By 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
By 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.
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.
THANKS for last week’s comments.