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.

read on

Battling The ASADA Armada

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

EVERYONE has already just about forgotten Curtis Johnston.

The 23-year-old winger actually liked playing reserve grade for South Sydney – because the Rabbitohs’ feeder team is North Sydney, with whom he and his family have an affinity.

That all ended in early February, when he became the first – and so far only – victim of the investigation into drug use in Australian sport, which was announced at showbiz-like media conference in Canberra on the 7thh of the month.

A ‘third party’ advised Souths that Johnston had boasted in text messages about using performance-enhancing drugs and he was stood down. He is yet to return to the game but has not been charged.

His story may be instructive on the tactics being used by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Agency, which was advised of connections with professional sportsmen by the Australian Crime Commission and is pursuing doping cases against a number of players.

If he is to be believed, Johnston was entrapped – although it is not clear by whom.

He told the Sun-Herald newspaper: “I woke up on Monday morning and got a text on my phone from this app called Kick. I thought it was one of the boys from my team and I kept talking to them. They were saying ‘I’m sore from the weekend still’ and ‘I’ve been taking stuff I shouldn’t be’. And I went ‘Yeah, we all do’. I was joking around, you just agree with your teammates.

”And then they were like ‘Can you get me some?’ because I know someone who knows about it. So I supplied the number and they go ‘Can I call you soon?’ I made a few jokes about yabbie pumps … it was just a joke me and some of my mates use. Anyway, I thought it was my mate and then this girl – I still don’t know who she is – called up and said: ”You’re [busted], you’re going down. This is going to [the media].

”It was just a massive joke and then all of a sudden it was completely blown out of proportion.”

The fact that Johnston is in the sports doping equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, neither proven guilty by a court or free to get on with his life, is symbolic of the situation Australian rugby league finds itself in as we head into the fourth month of the investigation.

At the time of writing, 31 players had been advised they were required for interviews. The possible number of players involved – and ‘interviews’ does not necessarily equate to suspicion – has gone down from any part of 150 across all sports, to 50, to 31.

The number of clubs possibly involved (and the authorities did say ‘mention in the report’ initially) has been reduced from six to just one, with the long finger of the law pointed squarely in the direction of Cronulla for systemised cheating in the 2011 season, under the direction of sports scientist Stephen Dank.

As all stories on this subject faithfully report, Dank denies any wrongdoing.

Manly, North Queensland, Penrith, Canberra and Newcastle have had their brands sullied over the course of more than a month before it was announced they had been cleared of systematic doping. Players at those clubs are still under suspicion of using banned substances away from the team environment.

Cronulla on March 8 stood down coach Shane Flanagan and sacked staff members Dave Givney, Mark Noakes, Curtis Schulz and Darren Mooney for their alleged failure to act in the face of the doping.

When journalist Phil Rothfield, a confessed Cronulla fan, cornered chairman Damien Irvine on why he had stood the coach down and sacked the doctor, football manager, physio and head trainer, he said: “Mate, when paid staff fail to report … injecting players with equine substances, I can’t help.”

The staffers had been sacked without any public reason given. They thought that was reason enough for legal action. Now a reason had been given – something they strenuously denied – their lawyers started salivating.

The comment forced Irvine’s resignation. So far, ASADA have not made public its findings regarding Cronulla. Irvine has begged those sacked not to sue him, citing financial hardship. At the same time, he is standing for the next Sharks board elections.

While all this was happening, we had the emergence of shadowy figures like “the Gazelle”, sports supplements merchant Darren Hibbert who sold tablets to players out of a car boot.

There were Dr Moreau –type stories of players gathering at the house of St Helens star Josh Perry and being administered injections by a male nurse (Perry denies this). In amongst all the intrigue, leaked details and rumour, two news stories stood out.

One was by News Limited’s James Hooper, who reported that Cronulla players Paul Gallen, Ben Pomeroy and John Morris drove to the house of their former head trainer, Trent Elkin, and demanded to know what what he had told ASADA.

Elkin, now with Parramatta, denies the confrontation ever took place.

The other was by Fairfax’s Michael Chammas, who tracked down the retired Isaac Gordon. Gordon said injections at Cronulla has been halted when he displayed bruising “you’d only see on a 90-year-old lady”.

“My leg was black and I was thinking to myself, ‘This is not normal’,” Gordon said in an extraordinary interview.

But these little islands of interesting information are mere atolls in a sea of innuendo, unsubstantiated chinese whispers and spin. Cronulla, for instance, have hired a former ASADA prosecutor and a political spin doctor, even though they haven’t had enough money for half a decade to employ a chief executive.

Why did the Federal Government place such a black stain on all Australian sports, with the heads of many including former NRL and current soccer boss David Gallop in attendance, when only rugby league and Aussie Rules are now being investigated?

Cynics say an election on September 14 might have something to do with it.

Why did Cronulla stand down and sack employees over their alleged involvement in doping but give players the benefit of the doubt?

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has the power to compel the NRL to punish the Sharks or make the RLIF exclude Australia from the World Cup. It’s thought the club wanted to be seen to be proactive.

But sacking staffers some supporters have never heard of is politically far more palatable for an administration than sacking players with a new season on the horizon.

And back to Curtis Johnston. If his fate can be sealed in a matter of days after the case against him arose, why are there some 31 players “of interest” still going around every weekend in the NRL who are “of interest” in a doping investigation.

The implication is clear. ASADA needs more evidence, and to get it, it needs players to provide information on each other. Information which leads to a “conviction” (doping is not illegal in Australia, so by that we mean a suspension) can result in a ban of six months instead of two years.

“I think it’s going to get pretty messy,” Manly prop Brent Kite told me.

“Giving blokes exemptions to roll over on other blokes – I don’t think that’s going to be very good for the game.”

It’s been said that only one per cent of cheats are caught by drug tests.

But if ASADA only gets a handful of suspensions in Australian Rules and rugby league after a media event that was dubbed “the blackest day in the history of Australian sport”, the political fallout for the Labor Party could be calamitous.

Most of the predictions that the investigation will drag on all season are not made with September 14 in mind.

But maybe they should be.

NB: Curtis Johnston was cleared by ASADA of any wrongdoing in early April, 2013. Damien Irvine did not win re-election to the Cronulla board.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

THE BIG ISSUE: # 37

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

HERE at The Big Issue, we try to leave the on-field, rule-related stuff to fellow columnist Mark Geyer. He played for Australia, after all.

But when it comes to the debate over tries being disallowed due to obstruction rulings, you don’t need to have donned the green and gold to know something is awry.

Let’s use the shoulder charge ban as a base for the logic used in rugby league legislation. The vast majority of these tackles are harmless, but doctors still deemed them so dangerous that they successfully lobbied for their banning.

This ban is now worldwide.

Now, the practise being discouraged in the chalking-off of tries to Cooper Cronk and Brett Morris in round three is decoy runners colliding with defenders.

In the case of Morris, there is some argument Josh McCrone MIGHT have been able to prevent the try had Ben Creagh not run into him. Personally, I think this extremely unlikely.

But are decoy runners colliding with defenders such a scourge on rugby league that we need to eradicate it by denying fair tries, as we are penalising otherwise benign tackles to eradicate shoulder charges?

I would say no. I would say that most fans didn’t even THINK about the practice of decoy runners making contact with defenders until last Thursday night. I can’t recall a defender being hit by a decoy runner ever being seriously hurt (it has probably happened, though)  or doctors calling for an end to the practice.

When the collision is more than 14 metres away from the try, you would expect the likes of Luke Patten, Matt Rodwell and Justin Morgan to argue in favour of awarding the touchdown. There was no ex-player in the video box on Thursday night

But they have 60 seconds to convince the senior video referee to go against what has been presented as a hard-and-fast rule. Good luck.

Craig Bellamy said there was a danger of coaches halting all second-man plays close to the tryline. There is also the danger of defenders learning to fake being hit by a decoy.

It just seems like a rule interpretation for which we need to give the officials back their discretion.

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THERE was something intangibly low-key about the first two weeks of the 2013 NRL season.

The football was good enough, even if some of the crowds were down. But patrolling touchlines, press conferences and dressingrooms, it was apparent to me that something was missing. Proceedings lacked the usual “edge”.

When Super League was in incubation, the footy became incidental. Match reports shrunk, games came and went, and the only two teams anyone really cared about were Packer’s and Murdoch’s.

The rest of the competition receded into the background for a few weeks when Melbourne were stripped for two premierships and had to play for nothing, too.

This year, it was ASADA and the ACC. Rugby league thrives on controversy but the game seems to resent it (and sulk a bit) when the drama is created from outside. It goes into its shell a bit, lamenting lost mojo.

Thankfully at the weekend, we had Billy Slater kicking David Klemmer in the face, Richie Fa’aoso flattening Ashley Harrison and Cooper Cronk plus Brett Morris being robbed of tries.

Not good for Klemmer and Harrison, of course…..

But it was almost as if rugby league was sticking its tongue out to ASADA, with its thumbs in its ears, saying “I’m not washed up as a publicity magnet just yet”.

There will be tough times ahead as the two sources of news battle it out for supremacy. Publicity helps ASADA with its investigations and the various interest groups have all hired spin doctors to selectively leak information.

But after a couple of weeks of moping about, Mr R League has regained his confidence, is walking with a strut and is up for the fight.

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AS predicted, the Thought Police have launched an offensive against people criticising the ASADA Investigation into rugby league, with two writers suggesting at the weekend that anyone who has done so is a sycophant.

I was going to say ‘everyone’s entitled to their opinion’ but there are those who clearly don’t agree with that.

Let me repeat: no-one wants performance-enhancing drugs in rugby league. Does that mean we must support every aspect of an investigation which has already seen players invited for an interview only to be called back and told it was a case of mistaken identity?

No, I don’t believe it does.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Flanagan Blasted Sharks Upon Return To Work

Cronulla - Shane FlanaganBy STEVE MASCORD

COACH Shane Flanagan has defended his decision to blast his players upon his return to Cronulla, saying they didn’t follow his instructions while he was on a club-enforced suspension.

There was little in the way of sentiment when Flanagan – stood down by the club as part of the ASADA investigation into drugs in rugby league – gathered his men together on the eve of Sunday’s 28-4 win over the Warriors at Sharks Stadium.

He showed them a video compilation of everything they had been doing wrong in the first two games of the season. “He gave us a rocket,” said star five-eighth Todd Carney.

Flanagan tells RLW: “I just gave them my own view of what I saw in the first two games. I hadn’t been able to talk to them as a group.

“I spoke to a lot of them individually over those first two rounds but it wasn’t what we planned for in our off-season, it wasn’t how we planned to attack.

“We were a bit more what I expected from our team in the first half (against the Warriors). Against South Sydney, we were real loose, we didn’t wrestle, our contact was poor, our systems were thrown out the window.

“I just went and told them that. I said ‘it’s not acceptable, we’re all back here and we have to work hard’.

“Most teams have got a bit of a plan and systems in place in offence and defence and we have as well – and we went away from that.”

Carney explained: “He gave us a few hugs when he first got back but once he got into the sheds, he gave us a rocket. We had a fair video sessions. We reviewed both the games that he missed.

“He’s a head coach for a reason. He does a great job. He knows what’s going to happen and that’s why we listen to him and it paid off.

“It’s good to have him back and hopefully we’ll have him for a while.”

The Sharks won one from two while Flanagan cooled his heals and then pummelled the Warriors in sauna-like conditions on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Flanagan was diplomatic when asked if he expected staffers David Givney, Darren Mooney, Mark Noakes and Conrad Schultz to be reinstated.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s one of those things I just need to deal day-to-day with, you know?

“They’ll work with the club and we’ll work with the club and I can’t predict that.”

Carney said there was still plenty of improvement in his own game.

“Team-wise, I think we’re going reasonably well with the adversity the boys have been through,” he said.

“Personally, I’m just getting back. It was a major injury. Three weeks of pre-season training is all I had. Hopefully I can build on that.

“We’ve got a big task against the Dragons here on Saturday night. It’s a big two weeks for us – Dragons into Parra into a full bye so it’s a good time to rest and recuperate.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE BIG ISSUE: #36

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

OVER the next few days and weeks, up to 50 NRL players have a big decision to make. It may well turn out to be the biggest of their lifetimes.

In Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald, ASADA chief Aurora Andruska said the only way athletes could be assured of having 75 per cent of their drugs suspension removed was to provide the agency with information that led to a charge against someone else.

Otherwise, players would have to prove they were unconscious when the banned substance was administered.

When columns like this appear in newspapers and magazines, there is a certain political correctness that is expected. We are not supposed to advocate doing “the wrong thing”.

If I was to write here that people sometimes people avoid tax by being paid in cash, or that occasionally parking illegally is worth the fine, or that we should be allowed to get drunk in pubs as long as we don’t hurt anyone, the wowsers would be down on me like a tonne of bricks.

So what I am expected to say now is that NRL players should ‘fess up to ASADA ASAP, telling the organisation everything they know – including the identities of team-mates who took drugs – because it’s the right thing to do.

That’s not to mention the fact it will save their own skin and career by dodging a two year ban.

But bugger the wowsers because advising people to do what you would not do yourself is hypocritical.

Stand-in Cronulla coach Peter Sharp said the ASADA drama was bigger than Super League because players weren’t threatened with being “outed” during that imbroglio.

While Super League was seen as being a period of unprecedented selfishness because of the money on offer, one thing that is forgotten is that most players stuck together during the war.

Clubs joined one side or another and their players, largely, followed. Sure, Cronulla’s Adam Ritson stuck with the ARL and Jim Dymock, Jarrod McCracken and Jason Smith were poached back from Super League.

But generally, our players were given “loyalty payments” on inducements to keep doing what they were already doing – aside from playing some forms of representative football which were suddenly closed off to them.

So Sharpy has a point in that, while the Super League War affected more people and threatened the very existence of our sport, the “ASADA Armada” is potentially a more decisive force.

To quote Brent Kite in RLW last week: “Giving blokes exemptions to roll over on other blokes – I don’t think that’s going to be very good for the game.”

The fact is, if you implicate a team-mate and cop a suspension for only six months, it’s going to be pretty obvious now, isn’t it? Before, you could have just “accepted a deal” from your club. Now ASADA are saying you can only get six months if you dob someone in.

If they get takers, will they just try to blur the line between the two again and refuse to say which of the two camps a player is in?

The Big Issue is all for eradicating cheats. But doping is not illegal in Australia. Yet the Australian Crime Commission – which has the word ‘crime’ in its name – has been sharing information it gained through law-enforcement with ASADA – who deal in offences that are not currently criminal in nature.

Morally, that might be OK. Probably is. But legally, constitutionally? Any lawyers out there? If you are drug tested at work, would it be OK for the testers to have access to your criminal or medical records?

Again, I stress that sport’s integrity relies completely on it being clean and we need to resource testers as well as we can – within the bounds of the law. But there are a few issues which have been overlooked.

So even though do-good columns in publications with roughly tabloid-sized pages are supposed to side with law-enforcement – and in this case quasi-law enforcement – officers at every turn, I can’t bring myself to do so.

Here’s what I would do if I was an NRL player who had been part of systematic doping – even if I didn’t think it was doping at the time – in my club:

I would get my own solicitor;

I would ring a few mates and try to source alternative employment for the next two years. Hopefully someone would be able to help with something;

I would call ASADA and confess to everything that involved me. If I thought the staff at the club had placed me in this horrible position, I might say which staff did what;

I would refuse to implicate any of my team-mates and even mention any names;

I would prepare for life after football.

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THE quicker, cleaner rucks this year are giving us the opportunity to see the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Cooper Cronk at their utter best.

Their battle on Saturday night was something to behold.

But is it also giving some teams the chance to completely work over others? 32-0, 36-0, 34-10 – they are not the scorelines dreams are made of.

No complaints. No blame. Just an observation.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 12

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

THIS proposal for clubs affected by the drugs bans being loaned players by other clubs raises some fascinating questions about what sports organisations really owe their broadcasters.

The ASADA investigation is all about the integrity of sport – but what affect does artificially propping up a team found to be full of drug cheats have on the integrity of a competition?

Through a salary cap, and without the assistance of a draft, the NRL has produced a competition of great uncertainty. Discord would argue this is a great achievement of previous administrations – many, many players get to represent their local team without being wrenched away and still we have an almost complete unpredictability of results.

(Maybe that’s a little less the case in 2013 – but that’s another column entirely)

Look at the mechanisms other professional sporting competitions around the world put in place in search of this elusive goal

So on the back of all the different NRL champions we have had since 1998, the NRL gets $1.025 billion for its television rights. Great.

But now the League is apparently beholden to its broadcasters to disaster-proof the league. If a large group of players from one franchise is suspended for drugs offences, it is supposed to make sure that club remains competitive for the sake of television viewers.

Has anyone seen the scorelines lately? We’ve had 36-0, 32-0 … what scoreline, exactly, is acceptable to Fox and Channel Nine? Is there some unwritten rule to keep it under 50?

If there was a disgraceful all-in brawl with kicking and gouging and a game was abandoned – an eventuality not unprecedented in rugby league (any French readers?) – would multiple bans be followed by the offending club being loaned a few players?

Surely the way rights contracts should work is that we perform well as a sport, you reward us with a big cheque. After that, as long as we can stage the requisite number of matches as stipulated in our contract, your influence over us is nil until we negotiate the next deal.

How many teams can win the Premier League every year? How many finals or play-offs to they have? And how much do they get in rights money?

It’s not black and white, though, is it? I would favour a team denuded by ASADA findings getting salary cap concessions. To an extent, even that defeats the argument above.

But the NRL has achieved admirable parity without resorting to the artificiality other sports and competitions have employed to get inferior results.

If the Sharks are right and some of these offences happened under the noses of officials, then the club should not be saved from the price and penalty of those offences.

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WHOEVER is left in the boardroom down at Cronulla must be shaking their heads tonight.

ASADA no longer seems interested in wrongdoing at clubs, instead moving its attentions to 31 players, as announced by the NRL at a media conference this afternoon.

But the Sharks, having sacked four staffers and stood down their coach, are a smoking hulk. It’s fair to say they probably expected their decisions to be later justified by ASADA’s findings.

But for the next month or six weeks, we’re only going to hear about players – not coaches or officials. If the Sharks made their decisions in the interests of “doing the right thing”, fair enough.

But if they made them in the interests of “seeming to do the right thing”, then they’ve been left high and dry.

FEEDBACK time now and Bottom Line said there wasn’t enough psychological help for players at clubs.