By STEVE MASCORD
LETTNG Australian NRL players playing a role in determining the next 10 years of international matches might sound daft – but there could be method in the madness.
The NRL itself will play a huge role, of course, in determining what is played – and where – between the 207 World Cup in Australia and the 2025 tournament which will most likely (fingers, toes, tongues and all other appendages crossed) in North America.
The NRL, in turn, has chosen to consult Australia coach Mal Meninga. Now, there is a very good argument it should give David Kidwell just as much say but that’s another column.
Meninga, in turn has consulted his players. Before the England-Australia Test in London, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was to address the Kangaroos about the options set to be tabled in Liverpool at the RLIF congress.
Here’s why listening to the players may not be such a bad idea: they like trips.
I surveyed a number of them at the Four Nations series launch about where they wanted the 2021 World Cup to be held and the US had sizeable support.
Before the London Test, Australia prop Matt Scott said he’d be willing to give up the post-season break mandated by the Rugby League Players Association in 2018 if it was possible to play a touring Great Britain side.
Scott head earlier told me he wished the Australian side was able to see more of Europe during the tournament.
For what it’s worth, it is still likely to be a spring break in 2018 for the Aussies. There is a push for a full Kangaroo Tour in 2019 with perhaps an eight-team Federation Cup in 2020. That may be in America. The preferred structure is two pools of four teams, seeded, with a final.
Promoter Jason Moore has some different ideas on that structure.
But while NRL administrators are dominated by money and the clubs in in their concerns, empowering players who want to see the world might be the key to unlocking the potential of the international game at the highest level.
AT the height of the is-Wayne-Bennett-rude controversy I called the RFL to find out exactly what the great man’s job entails.
When I asked Bennett at his now-infamous London media conference if his only responsibility was to coach the team, he responded: ‘That’s exactly right.”
Asked if there was anything else in the job description, he said: “No”.
I won’t go into who I called and who called back and who I thought would call back because there are some personal relationships at work. But suffice to say three people were involved, two of whom I spoke to, and after four hours I was told there would be no on-the-record comment.
To me, Bennett is entitled to be himself. It’s not as if the RFL didn’t know what they were getting. I agree with colleague Paul Kent that if there was any additional abrasiveness during the Four Nations it could be a sign of vulnerability at the end of a difficult personal year in unfamiliar surroundings.
But the RFL needs to be accountable for the choice they made. They need to come out and say they only care about winning and support Bennett.
Or they need to have a word to Bennett about their bedside manner.
Or they need to explain why they didn’t have a word to him about his bedside manner.
To duck for cover and say nada says little for the courage or leadership at Red Hall. When the RFL challenged me on an aspect of my reporting about this issue, I challenged them back to have a go at me publicly because that would at least be be an on-the-record comment on the issue.
At the time of writing, I am still waiting.
SOME of you, with an interest in such things, might find a look at the way the media was handled during the Four Nations somewhat instructive.
The Australians held media opportunities, on average, every second day at their hotel. There was an electronic media ‘all-in’ – usually involving NRL.com, Channel Nine and Channel Seven – followed by the same player speaking to print. That was usually just News Limited, Fairfax and Australian Associated Press but anyone covering the tournament was invited.
It was possible to request interviews outside this set-up.
I didn’t go to New Zealand media opps but I’m told they were rather weird – everyone speaking at once. What I mean by that is a coach and two players facing media representatives all at once, with questions and answers flying from everywhere. Also, the Kiwis openly labelled these as being for “travelling NZ media only” – not much help when you’re in Carlisle and there are still tickets to sell in Workington.
(It subsequently transpires this designation was only supposed to deter Kiwi journos at home, trying to cover such events over the phone – not locals)
The England media opps were just as complex but in a different way. England would have a ‘media day’ once a week. In my experience, a ‘media day’ involves reporters and players mingling and talking one-on-one.
But an England media day involved the coach and three players each sitting at a desk and speaking to everyone at once. The first part of each of these was open to radio, TV and agencies. Then the cameras were told to stop rolling and newspapers took over.
The UK newspaper reporters would then collude to decide which day Mike Cooper or Josh Hodgson interviews would be run, agreeing all to quote the same player on the same day.
This system came a little undone when newspaper reporters from other countries, with other requirements, became involved. I approached with this philosophy: I would use answers to my own questions when I chose as I don’t really like being part of a cartel.
But even this approach causes some tensions.
While the England media manager could separate print from electronic, he could hardly dictate what day each story would run so it only took one dissenter for the system to fall apart.
As for one-on-one interviews, I made requests for players from Australia, New Zealand and England for Rugby League Week’s A-List feature. As I write this, I have not done a single one of these interviews.
A way to raise money for the international game, aside from a second ‘property’ such as the Federation Cup, would be for funds from a sponsorship in all internationals to be handed over to the RLIF.
There is an idea out there that the referees in all internationals across the world should be branded with a sponsorship that goes straight to the RLIF.
You’d think, with there being relatively few internationals at present, it would be easy to achieve. Not so. Red tape abounds.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD
By STEVE MASCORD
HAD Hull Kingston Rovers not tried to extend their contract with hooker Josh Hodgson some 18 months ago, he might be still playing for them.
You read that right.
The 26-year-old returns to Canberra this month for his second season a player transformed. From a solid first-teamer in Humberside who’d had a taste of international football, he kept the legendary James Roby on the bench for the entire winning series against New Zealand.
One popular narrative is how he’s still breaking down barriers a year after smashing through a door at a Dunedin student dorm.
But had the Robins not tried to secure him to a long-term contract in the middle of 2014, Hodgson’s career may have not taken the series of left turns that has him a bona fide rugby league A-Lister heading into the coming season.
“I’d always expressed my feelings to Hull KR that if I’d got my chance to go to the NRL, I’d go,” says the affable Yorkshireman, taking a seat in one of the many lounge areas at the plush St George’s Park Hotel at Burton-on-Trent.
“I’d spoken to them about it previously and I think I’d signed up for another two years. They said ‘why don’t we tie up a new deal and we’ll try to write out the whole ‘you going to the NRL’ clause? We’ll sign a new deal and kick that to the curb so we know we’ve got you for this set period of time’.
“We started negotiations into a new deal for quite a length of time and we probably nearly had it sorted out until my agent told me that Canberra was interested.
“I think they enquired about me.
“Ricky (Stuart) asked Nathan Brown how I went and I think he gave me a good wrap. Then, from what Sticky tells me, he watched a couple of our games and liked what he saw, liked how I played, and just approached my agent to see if I was available and obviously my agent contacted me and told me what the interest was, to see what I wanted to do … whether I wanted to keep negotiations going with Hull KR and probably play out my years there, to be honest, or whether I wanted to go ahead with the dream and go and test myself over there.
“As soon as it came up, I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I’ve got quite a good relationship with the chairman in Neil Hudgell at Hull KR. I sat down with him and had a chat with him and he was good about the whole thing.”
Normally, we’d now be moving on to 2015 and Hodgson’s industrious 24 appearances for the green machine. But we’ve still got a few, um, doors to go through first.
He knew the conversation would get there eventually.
So, England have just been eliminated for the 2014 Four Nations…
“It was at a party. There were holes in the door. The people at the party said ‘we’re getting a new door Monday’. Then someone decided to shout ‘why don’t you run through it?’ They said ‘you might as well, we’re getting a new door Monday’, If the people who owned the place were telling you you might as well do it .. if I’d had my time again I obviously wouldn’t have done it but …..”
Josh Hodgson became a misbehaving NRL player before he was an NRL player.
“We all flew back to Sydney and from Sydney I went to Canberra and they all flew home. We had another night there (in Dunedin) as well.
“I was definitely serious and down and probably hating life a little as well. Just a lot of regrets.
“It got blown up out of proportion. People made out that we trashed the place and it was nothing like that. I don’t want to go into detail too much. It was a mistake and you learn from your mistakes. That’s what everybody does, as a player and as an individual and as a person in life.
“I spoke to Sticky the next morning, He just said the same as you – what happened? I told him what happened. I said ‘what do you want me to do?’ He said ‘we’ll wait until you get back to Canberra’. When I got to Canberra, he said ‘just be honest. Say exactly what you just said to me, tell them what happened and we’ll wipe a clean slate, get you ready and looking forward to training, get you settled in here’.”
It took a couple of weeks for Hodgson, who knew almost before he could walk that he’d be a rugby league player, to get over being in the Aussie headlines.
Then there was a new hurdle: self-doubt.
“It was all really unknown and as much as I’d played four or five years at Super League level I was … not doubting myself but your confidence levels do drop a bit. You do think ‘am I good enough, am I going to make it, will I get in the team at Canberra? Will I make a success of myself over here? What’s the pace of the game going to be like? There’re just so many questions that go around in your mind. You don’t know how you’re going to adapt to that kind of league and that kind of intensity every week. It was a tough time, especially at the start. Mentally it tests you. You’ve got to stay strong in yer ‘ead and back yourself and work hard. (That) is the main thing I definitely had to do. I just had to knuckle down and believe in myself and really put in the hours.”
“The intensity in training and the competition for places was definitely another level. The amount of fighting we had between people itching to get that starting jersey for round one and right through the year the competition for places … the guys that were playing at Mounties the majority of weeks and the guys that were playing first team, we had to do opposed against each other and it used to get pretty full-on because everyone’s trying to impress Sticky and trying to get their name on the team sheet. That was definitely an eye-opener for me and it does bring out the best in ya.”
By the time father Dave and mum Nikki arrived in the national capital for round one, however, their son had the nine jersey in his keeping.
“They came for the first four games and they really loved it. They probably didn’t want to leave, if I’m honest.
“I love Canberra. I think it’s a fantastic place. My mum and dad did as well. It does get a bad rap but I don’t know why. I think it’s just because Aussies like beaches. I ain’t a fan of beaches so I’m alright.”
By the end of the season, our man says, he was a completely different player to the one Rovers had tried so desperately to sign for the rest of his career.
“Decision making has improved in leaps and bounds. My creativity has come a long way through playing in a different competition, just my experience in general, just playing against different opponents. The intensity and the game speed and all that over there, in all areas, I’ve really upped it to another level.”
And while there is a perception in England that the NRL is full of robots, Hodgson says: “Creativity is massive over there – definitely where I’m playing. If there’s a quick play-the-ball I’m going and everyone’s flooding around me and just trying to push off the back of that and as people were saying all year at the Raiders, we’ve played some really good footy this year. I’d say 90 per cent of our tries came off the back of off-the-cuff plays.”
“I think he was more of a fighter than a rugby player! He was more of the roughnut, or so the stories that he tells me go. He probably plays himself up a bit. He tells me he was the roughnut they sent on if there was another roughnut in the other team, maybe to try and sort him out.
“He isn’t the best looking bloke in the world so I’m guessing he came off second best a few times.”
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
IT’S a rather strange dichotomy: players in Australia have never been better paid yet nor have they ever been more militant.
Maybe Bruce can change their name to the St George Illawarra Steelers?
FURTHER to my earlier item about Gary Carter, as I write this I have just come back from visiting him in the Royal London Infirmary.
By STEVE MASCORD
ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara is likely to be left waiting until early next year before he learns if he has kept his job.
Players rallied behind McNamara after he enjoyed his biggest triumph in the role on Saturday with a series-deciding 20-14 win over New Zealand at Wigan’s DW Stadium. His contract expired at full-time
“There is no time frame as such for a decision,” a Rugby Football League spokesman told The Telegraph.
“At some point in the future we will sit down with Steve and discuss how the team is going and where Steve sees it going. Both parties are happy with this process
“But as for when we will have more to say on the matter, it would probably be months rather than weeks. Perhaps early next year.”
Because McNamara is based in Sydney with the Roosters, it is likely some preliminary talks will take place before he returns to Australia but last night’s statements basically rule out a celebratory short-term reappointment.
The scrum-half Matty Smith, named man of the match after his only appearance in the series, suggested McNamara should at least be retained for another year.
“Why change it?’ he said.
“We’ve got a young squad. He’s picked form players. He’s not picked players who are not in form. I think he should get it – especially for next year. Maybe see how we go for next year.
“It’s not all about the coaches.”
The RFL spokesman said last night no term had yet been discussed but given that there is a World Cup in 2017, an appointment of fewer than two years would seem extremely unlikely.
Next year England hosts Scotland, Australia and New Zealand in a Four Nations. While New Zealand were dramatically under strength in this series, their co-captain Issac Luke warned England would also be a tougher proposition.
“It’s going to be awesome,”said Issac Luke. “England will have big Sammy (Burgess) back, we’ll hopefully have a few guys come in and the Aussies will be trying hard to get back to number one.”
McNamara said: “We’ve got quality to add to our group. We’ve got experience to add. The signs are pretty good, particularly since we’ve finally got over the line in a major series.
“Internationals are too tough to make any sorts of statements about dominating for any period of time.You can’t do that. The team we have just played fought tooth and nail over the course of this series. Australia are a very strong team and are making steps to get stronger.
“So you can’t make outlandish statements.”
Asked how he views the post of national coach, the former second rower said: “It’s a huge honour, not just coaching your country but playing for your country, captaining your country. We’ve got our kit man, he’s the kit man who represents England and he’s the proudest man ever,
“When you are involved representing your country, it is the proudest thing you can do.”
England withstood a late rally from the Kiwis to lift their first major title since 2007.
Prop Tom Burgess said: “If we could get the attack from the first week and the defence from the second and put them together … that was our view on it.”
Filed for: DAILY TELEGRAPH (UK)
By STEVE MASCORD
GAMES, dates and venues have been confirmed for this year’s European Championships.
It all starts on October 16 when Scotland plays Wales at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham. The next day, France takes on Ireland at Albi.
There’ll be only one game the following weekend, with Scotland hosting Ireland in Galshiels. That’s the same weekend as the Kiwis kick off their English tour with an old-style club game against Leeds.
Wales take on France in Cardiff on October 31. The series concludes on November 7 with France playing Scotland in Avignon and Ireland meeting Wales in Bray, with the winner being determined on a first past the post basis.
VALENCIAN Warriors have won their first title, taking out the Spanish Cup final over Irreductibles Mislata, 32-12.
The Latvian premiership has also been determined, too. RC Fenkss finished on top of the four-team competition, ahead of Ķekava Warriors, Grobiņa Vikings and Livonia.
And the 10th Jamaican season has just kicked off.
THE latest installment of Far & Wide 360 is back this Wednesday night as the final segment of NRL 360 on Fox Sports.
See an interview with rugby POW Sol Mokdad and the latest from everyone’s favourite hipster club, the Brooklyn Kings and the latest on a police request to ban State of Origin broadcasts in Papua New Guinea!
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
HE scored arguably the greatest ever World Cup try in one of the competition’s most epic contests, he is just out of his teens – and he played on with a suspected broken leg.
Shaun Johnson broke 67,000 hearts by dashing over to the left of the posts with just 20 second left to keep New Zealand’s Cup defence alive at Wembley Stadium on Saturday but winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was the the true star of an exhilarating 20-18 win over England.
Legendary commentator Ray French called his first-half touchdown, which saw ball propelled from one touchline to the other, where it was flicked in-field from mid-air, out of bounds – as the best World Cup try since Clive Sullivan in 1972.
The excitable 20-year-old left Wembley Stadium in a surgical boot and team doctor Simon Mayhew said he may have broken a bone in his leg late in the match.
“I put my leg out straight and someone landed on it – I thought I heard a crack,” Sydney Roosters’ Tuivasa-Sheck said.
“I just had to find something to fight on and keep going. I just looked around at the boys and that’s what keeps you going.
“The Word Cup final, it’s something that comes only once a lifetime so hopefully I get right for it.”
The injury to the competition’s leading tryscorer wasn’t the only Kiwis buzzkill after a contest for which new superlatives will probably have to be concocted, England tendering a top draw performance only to be denied in soul-destroying circumstances.
Captain Simon Mannering told one interviewer it had been “our worst performance of the tournament” and hero Johnson reckoned: “at times it felt like we were just throwing the World Cup away”.
“I was well off the mark … that’s why it is mixed emotions,” said Warrior Johnson, who described the try as ‘by far’ the biggest moment of his career.
“Defensively I wasn’t there and that’s what I’ve built my game on this whole tournament. I’ve been pretty good defensively and I guess if wasn’t for that try at the end, it would be a bitter taste.
“It would be pretty hard to look at myself if we had to go home.”
After a dismal showing against France, England were not expected to seriously test a Kiwis outfit that had topped the try- and pointscoring charts in the pool and quarter-final stages.
But after an early disallowed try to Kiwi Issac Luke, powerful England rolled down the lusg Wembley turf and Sam Burgess’ one-handed pass gave Sean O’Loughlin his 16th minute try.
This was converted and later complemented by a Kevin Sinfield penalty goal, before the RTS Express put the finishing touches on a try for the ages.
Jason Nightingale, Sam Kasiano, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke all handled before Dean Whare scooped the Steeden back to Tuivasa-Sheck when the Penrith centre’s entire body was outside the field of play – and he was facing the other way.
Even the England players, standing in their own in-goal watching the video referee decide, must have been tempted to applaud.
Johnson added a penalty goal to bring up an 8-8 scoreline that Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney admitted was flattering.
Tuivasa-Sheck’s footwork delivered a 43rd minute touchdown to the Kiwis; during this period, the tourists received five consecutive penalties. But after the run was broken, half Sinfield put cenre Kallum Watkins over to tie the scores; the captain missed a relatively simple conversion attempt.
Then came Sam Burgess’s bullocking try from close range in the 68th minute, the touthdown that shoulder have secured England a place in the World Cup final.
The Kiwis looked to have been spooked later, Kevin Locke lobbing a ball over winger Nightingale’s head, but after a high tackle penalty and with Sinfield rushing up out of the line, Johnson stepped his way over to the left of the posts and serenely slotted home the winning points.
Kearney joked he was “under the desk” as the 11th hour drama played itself out. He said the areas in which New Zealand were deficient were “not had to fix” and was hopeful of Tuivasa-Sheck and Manu Vatuvei each being available for the Old Trafford showdown with Australia.
Rival Steve MacNamara had the good grace to tell a television audience of millions, within minutes of a crushing defeat, “that game put rugby league on the map.”
NEW ZEALAND 20 (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2, Shaun Johnson tries; Johnson 4 goals) beat ENGLAND 18 (Sean O’Loughlin, Sam Burgess, Kallum Watkins tries; Kevin Sinfield 3 goals) at Wembley Stadium. Referee: Ben Cummins (Australia). Crowd: 67,525.