TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

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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 JOY OF SIX: Round 21

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

PILLAGED RAIDERS

DO the mechanisms which give us an even competition also give us even games, or are there completely different influences at work? Melbourne’s 68-4 win over Canberra was the eighth largest margin in premiership history. But the result was not the product of any obvious competitive disparity; Canberra had not lost a game at home all year and went into the match just three competition points behind their eventual pillagers. If you organised a soccer competition from scratch and made every team completely equal in strength, but then doubled the width of the goals, would margins still be bigger, or would we just have higher scores? Referees believe the crackdown on some slowing tactics in the ruck has saved many players from knee and ankle injuries. But it may have also made it easier to run up cricket scores with a smidgeon of momentum.

SENDING THE BILL

FORMER referee Bill Harrigan performed some consultancy work on live radio on Friday. After his side beat Penrith 42-6 at Centrebet Stadium, coach Trent Robinson said Sydney Roosters had been copping it in penalty counts for a best part of a decade. When Robinson was interviewed afterwards, Harrigan – a commentator on Triple M – told him: “I went with Ricky Stuart in 2004 when he was having problems and I identified, after looking at a few tapes, three players who we pulled aside and said ‘you three guys are giving away a certain amount of penalties per game … maybe you need to grab a referee” Robinson replied: “I was keen on asking you. Do you see trends there … or do you think it’s individuals?”. Harrigan said it was down to individuals. Robinson was then told by other commentators jokingly – that he if he wanted more from Harrigan “there will be a fee”.

DRESSED FOR THE NINES

phonto (1)Joy of Six hears that Warrington’s majority shareholder , ‘pop impresario” Simon Moran, wanted the Wolves to take part in the inaugural Auckland Nines but was turned down. Nines has major role to play in the expansion and promotion of rugby league but a tournament involving the 16 NRL clubs in Auckland in Februrary achieves only two things: promotes rugby league in New Zealand and earns the clubs a shedload of cash. Involving international sides, or dividing the teams into states plus the north and south islands on Origin grounds (Ben Barba for Northern Territory, Joel Reddy for SA etc), could have left a lasting legacy. A break for the All Star game won’t really do any harm and it is to be hoped a Polynesian side – perhaps in place of the NRL combination – can be incorporated when it returns in 2015.

TAKING A LEAK

IT’S been a big year for leaks. For a start, leaks have a new poster boy in Warriors front rower Russell Packer. Then there are those upset about the leaking of ASADA documents. North Queensland coach Neil Henry was dismayed members of the media knew about his fate before he did. Reporters know that most people who leak information aren’t like Edward Snowden; they are motivated by self-interest rather than altruism. If it’s someone in authority, that motivation is often that they wt to be seen to be doing something in the face of criticism. The reporter’s job is to sift through the spin and self-interest and draw out the raw information which is in the public interest – not to take sides with someone just because he or she has helped them. In the two examples listed above, the reporters have done their jobs and done them well.

HAILING A MEDICAB

IT can be an unsettling sight when a game is stopped for a long period while an apparently seriously injured player is carted from the field. There were three of them at the weekend. Cronulla centre Ben Pomeroy was knocked out as he hit the ground but not before setting up a try against the Warriors. Melbourne’s Maurice Blair was in a particularly bad way after his neck was hurt in Canberra and Gold Coast under 20s player Tom Rowles was also fitted with a neck brace and carried from Skilled Park on a medicbab on Sunday. Thankfully, Rowles was well enough to watch the rest of the game from the bench while Pomeroy was soon reasonably lucid although his memory of the incident was hazy. The Storm reportedly contacted Blair’s partner on Sunday night to assure her he was not seriously injured.

REPORTING THE REPORT

IS a referee required to tell a player why he has been placed on report? “What was it for?” Gold Coast’s Greg Bird asked Gavin Badger and Allan Shortall at Skilled Park after he was booked in the 56th minute of the 36-6 win over Wests Tigers. “Shoulder charge? High tackle? Late tackle.” “It’s been reviewed, it’s on report,” Badger replied. Despite the scoreline, Wests Tigers coach Michael Potter was also unhappy with the whistlers. “My concern was the actual penalties,” he said. “I looked at the replay and shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what they were for. You could certainly come up with some if you look close enough. A couple of the 50-50s … they weren’t penalties. That’s not the reason we lost but it contributed to the possession gain the other team had.”

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

DISCORD 2013: Edition 27

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

THE return of Saturday afternoon football will be confirmed on Wednesday with five games kicking off at 3pm (NSW) time to finish the regular season.
Discord has been told Melbourne will get their wish of a blockbuster game against South Sydney on Friday, August 9, at AAMI Park. The five Saturday afternoon games will include two at Mt Smart Stadium – which is really a 5pm kick-off, isn’t it?

Saturday afternoon has been vacant – handed over to the AFL – for years and Discord reckons it’s a great move to take them on again.
The draw for the final five rounds will be announced in the morning.

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THIS week, Discord would like to point out what could best be described as a “logic gap” in our policing of very different forms of misconduct in rugby league.
On one hand we have Billy Slater, who reportedly said “that’s one-all, c___” after an elbow to the face of Mitchell Pearce in Origin II – an act which was later determined by the match review committee to have been accidental.
Given the chance at a media call on Monday to deny his action had been intentional, Slater stopped short of doing so.
We would not dream of reopening a footy-oriented judicial case in our game due to something someone said, or didn’t say, at a later date.
Yet on the other hand, with have the ASADA investigation into drug use in rugby league which is based almost ENTIRELY on what people have allegedly said, or refuse to say. There is no video evidence or positive test results, just what people have said.
I have no ulterior motive in raising this, no overarching point to make. It just seems a big discrepancy that’s worth highlighting. And it shows how much more forgiving our little “Monopoly Board” justice system is in the NRL compared to the one out there in the big, bad world.
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FOR those of you who think rugby league fans should stop banging on about the French rugby union’s collusion with the Vichy government in World War II because we live in a much more enlightened world, there are constant reminders that in some parts of the world things haven’t improved much.
First there is the South African Olympic Committee’s continuing refusal to recognise rugby league as a separate sport to rugby union, and threats against local sports councils who do help the thirteen-man game.
Now there is even more shocking news from Morocco, where a British students team known as the “GB Pioneers” – the players pay their own way to development areas to promote the code – was prevented from playing by an embargo enforced by the local rugby union authorities.
Rugby League Express reported this week that the Royal Moroccan Rugby Federation stopped local firms from transporting the tourists and that police removed two journalists from a match against Casablanca XIII.
The following game was cancelled after an email from rugby union authorities threatened venues, referees and players.
Management told League Express that they were told police would stop the game going ahead if necessary, by physically removing the English players from the field.
As is South Africa, rugby league is not recognised as a separate sport to rugby union in Morocco. The aim of the tour was to help in the campaign to change that – and rugby union seems to have done all it could to prevent any progress.
This is why we need a more active RLIF.
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A READER had an interesting point about Sonny Bill Williams playing against Canterbury and Set Of Six’s call for mandatory reporting of all injuries, as happens in the NFL.
He said to me that no matter how much transparency was legislated by the NRL, cynics would still have questioned SBW’s injury and it would have made no difference.
Tell me what you think.
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COMMENTS time and if you’ll remember, there were a ton of them two weeks ago and last week’s column kind of got lost in the Origin rush.

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THE BIG ISSUE: #41

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

BY the time you read this, the first interviews involving NRL players and ASADA should have taken place.

The uproar over Friday’s Jon Mannah story is irrefutable evidence that this has gone on far too long. People with “inside knowledge” are saying the evidence gathered by the Australian Crime Commission is damning and the outcome will be every bit as bad as was forecast at that famous press conference all those months ago.

On balance, I would say that is probably correct. But what if it isn’t?

What if ASADA and the ACC don’t have enough evidence to prove more than a couple of cases of doping?

Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has openly admitted the distraction of the investigation has impacted on his team’s results this season.

Surely the very same legal team and other advisors who are now annoying Sharks and rugby league fans with their internal reports and sackings would then turn their attentions to taking action against the authorities who have ruined Cronulla’s season.

The stakes are high for Cronulla and rugby league over the next month or two. But they are also high for ASADA and the ACC, who the federal opposition say should be focusing on “real crime.”

At least something is actually happening now. But if ‘the blackest day’ turns out to be a blue, someone should pay for the red ink.

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ELSEWHERE in these pages, you’ll read that Warrington are dropping off the idea of signing Matt Bowen, perhaps because of his age and some persistent injuries.

I think the Wolves are making a mistake.

After being ordered to sit out the round six game against Brisbane, Bowen showed us more than a glimpse of what he’s still capable of on Saturday night against Canberra.

Warrington have a history of outstanding Australian imports that goes back to Brian Bevan, Harry Bath and beyond. They’re the only English club that Andrew Johns ever played for.

And I firmly believe the men who still stand around talking about ‘Bev’ in Warrington today might one day be replaced by those swapping yarns about ‘Mango’ if Simon Moran and Tony Smith give him a go.

Look at this year’s Exiles side, to play England (co-incidentally, in Warrington) in mid-June. Don’t tell me Matt Bowen wouldn’t walk into that side.

Give him 12 months to start with and see how his injuries hold up. You won’t regret it.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

TRAVELS: XI

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD

THE relationship between rugby league in Australia and its former overlord, News Corporation, changed significantly at the beginning of the week.

Players across the game were upset with a story last week in News’ Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, which quoted from a leaked report into alleged drug use at Cronulla in 2011.

The independent report expressed concern that the substances used may have triggered a relapse of of Hodgkin Lymphoma in prop Jon Mannah. The disease claimed Mannah’s life at age 23 in January.

People are upset with different elements of the story. Some believe even the core facts should not have been published. Others didn’t like the way it was displayed, pulling heavily at the heartstrings. And then there were those who thought the reporters should have asked the family for a comment by phone and not gone to their home to meet them, armed with the report.

After NRL CEO David Smith told club bosses on Monday that senior players wanted the journalists involved banned, they opted for the less petty option of a press release criticising elements of the story and its compilation.

This would probably not have happened until News Limited divested itself of rugby league – one subsidiary of the media giant issuing a media release criticising the other. Given that it still owns the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm it must have been a big call by the CEOs of those clubs to agree to the censure.

According to South Sydney CEO Shane Richardson, the Telegraph hit back by cancelling a positive story on membership which was to run on Thursday. The story will now appear in the rival Sydney Morning Herald.

There were signs that the battle was going to get a lot nastier than this but so far it hasn’t.

Here’s what I think: newspapers should not involve themselves in wars, battles or campaigns. They should not even stand up for themselves if attacked.

Yes, I am willfully naive but I believe newspapers should be observers not participants, stoically serving their readers each day. They should not concern themselves with what they published yesterday and should give those who seek to discredit their earlier stories the same platform as those who offer support.

As UK readers know all too well since Leveson, newspapers have been able to not just participate in, but shape, public life due to their influence. And that influence has been brought to bear on democracy itself.

But newspapers are dying.

The scrutiny afforded by social media holds a mirror up to the hubris and churlishness that is endemic in the newspaper business – and it’s not a nice reflection. People won’t tolerate it anymore – because now they don’t have to.

If the Daily Telegraph had refused to cover rugby league for the rest of the week, for instance, the loser out of that would have been the Daily Telegraph. The same goes for the Fairfax press, for whom I do a fair bit of work (um, if Rugby League Week refused to cover rugby league….) The mood of the clubs now is that they don’t care if a media outlet “wages war” on them. They have a $1.035 billion tv deal. It’s a war they are convinced they would win in a canter.

This is an important turning point in the history of the game in Australia, where the Sydney media has pretty much always called the shots.

The traditional media now needs the game now more than the game needs it. If most people get their news from websites, why should sports leagues give newspapers preferential treatment over other websites?

And if newspapers are going to behave like commercial entities – retaliating to perceived slights by making editorial decisions based on issues other than news value – then what separates them from radio and television?

Radio and television pay for the right to cover rugby league. The best argument against charging papers right now is that they can no longer afford it.

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FOR the most part, the likely influx of English players to the NRL next year is being greeted positively.

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DISCORD 2013: Edition 18

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

HERE’S what happened at Tuesday’s National Rugby League chief executives’ conference.

NRL chief executive David Smith told the club bosses that a players representative had told him he wanted the three journalists involved in last week’s John Mannah story banned for a period.

After some discussion, it was determined that this would be unprofessional and petty. Instead, a media release condemning elements of the story was drafted.

South Sydney had a feature lined up to run in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph about a new membership mark which had been reached. It involved Greg Inglis being interviewed and posing for a photo today, Wednesday.

“We were disappointed when we were told by the Telegraph that they weren’t running the story because of the press release,” said Souths CEO Shane Richardson.

The story will now appear in the Sydney Morning Herald tomorrow. Daily Telegraph sports editor Alex Brown chose not to make an on-the-record comment when he spoke to Discord.

There were concerns late on Tuesday that the dispute would escalate significantly, but it has not.

Clearly this is an important development in that it illustrates the extent of the breakdown in relations between the NRL and its former half-owner, News Limited. It is difficult to imagine one arm of the media empire issuing a media release criticising the other, obviously.

I firmly believe in keeping news and comment separate so if you want to know my views on this imbroglio, please check out Discord’s sister column, Travels, on the RLfans.com website.

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IT’S all well and good for the NRL and its clubs to say they are “supporting” the players involved in the ASADA investigation and “reminding them of their legal rights”.

But we should remember that in doing so NRL and clubs might – might – be helping shelter genuine offenders who knowingly doped.

How should this impact on how the clubs and League behave? Should they change anything? I’m not really sure. But let’s take the moral compass out of the pocket every now and then instead of slipping into militant wagon-circling mode.

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IF anyone speaks Italian to the country’s World Cup team later this year, expect all heads to turn to one man – captain Anthony Minichiello.

According to lock Joel Riethmuller, the Sydney Roosters veteran is taking lessons in the family tongue so he can fulfil official duties at the end-of-season tournament in England, Wales, Ireland and France.

North Queensland’s Riethmuller said: “I don’t speak Italian and not many of the boys do.

“Mini’s learning it for the World Cup, he’s taking lessons I’m told..

“My grandparents were born there and my mum’s older brother was born there. There’s a link there that I’m taking full advantage of.”

We texted Anthony and asked how the lessons were going. “Ha! I haven’t had any sessions yet”.

Italy play Wales first up at the famous Millennium stadium and are in a tough group that also includes Pacific heavyweights Tonga.

Mark Minichiello told us Italian was not spoken in the boys’ childhood home but he didn’t know Anthony was taking lessons.

The Azzuri had a boost on the weekend when frontline prop contender Paul Vaughn made his debut for Canberra, in the 30-12 loss to North Queensland at 1300SMILES Stadium.

“It will be nice to go on a trip with the boys and hopefully give the comp a good shake,” said Vaughan, 22.

“It’s my grandmother – my Italian blood is on my mother’s side.

“I played a couple of games for them last year. I played against Fiji and another game. I played pretty strongly there and made it into the World Cup squad.”

COMMENTS time and we had the obligatory stirrer, Jak, last week who geed us up about even having a World Cup. These people know how to push the buttons of anoraks like us. OK, here’s the obligatory response: ours is the second oldest World Cup win sport – why should we STOP having one?

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