DISCORD 2013: Edition 33

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

NRL chief executive David Smith hasn’t just been vindicated by the deal signed with Touch Football Australia – he’s been vindicated by the reaction to it.

If Smith has made his name for anything in his short time in charge of the game in this country, it’s been for ignoring criticism.

Multiplying rugby league’s participant numbers four or five-fold in one fell swoop is not just his first really big triumph but it’s rugby league’s biggest success since peace broke out in the Super League War.

Yet there are those who either see the development as of no significance or of actually being bad. I wonder if these are the same sections of the game’s community who have previously been criticising his management style?

The fact people can still find fault with such a staggering achievement proves David Smith has been right to ignore us all along.

Some of the criticism I have seen on social media has been along the lines of the merger being “a numbers game” and “window dressing”, along with the contention that the merger will somehow make the game at the top level “softer”.

That, or that it is part of an overall strategy to make the game softer.

Discord’s core belief about the way forward for any sport is that it’ objectivs must be to expose itself to more participants and more spectators. Without that aim, there is no reason for administrators to get out of bed in the morning.

It is to be hoped more women, for a start, have a go at full contact rugby league as a result of the new link between the sports. This is a potential boon for the women’s game.

Touch football can also provide us with more spectators, particularly in the “heathen” states, if we market our sport to them intelligently. We can win back a few people we have lost over the years. We can perhaps find more Shaun Johnsons and Matt Moylans and stop them going to rugby union.

But the most significant statement came from the boss of TFA, Colm Maguire, who said: “Touch Football in Australia was born out of Rugby League”.

That’s right, touch was a reaction to the popularity of rugby league so the NRL has every right to bring it BACK under its umbrella.

Of course, rugby union denizens would no doubt have similar argument about annexing league – but in this country, combined, the rugby codes would still be dwarfed by Touch Football!

To compare touch football with “brandings”, “British Bulldog” and “Kiss and catch” is highly amusing but ignores the historical links. If rugby league was not popular in Australia, touch football would not be popular.

But most importantly, as a rugby league fan, I hope David Smith is not reading this. And if he is, I hope he gives it scant regard. I don’t want a leader of my game that cares what some hack thinks.

I want a leader who does what he thinks is right until he doesn’t have a job anymore.

Also, I think we can see why the NRL needs 140 staff when you are doing broad-brush things such as merging sports. Making the most of a decision affecting more than a million participants, can’t be done with two people a couple of mobile phones. It’s a mind-bogglingly complex task.

Discord is hearing that the International Rugby League Federation may soon have a handful of fulltime employees, too, and a physical address!

Give me a second while I get up off the floor.

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DISCORD got a phone call this week from Shannon Crane, the man behind the ‘other’ rugby league body in Thailand.

For those who have been following this, you’ll be aware there has only been one game of note in the Kingdom, last year’s “international” between Thailand and the Philippines in Bangkok.

I used quotation marks there because Crane says he registered “Thai Rugby League” as a trademark in mid 2011 and the team fielded against the Tamaraws included players who were not eligible to represent the country under RLIF rules.

Crane, a former Penrith development squad coach who moved to Thailand to pursue business interests in 2004, always intended to start a domestic comp first and was happy to let the other group, led by South Sydney Juniors identity Andrew Charles, do as they wished.

That’s as long as they didn’t infringe on his copyright, which he says they did. This resulted in legal action. Crane hopes to have a six-team domestic competition up and running next year with some big name sponsors.

The RLIF appears to have made no call yet on which group it supports. Crane’s team plays Greece in Bangkok on October 12 with a big domestic pop star Dome Pakorn Lum to perform at halftime.

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COMMENTS time and let’s start with last week’s Discord, which concerned itself chiefly with Anthony Milford.

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TRAVELS: XVIII

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
THE Australian Rugby League Commission has today cut a deal that, in terms of participants, is far more significant than even a reunification of the rugby codes would be.
The ARLC and NRL has formed a “partnership” with Touch Football Australia, which has suddenly taken the number of participants in rugby league in this country to well over over one million.
You read that right: one million players. The NRL claims 844,000 people play the game already, although this includes schools programmes that involve one-off carnivals. The combined sport is now arguably the biggest in Australia – ahead of netball, soccer and Australian Rules.
And the announcement is typical of the administration of CEO and former Welsh banker David Smith. There were no leaks, no whispers that it was happening – just a media conference and an a release..
Touch football (I’m sure you used to call it ‘tig and pass’) is a massive participant sport in Australia, even in states where the AFL is dominant. All those men and women of all ages we see playing at dusk each in cities and towns will now be linked to the NRL.
Together, they will be able to attract more government funding and sponsorship. League players will be directed to touch teams in summer and – more importantly – vice versa. Their officials, offices and infrastructure will now also help recruit and promote full contact rugby league.
It’s a massive development for our game – but there are still recidivists who are complaining that “the commission has turned out game into touch anyway – now they’re making it official”.
The merger with touch football makes us a more inclusive sport. It hopefully allows us to cherry pick the Benji Marshalls and Shaun Johnsons of the future and prevent them playing the other code.
The boss of TFA, Colm Maguire, said: “Touch Football in Australia was born out of Rugby League and the opportunity to create Australia’s largest sporting community aligned with the NRL is as compelling as it is ambitious and fortuitous.”
If this sounds like cheerleading from me, then it comes with no agenda. Your columnist doesn’t cheer for a team, he cheers for rugby league against other sports. And this feels like we’ve won the grand final.
Unfortunately, I am told touch in the UK is linked very closely with rugby union. Having this marriage happen at an RLIF level might be problematic, but it’s worth a try, right?
Announcements like this make it more apparent why the NRL currently needs 140 staff. Trying to integrate two sports like this to maximum benefit won’t be easy. One can only wonder what other projects Smith and his men have in store.
I am glad David Smith doesn’t care what I or any other journalist writes. As long as he keeps coming up with coups like this, I am happy to be completely ignored.
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THE way in which Super League is consumed in Australia has just changed enormously.

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WORLD RUGBY LEAGUE POWER LIST: Year Two

Power ListBy STEVE MASCORD
WE certainly picked the right time to kick off our World Rugby League Power List in 2012 – if only because it bore little resemblance to rankings we now present to you 12 months later.
Last June, the game had just lost NRL chief executive David Gallop, who went to the FFA, and Rugby Football League executive chairman Richard Lewis, who is now back in tennis.
But at the time, the NRL didn’t have a CEO while no-one has really replaced Lewis at Red Hall, although former Football League CEO Brian Barwick is now the chairman and Maurice Watkins is on board a senior non-executive director.
But it’s at League Central in Sydney that the biggest shakeup has taken place. Since Gallop’s departure, Welshman David Smith has taken over as chief executive and he has designed and instituted a detailed administrative structure.
Todd Greenberg is head of football, Jim Doyle is chief operating officer, Shane Mattiske is head of strategy and Paul Kind runs commercial with three positions to be added.
The old guard is largely either gone, or going.
Last year we summed up the aim of this list thus: – if rugby league has a “direction” as such, who is behind the thing, pushing the hardest? These aren’t necessarily people who throw their weight around most often – but equally we have not favoured wallflowers who could action enormous change for the sport with their wealth and influence but who have so far done nought.
In achieving this aim, we looked at appointing a panel of judges. In future years, that might happen but for now we are sticking to the informal process observed by most journalists gathering information most days – ringing people and talking to them.
The buck for this list stops with the name at the top of the page.
1. John Grant
ARLC chairman: Grant has receded into the background somewhat but is still David Smith’s boss. He attends marquee events, presses the flesh, does interviews and recently presided over the decision to prioritise 30 tasks that the ARLC wanted to achieve over the coming months. He’s the most active and influential member of the commission and still spends a great deal of time at League Central – although much less than before Smith’s appointment. Because of his personal interest in international football, the game’s progress in that area will be significantly influenced by him.
2. Dave Smith
ARLC chief executive: For months last year, the only rugby league official we seemed to see on television was the Commission’s chairman, John Grant. He was everywhere – but has virtually become invisible since he found his man in Welsh banker David (now ‘Dave’) Smith. The name change is eerily reminiscent of predecessor David Moffett, who used to ring open line radio programs posing as ‘David From Hornsby’. Despite being labelled a ‘dunce’, Smith completely remodelled the NRL administration and was at pains to point out the changes were all his. By this time next year, he should go up a place on this list.
3. Gary Pemberton
ARL Commissioner. It seems strange to have three ARLC types at the top of the list and then no more. But Pemberton, Grant and Smith are seen as the men who run rugby league in Australia while the others six commissioners work behind the scenes. We called him a “head kicker” last year but he has been less obtrusive since then. However, clubs hear from Pemberton regularly. Pemberton has experience in TV rights negotiations but unlike others in that area of expertise, has held his spot in the top 20. The likes of Ian Frykberg and Lachlan Murdoch will next be heard from here in four years.
4. Cameron Smith
Melbourne player. Cameron Smith’s influence was best exemplified by David Smith telling the assembled club CEOs earlier this year the hooker wanted the accreditation of three journalists revoked overthe Jon Mannah story. If an Australia captain has ever been so politically active, we haven’t known about it. Smith regularly talks to players around the competition and reportedly would like to be Queensland coach one day. His steady demeanour means he inspires trust in others. As influential as any player has even been off the field.
5. David Gyngell
Television executive. With the NRL’s TV deal signed since our last power rankings, the executives of the stations that got the rights have held their places and those who missed out have disappeared completely. Channel Nine remains central to the way most Australians consume rugby league. People who tweet scores from games they are showing on delay are regularly abused and Nine’s commentators are arguably more famous than most players. Nine succeeded in convincing the NRL to allow them to delay Sunday games and keep grand finals in the evening by throwing truckloads of money at the new administration.
6. Todd Greenberg
NRL official. Despite his high profile, Greenberg didn’t make our list last year because we were told he was not a wheeler-and-deaer, preparing to focus on what was in front of him at the Bulldogs. But having handled the Ben Barba episode at the club earlier this year, Greenberg has been appointed as David Smith’s frontman at Moore Park. He’s the man who knows it’s Ben Barba, not Benji Barba, and will speak on football-related matters in future. Presumably, given Dave Smith’s pre-occupation with the corporate side of the business, Greenberg will increasingly seem like the boss of the NRL to average fans.
7. Patrick Delany
Television executive. Our first new entry, the Fox Sports CEO has been very proactive this year as his pay television channel completely overhauled its rugby league coverage, cutting a talent-sharing deal with Nine. A former Commonwealth Games swimming trialist, Delaney is known to be in constant contact with clubs about innovations such as the Fox Kopter and cornerpost-cam. A great corporate link with News Limited and a big move into tablets and mobile technology increases Fox’s – and Delany’s – influence.
8. Phil Gould
Penrith general manager. Gould was David Gallop’s no.1 nemesis and saw him off. No other club official commentates on games and writes columns in newspapers. He has the ear of David Smith and the respect of most, putting in long hours and leading the fight against the GWS AFL franchise. Gould appears to be a fan of the ARLC but history shows he will be a formidable adversary if they get him offside. He talks about politics, football and personalities and shapes public opinion in each these areas. And he almost prised Johnathan Thurston away from North Queensland.
9. Ray Dibb
Canterbury chairman. The rise of NRL club chairman has been a key development since our most recent power rankings. The group succeeded in getting an advance on the TV rights income which has been estimated at some $7 million per franchise. Initially, there were fears they would block the introduction of the commission completely if they didn’t get their way. Dib is in constant contact with other club bosses, recently appointed the first female chief executive of the NRL era, Raelene Castle and played a key role in the recent restructure of the NSWRL.
10. Gary Hetherington
Leeds chief executive. Our highest ranking English power broker, Hetherington runs the dual code Leeds Rugby conglomerate and is the man behind bids to expand the World Club Challenge which now look like being successful. Hetherington is always thinking outside the box, be it taking games to places like Dubai and Hong Kong or tinkering with the domestic season, and has more influence than anyone at Red Hall given the recent financial problems at Bradford and the near-collapse of Salford.
11. Dave Trodden
Wests Tigers official. The Balmain solicitor stepped down as Wests Tigers chairman at the end of his term last year but by then he had already played a key role in establishing the NRL chairmans’ group and won significant funding from the Commission, creating a new power group in the game. At the end of 2011, he was quoted in RLW saying the clubs were refusing to sign licence agreements with the NRL, which could have freed them to form their own competition. Despite no longer being a club chairman, Trodden remains active. Also a huge influence over NSWRL restructure.
12. Graham Annesley
NSW Sports Minister. The next big revolution in the NRL is going to concern the stadiums policy, and attempts to match venues to events more sensibly.. That will mean a painful departure from suburban grounds and better deals for clubs and fans at the super stadia. As NSW sports minister, former international referee Graham Annesley will be at the centre of the paradigm shift. He’s rocketed up eight spots in our world rugby league power rankings as a result.
13. Wayne Beavis
Player agent. With the television deal done and the competition structure settled, player agents such as Beavis come into their own once more. When it was reported recently that Neil Henry had two weeks to save his job as coach of North Queensland, it was a meeting Beavis held in Townsville which sparked the rumour. Beavis manages Trent Barrett, who has been linked to a coaching job at the Cowboys. He also represented the players in talks with the RLPA about representative payments and is also deeply involved in the Agent Accreditation scheme.
14. Wayne Bennett
Newcastle coach. The supercoach has dropped a few spots because he has had enough on his plate at Newcastle, restricting the time available to influence the sport as a whole. Nathan Tinkler has gone from the top 20 completely for similar reasons. But when Bennett has something to say, like recently regarding cannonball tackles, people listen. Having brought back the Tri- (now Four) Nations, he has reportedly moved his focus to Australian sport as a whole. Bennett knows how to use his influence and is anecdotally close to ARLC chairman John Grant.
15. Jim Doyle
NRL chief operating officer. Already influential in his role as the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby League, the Navman millionaire has crossed the Tasman and is helping run the NRL. Doyle turned Kiwi league around in the wake of the SPARC report, winning many admirers, and could even be regarded as over-qualified for his NRL gig. His oversight includes the new NRL integrity unit and he gave an early indication he won’t be a wallflower by speaking out against the practice of sweeping off-field incidents under the carpet.
16. Shane Richardson
South Sydney chief executive. Richardson has a finger in plenty of pies. As one of the longest-surviving club CEOs, he has plenty to say at CEOs conferences. As a former Super League club boss, he is on the committee that liases over the future of the World Club Challenge. And as the boss of the competition’s form team, he has a big input on competition-wide policies, such as media procedures. Richardson is also not afraid to make a public statement, meaning he can use the media to apply pressure where necessary – a lost art among most NRL CEOs
17. Isaac Moses
Player agent. A new entry by unlucky to miss out last year. Moses is the man who manages Cameron Smith, the current Australian captain, and the recruit the game most covets, Israel Folau. As part of Titan management, which also handles Karmichael Hunt, he has been involved in some of the most seismic transfers in recent rugby league history – ones which affect the overall health of the game by shifting athletes from one sport to another. Moses was banned from operating by the Agent Accreditation Scheme over his involvement in the Storm salary cap drama but the suspension seemed to have little or no impact on his operation
18. Simon Moran
Warrington majority shareholder. The English “pop impresario” rarely gives interviews but is too polite to decline them, simply going missing at the appointed time. He’s the man behind some of the biggest bands, festivals and venues in the UK but his big passion is rugby league and, more specifically, Warrington Wolves. He has single-handedly turned them into a Super League force and is part of a powerful group that is negotiating over the future of the World Club Challenge. A man with enough money to make things happen.
19. Paul Gallen
Cronulla captain. Gallen has become increasingly outspoken in recent years and the ASADA investigation at the Sharks has brought his leadership qualities into shark focus. Cronulla’s decision to stone-wall the drugs agency has forced it to change tack and probably prolonged the investigation. On the field, he took the law into his own hands in Origin I as NSW skipper and probably went a long way towards determining the result. Number 19 with a bullet.
20 Owen Glenn
Warriors shareholder. Probably holds the fortunes of rugby league in New Zealand in his hands. The billionaire took a share in the Warriors last year, with an announcement he and Eric Watson would share the ownership on a 50-50 basis. Without the club as a flagship, rugby league in New Zealand would not be able to keep its head above water in comparison with the dominant rival code. The owners last year announced they wanted to make the club the biggest sporting franchise in Australasia. That’s got off to a shaky start.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

BONDI BEAT: June 2013

Rugby League World June 2013By STEVE MASCORD

AS a rugby league fan – probably in Britain – reading this, it’s entirely possible you can’t completely avoid soccer.

You may have a soft spot for your home town club or for a Premier League outfit. And while Rugby League is your passion, you’ll have more than a passing interest in the results each weekend.

In NSW and Queensland it is completely possible and quite easy to ignore the fact soccer exists. But fans of the round ball game in those states would find it almost impossible to have no idea who Wally Lewis or Andrew Johns is.

The reason I raise this is to draw a comparison between British rugby league and Australian soccer –the latter of which I am sure you can and do go about your daily lives not contemplating.

Both competitions, the A-League and Super League, have moved to summer to escape their overbearing competitors. Each sport has snared an administrator from the other, in David Gallop and Maurice Watkins.

And each has a poor record of failed expansion and financially ruined clubs.

But it’s in the area of recruitment that I want to make this comparison relevant. Super League is becoming a little like Australian soccer in that the best stars – the Tim Cahills and Harry Kewells – would not even consider staying at home due to the riches, glamour and profile on offer overseas.

Just a couple of weeks back, Gareth Hock and Lee Mossop inked deals with Parramatta. Many more are apparently on the way, with Mike Cooper linked to St George Illawarra.

The way Australian soccer attracts stars like Alessandro Del Piero despite having a salary cap of just $2.48 million (Stg1.66 million) is a marquee player scheme. There’s one at each club and their payments are completely exempt from the salary cap.

Similarly, Super League could stay in the hunt for some of the best players in the world by employing a similar system. Perhaps they would each go into the cap at a nominal amount, rather than nothing. The danger, of course, is that clubs who can’t afford marquee players (everyone but Leeds, Warrington, St Helens and Wigan) would send themselves broke by buying one anyway.

But with the cap unlikely to go up next year due to financial pressure and players lining up at Manchester Airport for direct flights to the NRL, it looks like the best short-term solution.

Who knows? Maybe someone’s already thought of it.

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UNTIL now, we got a vague idea that the new Australian Rugby League Commission cared a bit more about international football than the previous administration (which, to be fair, probably cared more than the one before it.

But now we have proof.

The commission has identified 30 tasks that it values above all others in the months ahead. One of them is the development of the international game.

In case you were hoping for ARLC chairman John Grant to just go ahead and list the other 29, well … er … he won’t.

But here’s what he had to say to us recently on the ABC.

“We just carried out a work prioritisation. If I go back, we put a strategic plan out there that was very clear on where we plan to put our focus and our attention over the next five years.

“We’ve devolved that laid it out into what turns out to be 30 priorities we plan to time-schedule and run through. It’s turning the intent of the strategic plan into actions and into measurements.
“We’ve got each of those 30 projects, each of which has multiple sub-projects.

“One of the things we have in our charter that fits onto this priority of international rugby league and making the Pacific Island nations stronger.

“That requires funding, and the commission funded the Tonga-Samoa international.”

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AND that’s a nice segueway into the game held at Penrith’s Centrebet Stadium on April 20, a big 36-4 win to a Tongan team full of NRL stars over a Samoan side full of NRL stars.

As you may be aware now, there were two large-scale pitch invasions late in the match. The second prevented Tongan five-eighth Samsoni Langi from converting winger Mahe Fonua’s second try.

One of the most bizarre – and disturbing – scenes during the evening was a security guard high-fiving a pitch invader.

The common story after the game was that half the security was sent home at 3pm because they didn’t think the crowd would be very big in light of heavy rain at that stage.

The event organiser, Frank Puletua, repeated this allegation to me in a story. Penrith Panthers angrily denied it, saying no such thing happened.

Even Chinese Whispers start somewhere.

But the fact remains that a fully sanctioned Test match was abandoned with 45 seconds left because of a pitch invasion – an even which would prompt countless unsavoury headlines if it happened in another sport.

International rugby league often wants to have a bet each way – “please take us seriously” until something goes wrong, then it’s down to “passion” and “grassroots”.

This definitely won’t wash at the World Cup. If we get the mainstream media engaged, we have to accept they won’t just report the good stuff.

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IT’S hard to know what to make of the make-over at NRL headquarters at Moore Park.

The former banker now running the show, David Smith, copped a bit of a battering the other day when only 4635 fans showed up to City-Country.

Central to the complaints is that he doesn’t return reporters’ phone calls. Although it went national – and international – in 1995, the premiership is still quite a Sydney-centric beast and the Sydney media feels it pretty much owns it.

Actually, until a year ago, it did!

No doubt the daily press had considerably less interest in what David Smith did each day when he sat at a desk and crunched numbers.

Now, traditional media everywhere is growing steadily less influential (you’re reading this on our ipad app, aren’t you?) but in the case of the Sydney dailies, they’re not going down without a fight.

Radio commentator Ray Hadley calling Smith a “dunce” was headline news in the Daily Telegraph.

The next day, the changes were announced. Chief amongst these were the appointments of Canterbury chief executive Todd Greenberg as head of football and former NZRL CEO Jim Doyle as chief operating officer.

Smith is putting an enormous bureaucracy around him, having hired people with a background as political lobbyists early in the piece.

He has created new divisions at the NRL: Finance, Marketing Digital & Content, Corporate Affairs And Community, Football, Strategy, Commercial and Operations.

Four heads of these departments have been appointed, three have not. Drop Dave an email if you are interested!

While the Sydney press treated these developments with the seriousness it would afford a new New South Wales state cabinet – and afforded them more space – it all seems like empty rhetoric to Bondi Beat.

The first big success the ARLC can claim is the $1.025 billion Tv deal. Since then, there have been small triumphs but we’re still waiting for the second big one.

Smith seems capable and I have heard from at least one club that his address to its board was “staggeringly impressive”.

“He knows where he wants the game to go and can tell you exactly how we can get it there,” the insider said.

The make-up of the team is only of so much interest. It’s the game that counts.

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AS previously reported, the United States and Samoa are hoping to play a World Cup warm-up game in Hawaii.

I can report that Australia coach Tim Sheens is not planning any warm-up games while New Zealand’s Stephen Kearney is looking for an opponent in Europe.

@BondiBeat

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

THE BIG ISSUE: #40

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN the NRL, we tend to give new officials a honeymoon period – then we smash them.

The honeymoon period of referees coach Daniel Anderson is well and truly over, thanks to Parramatta coach Ricky Stuart who last week accused him of writing incomprehensible match summaries and needlessly factoring “discretionary penalties” in his assessment of match officials.

Stuart also said whistlers spoke to players in “friggin Spanish”, prompting the clowns on the Fire Up! radio show to say Ricky should have listened when they advised him to appoint at least one Spanish-speaking captain!

The other NRL official who is copping it is the new chief executive, David Smith.

As a journalist, you might expect me to join the cacophony of complaints that Smith doesn’t answer his phone that often and isn’t accessible to those of us in the fourth estate.

But as a rugby league fan, I am not sure I want a leader who even cares what I am typing right now. I want someone who is a bit of a statesman, above the daily cycle of criticism that drives the media machine.

I want someone who has a vision for rugby league and is willing to pursue it until it gets him sacked.

Does the commissioner of the NFL finish his day by returning the calls for 47 hacks at every newspaper in the United States?

Big Issue is not suggesting Neil Whittaker, David Moffett and David Gallop were harming rugby league in any way when they spoke to the Sydney dailies and The Australian multiple times per week.

Despite what some may think, Gallop showed no favouritism; I probably spoke to him more when I was at Fairfax than I did at the Telegraph.

It’s great that these men ruled in eras when that was possible.

But if rugby league is going to realise its potential in a changing media environment, it should not be possible for the CEO to do that anymore. We should be aiming to get to a point where there are just too many requests for him to handle.

The influence of traditional outlets is receding as websites, blogs and social media gain more traction. Compelling evidence of this will be the way criticism of Smith from old media has little or no effect, whereas it would have seriously undermined his predecessors.

As a journalist, I cannot endorse anything that restricts freedom of speech. But intellectually, I understand why we need to keep the game out of the defamation courts by fining coaches who question referees’ integrity.

Similarly, as a journalist, it would be great to be able to pick up the phone at any time and ring David Smith.

I’ve been covering rugby league since 1986 and work for a number of media outlets in various capacities.

I’ve never met David Smith.

But if I’m honest, I kind of like it that way.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: Representative Round

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD
1. COUNTRY ROADS, TAKE ME SOMEWHERE
SUPPORT for the City-Country game rallied over the 24 hours before yesterday’s game at BCU Stadium in Coffs Harbour. Then, 4635 people showed up. The first question that needs to be answered is whether NSW needs a selection trial at all. Paul Gallen did say on Triple M last night that he would have confidence playing alongside Adam Reynolds after seeing him in action. So assuming they do need the game, the next question is whether candidates actually oppose each other in that selection trial. Yesterday, that probably happened only in the front row or second row … maybe the centres. So if the object is to see how players fair at rep level, not against each other, then why do City and Country have to play each other? “Sydney Origin” would draw a massive crowd in Port Moresby, while Country could take on an island nation or Pacific All Stars in a rural centre and in interest would be huge. In the NRL, we’re trying to find the right venues for the right games. At rep level, we have to find the right opponents for the right teams.

2. ISLANDS GO FROM INVADED TO INVADERS
IN almost a quarter of a century of covering international rugby league outside the top three, I have learned of a strange dichotomy. Those running and supporting the games want to be taken seriously regardless of rubbery qualification rules, dodgy venues and last-minute planning. That’s until something goes wrong. Then they – administrators, coaches, fans and players – want forgiving coverage and charity because it’s “a development game” and they’re just doing their best for the great sport of rugby league. You can’t have a bet each way, it’s either serious or it’s not. On Saturday night, a fully recognised Test match was abandoned with 45 seconds left – and a scoreline which will appear in the record books forever was affected by a conversion that couldn’t be taken – because match officials had been escorted off for their own protection amid a pitch invasion. Other sports would cop it over that and so should we.

3. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE INTERCHANGE BENCH
WHEN Willie Mason retires, he has an opportunity to start a new form of corporate service: motivational comedy. Your correspondent on the touchline yesterday heard Mason mix humour with exhortation in a manner perhaps not seen elsewhere in the English language. “Off already?” he says as opponent Nathan Peats trudged past. “I got you on your back, brother,” Peats said back. “That’s must be a big aim,” Mason responded. But Mason’s encouragement of his team-mates – mixed with good-natured humour and mostly gentle sledging of the opposition – bordered on inspirational. Mason may have cashed in his representative retirement fund but his representative footballing chips remain firmly in his pocket.

4. BAAAH HUMBUG
IN all the discussions about the ANZAC Test and its place in the calendar, two things are forgotten. One, we used to have the Test after Origin and Australia beat Great Britain 64-10. Australia are too strong after being steeled by Origin and are capable of setting the international game back decades. That’s why the Test is on first.
Two, no-one considered that the game is there for the Kiwis. Australian league people often just think of themselves. The NZRL has precious few fixtures to promote the game and its trademarks. The leading country in any sport has a moral responsibility to the other nations playing that game to help them. Oh, if it’s not worth playing the World Cup holders, who is it worth playing? And no-one said the Tonga-Samoa game should be scrapped when the margin was bigger…

5. VIDEO KILLED THE TEST STAR
A FORMER touch judge admonished me on Twitter on Friday when I suggested there was no basis for the NRL video referee procedure (form a T with your hands, say you think it’s a try, say what you want to check) being used in a Test match. “Isn’t it about getting it right?” he said. Well, it isn’t JUST about that. This is a World Cup year; a World Cup that still doesn’t have a naming rights sponsor. Shouldn’t we be trying to create the impression that there is a level above domestic football that is a little different? There is never a feeling when Australia plays New Zealand in mid-season that it is part of a wider level of competition that now involves more than 30 countries. We should be working hard on creating that impression – so (see above) people take us seriously.

6. DAVID’S NOT WELSHING ON ANYTHING
YESTERDAY on the ABC, NRL Commission chairman John Grant addressed criticism that his chief executive David Smith is not as accessible as predecessors like Neil Whittaker, David Moffett and David Gallop. Now, I have heard that even NRL clubs struggle to get as returned phone call from Smith at times. Grant said that Smith had been busy with the ASADA investigation and many other matters, including the prioritising of 30 key ‘tasks’ the commission wants to address in the coming months. He said Smith would become more visible but would not be talking to the same journo or journos every day, as previous CEOs have done. I’m a journo but I think that’s fair enough. Does the NFL commissioner finish every day by returning 47 calls from every daily newspaper in the US? The media is too diverse now for Smith to favour just a handful of hacks without rightly being accused of unfairness. Oh, those days were great. Thanks Neil, thanks Davids. But I can accept they’re over.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

BONDI BEAT: April 2013

By Rugby League World April 2013STEVE MASCORD

WAS that the last stand-alone World Club Challenge we’ll see in the UK for some time? Was that a sentence that has been written before half a dozen times and will be written again this time next year?

This hack is proud of his record of having covered every WCC decider since 1994, bringing him to England every year since 2000 at some stage of February to enjoy your “summer” sport.

And many of those years, I have written a story – usually quoting one G Hetherington – about how the concept is about to take off again after the disaster of 1997.

And nothing every happened.

When South Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson travelled to Britain in the middle of last year, his friends joked that he would announce “after long and productive talks, we are proud to announce that next year’s World Club Challenge will be played in England again”.

And that’s what he came back and did!

But in meetings with Leeds’ Hetherington, Warrington’s Simon Moran and Wigan’s Ian Lenagan, he made it clear that Aussie clubs were serious about turning the WCC into a moneyspinner.

Sydney teams are currently doing deals with stadia under the state government’s new policy which aims to put the right games at the right venues rather than tying teams to draconian lease agreements. The WCC is already being used as a bargaining chip in those talks.

I am led to believe the UK members of the WCC working group recently asked their NRL counterparts how serious they were about all this. The Aussies delayed answering so they could consult their fellow clubs and offer an united response.

I also know of one middle eastern venue that is serious about taking the game off Sydney next year.

The 2015 World Club Challenge, with the top three teams in each hemisphere playing each other, has more detractors than the plan for 2014.

Hetherington’s idea is to make it like a Test series, NRL v Super League, over one weekend – with the domestic competition paused. The world title would always be decided on the Monday but if, say, the NRL side won it, and the Super League teams won the other two, then the northern hemisphere could still claim a “series victory”.

Many people aren’t sold on that.

Melbourne football manager Frank Ponissi has a more radical plan bring over both NRL grand finalists. Play the WCC and a trial match one week, and then stage a full NRL match in England as part of a double-header the following week.

The next year, do the same in Australia with both Super League grand finalists playing the competition’s first-ever game staged down under as part of a double-header with an NRL match.

That might sound a tad fanciful to you – but there was going to be a game between Manly and Canberra in China this year.

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THE World Cup opening double-header at Milennium Stadium in Cardiff on October 26 has been “flipped” so that the Wales-Italy match is on after England-Australia.

Welsh Rugby League officials are hopeful the stadium doesn’t empty. But the reason for the schedule change is Australian television – a sure sign that an announcement is near on broadcast rights.

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BACK on October 23, 2006, colleague Roy Masters wrote an amusing piece about the “Fat Controllers” running the Tri-Nations.

He was referring to New Zealand’s Andrew Chalmers, Australia’s Ed Farish and Britain’s Nigel Wood. Roy explained: “(they) are the money managers of the Tri-Nations series. They are known as the Fat Controllers because they are… well … fat, and their official title is ‘financial controller’.”

Seven years later, the ‘Fat Controllers’ (who have all lost a few pounds, I think) are reunited. Farish, formerly the money man at the NRL and Gold Coast (arriving after the kerfuffle there, by the way), is part of the new regime at Salford, along with Chalmers.

And Wood, now CEO of the RFL, played a key role in saving the Reds and attracting racing multi-millionaire Marwan Koukash.

If Salford end up a successful as Koukash says they will be, the trio should be redubbed “the phat controllers”.

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THERE were only 1880 people at The Stoop on February 17 to see London play Wakefield – but there are a number of crowd-related happenings for which I will remember the afternoon.

The first is the repertoire of chants from the Wakefield fans, mainly directed at the Broncos mascots. “Tesco, Tesco, you’re in our burgers, you’re in our burgers” is a step up in class from anything you’ll hear from fans in Australia.

And “are you cows in disguise” was also quite pithy.

Unfortunately, the Wakefield fans blotted their copybook somewhat by chanting “your support is f**king shit”, which was uncalledfor, nasty and – worst of all – true.

The other unusual scene in the grandstand opposite the press box, from where I watched the unedifying spectacle of Wakefield’s 28-0 win – was the middle-aged man sat behind me who went by the name of Brian Smith.

I’m sure he was in the country – having arrived that very morning- to help out Steve McNamara with World Cup preparations and not to take a Super League job off someone.

But that won’t prevent Smith getting calls from tetchy club chairmen, I’m tipping.

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ANOTHER Smith, now: new NRL CEO David, the Welsh banker (no, that’s not rhyming slang).

While the ARLC has put expansion on the backburner, Smith (like his namesake, Cameron) has revealed himself to be something of an expansionist.

Speaking at a conference of volunteers in Queensland, Smith said the game needed to expand if it was match and outstrip its rivals.

The NRL got $1.025 billion without adding teams, fuelling the arguments of those who regard returning to Perth and Adelaide as folly.

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IT is not pleasant to have to pay tribute in consecutive columns to those no longer with us.

I first met David Oates on the 1996 Great Britain tour of the South Pacific. Actually, I didn’t go to the “South Pacific”, just to New Zealand, and it was a trip which cemented life-long friendships with the likes of fellow print journalist Andy Wilson, photographer Vicky Matthers, commentator David Woods and his off-sider, Oatsy.

It was hard to believe (in fact I did not know, until Woodsy’s wedding last year), that David was some six years older than me. I would have guessed six years younger, with a liver capacity of someone around two decades more youthful.

I found it difficult to write or talk about David in the past tense for some time after his passing on the first Sunday of the Super League season. For someone so healthy and enthusiastic to be there – virtually – one day and gone the next is a difficult concept to digest.

But after a wake attended by just about every rugby league media person in the UK and a touching – and believe it or not, entertaining – funeral at Ealing, I guess I now accept he’s gone.

It’s tempting to write something here which attempts to make sense of the randomness of life and death. But you can’t – because it makes no sense at all.

@BondiBeat

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD