THE JOY OF SIX: Finals Week Three

The Joy Of SixRUFFLED FEATHERS

SYDNEY Roosters coach Trent Robinson accepts blood test results which are not under investigation will still be remembered by some fans long after Sunday’s grand final. “How do you take that back?” he said on ABC yesterday. “The way the media works now, the way all those things are kept on the internet, it’s hard to take it back. I was amazed at how those guys played under that pressure. You can see their conscience isn’t weighing them down, they played freely. They knew they were in right.” Robinson has been pretty straight-up with the media and fans for most of the season but when it comes to grand final team selections and the comeback of Boyd Cordner, “that’s something I haven’t really talked about all year, whether I’m going to play someone or not, before we get to the game. He’ll be in the selection. We’ve probably got about 21 guys who we’ll select from. Every grand final team has a motto, for the Roosters it seems to be this quote from the coach: “It’s not about being in one, it’s about winning one – we were really clear about that”

SPIRIT OF ‘78

IF THAT’S the Roosters’ call to arms, what’s Manly/’s? Knowing them, they won’t tell us. But plenty of people are comparing the current side to the storied 1978 premiers, who had to play six games in 21 days – two replays including the grand final – to lift the trophy. Not only that, they repeatedly came from behind. After losing their first finals series match, the Sea Eagles snatched a 13-13 draw with Parramatta, forcing a midweek replay. When the grand final was drawn 11-11, there was another replay ending in a 16-0 win over Cronulla.  Warwick Bulmer, a staffer at Manly who has been involved since the 60s, said there were “more needles than players” in the dressingroom back then and rated Friday’s win over South Sydney as the best since. Interviewed on radio on Sunday, he said Geoff Toovey’s side couldn’t eclipse that team but they had matched their toughness.

 DEMERITUS MINOR      

YOUR correspondent has been covering rugby league for almost three decades and the idea that grand finals and major games should somehow be worth more before the judiciary than other matches has been around almost as long. It popped up again when Glenn Stewart was booked; no-one has ever been able to come up with a workable formula. Players would stretch the envelope in a preliminary final knowing they could get away with more. Every member of a senior squad would have to get, say, two games sliced off an existing suspension if their team made the grand final, to avoid exploitation of the rule through team selections. And finally, victims of foul play would still be sidelined for the same time while the assailant gets a discount because he committed the offence at the ‘right’ time of year. Great idea; doesn’t work.

THUNDER, LIGHTNING, NRL BID IS FRIGHTENING

AUSTRALIAN players were stunned that a game which kicked off in bright sunshine was suddenly hit with thunder and lightning when the Prime Minister’s XIII beat Papua New Guinea 50-10 at Kopoko’s Kalabond Oval yesterday. Of particular concern was the young children perched on electricity pylons at the packed venue. The fact that two tweeters, listening on the radio in Port Moresby, were the only links between the 50-10 win and the outside world is evidence there won’t be a PNG side in the NRL in our lifetimes. Do  Peuto Rico or Haiti have Major League Baseball teams? The only hope would be to base the team in Darwin and fly in for ‘home’ games. PNG’s James Segeyaro (shoulder) was forced off at halftime and is in a little bit of World Cup doubt. It was the first big game in the Rabaul area since the volcano eruption of 1994.

FESTIVAL OF THE BOOT

ACCORDING to the NRL’s Paul Kind, people who seek to resell their grand final tickets at face value are not in any real danger of having them cancelled by the League or Ticketek. Some 14,000 more seats are to be released on Monday morning and with all the South Sydney fans trying to off-load theirs’, plenty of scalpers seem certain to do their dough. But why do rugby league care so much more about who is in the GF, when deciding whether to go, than their AFL counterparts? Do you really think  of this Sunday’s match as a celebration of rugby league, or just a game to decide who wins the comp? And if it’s the latter, why? Does this go to the heart of the cultural differences between Sydney and Melbourne, right back to convicts v free settlers?

ANORAKS ARE US

THIS one’s for the trainspotters, geeks and anoraks. And if you’ve read this far, that’s most of you. Manly, it has been argued on Facebook (where else?), did not score 30 unanswered points on Friday night. Yes, they were down 14-0 and the scoreline turned into 30-14 in their favour, But, their 30 point – at the very least – was ‘answered’ by a late South Sydney try. So ‘unanswered’ is often misused when ‘uninterrupted’ or ‘consecutive’ is more accurate. We deal with the game’s biggest issues here. Next week: what time each weekend does the the team with the bye actually get those two competition points? Should you count them when you go through the competition table before kick-off on Friday? Are they sent out registered post? Should they be?

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

The A-List: MATT GILLETT (Brisbane, Queensland & Australian Prime Minister’s XIII)

Brisbane - Matt GillettBy STEVE MASCORD

MATT Gillett squints in the sunshine at Moore Park. We’re standing under a tree but it doesn’t provide much shelter on a balmy Sydney spring day.

And he recounts a pledge his Brisbane Broncos coach, Anthony Griffin, made two years ago, standing in the sun on a field just like this, with his charges gathered around.

“He wasn’t going to be looking anywhere else for any other players,” says Gillett, 25. “That gave us boys a bit of confidence, that he was going to stick with us.

“He said it across the park, to everyone. ‘He’s happy with the group that he has there. He’s not going to go look anywhere else’. It was earlier, the first year.

“He’s always had that. He’s had the faith in all the players who were there at the club.”

That was 2011. The Broncos went to within one match of the grand final that year. The following season it was eighth, this year 12th. The pledge has softened, the promise made to the core of Griffin’s 2008 grand final Under 20s team has expired.

Ben Barba is coming. Anthony Milford might be as well, and after that Cameron Smith. Gillett, who was there that day two years ago, understands the reasons things won’t be the same now.

“Obviously now we’ve got a couple of players coming to the club and a few players moving on also,” he says, gently.

“It’s good for the club, we’ll have a few players moving in there also and it is definitely going to move us.

“People would be asking (Griffin) the questions, not the players. There’s a lot stuff that goes on behind doors that he wouldn’t tell us about. There’s probably a lot of pressure on him at the moment, as of the last year and the year before.

“He’s a great coach, mate – there’s no doubt about that. It’s just the players putting in and doing that bit for him and understanding how it works. We all get along well there.”

The realisation that things had to change, that the 2008 Under 20s side would not win Brisbane an NRL premiership, has been the major off-field development of 2013 for Australia’s most popular rugby league club.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” Gillett says when I ask about the impact of players like Corey Norman, Scott Prince and Peter Wallace edging towards the exit during the Broncos’ 2013 campaign.

“It probably was a bit of a distraction, obviously Princey retired at the end of the year and had his final year with us, Peter Wallace leaving after being at the club for a long time. But it’s all part of what the business is about. It’s football. Any of the players, or the coach, can be there one day and be gone the next. That’s just the way it is and we have to move on with that. I do feel sorry for some of the players who have to leave, obviously they’re good mates and that sort of thing.

“We’ll still be friend outside of football.”

Gillett is a straightforward, friendly sort of fellow. If you’re looking for an indication of his character, then take his decision to stay with his mates at Wests Arana Hills when he first had the chance to join the Broncos Colts.

“I was there in the pre-season and during the year and halfway through the year I went to the Broncos and played a few games there with Hook,” he says, when asked to recount the story.

“I was playing back at Arana and our team got to the grand final at Wests and the Broncos … the next week, it was the start of their finals campaign. I decided to go back and play with my mates at Arana that I thought was the right thing to do.

“I left the Broncos. I had to tell Hook what I was doing and he wasn’t too happy and didn’t understand what was going on.”

The decision left Gillett tumbling back down the pecking order – but his startling ability was such that he was never going to be down there long. “I went to Norths the next year to play Queensland Cup and Ivan (Henjak) gave me the opportunity to do the pre-season,” he recalls.

Blessed with immaculate footwork, a deft offload and ability to pull off thunderous hits, Gillett was a boom commodity in his debut season of 2010, winning the Dally M rookie of the year. He was also considered one of the most acute cases of Second Year Syndrome of recent seasons, although he didn’t play badly in ’11 by any means.

Rather than “bounce back” like a character out of a clichéd pulp story, he’s found his own equilibrium.

“I’ve got a lot better … understanding the game more,” he says. “Having a few years under the belt playing NRL footy is a big thing and I think, for the young blokes who come through, after a couple of years they’ll realise the same thing. Once you are a regular first grader, you do get used to it and the body does react to the game.

“I used to come off the bench and play limited minutes. Now I’m starting at the Broncos which I’ve been loving this year. Cementing a back row spot at the club has been be a big thing for me and it’s going to be another tough ask next year.”

Rather than feel the pressure to make an immediate impact, Gillett now gauges his effectiveness over the whole 80 minutes.

“I’m still trying to get that off-load out when I can but I’m playing a bit smarter footy now, now that I’ve been here a couple of years. I’m just picking the times to do that sort of thing.”

And the bell-ringers are harder to pull off now the shoulder charge is banned. “I got away with one when we played Newcastle. (Akuila) Uate ran straight at me and I panicked. He was running pretty fast. I just put the shoulder like that. It wasn’t intentional but he dumped me off anyway and went away. “

But Matt has had things going in in the background which put trite accusations of Second Year Syndrome into perspective.

In July 2009, his friend and Bribie Warrigals team-mate Todd Parnell was king hit and killed outside Bribie Island Leagues Club. Since then, Parnell’s mother Jenny has been to watch many Broncos home games as the case got bogged down in the courts.

In the past couple of weeks, it has reached some kind of closure. There were reports of a clash between Parnell’s family and that of the accused, Wally Hung, when the verdict was handed down.

“He got sentenced to seven years – the same sentence he got last time and can apply for bail in 2015, in December,” says Gillett.

“Tony, Todd’s dad, is the one who rang me up the other day and told us what was going on. He seemed pretty down at the time, as you would (be). It’s definitely been a tough time for them, with the case dragging on, so I suppose they would be happy that it’s been sorted out now.”

Gillett gives the impression he is not overly happy with the sentence. “You think that if he gets bail in two years … I can’t comment on what the result was so… yeah.”

Just as he still likes returning to Bribie to “get away from football”, Gillett will be able to escape everything this week with his second trip to Papua New Guinea, for the Prime Minister’s XIII’s annual clash with the Kumuls on Sunday.

That’s why we’re here at Moore Park, for training.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he says with a smile. “You get the luxury of playing with other players from other clubs and meeting new fellas and just learning from other players.

“Seeing what type of blokes they are off the field is a good thing as well. Everyone’s a good fella off the field. Some of the boys are a bit of a pest on the field. Everyone tries to put everyone off their game.

“It’s all part of the game …. happy days. “

A World Cup For Wontoks?

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

RUGBY league’s capacity for self-harm is all pervasive – but our capacity to find out about it us often inconsistent and unreliable.

We know every twist and turn of the Super League War in Australia. We know how the New Zealand government formed a commission to overhaul the game in New Zealand. And most readers of this august organ would be aware that Italy and the United States are about to make their World Cup bows with divided competitions.

But what about the nation that is our fourth or fifth most powerful, Papua New Guinea? One suspects that a Test player could spontaneously combust on the main street of Goroka and it would be weeks before we found out about it, if at all.

In 2010, when the Australian Prime Ministers XIII played in Port Moresby, the political turmoil in the game there reached such a nadir there that the Kumuls side had no food in camp and the Australians’ bus didn’t show to take them to Lloyd Robson Oval.

Ever since, Australian authorities – with the tacit co-operation of the Federal Government which provides millions of dollars in rugby league-related funding to PNG each year – have been using the carrot method to effect changes in the only country where our game is the national sport.

In 2010, the Australian Government froze $4 million in annual funding which had been set aside for rugby league in PNG, ostensibly in protest of the administration of Gary Juffa, previously the national customs commissioner.

Juffa came to power at a time that millions of kina had come into the game as a result of the government’s backing for an NRL franchise. Ousted Albert Veratau launched legal action, claiming he had been deposed unconstitutionally, and the Federal Court reserved judgement with no date given for a ruling.

This left the PNGRFL without a viable administration. As part of a compromise, Vatatau was left in control of liason with overseas authorities and the Australian Government, and Juffa ran the international team.

Juffa reportedly wanted more of a say in selections and more domestic players representing the Kumuls. This set him against coach Adrian Lam. When the former Wigan star quit, he was replaced by British favourite – and close friend of Juffa – Stanley Gene.

Gene oversaw a disappointing 2010 Four Nations campaign which saw the Kumuls loose 42-10 to Australia, 76-12 to New Zealand and 36-10 to England.

The PNG Bid for NRL inclusion has engulfed the game in PNG since then. Mal Meninga, originally an ambassador for the bid, stood down. It was suggested he disapproved of the taxpayers’ money being handed to Australian consultants for the bid.

The PNG Bid even became a sponsor of the Brisbane Broncos, with perimeter advertising at Suncorp Stadium.

But with the NRL’s announcement late last year that expansion was off the agenda for the time being, some sanity seems to have been restored to rugby league in PNG. The Kumuls played a pre-season game against South Sydney and the Rabbitohs promised to support a more sensible a bid for Queensland Cup inclusion.

The PNGRL – under the chairmanship of Don Fox (not that one) – has now officially switched its focus to the Queensland Cup. Adrian Lam is back on board, and there are reports in PNG that Meninga is back as well, as part of the World Cup coaching team.

Fox has also revived the PNG Origin fixture, pitting domestic players against those based overseas.

Lam told the PNGfacts website the overseas players he would consider included: James Segeyaro (Penrith), Neville Costigan (Newcastle), David Mead (Gold Coast), Joe Bond (Brisbane), Reece Martin (Sydney Roosters), Nini McDonald (Sydney Roosters), Tyson Martin (North Queensland), Rod Griffin (Gold Coast), Menzie Yere (Sheffield Eagles), Jesse Joe Parker (Whitehaven) and Paul Aiton (Wakefield).

The Origin game will take place sometime after the NRL grand final. The PNG v Australian Prime Ministers XIII game is also on the agenda for September and will probably give Australia coach Tim Sheens the chance to run the rule over players not involved in the NRL play-offs.

Sports minister Justin Tkatchencko appears to be the driving force in ending the feuding in PNG. H brought the warring parties together at a meeting in November, from which Fox was elected. The NRL Bid became the “Rugby League Foundation” and supported Fox, whose official title remains “interim chairman”.

Gene admitted in a recent interview that the NRL Bid had not been the waste of time he imagined, as it had helped with many grass roots programmes.

“We all should support the minister’s focus and if they want Mal Meninga as coach, we all must support them,” Gene told The National newspaper.

Former Kumuls winger Marcus Bai, on the other hand, is his country’s answer to Garry Schofield or Mark Geyer, speaking out against the administration on a number of occasions. He is being sued by Australian official Paul Broughton and his wife Bev and after they worked together on the NRL Bid, only for Bai to quit and make allegations of impropriety in the Gold Coast Bulletin.

Gene challenged Bai’s view of things but also criticised one aspect of the PNGRL’S operation – it’s lack of support for former internationals.

“They have been great ambassadors of the country playing rugby league but need jobs after they hang up their boots,” Gene said. “Currently the bulk of former Kumul players are jobless and have nothing to do compared to Australia and New Zealand.

“It is very sad to see a lot of Kumuls now walking the streets of our major cities and the towns they come from, literally doing nothing.”
Gene believes the PNGRL should be actively helping players get contracts overseas.

But the government’s financial support of the Kumuls’ 11-day stay in Sydney in February – for the Cabramatta Nines and the game against Souths – is seen as a positive sign by all involved.

In return, the Australian government finally released $4 million in funding on December 11.

“Four million dollars, which had been earmarked for Rugby League in PNG for a long time now is able to be spent on developing rugby league within schools,” he said.

“Over a three year pilot 50,000 children, 500 teachers across 80 schools in three provinces in PNG will benefit from participation in rugby league and that’s just fantastic.”

Indeed it is.

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE