Five Things We Learned: 2015 NRL Nines

dick-smith-nrl-auckland-ninesBy STEVE MASCORD

SOUTH SYDNEY CAN SURVIVE THE DEPARTURE OF SAM BURGESS

IT’S hazardous to make judgments on premiership candidacy in February and bordering on delusional to do so after a nines tournament. But it wasn’t so much South Sydney’s 18-14 win over Cronulla in a wonderfully offbeat final as little pieces of body language that foreshadowed a robust title defence. Dylan Walker approached defenders with an arrogance in his gait that indicated he knew he could beat them – then did. Adam Reynolds did the same kick over and over again, knowing it would eventually work. Issac Luke lifted a trophy after missing the grand final through suspension and simultaneously declared his elation and downplayed the reason for it. Is there a better way to transition from a championship to its defence than by winning three trophies in the intervening pre-season? Glory, Glory, Glory and finally, Glory.

RUGBY LEAGUE’S STAR REMAINS ALOFT IN AUCKLAND

RUGBY league would no more lose face in New Zealand because of misbehaving players and absent stars than the same reasons would damage the Premier League’s or NFL’s IP in Australia. More than a quarter-century after the Winfield Cup first burst onto Kiwi TV screens, the competition has a sheen of glamour on this side of the Tasman that has too often been tarnished in its birthplace. Local fans supported all teams but reserved their most cacophonous reception for the Warriors and the Kiwi Ferns women’s side, who won a three-match nines series against Australia. The tournament is locked in for five years; reading between the lines, the NRL wants to add teams and the organisers would rather not.

SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED AT CRONULLA, OTHERS HAVEN’T

COACH Shane Flanagan walked out of a close-season media opportunity when he was repeatedly asked about the ASADA controversy and many doubts have been expressed about whether anything has really changed in the Shire. The words and deeds of the Sharks at Eden Park strongly suggest they have. The “new culture” mentioned by Tinarau Arona in one interview was well represented by the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes, among others. But the Sharks are still luckless, cruelly denied in the final despite some defensive heroics and losing Nu Brown for possibly the season with a knee injury. He’ll have surgery on Monday.

THERE were enough stuff-ups in the absence of the video ref to for him not to be worrying about his future employment prospects. Jarrod Mullen succeeded in dispossessing an opponent in-goal but the try was given, Bodene Thompson was denied a touchdown for a team-mate’s knock-on-that-wasn’t and there were more. But the old Super League rule of giving the man (or men, or women) upstairs limited time to do their thang might have merit. The lack of stoppages was refreshing. Another bonus: players interviewed about officiating errors at the Nines did not know they had been dudded because they had not had time to watch the replays themselves!

NINES RUGBY LEAGUE IS NOT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL – AND THAT’S OK

MORE than 16 hours of rugby league will test even the most voracious treiziste and virtually no-one who passes through the gates at the NRL Nines watches every minute of every game. It’s de rigueur for league fans to pontificate about how superior a spectacle their sport is but even caviar and champagne get tedious if they are shoved down your throat every two minutes for an entire weekend. That’s OK. Dress up as a naughty nun, buy a pre-mixed bourbon and coke and punch that inflatable ball back up into the air. The Nines is about the party more than it’s about the football and is definitely best served with a beverage.

Filed for: THE GUARDIAN

DISCORD 2014: Edition Seven

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

CROSS-code challenges, nines tournaments and players defections; are we at a fork in the road of evolution of the rugby codes, or are these developments no more than fodder for the daily news cycle?
This week we’ve seen Sam Burgess defect to rugby union, calls for nines tournaments to be held everywhere but the moon (give them time) and now Salford announce a cross-code challenge with Sale for August 26.
None of these developments is completely new – players have been switching to union since that code became openly professional, nines tournaments have been played for 20 years and cross-code challenges have also been staged before.
But it is the conflence of factors behind these developments that could amount to a discernible trend.
One, Sonny Bill Williams’ example points to elite players crisscrossing sports and signing short-term deals which maximise their earning potential, profile and personal motivation.
Whereas fulltime professionalism was seen as demanding specialisation and killing off the all rounder, we have now seen the emergence of individualistic, exceptional athletes who see being an all rounder as the peak of a sporting Everest.
If you change the rules, athleticism will eventually catch up and overtake the legislators.
Two, private ownership and external entrepreneurs offer the chance for sports to go beyond the traditional income sources of broadcast rights, sponsorship and gate receipts.
Until now, pro sports were locked into a cycle of courting sponsors, selling memberships and flogging broadcast rights to the highest bidder.
But now consortia such as DUCO in Auckland and the Dubai businessmen who want to stage a nines tournament can provide a totally new income stream, as can venues and cities who are increasingly willing to bid for events in the way that previously only the Olympic locations were chosen.
Where can all this be leading?
Let’s extrapolate the trend of players changing codes more regularly. The more open and competitive the labour market place, the greater the pressure on individual sports to follow the AFL’s lead and centrally-contract players. NRL CEOS discussed this in Auckland last Friday; if one club identifies a rugby union player it wants to sign, it can apply for financial assistance from head office BUT every club has to have the chance to sign that player and make up the larger part of his total salary package.
As I have said previously, before we whinge about losing players we should reflect on how lucky we are that our most popular domestic sports are not played widely overseas. If Australian Rules or rugby league were big sports in the United States or western Europe, none of our best players would reside here.
Our glass is well over half full; our small, divided market does not really DESERVE to retain world’s-best talent at anything in pro sports.
Extrapolating the second trend, of outside entrepreneurs providing new income streams, it is reasonable to assume rugby league will have nines ‘specialists’ and year-round competition before long, and that broadcast rights will be more diverse with a portfolio of properties (NRL, pre-season, nines, domestic representative fixtures, World Club Challenge and internationals) spread more widely between competing television platforms.
More clubs will do what the Dragons have done and spread their games around a wide variety of venues; we’ll more further away from the traditional model of teams having one ‘home’ ground. There’s money to be made.
It’s not hard to have a stab at what could happen as a result of more interaction between the rugby codes at club level. If Salford and Sale were to aggressively sell sponsorship and advertising for several years of annual cross-code challenges, they may invite more clubs to be involved.
Then they could try to sell their own television rights and when threatened by the RFU and RFL, they could conceivably decide to go it alone and play an entire season of hybrid rugby, taking other clubs with them.
The main reason for there being two rugby codes was professionalism. That reason no longer exists. Hyper-professionalism could one day re-united the codes; cross code challenges create the market and demand for a third code which could conceivably kill off the other two through economies of scale.
If rugby league and rugby union officials don’t want that to happen, they’d be best advised to protect their intellectual property aggressively and impose draconian penalties on any clubs sleeping with the enemy.
It’s when a whole club does what Sam Burgess has just done that we’ll know the apocalypse is upon us.
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DISCORD is happy that the idea of a summer nines tournament, mooted here over the … um … summer, is now gaining widespread support.
But while our idea of having state teams, rather than clubs, in the Auckland Nines didn’t catch on, we certainly hope that any summer nines tournament doesn’t just include the same 16 NRL clubs.
A touring circuit, ala rugby sevens, should include all Australian states and territories. As Ben Elias says in League Week, it’s a great ‘soft landing’ for franchises earmarked for NRL inclusion.
But at the risk of being branded a scrooge of sorts, let’s not call Perth and Adelaide ‘new markets’ and the nines a ‘new concept’.
We had teams from Adelaide and Perth before – and stuffed it up. And we had nines in 1996 and ’97 – and gave up on the concept. Let’s get really excited with rugby league does something really new.

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THANKS for last week’s comments.
read on

Comment: The NRL Auckland Nines Must Expand

NRL NinesBy STEVE MASCORD
PROMOTERS of the Auckland Nines aren’t keen to add teams next year – but if the concept is to be of any lasting benefit to rugby league aside from generating truckloads of cash, the NRL must insist on it.
A full house at Eden Park yesterday saw nines league revived at the top level in the southern hemisphere after a 17-year absence and by almost any measure, it was a triumphant return.
Fans came dressed as everyone from Caligula to Steve Matai, they cheered like they were actually paying attention and Warriors stars Sam Tomkins and Shaun Johnson were so good it gave you goosebumps.
This was en event that had the hallmarks of something grand; guides meeting officials and media in their hotel lobbies, fleets of buses, closed streets and even a dedicated lane in customs at Auckland Airport.
In a country where rugby union reigns and some of the old vestiges of anti-league bigotry survive, the NRL Nines is the PR equivalent of a right hook to the temple of the other code.
There are those who say Auckland is actually ‘a league town’ – or close to becoming one, anyway.
But in the past month, people have slowly got their heads around the potential of Nines to expand the sport as a whole.  It beggars belief that most of us didn’t know until this week that rugby league nines is to be played at the Commonweath Games THIS year.
The game seems almost embarrassed about this.
We also have the Cabramatta Nines which showcases a host of international teams – this month, Canada sent a team – and annual tournaments in the north east of the United States and Las Vegas.
Nines has also been played recently in the UK, Germany and elsewhere and now Salford owner Marwan Koukash wants Super League’s Magic Weekend at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium turned into a Nines tournament.
But this new NRL administration is probably unaware of all that.
They have big plans and great expertise but a lack of perspective and knowledge on the state of the game outside their own big-buck Australasian bubble. It’s the same administration that decided on Friday to allow its clubs to raid Super League with transfer fees outside the cap, whereas if they raid each other, the fees are included.
And if there was one negative at Eden Park it was the thought of Wigan – one of our game’s most famous clubs – sitting in the grandstand getting suntans. They wanted to be out there. So, too, did Warrington and there are suggestions even cash-strapped Bradford were clamouring for a spot.
The NRL needs to identify whether it is promoting rugby league as a whole or just itself. And if it’s the former, it needs to determine how the Nines can assist in that objective. Nines will not help expand rugby league while we leave the Super League champions sitting in row G with a few bags of chips.
I understand my earlier idea of having state teams full of NRL stars in the Auckland Nines and using the tournament for some pre-season publicity in non-league states was a bit harebrained. Would the crowds have flocked yesterday to see the might of Tasmania take on the superstars of South Australia? Probably not.
But the NRL needs to get something out of the nines other than money. Underdogs, minnows and exotic combatants are part of the DNA of sevens and nines.  That’s where the charm lies – although many assume it is located behind the bar.
Turn the other tournaments into qualifiers for the NRL Nines and you have an international ‘circuit’ overnight, with a minimum outlay. From there, it’s not too far to see dedicated nines franchises. Why not allow Brad Fittler, Darren Lockyer and Steve Menzies to play for the Washington DC Slayers next year?
What are we so scared of? The fact that Wigan won the World Sevens in 1992, perhaps?
Filed for: SUN-HERALD