THE JOY OF SIX: NRL Round One 2014

The Joy Of Six1. REMEMBER THIS
A CONCUSSION expert from Melbourne spoke to NRL chief executives in Auckland last month and spelt out the cold, hard facts of legal action from former players over concussion. The cost to the game, he warned, would be $3 billion. This would close the doors of Rugby League Central indefinitely. Sunday’s comments from former Australia international Ian Roberts, in which he said his memory had been affected by years of collisions, represented the first hole in the wall of a damn that could wash away Australian rugby league as we know it. By changing concussion rules, the NRL has stuck its finger in that hole. But it’s only a matter of time….

2. IT’S EVOLUTION, BABY
THROUGHOUT the modern history of rugby league, coaches have schemed to stymie the sport in interminable tackling and kicking, which extends their influence over on-field events, and administrators have sought to encourage passing and sprawling attack, which brings spectators through the gates and pays their wages. Like the eternal battle between good and evil, kinda. It’s clear from the weekend, particularly St George Illawarra’s 44-24 win over Wests Tigers yesterday, that administrators are on top right now. How long will the coaches take to nullify the changes to the rules this year? “I don’t think you’ll see too many 2-0 scorelines this year,” said Dragons coach Steve Price. “It’ll be fast for the first few weeks and then when the refs stop giving so many so-called penalties, it will slow down a little.”

3. MORE MAGIC REQUIRED
TWO weeks ago we discussed the dubious benefits of having a Magic Weekend – the entire round at one venue – in the NRL. But after disappointing attendances for three games at ANZ Stadium, a new benefit may have been uncovered. Why employ ushers and cleaners and pay three nights’ rent when you could stage all three matches on the same day and attract a bumper crowd? Obviously there are business-related hurdles but the Homebush venue received a shedload of bad publicity out of the poor turnouts; that would be instantly transformed by a festival day reminiscent of the Nines. The price of moving out of suburbia and into enormadomes may be playing more than one match on the same day, like rock bands who prefer to play together at festivals rather than separately at theatres.

4.EARL FEELING LESS GREY
SANDOR Earl says he would be “personally … devastated” if he was the only rugby league or AFL player suspended as a result of the ASADA investigation. “But in the fairness of it all, it wouldn’t bother me … if all the players got a fair warning and this never happened again, that would be a fair outcome … it would really annoy me, but….” he told Triple M. Earl believes he will soon know his fate and remains hopeful of playing again in August. “It’s been indicated I might be a week or two away from hearing a decision on what’s going on. I don’t know how the process will go down. I guess I’ll get my suspension and it’s just down to whether all parties are happy with it.The way I was told things would go down hasn’t happened. The lack of communication has made it really hard. Six months has flown

5. BY GEORGE….
DID George Rose knock on playing the ball at the end of regulation time in Saturday night’s thriller? It would have beeen a match deciding gaffe if a) the referees had seen it and b) it happened. Manly captain Jamie Lyon complained to the referees about it and later said: “It’s a bit hard (for the ball) to get from your hands to your feed without dropping it when you’re on the ground. Rose, who clearly remains popular at Brookvale judging by the reaction he received from the crown, countered: “It didn’t happen.” Then, in reference to the changes to the regulations surrounding players approaching referee, he added: “Killer always goes up to the ref. That’s why they changed the rule!”

6. GAGGING FOR IT
THIS is not another whinge about media access. It’s an open question to you, the potential spectator at ANZ Stadium on Thursday and Friday night. In the list of reasons you did not go, where does the paucity of meaty pre-match publicity rank? If Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams had spoken widely about their coming clash, and their reasons for going to rugby union, would you have been more likely to go? If you had heard more from Canterbury players after Friday’s game, would you be more inclined to go next week? Traditional media will soon have no impact on attendance at sporting events. Are we there yet?

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

THE JOY OF SIX: Pre-Season II

KoukashBy STEVE MASCORD

EARL GREY OVER DANK NEWS
EXILED footballer Sandor Earl was not best pleased to read on the Sun-Herald that controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank has a job with the women’s Indian Premier League Twenty20 Cricket Competition. “Unbelieveable – I can’t even play park footy. Flanno (suspended Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan) can’t watch footy and Dank gets a new job,” Earl Tweeted, presumably from Thailand. Flanagan, of course, is under investigation for attending a Cronulla trial while banned for his involvement in the club’s supplements programme. Earl, 24, remains the only player yet issued with an infraction notice. ASADA revealed last week it had concluded its investigations into the supplements issue. Dank, who denies any wrongdoing, insists he is yet to be interviewed. If he is still on staff at Hull KR, it isn’t helping much; Rovers were lapped 30-10 by Castleford on Friday night.

I DID IT HIS WAY
THE truth is out: Sam Burgess WAS inspired by Sonny Bill Williams in his decision to change codes. Burgess has steadfastly refused to talk about the motivation behind his switch; although despite suggestions he has been affronted by the coverage of the news, he is talking football with journalists and TV inquisitors again. His supporters reckoned the suggestion his decision he was influenced by the man he will face next Thursday at ANZ Stadium is nothing but scurillous gossip. But here’s what the Bath rugby union coach (and former South Queensland Crushers half) Mike Ford said on BBC Radio Manchester’s Rugby League Extra programme. “I think he’s seen what Sonny Bill Williams has done, switching from one code to the other and how successful he was, playing in New Zealand in the World Cup in 2011. He boxed as well, Sonny Bill. That’s the challenge he wants. Sam, once he makes his mind up he wants something, he more or less gets it every time.” Burgess has every opportunity to reject the associated speculation he wants to fight Sonny Bill. Over to you, Sam.

OOMPA LOOMPAS UNITE!
THE latest weapon being prepared to fight the financial might of the NRL was first devised by Roald Dahl half a century ago. Feisty racing magnate and Salford owner Marwan Koukash has called for Super League clubs to each be given a “golden ticket”, ala Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, to sign players outside the salary cap. “If a club does not want to use its golden ticket, I will buy it off them for 200,000 pounds,” Koukash told Sky before watching his Reds humbled 38-0 by St Helens on Thursday night. The marquee player concept was voted down last week but will probably return to the agenda of Super League clubs. Koukash is causing such a stir in England that it’s understood RFL chiefs are conducting an exhaustive search for an Everlasting Gobstopper. (photo: Dr Kockrash Twitter)

POACHERS WELCOME
PAPUA New Guinea’s new team in Queensland’s InTrust Super Cup has a message for NRL scouts: please steal our players. And Manly may be about to take the advice; Joy Of Six‘s sources at Dolphin Oval during the historic 24-18 win over Redcliffe yesterday tell us forward Mark Mexico is on the verge of signing with the Sea Eagles. Another World Cup Kumul, Wellington Albert, is already on Penrith’s books. “That’s why we have entered a team in this competition,” PNGRL chairman Sandis Tsaka said. “NRL scouts don’t come to PNG, we wanted to put our players in a competition where they will be seen. If one player leaves, we have 15,000 kids who will want to take his place.” Stand-outs for the Hunters included lock Sebastian Pandia and lock Wartovo Puara.

REFS ON FILM
A FEW weeks after the video referees was heard explaining his decisions on television coverage of the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, the NRL introduced a version of the system for the finals. Instead of appearing live as they deliberated (as happens in England), however, our officials got the decision out of the way and then gave a short explanation. Since then, the English have lifted the bar again for the local boys by showing the video referees on camera as they toggle the vision before ruling yey or nay. This necessitates spiffy suits and turtlenecks for the likes of Ian Smith and Phil Bentham. It didn’t stop St Helens winger Mark Percival being denied a fair try in the 38-0 win over Salford on Thursday. Will the NRL follow …. suit?

IT’S A GAS
HAVING got off to a winning start on Sunday, PNG Hunters coach Michael Marum says Australian teams are set for a culturally enriching experience when they visit Kopoko for their away matches. “Back at home, there will probably be a few gas guns outside chasing people away who are trying to get in,” he said enthusiastically. “That’s the way we play the game up there; people are passionate about the game.” Hunters players have spent 11 weeks in a police camp preparing for the Intrust Cup; many have not seen their families in this time. Mal Meninga is Kumuls nationa coach elect; Tsaka says he is trying to organise a Test against the winner of the Samoa-Fiji Test at Penrith in May and another against one of the teams warming up for the Four Nations.

Bonus item: RADIO NO-RAHRAH
WILL we soon have a 24-hour-a-day rugby league radio station? The emerging internet radio industry is awash with speciallist stations and Sydneysider Alby Talarico -the man behind the Coogee Dolphins – has spent a pretty penny setting up a footy frequency at his Steele Sports site. He already broadcasts for six hours on a Saturday afternoon during the season (he’ll be at Belmore Sports Ground next week for NSWRL fixtures), boasts decent audiences and has plans to further expland, offering airtime to the many league podcasts already being churned out by independent broadcasters. He reckons a full day of footy isn’t far away. Full disclosure time: he has even offered to air my hokey production when I get around to doing one.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

DISCORD 2013: Edition 50

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S not so much the number of zeros on Cronulla’s $1 million doping fine, but how long the Sharks have to pay it.
That’s why the club’s supporters should be welcoming reports Cronulla ‘only’ have to shell out $200,000 a year over the next half-decade.
We’ve already said here that it would immoral for Cronulla to be forced into relocating by the financial penalty from the supplements scandal. Endangering the health of players is too serious a matter for it to play any role in a competition’s decentralisation and expansion strategies.
It’s in everyone’s interests to keep the matters completely separate. If Cronulla or anyone else have to move, then sobeit – but not because they have been financially crippled by a sanction from headquarters.
If reports of the Sharks being given five years to pay their fine are correct, the NRL Commission has done the right thing in this regard.
Some will say it’s just tough luck if a financial penalty sends a franchise broke and relocation is its only help of survival. But for a start, we don’t know if the NRL has an incentives at all on the table any more for relocation.
And is the end of a club that entered the premiership in 1967 a fair punishment for a doping offence committed over a comparitively short period in 2011?
Only a harsh bastard would say ‘yes’.
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GREAT result to see the New Zealand-England World Cup semi-final named the greatest moment at Wembley Stadium this year, beating the FA Cup final and Bruce Springsteen.
The Kiwis’ last-ditch victory was the best game I’ve seen this year and plenty agree. With a bit of a nudge from Red Hall, the event won by popular vote.
“The drama of the Rugby League World Cup semi-final certainly befitted the occasion, so it is right to commemorate the match with a Wembley Way stone,” said stadium managing director Roger Maslin.
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THERE are those who steadfastly refuse to believe that the salary cap has anything to do with the even-ness of a competition that has given us nine premiers in 15 years.
But the departure of salary cap commissioner Ian Schubert, the sudden rise in the cap and looming relaxation of rules around the payment ceiling will give us an almost scentific analysis of its importance.
It should be pretty easy to tell if the league is more or less even now than it was before. Schubert was given absolute discretion in a less well-resourced era of the NRL and in the opinion of this column did an exceptional job – even if clubs didn’t like many of his decisions.
You can put an appeal process in place and throw more people at the job but if we get lopsided competition tables in the years ahead, then ‘Schuey’ will be missed.
Ian Schubert’s legacy as salary cap commissioner will be crystal clear in another 15 years.
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COMMENTS now and there was some discussion on the sense, or lack thereof, of the NRL attempting to extend its influence into London.

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Shopping At ASDA And Forgetting ASADA

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

THERE is a history of Australia sending teams to World Cups in Britain with controversy swirling at home.

In 1995, it was the Super League War. The courts had ordered the Australians to consider players who had signed for the breakaway league.

They were considered – and left out. Heading to a World Cup without the likes of Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Allan Langer, Bradley Clyde and Wendell Sailor placed Bob Fulton’s Brad Fittler-captained squad under enormous pressure to win as the PR battle heated up at home.

After losing the opening game at Wembley 20-16, the green and golds survived a gripping semi against New Zealand and beat the host nation 16-8 in the final.

In 2000, players sat up late one night waiting for the courts to decide if South Sydney would be readmitted to the competition. After a mammoth march in the streets of Sydney, they were reinstated – and the story completely overshadowed the Australian campaign which finished with a 40-12 World Cup final win over New Zealand.

Because of the – quite encouraging – growth of the playing programmes of developing rugby league nations, the Australian controversy de jour in 2013 threatens to disrupt more than just Tim Sheens and his men, who are trying to win back the trophy lost to the Kiwis in Brisbane five years ago.

This controversy threatens a wide range of teams competing in the 14th rugby league World Cup.

ASADA, the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, is expected to finalise its investigation into peptide use during the 2011season at some stage following the NRL grand final on October 6.

Read: smack bang in the middle of the World Cup, probably at the most inconvenient time for all concerned.

The highest profile of the players recently interviewed by ASADA is Paul Gallen, the Cronulla and Australian captain who is also likely to be Cameron Smith’s deputy in England and Ireland. He even described himself as the agency’s prime target and recently had his phone confiscated upon his return from an away game in Auckland, although there were reports this was at the behest of a different law enforcement agency.

Others reported to have been interviewed include Fiji back rower Jayson Bukuya and Tongan utility forward Anthony Tupou.

Also linked to the investigation are Newcastle players Jeremy Smith of New Zealand, Kade Snowden of Scotland and Kevin Naiqama of Fiji.

“That’s not something I want to go into in any detail,” Australia coach Tim Sheens says when Forty20 puts it to him the investigation could provide obstacles every bit as tricky as those thrown up by any opposition.

“That’s a matter for the ARL.”

We are told the Australian administration has, or will, approach tournament organisers about replacing players in the finals squad of 24 if they are called home by doping authorities.

At the moment, the no changes are allowed to the squads that start the tournament.

There will also be assurances sought that silverware cannot be stripped if the findings come after the tournament. Given that the alleged doping offences occurred two years ago, such a sanction would appear unlikely – but possible.

Sheens, though, has more tangible concerns.

Australia’s only warm-up game actually won’t involve them at all. Instead, it will be the Australian Prime Ministers XIII match against what will probably be a full-strength Kumuls side in Kokopo on September 29.

“We’re going to take this game pretty seriously, even though it won’t be the Australian side by any stretch,” said Sheens.

“I’d imagine they will have a full Test side out and given they are not in our group at the World Cup, they’ll want to get a result against us.”

The side will be coached this year by Laurie Daley, who succeeds his Origin rival Mal Meninga, and as usual will include only players with no club commitments. The Australians have decided playing any warm-ups in Europe, as most otherccountries are doing.

Players involved in the finals, as Sheens has already seen, are no guarantee to be still getting about on two legs by the time the World Cup kicks off in Cardiff on October 25.

Centre Justin Hodges (knee) and utility Kurt Gidley (foot) are already out of the tournament. At the time of writing, there was a finals series involving most of the remaining Aussie players left to run.

“We are fortunate that we have depth in most positions – but you don’t want to be losing your x-factor players, of which Hodgo is definitely one,” said Sheens.

“He plays on the left side so anyone who replaces him will have to come over from the right.”

North Queensland’s Brent Tate and Sydney Roosters’ Michael Jennings are the major candidates. Jennings will likely make the squad in any case, and be lost to Tonga.

Like Hodges, Tate was linked during the 2013 State of Origin series to a retirement from representative football.

The 31-year-old Tate, who has overcome an horrendous injury run over a glittering career, recently made it clear he would play on and wanted Sheens to know his availability.

“Don’t worry,” the coach laughed, “Tatey also made it clear to me when I saw him in the sheds after the Origin game!

“I would never, ever forget Tatey. He is an example to every young player when it comes to perseverance and professionalism. He has always done a job for me.”

Up front, the likes of Ben Hannant (shoulder/wrist) and Matt Scott (hand) have suffered minor recent injuries but Sheens’ side is not likely to be significantly different to the line-up which beat New Zealand 32-12 on April 19 at Canberra Stadium.

There is a perception that the opening match at Cardiff is more important to England than to Australia because the winner will stay away from New Zealand until the final. But Sheens says the Australians want to stay away from the Kiwis just as much.

“If you look at the last few series over there, you’ll see teams losing the first game and bouncing back,” he says.

“The first game is a very, very important once for us too.”

Aside from ASADA, another potential hurdle is the difference in rules between the northern and southern hemispheres. The advantage rule, the video referees, even the number of referees make the sport as different in Australia and the UK as it has ever been.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even be able to throw a punch at the World Cup without being sent to the sin bin!

“In my time as Australian coach, we’ve had as few as two pages of rule variations and as many as six,” Sheens says.

“It’s going to be interesting. Yes, it is a potential hurdle. My understanding is that Daniel Anderson and Stuart Cummings are working on a united set of rules and interpretations for the tournament.

“It’s going to be a combination of what happens in the NRL and Super League because that’s where most of the players will be coming from.

“I remember Matt Cecchin pulling up play after a turnover and getting bagged by Eddie and Stevo before they remembered that under international rules, you’ve taken the advantage when you’ve thrown a pass.

“That’s just one example.”

Sheens has indicated he may quit the Test post after the World Cup – and that would be more likely with a victory.

But thanks to a swirling scandal at home, there are likely to be things not even he can control.

Filed for: FORTY-20 Magazine

THE JOY OF SIX: Finals Week Three

The Joy Of SixRUFFLED FEATHERS

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

SPIRIT OF ‘78

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

 DEMERITUS MINOR      

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

THUNDER, LIGHTNING, NRL BID IS FRIGHTENING

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

FESTIVAL OF THE BOOT

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

ANORAKS ARE US

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

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

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