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

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 14

Hamish NealBy HAMISH NEAL

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round fourteen

The clash of the cousins in Cairns between Greg Inglis and Albert Kelly made headlines as the Rabbitohs won the high-scoring encounter 30-24 against the Titans. The late play which saw Queensland Origin star Inglis tackle Kelly, 22, to secure the result for Souths was much talked-about it was the defensive effort of Kelly and his Gold Coast halves partner Aidan Sezer which helped contribute to the loss for John Cartwright’s men. Kelly missed six tackles in the match (he made seventeen). Coupled with the fact Sezer missed four of his 12 tackle attempts, it is a concern for the Titans who will be short of tough-tackling duo Nate Myles and Greg Bird this weekend.

Parramatta’s Chris Sandow is slipping back to some of the habits that saw him dumped in NSW Cup last season. The Kingaroy native made only four runs in the Eels’ 32-14 loss to Cronulla. For a side which – despite losing to the Roosters the previous weekend – had put in an improved effort, it was surprising to see Sandow cede the initiative when on attack. Over the weekend in the halfback ranks, Robert Lui also ran only four times for the Cowboys but the difference was he had Johnathan Thurston who took on the line on, on 10 occasions. Sandow (in having Joseph Paulo) can’t afford the luxury of a catch and pass because the Paulo (five runs-36 metres) is unlikely to run too.

Following on from a position topic last week, it was another wanna-be fullback displaying great wing play to conclude round 14 action. Brisbane winger Josh Hoffman, in the same way Warriors fullback Glen Fishaii prefers the custodian role, produced a terrific performance playing left wing as the Broncos dispatched Wests Tigers. The 25-year-old had 10 tackle breaks as he ran in two tries, logged 129 metres from 13 runs and also assisted in a try.

Former London Bronco Craig Gower may be stuck playing hooker if Danny Buderus remains out for the Knights. Despite Gower’s stated desire to play halfback he was used primarily in the number nine role against the Storm in the Knights’ 16-14 defeat at the hands on Melbourne. Significantly, he was asked to play dummy half when the Novocastrians were chasing the game, even though Indigenous All Star Travis Waddell – who has been with the side since the start of the season – was available. The potential World Cup representative for Italy will be hoping 35-year-old Buderus is available in round 16.

Canberra’s Reece Robinson logged an interesting statistic on the weekend by making no tackles as the Raiders saw off Penrith 24-12. The Raiders fullback did make 18 runs for 149 metres with 10 tackle breaks to go with his 15th minute try as the Raiders joined three other teams on 16 points. Interestingly, in the near-84-minute struggle between the Bulldogs and the Sea Eagles, Manly’s fullback Peter Hiku only made one tackle so sometimes this rare duck is not down the teams attacking dominance.

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 13

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD
1. NO VIOLINS OVER VIOLENCE
THERE are enough debates about violence and Origin to fill up this column at least twice over. But it was instructive that there was a mini-brawl in Parramatta-Sydney Roosters game just two days after Origin I and it went almost completely un-noticed – because only rugby league fans were watching. It’s important to separate the arguments about whether Origin should be played under more laissez faire rule interpretations from the one about whether rugby league itself is too tolerant of violence. It’s ridiculous to suggest State of Origin should go straight from being dirtier that club football to CLEANER just because more people are watching. First, bring club and Origin football into line, then examine what we’re left with and determine whether it’s worth sacrificing some aggression to keep attracting junior players.
2. UNCHAIN DUGAN FOR ORIGIN
JOSH Dugan’s two-try performance for St George Illawarra against Newcastle puts NSW coach Laurie Daley in a bind. Does he pick Jarryd Hayne despite his hamstring injury and nurse him through five or seven days, or does he cut his losses and select Dugan from the get-go? Hayne is a star in any company and player strongly in Origin I. Shadow players are not supposed to come into camp until after the previous weekend’s club round but the Dragons have a bye in round 15. That being the case, Dugan probably should be there from day one of camp and only allowed to go home once Hayne has run at pace and proven he can change direction at his normal level. Conventional wisdom says you don’t know if a hamstring injury has healed until it goes on you – or doesn’t – under duress.
3. DRIVELLIN’ GALLEN
IT’S taken a while but the tossing of brickbats across the NSW-Queensland border has begun in earnest. After Origin I, Queensland coach Mal Meninga thought Paul Gallen’s attack on Nate Myles would perhaps have deserved a sin binning in a club game. By the next morning at the airport, he had decided it was unjustifiable. By yesterday, Gallen’s excuses for the attack were “drivel”. That’s what Meninga wrote in his Sunday Mail column, the home of his infamous “rats and filth” attack in 2011. Meninga said of Gallen: “It would seem by his very comments a pre-meditated attack to settle old scores and, worryingly, the game’s officials seem happy to let it slide”. Meninga said the apparent pre-meditation had gone completely unpunished – and he has a point. Was attacking Myles part of a pre-match strategy, not a result of over-heated encounters on the field in one game?

4. WELCOME TO THE WORLD, ‘KIRSTEN THURSTON’
WHEN did the birth of a footballer’s baby become hard, earth-shattering news, and why wasn’t I told? The intrigue surrounding the birth of Johnathan Thurston’s first baby was completely baffling. On Saturday, the North Queensland club wouldn’t confirm whether or not the birth had taken place – which is fine, it’s a private matter – but also made it clear to reporters it was upset at reports which were clearly true. Huh? These days athletes sell their weddings and family additions to magazines. There is no indication of Johnathan and his fiancé Samantha doing this but it is certainly not the job of the day-to-day news media to help them keep secrets. Someone had a kid. He’s a footballer. Put it in the paper and be done with it. Why all the bloody fuss? PS: Apparently if you get the name of the kid, it’s the biggest yarn since Watergate.
5. OLD TRICKS
CANTERBURY didn’t make the grand final last year by playing well, they did it by winning close games. And now it’s happening again. That’s the view of prop Aiden Tolman after Saturday night’s 36-26 win over North Queensland. “We’ve won five out of our last six … we’ve got a bit of momentum,” said Tolman. “We’re not playing our best footy but we’re winning games. We probably weren’t playing our best last year either but we had that knack of winning games – and that’s all it can take. Especially towards the end of last year, we were just getting wins. That’s what we’re doing this year as well. We’re just getting over the line, last week by two points and this week against a committed Cowboys side who was up against the wall.”

6. PROOF YOU CAN GET LOWER WITH NO GOWER
LONDON Broncos last week questioned Newcastle’s decision to sign Craig Gower, on the basis that their club had won three from 17 with the the dual international as captain. For the same reason, they weren’t too worried about losing him. How worse could things get? On Saturday, the Broncos were beaten – at home – by Warrington 82-10. Gower is a fierce competitor whose contribution may only be seen in his absence. He attended Melbourne training at Harrow in February, not to catch up with old friends but to grill Craig Bellamy on how change a losing culture. This from a fellow could have just collected a fat pay cheque going around in front of 1800 people every second week. Gower will be aware of the Matt Orford comparisons – and be highly motivated to disprove them.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Best New Face – A Blessing Or A Curse?

players pollBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S the ultimate “Where Are They Now?”.
Since 1986, Rugby League Week has been asking 100 players a year who they rated the best new face in the game. That’s right, ‘Best New Face’ – not rookie, a word which carries plenty of rules and regulations on its back.
If you were perceived by your peers to be a “new face”, you were eligible.
The honour roll contains some of the biggest names in our game – Laurie Daley (1988), Steve Menzies (1994) and Greg Inglis (2006).
There’s also a preponderance of men who chose to take the road less travelled later in their careers and railed against the establishment – perhaps an indication that these sort of rebellious characters inspire instinctive admiration in their fellow players.
Craig Gower (1997) Mark McLinden (1998), Karmichael Hunt (2004), Sonny Bill Williams (2005) and Israel Folau (2007) were all spotted by the players at an early age as being destined for greatness. They were eventually spotted – and poached – by rival codes, as well.
Others in our list became steady, reliable first graders without becoming regular internationals – men like Darrell Trindall (1991), Matt Seers (1995), Colin Best (1999), Brett Firman (2003) and, so far, Chris Sandow (2008).
Our first two winners were Ian Roberts and Peter Jackson. Roberts became the first openly gay Australian rugby league player while Jackson played nine Tests for Australia before – tragically – dying of a drug overdose in 1997.
Jason Martin (1990) released a pop single under the tutelage of Molly Meldrum. After decrying the cold of Canberra for most of his career, Fijian Noa Nadruku (1993) ended up retiring in the national capital.
Braith Anasta (2001) probably loved the Players Poll that year but grew to loathe it when colleagues voted him “most over-rated” in subsequent seasons.
And then there are those who, to use the vernacular, didn’t kicked on so much. This group is led by 1992 winner David Seidenkamp.
The message from the list on this page is clear: just because you were voted by your peers as most likely to succeed, doesn’t mean you will. Scanning the honour board should give this year’s winner cause for excitement and caution in equal measure.
“There’s a reason they call it Second Year Syndrome,” says Daley, who will coach NSW in this year’s Origin series.
“When you pop up out of the ground, you can catch opponents by surprise. But then they analyse you and learn what you’re about.
“It’s easy when you’re a nobody. It’s much harder when you’ve started to become a somebody.”
Perhaps the five most recent winners should be the ones who inspire the most caution.
CHRIS SANDOW (2008) looked like he had the world at his feet. At the end of 2011, he moved from South Sydney to Parramatta on a contract Rabbitohs owner Russell Crowe claimed on Twitter to be valued at $550,000 per season. The Eels finished last in his debut season there and he hasn’t been sighted in rep football.
JAMAL IDRIS (2009) was spotted well before his representative debut. He played for Australia in 2010 and looked unstoppable. At the end of the season, he was struck in the neck by a sword wielded by a cousin at Christmas. Four months later, he announced he would be joining Gold Coast in 2012. As was the case with Sandow, his debut season with a new club was a poor one for the whole team. He has not added to his solitary Australian and NSW appearances.
JOSH DUGAN (2010) was another ‘New Face’ that seemed to be pointed towards the heavens. He represented Country that year and the following season, the NRL All Stars and NSW. At the time of writing, his fall from grace has been the most spectacular of anyone to have won this category. He does not even have a club after he posted a picture of himself on Instagram drinking a pineapple cruiser when he should have been at training. His career remains in limbo.
TARIQ SIMS (2011) has suffered setbacks of another kind, breaking a leg twice since he burst onto the scene with North Queensland and gained selection in preliminary NSW squads. Sims’ has made another comeback this year, with the help of the plated ‘Terminator leg’, but his field time has been restricted so far this season.
So far in 2013, last year’s BNF
ADAM REYNOLDS (2012) hasn’t put a foot wrong and is pressing Daley for Origin inclusion. Reynolds seems mature beyond his years, isn’t contemplating any ill-advised changes of clubs and has not been seen with any pineapple cruisers. But injury is always hovering nearby, waiting to interrupt an otherwise promising career.
“If you ask me what I look for in a young player,” says Gower, now with London Broncos after a stint in French rugby union, “I would say consistency.
“Adam Reynolds, he’s doing his role for the team well. The way he is running the ship for Souths, he is organising attack, his defence is good, he seems to have a good kicking game.
“You keep doing that and eventually you start making breaks and suddenly you’ve had a GREAT game and then the media and the fans and everyone starts noticing you.”
Gower, now 34, doesn’t remember being voted the best new player across both competitions, the ARL and Super League, in 2013.
“But I know it was a good year,” he says. “I started the year at hooker, changed positions, played for New South Wales, went away on tour at the end of the year and played halfback in a great Australian side.
“There was Bradley Clyde and Laurie Daley and Ryan Girdler. I played halfback and kicked on from there.
“If you look at that list, most of them went on to play a reasonable about of footIball. Some of those guys like Idris and Sandow changed club and maybe that slowed them down and Sims got injured.
“But they’re pretty good footballers. I reckon they’ve got some good footy ahead of them, all of them.”
Daley is one of the few men on our list whose trajectory continued – with only injury enforced interruptions – for his entire career after being earmarked at an early age as a future great. His form did not suffer significant lulls, he did not go to another sport or fall victim to a major off-field controversy.
Steve Menzies, Ben Kennedy and Greg Inglis would be the others in this category.
“I was lucky,” he reflects. “I had Mal Meninga and these fellas in the team and Tim Sheens coaching and if you got too big for your boots, they’d knock you down a peg or two.
“I was surrounded by good players but also players who would pull you into line.”
Twenty-five years – is it really that long – since Daley was voted by his peers at the best new player in rugby league, he has advice for this years’ hot-right-now superstar.
“It’s great to get accolades but all it shows is that you’re doing something good right now, that people are starting to notice you,” he says.
“It doesn’t mean you should stop preparing exactly the way you did last year.
“It does mean you are starting to win people’s respect. It takes a long time to win respect.
“But it doesn’t take long to lose it.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: CRAIG GOWER (London, City, NSW & Australia)

By STEVE MASCORD

IT wasn’t supposed to be like this for Craig Gower – even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with “this”.

We are sitting outside the London Broncos training sheds, overlooking the playing fields at the Roehamption Campus of Kingston University in London. It’s hot enough to give you sunburn, peaceful enough to hear the birds.

Gower tells A-List about how much he enjoys living in London, how there’s always something to do. He’s heading to a wedding in Thailand on the way back home in the off-season.

But for a man who once captained Australia, one of the world’s leading cities is a backwater – moreso given the performance this year of the Broncos.

In Gower’s first season back from four years in French rugby union, there have been just six wins – three of them in the past month.

It’s a campagn that started with such promise and soon found itself in the football toilet, sucking with it the positive hype about Gower’s return to our loving embrace.  Anonymity is one thing – but Craig Gower is too good a player to wallow in obscurity.

“They recruited well but the expectations from recruiting well and delivering on the field are two different things,” says Gower, his training shirt drenched in sweat.

“It started with not winning (which led to) losing confidence in what we’re doing. Obviously (it’s) not showing enough mental strength to stick together as a team….”

The year had  been enough of a challenge on a personal level, without the poor results. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy at all,” he says of his return. “It’s obviously a completely different game to rugby (union). There’s always doubts there.

“The first few games were about finding my feet – I was coming back from a knee reconstruction as well.

“(I was thinking) ‘What things did I used to do? Are they going to be effective?’ I had to change the way I played a little but I felt pretty comfortable over the year and over the past few weeks, the team’s played well and that gives me a better chance of playing well…”

There had been nibbles from NRL clubs.  “It was discussed but it didn’t eventuate,” he recalls, maybe a little ruefully. “Obviously my knee at the time wasn’t ready to go. I had to do a good off-season and I can’t train back-to-back days.

“I’ve just had a managed program. A lot of guys do that in the NRL anyway. I suppose that didn’t help me.

“Matty Orford getting canned from Canberra wasn’t too good for me either, being his age. It is what it is.”

Now you might expect Craig (age 34, in case you were wondering) to be a little bitter. You might expect him to decry playing in a poor team as a part of a competition many of his compatriots regard as second rate.

That’s not what he’s like at all. He says Super League is a strong competition, that the teams most of us regard as alsorans can beat the glamour sides on their day – with an astonishing 62-18 win over Cup finalists Warrington a week and a half ago as evidence.

“It’s more open, defences aren’t as good,” he  observes. “The top sides have good defences but nothing like back home – not like the games I’ve been watching, anyway.”

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t report that there was a strange expression on the former NSW half’s face as he said this:  “Here it’s the strength factor. I don’t know what they’re … what sort of gym routines they’ve been doing but they’re very, very strong.

“Everyone. I suppose they just do a lot of gym work here…”

Off the field, though, is where English rugby league lags behind the southern hemisphere, he argues.

“I don’t know the ins and outs but from what I know, the deal they’ve got with Stobart is a contra deal, which is absolutely ridiculous,” he says (this deal has been voided, effective at the end of this season)

“They don’t televise every game, they have in-goal touch judges like it’s back in 19 effing 80. That’s where they’re so far behind. I can’t judge who’s running the joint … but if they want the game to go ahead, they need it to be televised, every game, and have proper (video) officiating like they have for two games because I think it’s a bit unfair.

“Apparently it’s second to soccer here, in being watched, so I don’t know what the deal is.”

Living the high life in Biarritz during his time in the 15 man game, Gower was a picture of the expression “living well is the best revenge”. The bad publicity which dogged him in Australia after alcoholic misadventures had been left behind.

A French rugby union official read his Wikipedia entry and almost decided not to sign him. You can too: it features being dropped from the Australian team for indecent exposure and going on a rock star-type rampage at a wedding.

And I guess if you’re an NRL fan, that’s what you want to know about more than the state of the game in England – how Gower’s career could have taken a different path if he had stayed a Penrith and kept his nose clean.

 “Some of the things that get written are unbelievable, mate,” he responds when I ask if Penrith still have any hold over him because he left with two years remaining on his contract in 2007.

“I had a get-out clause that was done when I did the deal. It was a handshake deal with Mick Leary that if I felt like I wanted to leave the club, if I had an opportunity to go somewhere else overseas, I could.

“I exercised that agreement and that was it. It wasn’t like I was leaving them in the lurch.

“It is what it is, mate. I made my bed because I went a bit crazy a few times and – shit happens.

“Things that got reported were sometimes off the mark.” Gower draws a very distinct line. If he did it, and you talked or wrote about it, that’s fine.

But … “that’s the thing. It was more with things being written that were just not right.

“Ray (Hadley) went off his head because I didn’t tell him … I hadn’t actually signed the contract but because I had said to him I wasn’t going (to Bayonne) … .

“I wasn’t going at that time. I hadn’t signed the contract. He went off his head calling me a liar because I said to him I wasn’t going to go and the next day I signed the contract and i was going.”

To provide some balance, as a media person I would rather just be told “no comment” than have something denied outright that turns out to be true. But Gower argues people keep secrets regarding their employment all the time – and that as a professional athlete, he should be allowed to as well.

“If 2UE rang up and said come to our joint, it would be a different story for Ray….”
 he says.

“It’s just funny how it works sometimes. That’s the thing with the game back home. It’s so heavily scrutinised because it’s the number one game, it is what it is. It’s the same as the soccer here.”

Rugby league will soon catch up with soccer in another area – sacking coaches.

It’s no badge of honour for players when their coach gets sacked. Promising young British clipboard man Rob Powell was given his marching orders a month ago, and has now been replaced on a permanent basis by Tony Rea, who was originally just a caretaker.

So why do teams like London and Parramatta manage to pick themselves up off the canvas when they coach gets the bum’s rush?

“Personally, I think it’s different for a coach to come in like that,” Gower answers. “They’re not coming in to coach you. They’re coming in to get your confidence up and get the team together. You haven’t really seen the coach until he’s had a good year term of ups and downs.

“That’s the way I look at it. Obviously Tony’s done a good job because he’s come in and got the boys together and we’ve won a few games….”

The implication being: we’ll see how he’s going a year from now.

Gower says he is still up to NRL standard. If a halfback was to get injured sometime in the next 12 months, he could do a job for someone.

 “I think so. I think my form here has been good. It’s hard to say but it’s all about having that opportunity and I suppose people look at my age and they make their judgements off that. That’s fair enough.”

He can’t say for sure that his swansong will be for Italy in next year’s World Cup.  “It’s just a matter of how well my body’s going.

But he and wife Amanda have stashed away enough money to save him from having to get a job immediately.

When the boots eventually do go in the kitbag for the last time, Gower will be remembered as someone who admitted his mistakes but didn’t concede the rights of others to punish him any way they saw fit, repeatedly.

Gower took the road less travelled, to France, to Italy, to rugby union, and back again. Right now, he says, the only thing on his mind is training, playing, making the most of the time he has left in a career that reads like a rock star biography.

“Away from that,” he says. “I play some golf.

“ I’ve got to get that handicap down.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK