Widdop Favourite To Play In Finals Opener

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE received a finals-eve boost when injured five-eighth Brett Finch trained with his team-mates but Gareth Widdop remains favourite to fill the five-eighth role against South Sydney.

Finch suffered an AC shoulder joint injury last Saturday against Gold Coast and was rated at long odds to play in the qualifying final at ANZ Stadium. However, he took to AAMI Park for a match-eve training session following a week of intense medical treatment.

“Finchy and Gaz trained, they both trained in that five-eighth position so we’re not sure,” second rower Ryan Hoffman told reporters.

“The decision has got to be made yet. They’re both fit, they’re both raring to go.”

Asked if Finch was able to tackle at training, Hoffman said: “He was doing some when I came in but, yeah, he was doing some tackling.”

South Sydney have their own injury concern, with interchange forward Jason Clark suffering a knee injury at training on Tuesday.

Hoffman said there was no ill-feeling towards Rabbits lock Sam Burgess, who was suspended for executing a ‘squirrel grip’ on Will Chambers the last time the sides played.

“Sam Burgess is one of the best players in our game,” said Hoffman.

“He plays it hard. He’s got no malice in his game. I just think he plays it really tough and they’re the kind of people we want playing rugby league.

“We know he’s doing everything he can to win for Souths and that’s his job for them.”

Filed for: THE AGE

Storm Keep Rabbitohs Guessing Over Widdop

Gareth Widdop/FootySocial
Gareth Widdop/FootySocial

By STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE Storm are set to keep South Sydney guessing over whether England five-eighth Gareth Widdop will make a near-miraculous return from a dislocated hip in Friday’s qualifying final at ANZ Stadium.

Widdop, who was expected to be out until 2014 when he suffered the horrific injury on June 24, was named on an extended bench after making his return in the Queensland Cup on Sunday.

Speaking early Tuesday afternoon, coach Craig Bellamy said the formula was simple – if Brett Finch doesn’t overcome a shoulder injury, Widdop would be in. Widdop would continue a long tradition of players overcoming major injuries to play in the finals.

Later in the day, after the team trained, back rower Ryan Hinchcliffe told Fairfax Media: “It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen at this stage. It’s our first day back in and we mainly did weights.

“Gaz looks like he came through the weekend OK and Finchy’s trying hard to be fit as well.”

Bellamy had told reporters: “Finchy’s improved a lot the last 48 hours, to be quite honest. He’s had cortisone in whatever joint that’s sore.

“We’ll see how he goes, see how Gaz goes and we probably won’t make the decision until Thursday or Friday.

“(Widdop was) a little bit tired but you expect that. He hasn’t played for 11 weeks, 12 weeks and he played up in Mackay. It was quite warm, too, I think.

“He got through it OK. He seemed reasonably happy with his skill and his fitness levels.

“If Finchy don’t come up, he’s going to be in. He’d like a few more games under his belt, obviously, but that’s not going to happen. He’s had plenty of experience in the last couple of years, he’s very confident in his fitness so he’ll be right to go.”

Asked if Widdop would retain a bench spot should finch be fit, Bellamy replied: “Depends. We’ll just see how Brett pulls up.

“Finchy’s done a really good job the last eight or nine weeks. Obviously, the other option’s there but we don’t want to make that decision til we see how Finchy comes up. No use worrying about something we don’t have to worry about. “

While Melbourne named a five-man bench for the opening match of the finals series, Souths are unchanged.

Last time they met, at AAMI Park, on August 9, Bellamy and former protégé, Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire, reportedly clashed over a newspaper story which had named the Sydney team’s wrestling coach.

“We’re good mates,” said Bellamy. “I coached him when he first started playing grade in Canberra. He spent five years here.

“You can make out of it what you like but there was a bit of an issue there. We had a discussion. We sorted it out, shook hands. As I said, there was an issue but … it wasn’t a big issue but it was something that probably had to be mentioned. It was. We done it between ourselves and it’s business as usual this week.”

Filed for: THE AGE

Half A Crisis For Storm

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

PREMIERS Melbourne enter the finals with a mini-crisis in the halves after Brett Finch suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury in the golden point win over Gold Coast.

Five-eighth Gareth Widdop’s return from a dislocated hip on Sunday for feeder team Brisbane Easts in Mackay takes on added significance with Finch forced off in the first half of the 23-22 AAMI Park victory and unable to return.

The veteran is retiring at the end of the season.

“Finchy’s in trouble, he’s got a problem with his AC joint,” said coach Craig Bellamy.

“He must have hurt it early in the game. He didn’t have any strength in his arm at all.”

It would be a huge call for Widdop to play in the finals next weekend after just one game back from an horrendous injury. He is expected to play around 50 or 60 minutes on Sunday against Mackay Cutters.

“We’ll see how Gaz goes, he’s been out a long time,” Bellamy said.

“He’s definitely playing tomorrow …. If he does (get through it), he’ll be a chance.”

Halfback Cooper Cronk, who kicked the winning field goal eight minutes into extra time, described the performance as un-Melbourne Storm-like. The Storm trailed at halftime and conceded a try with two minutes left in regulation time.

Three penalties conceded early by prop Bryan Norrie and another by fullback Billy Slater while in possession put Melbourne under pressure.

“We were good in patches but we weren’t Melbourne Storm-like for the 80 minutes,” said Cronk.

“Look, we’re only one good training session away from being in form.

“That’s not Melbourne Storm football. We’re disciplined, we play the ball down the other end and grind teams out. We gave them an advantage, they took it and we were very lucky to get away with that.”

Captain Cameron Smith said the penalties may have been a result of an attempt to up the ante when it comes to aggression after the previous week’s loss to Manly.

There were plenty of other issues after the match, with the Titans furious at a disallowed try when Ben Ridge was ruled to have touched the ball as he tackled Billy Slater, before Aiden Sezer snatched possession and streaked away to score.

“It just cost us our season, didn’t it?” said coach John Cartwright.

“I’m not a wealthy man, I’m not going to sit here and …. How he came up with the decision, I don’t know, I really don’t know.

“The refs on the field were shocked, the whole crowd were shocked.”

Even Bellamy thought it was a try. Ridge said: “I don’t think I (touched it), I didn’t feel it. I went for Billy and it popped out. That was a turning point, that one.”

And there were widespread calls to scrap golden point – with Australia captain Smith joining the chorus.

“If you even needed evidence,” said Cartwright, “get rid of it, it’s a sham. The defence from both sides were offside for the last eight minutes, or whatever it went for. It’s a lottery.

“There’s enough pressure on these blokes with the whistle to get it right as it is. If they’re not going to blow the whistle in extra time, we may as well not have referees.

“The players might as well just sort it out themselves. It’s a field goal shootout and who can stand offside the most.”

Smith said: “If you can’t get a result out of 80 minutes, you should be happy with the draw. Before that rule was brought in, how many years were we playing the game where we had draws.

“That rule’s been brought in for the fans, which is fair enough, but you have to look at it from the players’ point of view.”

The devastating performance of the unpredictable Dave Taylor had both clubs scratching their heads. “Something’s clicked in him,” said Cartwright.

Smith added: “He could play like that every week if he wanted to but it comes down to him, whether he wants to do it.

“Hopefully he looks at that game that he played tonight and says ‘why don’t I do that every week?’”
Cartwright said he had “half our salary cap siting on the sideline”.

Cartwright didn’t want the drama to detract from the game effort of his short-handed side.

“You’ll probably say Melbourne were off,” he said. “Bullshit they were off. We handled everything they threw at us.”

Filed for: THE AGE

Brett Finch To Retire At Season’s End

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD
HE could easily have been lining up against the Storm on Friday night but club favourite Brett Finch has revealed he will likely be ending his career in Melbourne at the conclusion of this season.
Finch, 31, turned down a larger offer from South Sydney, the Storm’s opponents in an AMMI Park blockbuster to kick off round 22, to rejoin the club with whom he won a grand final in 2009, only to have that title stripped for salary cap breaches.
And although Melbourne officials have been considering offering Finch another year, he is likely to chase a fairytale finish over the next two months, after replacing injured Gareth Widdop in the Storm’s top grade team.
“Finchy is leaning strongly towards hanging up the boots,” his agent, Steve Gillis, told Fairfax Media.
Speaking on Sydney radio station Sky Sports Radio yesterday, the former Hunter Mariners, Canberra, Parramatta, Sydney Roosters and Wigan halfback said: “I was just going to come back and work at the Storm.
“With Gaz’ shocking injury, I’ve played a lot more than I thought.
“At this stage, I’m not thinking about going around again. I’ve been given this opportunity for the back end of the year and we’re going to be playing finals as well.
“I think that would be a nice way to finish. Plus, there’s some good young kids here as well. I don’t want to be standing in front of them.”
There is conjecture over the makeup of both sides for Friday’s match, which is expected to attract at 20,000 crowd despite forecasts of rain.
South Sydney have left the door slightly ajar for fullback Greg Inglis (knee) to play, while Storm coach Craig Bellamy has suggested bunnies rookie Luke Keary could be spared the opening exchanges in favour of Dylan Farrell playing in the halves from kick-off.
“If there is a trade-off for that inexperience (of Keary), it will come out without us targeting it,” the coach said.
And Melbourne centre Maurice Blair remains in doubt after badly jarring his neck last week. Bellamy said Tohu Harris would be considered for the threequarter line if Blair is out.
Bellamy also said he was confident apparent budget cuts under the club’s new owners would not affect the performance of the teams in future seasons. His comments left a question mark on whether departing assistant coach Kevin Walters had been a victim of the administrative restructure*.
“We’ve been told by the owners that there won’t be too many changes in the footy department,” he told a media conference at AAMI Park.
“There’ll be some changes personnel wise. We already know Kevvy Walters is leaving. There might be another couple of changes, personnel-wise but hopefully the structure and what we’ve got in place will stay.
“It’s been a bit of a breath of fresh air having the new owners around. It’s obviously something different …. They’ve been very, very supportive and hopefully it will stay that way.”
Bellamy also said his opinion on the Auckland Nines had not changed since he roundly criticised the concept in February. The competition has been given the go-ahead for next February.
“It just seems as though we’re crowding more in each year,” he said. “It makes it a big workload for our elite players.
“At some stage we have sit back and say ‘hey, we have to look after our elite players. I’m not sure that’s a priority at the moment.
“Unless we’re going to be fined or thrown out of the comp, there won’t be any of our World Cup players playing in the Nines
“I’m pretty sad, to be quite honest, they’re not going ahead with the All Star game.”
Teams for the match, which kicks off at AAMI Park at 7.40pm, are:
MELBOURNE: Billy Slater; Sisa Waqa, Will Chambers, Maurice Blair, Mahe Fonua; Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk; Ryan Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hoffman, Kevin Proctor, Bryan Norrie, Cameron Smith, Jesse Bromwich. Res: Jason Ryles, Tohu Harris, Jordan McClean, Kenny Bromwich, Slade Griffin (one to be omitted).
SOUTHS: Nathan Merritt; Dylan Farrell, Bryson Goodwin, Dylan Walker, Matt King; Luke Keary, Adam Reynolds; Ben Lowe, Ben Teo, Chris McQueen, George Burgess, Issac Luke, Sam Burgess. Res: Ben Lowe, Nathan Peats, Roy Asotasi, Tom Burgess.
Referees: Ben Cummins/Matt Cecchin.

* Melbourne Storm officials subsequently stated that Walters’ departure was not linked to the administrative restructure.

Filed for: THE AGE

Finch Not Storm Will Determine Veteran’s Future

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

A TEAM-MATE’S misfortune has given him the glimpse of a fairytale send-off and Melbourne Storm favourite Brett Finch is not guaranteed to play on next year even if the club asks him to.

Finch, 31, lines up against the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday with Melbourne’s big three – Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith – back from Origin duty and looks set to wear the no.6 jersey for the rest of the season.

After spending most of the season in the lower grades, Finch’s opportunity came with regular five-eighth Gareth Widdop’s dislocated hip suffered on June 24. He is yet to be offered a contact for next year.

“In the end, it will be Finchy’s decision rather than the club’s,” said the former NSW half’s agent, Steve Gillis.

“We’ve had some dialogue with the club but there has been no decision from them. We might know more in the next two three weeks.

“I spoke to Brett this week and he is comfortable to take his time over it. They might ask him to play on and he agrees. They might ask him to and he might decide against it.

“I guess it’s something like 50-50.”

The former Canberra halfback won a grand final with Melbourne in 2009, before joining Wigan where he pocketed a Challenge Cup winners medal in 2011.

The Storm held a match-eve training session in Auckland yesterday and reported no changes. The Warriors have the second best record, after Canterbury, in the NRL against the World Champions.

While this is often put down to their unpredictability, Warriors prop Sam Rapira insists the opposite is the case.

“(It’s) just applying pressure,” Rapira told NewsTalk ZB on Saturday. “When we have beaten them, we haven’t tried to score.

“It’s just come off our structure and when we’ve pushed that extra pass or that miracle ball, we end up losing.

“I think, as long as we stick to a plan and just keep in it for the full 80, we’ve got every chance of winning.

In form Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson has been identified as the danger man by Storm coach Craig Bellamy.

“If we get some number around him and put some pressure on him, hopefully he stuffs up,” Back rower Kevin Proctor said on the Storm’s website.

Teams for the match, which kicks off at Mt Smart Stadium at 12.05pm (Victorian time), are:

WARRIORS: Kevin Locke; Ngani Laumape, Dane Neilsen, Konrad Hurrell, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Elijah Taylor, Simon Mannering (c), Feleti Mateo, Ben Matulino, Nathan Friend, Sam Rapira. Res: Suaia Matagi, Jacob Lillyman, Todd Lowrie, Dominique Peyroux.

MELBOURNE: Billy Slater; Sisa Waqa, Will Chambers, Maurice Blair, Justin O’Neill; Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk; Ryan Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hoffman, Kevin Proctor, Bryan Norrie, Cameron Smith (c), Jesse Bromwich. Res: Jordan McLean, Tohu Harris, Siosaia Vave, Slade Griffin, Tim Glasby, Ben Hampton (two to be omitted).

Referees: Ben Cummins/Henry Perenara

 

Storm May Offer Finch A New Contract

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE Storm have not spoken to any potential replacements for departing five-eighth Gareth Widdop next year and are seriously considering offering Brett Finch another season.

That was the news from club football manager Frank Ponissi on the eve of the AAMI Park clash with Brisbane and in the wake of Finch telling reporters he was uncertain if he would play on beyond 2013.

Widdop joins St George Illawarra next season but despite a dislocated hip, yesterday tweeted that he would not require surgery and was on the road to recovery.

“We have not even spoken to another five-eighth about next season,” Ponissi told Fairfax Media.

“The only halves we have on contract for next year are Cooper Cronk and Ben Hampton. You cannot go through a season with just two halves.

“We’ll need a five-eighth, we’ll need maybe four halves. Finchy is in our thoughts and we’ve just said we’ll let him setting back into first grade and go from there.”

After returning to the world champions from Wigan this year, Finch has spent most of his time in the NSW Cup before – predictably – being called upon during the Origin period.

But Widdop’s injury means he is going to see more first grade than anticipated and has a golden opportunity to press for a contract renewal – if that’s what he wants.

“If I don’t perform, someone else will come in and do the job,” he said.

“I thought I probably would have played a bit more than I did early but that’s the way it panned out.

“I haven’t made a decision. I’ll probably make a decision in the next month, when I get a clearer decision of how I’m going. I don’t even know if the club wants to keep me for next year, we haven’t spoken about it.

“There’s some good young kids there in Ben Hampton and Kurt Mann and I don’t want to be stopping them from coming through.”

Finch said Hampton could be Widdop’s long term replacement. “I think he could definitely be a five-eighth,” he said. “In juniors he was five-eighth and he’s also been a halfback as well.

“Him and Kurt Mann will be the players the club is looking at next pre-season.”

Finch had the chance to join Souths this year but has no regrets about not being on board with the runaway competition leaders.

“We’re not too far behind, I came to the defending premiers,” he said. “No, I wanted to come back to Melbourne.

“My decision, also, was about my feeling for the club. I want to help the club succeed, in whatever role that is. I want to be part of the club for as long as possible, whether (or not) I play again next year…

“I’ve played with enough clubs. I don’t want to play for anymore.”

His decision to give up a key role in England and return to Australia as a support player has been followed by London captain Craig Gower and Hull KR skipper Michael Dobson (both to Newcastle) in recent weeks.

“I really enjoyed my two years in Super League … but obviously it’s not as strong as the NRL,” Finch commented. “The bottom half of the competition’s pretty weak and the NRL’s getting stronger now, with the money in the game.”

The Broncos arrived in Melbourne on Thursday after spending the week in Auckland. A club spokesman said prop Ben Hannant (calf) would not be a late inclusion.

Teams for the match, which kicks off at AAMI Park at 7.40pm on Friday, are:

MELBOURNE: Billy Slater; Sisa Waqa, Will Chambers, Maurice Blair, Justin O’Neill; Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk; Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman, Bryan Norrie, Cameron Smith (c), Jesse Bromwich. Res: Jordon McLean, Tohu Harris, Siosaia Vave, Slade Griffin, Junior Moors, Tim Glasby, Ben Hampton (three to be omitted).

BRISBANE: Corey Norman; Josh Hoffman, Justin Hodges, Jack Reed, Lachlan Maranta; Scott Prince, Peter Wallace; Corey Parker, Matt Gillett, Alex Glen, Josh McGuire, Andrew McCullough, Sam Thaiday. Res: Ben Hunt, Dave Hala, Mitchell Dodds, Dunamis Lui.

Filed for: THE AGE

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 16

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD
ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES
TIME for a history lesson. In rugby league we used to have no replacements and men would play on with horrendous injuries. Then we had two replacements, then four, and it happened less often. Then we had interchange. We used to have nothing between a sending-off and a penalty. There used to be no sin bin, no video review. Dirty and violent play decreased when they were introduced. You used to be able to play on with blood pouring out of a wound. Then we had the blood bin. Until two years ago, most players who were concussed continued on as a sign of courage. Until a year ago, there were shoulder charges. And until last Wednesday, there was bare-knuckle punching and brawls in rugby league. Save your breath, don’t fight the future. To quote Pearl Jam, it’s evolution, baby.
HALF A CHANCE?
WHILE most observers would regard replacing both NSW’s halves for Origin III as not so much hitting the panic button as pulverising it, Queensland great Gorden Tallis says the one combination he doesn’t want to see in blue is the South Sydney pairing of John Sutton and Adam Reynolds. “Would they be out of place in a sky blue jersey?” Tallis said on Triple M. “I’m going to be biased, I don’t want to see them in a sky blue jersey.” The pair’s coach, Michael Maguire, is usually reluctant to push his charges for representative selection but said: “It’s good for Souths (they’re not there) but they’d definitely be able to handle that arena. They just get better and better. Johnny Sutton just kicks the team around the park and Reyno kicks them around the park. I’m glad we’ve got both of them.”
RESERVES DRAGON THE CHAIN
WHAT’S wrong with the Dragons? You can point to the absence of a long kicking game, lack of creativity, injuries and more. But according to coach Steve Price – on Saturday night in the 25-10 loss to Penrith at least – it was their bench. “As a coach, I’m really looking for a lot more from my interchange bench,” said Price. “There were too many errors and penalties to come out of our interchange bench. That first eight minutes after halftime, we were bogged down defending our goal line for the first eight sets. That should not happen after halftime.” Amid reports that St George Illawarra had gone cold on Canberra halfback Sam Williams, Price said he was “not sure” if the Country Origin rep would join them next year. And although Penrith were briefly in the top eight at the weekend, their coach Ivan Cleary still says: “We are in a rebuilding year …”
BREAKING POINT FOR TITANS
THE departure of Jamali Idris with a broken ankle turned yesterday’s Newcastle-Gold Coast game irrevocably, with Newcastle providing the most ruthless exploitation in recent memory of a missing defensive player. But it could also have altered Gold Coast’s 2013 campaign just as decisively. Brad Takairangi is out until round 19 with a rib injury and yesterday PNG winger David Mead was forced to fill in as a centre. Luke O’Dwyer will be one centre. Marmin Barba, brother of Ben, could be ready for a call-up with William Zillman switching to the threequarterline. It’s been a good season so far for coach John Cartwright; tougher times are ahead. By the way, stats whiz David Middleton can’t ever recall a penalty try and a (possible) eight-point try occurring before.
A HULL OF A TIME
LAST year, Brett Finch gave up being a starting half for arguably the most famous rugby league club in the world, Wigan, to be back-up at Melbourne Storm and play NSW Cup. Craig Gower started this season as club captain at London Broncos and walked out to play off the bench on a modest wage in Newcastle. And now Michael Dobson has handed in the captain’s role at Newcastle to potentially be behind Gower in the pecking order at New Lambton. Super League’s stocks are sinking by the day and if the Rugby Football League are going to introduce an A-League-style marquee players system, as has been discussed, they had better fast-track it or there’ll be no marquee players left. It’s got to the point that RFL is considering another Socceroos measure – playing internationals on the other side of the world because that’s where the players are.
WHAT’S NEW? NOT QUEENSLAND WINNING
LATE on Wednesday night, some of my radio colleagues criticised the print media for zeroing in on the mass sin bin dismissals at the post-match media conference. According to them, “negative stories sell papers”. But that’s not the rationale at all. The word “news” comes from the same place as “comics” and “funnies”. The news is, literally, “stuff that’s new”. Queensland winning an Origin game is NOT new – it’s happened 49 times. Eleven players facing 11 in an Origin game, on the other hand, was rightly described by Ray Warren as “an historic period”. It IS new! Couple that with the fact just about everyone buying a paper in NSW and Queensland the next day would have seen the game, and getting reaction to the use of the sin bin was the biggest no brainer of the season for any trained journalist, none of whom would have had “selling papers” on their minds as they raced to meet deadlines.

Filed for SYDNEY MORNING HERALD