS

photo (2)By STEVE MASCORD

SAM Devereux was a referee. He would wear a cap during matches, which made him look almost exactly like AC/DC singer Brian Johnson, fresh out of a time machine.

Referee Sam Devereaux/Photo: Otago Witness
Referee Sam Devereux/Photo: Otago Witness

In 1928, the expatriot Englishman controlled a rugby league Test at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin. Until the just-completed Four Nations, it was the most recent Test played in the coastal South Island city.

A former Leigh and St Helens player, Devereux had settled in New Zealand and become the chief plumbing inspector for Dunedin City Council.

We were actually better at appointing neutral referees for internationals in 1928 than we are now. Phil Bentham, who controlled the New Zealand-England game at the magnificent Forsyth Barr Stadium on November 8, was also from Leigh – but unlike Devereux, had no connection at all with the Shaky Isles.

And had Bentham wanted to send off a Burgess during that gripping 16-14 Kiwis victory, he had two to chose from.

Our man Sam dismissed English forward Bill Burgess back in ’28. Despite this, England won – but Sam (Devereux, not Burgess) received a bad review for waiting too long to act.

He never controlled another game, quitting the sport entirely. His descendants told the story to the Otago Times as Test football returned to Dunedin for the first time in 86 years last month.

Why kick off this Four Nations review with such an obscure anecdote?

The story illustrates that some things don’t change in rugby league and other things change dramatically – and which ‘things’ are which is almost completely random, because very few people in the game have a long-term perspective on events.

The 2014 Four Nations has the capacity to prompt a paradigm shift for our sport, away from the parochial focus on club football, away from the belief that we can’t survive without our superstars, away from the idea that player burnout cannot be resolved, away from squeezing every last bit of juice out of the heartland orange.

But when that Test was played in Dunedin in 1928, there had been one just four years before. There was no reason to suspect they would have to wait another 86 years.

We either learn from things or we don’t. It’s up to us if we take anything of value away from the fantastic Four Nations, which finished with the Kiwis winning a gripping final, 22-18 over Australia at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium on November 15.

Here are the things we should remember, or else this clipping will be used as another historical oddity in the year 2100 when we go back to Dunedin again.

  1. INTERNATIONAL SPORT IS BIGGER THAN ANY INDIVIDUALWITHOUT Billy Slater, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Burgess, Anthony Milford, Johnathan Thurston, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, James Roby, Justin Hodges and the rest, the 2014 Four Nations was tipped to be “a yawn”. Yet 47,813 saw Samoa push England all the way and New Zealand thrash Australia at Suncorp Stadium to kick things off. The 25,093 attendance at the final made it a record-drawing Four Nations tournament. The reason is simple: in the eyes of the general public – as opposed to rugby league fanatics – international sport sits above club sport and always win. It has a lure all of its own; the jumper is more important than the face.
  2. amazonRUGBY LEAGUE CAN BE SOLD OUTSIDE THE BIG CAPITALSA RUGBY league tournament in Australasia without a single match in Sydney or Auckland? It worked. This occurs in tandem with the previous point: international competition helps us reach exactly the people who are somewhat immune to our charms as a club sport. The 18,456 crowd at WIN Stadium on November 9 for Australia-Samoa was the biggest for any event in Wollongong this year. On top of – literally – the 16,912 at Whangarei’s Toll Stadium for New Zealand-Samoa on November 1 were two people up a tree. And of course, we returned to Dunedin after a rather long absence. Test football can widen our horizons within countries that already play the game, by giving us credibility that teams representing suburbs can never provide.4. 3. OUR SPORT COULD, AND SHOULD, BE MORE ENTERTAININGHISTORICALLY, rugby league swings from attack-focus to defence-obsession. The Four Nations should trigger a swing back towards attack – it sometimes embarrassed  the NRL as being safety-first, structured and beset with wrestling. The Kiwis, in particular, seem to relish playing against anyone but Australia, and discarding the percentages in favour of skill, speed, and daring. Their games against Samoa and England were epics. But coach Stephen Kearney has made them adaptable, too: they can beat the Aussies at their own game and did so on consecutive occasions for the first time since 1953. But Samoa and England were arguably better to watch than the finalists. We need to incentivise entertaining play and discourage five hit-ups and a kick.

    4. SAMOA ARE (MAYBE) OUR FOURTH COMPETITIVE NATION

    donate2AT the 1995 World Cup, Wales played England at an Old Trafford semi-final that attracted 30,042 people – including busloads of fans from the Valleys who have long since forgotten us. The English won by the respectable – for the Welsh – score of 25-10. In 2000, the Welsh led Australia at halftime in their semi. Yet the Dragons have not kicked on and we should be wary of getting carried away with Samoa for the same reason. Nonetheless, in their worst showing they were still 20 points better than in their only previous match against Australia. With Anthony Milford on board, it is reasonable to suggest they may have beaten England and New Zealand. The Kiwis need local, competitive opposition because internationals are the only way they make money. They may well have found an enduring new rivalry.

    5. THE CANCELLATION OF THE 2015 LIONS TOUR WAS POINTLESS

    TOP State of Origin players wanted next spring off to rest their weary bones. But a whole heap of them – 12 from Australia’s winning 2013 World Cup squad – took this year off as well! We had a successful, competitive tournament without them. If another 12 cried off in 2015 and the dozen unavailable this year returned, logic dictates Australia would be no more or less competitive against the first Lions tourists in 23 years – who were told to stay home. Great Britain were to play tour games in the bush, travel from Brisbane to Sydney by bus and maybe provide the first-ever opposition for the proposed Pacific All Stars. What a terrible waste of an opportunity. Now tours are supposed to be returning – after the 2017 World Cup – just when the Four Nations finally comes into its prime. There is enormous pressure on Scotland in 2016 to match the feats of Matt Parish’s Samoans.

  3. Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEKaddtext_com_MjAzNTE5NjcwMzQ2

THE JOY OF SIX: International Season Week Seven

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD
McNAMARA STAYS
ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara has been retained. When asked by Set of Six what process would determine who has the job next year, Rugby Football League chief executive Nigel Wood told us: “There is no process because there is no vacancy. Steve is 12 months into a two year contract.” When McNamara joined Sydney Roosters at the start of the year and his RFL contract was renegotiated, no term was made public. What of Australia’s Tim Sheens? He would no doubt be seeking a three year extension to take him though to the next World Cup. His old protege Mal Meninga could be an alternative candidate. Sheens said Australia only had one Test next year – even though the TV contract demands two

amazonSIONE SHATTERED
THERE was a touching moment on the field at fulltime on Saturday night when some Australian team staff had a whisper in the ear of captain Cameron Smith to let him know winger Sione Matautia was doing it tough. Matautia could easily have been the hero with a last-ditch try that was called back for a forward pass but was no doubt upset at the performance of opposite number Manu Vatuvei. Smith comforted Matautia in concert with some team-mates. We can’t remember Australia ever fielding a player with fewer than 10 games experience against a man with almost 200 – with the foreigner plying his trade in what was once the “Sydney premiership”!

DONT GET CARRIED AWAY WITH SAMOA
WOOD is also the chairman of the Rugby League International Federation and he has warned against getting carried away with the performance of Samoa in the Four Nations. There are calls for an annual New Zealand-Samoa three-Test series at Origin time. “Our priority must be to construct a clear, fair fixture calendar for all member countries,” Wood said, “Sometimes it is tempting to a react to a good one-off Test performance but only 12 months ago we all thought Fiji were clearly our number four country. We have to look beyond knee jerk reactions, our priority is to build countries four to eight,” Wood gave little away regarding the quest for an RLIF CEO, aside from saying the search was “on-going”. He said the much-vaunted 12-year calendar would be from 2018 to 2029, with the next two seasons already settled,

COMICAL STRIP
THE aftermath of the final was something of a strip show, with some Australian players throwing everything into the crowd by their jocks, Sam Thaiday emerged for the dressingrooms with his entire kit back and began flinging its contents into the terraces like an automatic sprinkler. Cameron Smith, Greg Bird and Greg Inglis were also very generous, The Kiwis performed a post-game hake and then returned to the ground when it was empty to reflect on the victory, as is now customary. They must have got a shock when the cleaning staff started shouting and applauding them as they stood in a circle some time around midnight.
JOHNSON STANDS UP
donate2SHAUN Johnson was so excited at fulltime he dropped the F-bomb on Triple M. The former touch footballer was probably man of the tournament and really came of age over the last month and a bit. He also made an interesting statement at the media conference: it was the first time he had been part of a team that had set a goal and them achieved it. That realisation will mean a lot for the Warriors in 2015 – Johnson could become an all time great. It was the first of the Kiwis’ four tournament victories over the last nine years to be registered in front of a home crowd and the first back-to-back wins against Australia since 1953.

2014 AND ALL THAT

THIS is the last Set of Six for 2014, although Discord will continue during the break. Where has the year left us? Some of rugby league’s problems can be solved, others can’t. Young men will always misbehave. Bigger, more wealthy sports will always poach players. Most of our solvable problems are a result of parochialism and self-interest. There are signs that these flaws are finally being addressed: the game is becoming more inclusive, there is a growing realisation there are too many teams in Sydney and the importance of international competition is finally dawning on even the most conservative commentators and administrators. We are getting more people of influence who don’t rely on the game as a meal ticket and who can therefore act with a greater degree of altruism. Onwards and upwards. See you in 2015.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

The Amazing Rise Of Ben Hunt

Hunt, Ben2By STEVE MASCORD

BEN Hunt has read too much negativity about a particular subject to really enjoy talking about it. So when he is asked about it, he tends to give short, polite, somewhat defensive answers.

That subject is: himself.

“Before the season started, a lot of people wrote me off,” the Brisbane Broncos player of the year tells Rugby League Week ahead of the Four Nations kick-off this Friday.

“People were saying ‘he’s going to be no good’ at halfback.. So I just tried to go out there and do what I could. I’ve learned not to read too much into things. There are always rumours and speculation and opinion.

“You can’t take it too seriously. You’ve just got to get on with your life.”

And this 24-year-old’s life is worth exploring, regardless of how expansive or not he chooses to be in discussing it. From being stuck at hooker to being struck by the sacking of ‘Hook’, it’s a rip roaring yarn of succeeding in one of the most famous jerseys in the game when just every every9one – as outlined above – said he couldn’t.

But it’s when we move away from the story of B Hunt that the St Brendan’s Yeppoon junior starts to loosen up. It’s when we move onto the top du jour, one J Hayne, that walls come down.

“I’ve only spoken to Matty Gillett about it, just last night, and he thinks it’s crazy but also very, very exciting – like, good on him,” Hunt says, suddenly sounding like a bloke having a mag over the back fence.

“It would be a massive thing for him to make it but he is freak athlete.

“I think it does have a broader meaning. Other players do look to other sports, like rugby union, to prove that they can do something different, play something else, and the NFL is one of the biggest competitions in the world.

“These days, you play your five or six years of rugby league and then you’re looking for a change, to challenge yourself and prove you can do it. Like, in union, you can play all around the world and see all these other countries.”

amazonHayne’s shock departure has, of course, led to claims that rugby league could have been better protected against this trend if it had done more to expand since its inception in 1895. Hunt reckons this would help retain some players, but not all.

“For some guys, yes,” he explains. “They do change for the lifestyle so if they could travel around the world or something, they might stay in league.

“But for others it’s about testing themselves. They want to prove they can make it in another sport, that’s their reason.”

Hunt agrees that the internet and the globalisation of media has resulted in players looking beyond the NRL and beyond rugby league for role models.

“The world has changed,” he said. “People are getting married later …. There are so many options out there and because others have done it, there are opportunities to play other sports.”

Perhaps our players feel comfortable talking about what lies beyond the game’s borders because no coach or CEO is going to hold it against them.

Internally, politics creates a maze for interviewees.

The entire Brisbane first grade squad was loyal to coach Anthony ‘Hook’ Griffin. When he was sacked in late July, they halfback’s form suffered and he considered throwing himself on the open market.

“We all got called in for a meeting with Hook and Paul White but there were rumours around, we knew what was going on,” said Hunt.

donate2“Paul White explained to us what was happening. It was pretty upsetting. Many of us had been with him since under 20s, he was the reason we were there at the club.

“He had faith in me when pretty much no-one else did so I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Hunt’s father, Geoff, said this was the time his son came closest to leaving the Broncos. Frustrated at the treatment meted out to Griffin, he said he was willing to test his value on the open market.

“I spoke to a couple of people, had a talk about what other clubs might be able to offer,” he recalled.

“But I didn’t look into it too much. It was in the back of my mind. There were a number of reasons (why I didn’t).

“I like living in Brisbane. My partner’s always been with me here. I think the club has a good future, I think Wayne Bennett will be good.”

When Brisbane were eliminated from the premiership race by North Queensland on the first weekend of the finals, Hunt was not expecting much. “I thought ‘footy’s over, time to relax, take it easy, get away.”

Instead, after polling well in the Dally Ms with votes (but Daly Cherry Evans beating him into the team of the year on five fewer votes), things have got a little crazy post-season for the Rockhampton-born footballer.

At the Broncos presentation night, he was named player of the year by a clear margin. He took out the fans’ favourite, the best back and players’ player.

Straight from the Brisbane Convention Centre, he travelled to the airport and onto Cairns for an overnight stay, before continuing to Kokopo and a starring role in the Australian Prime Ministers XIII’s 34-16 win over PNG.

(“What sticks out in my mind is how hard they hit … they tackle full-blast – and how passionate the fans are, they know everything about you”)

He was out of camp before the Four Nations long enough move into a new house.

At the Broncos presentation, club CEO Paul White publically thanked Hunt for not testing his value on the open market – but recounted a story of the no.7 getting his message across regarding negotiations by rewriting a Status Quo song at a barbecue.

Hunt explains: “There was a barbecue over at Anthony Griffin’s house and a few of us were in the middle of negotions.

“Anyway, a few of the boys started singing ‘Down, down, prices are down’.”

Hunt reveals this year is not the first time in his five years at the club that he thought about leaving. When he was stuck at hooker, a position he disliked, “I had a bit of a talk to a few people.

“There were some clubs …. A couple in Sydney, some in other places. But I was facing the same thing I had in Brisbane. I would have to force my way in and take someone else’s position.”

Success means more to Ben Hunt because he’s had to work at it, play out of position and prove a lot of people wrong. Arguably, he represents Anthony Griffin’s lasting legacy at the club.

“You see some players, they come straight out of the blocks as soon as they come into first grade,” he says. “Yeah, it does mean more, that it didn’t happen like that for me.”

Ben Hunt had better get used to reading some good things about himself.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

uklqFq1414565478