Widdop Favourite To Play In Finals Opener

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed for: THE AGE

Storm Keep Rabbitohs Guessing Over Widdop

Gareth Widdop/FootySocial
Gareth Widdop/FootySocial

By STEVE MASCORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed for: THE AGE

Half A Crisis For Storm

Melbourne - Brett Finch picBy STEVE MASCORD

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

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

The veteran is retiring at the end of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed for: THE AGE

Widdop ‘Will Play’ This Weekend

Gareth Widdop/FootySocial
Gareth Widdop/FootySocial

By STEVE MASCORD

ENGLAND five-eighth Gareth Widdop is “going to be playing this weekend”, according to Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy.

Initially ruled out for the the rest of the NRL season and the World Cup after suffering an horrific dislocated hip against Gold Coast on June 24, Widdop is pencilled in to play for feeder team Brisbane Easts in Mackay on Sunday.

When he does return to the Storm side for the finals, there is school of thought he could be used as a centre. Co-incidentally, one current Melbourne centre Justin O’Neill (back) is the main injury doubt for the return clash with the Titans this Saturday.

“It’s pretty remarkable that he’s playing,” said coach Bellamy. “He’s been running for a couple of weeks but I never took it too seriously that he’d be back.

“But last week the physio came to me and said ‘I think Gareth’s a good chance of playing again’. I said ‘well, that’s good news but we’ve got to make sure that’s realistic, I suppose’. He’s had a full medical clearance and the other thing that I had to be sure of was that he was 100 per cent keen to play. He’s certainly that. He’s more than that.”

Widdop needed to get through Wednesday’s Gosch’s Paddock training session to play on Sunday.

Bellamy continued: “He’s ticked some boxes. He’s done some contact here today and at this stage, he’s going to be playing this weekend.

“It will be interesting to see how he gets through that. If he gets through that … it will be a nice present for us going into the semi-finals.

“He hasn’t played any footy for three months but he is in real good shape but he’s not in game shape, obviously. But he’s played two or three years of solid first grade now.”

The Storm plan to make some technical adjustments regarding their openings to matches after a comprehensive round 25 loss to Manly.

Bellamy said: “We’re going to try a couple of other things that we think might work. Getting this close to the semis, we have to turn it around.

“A big part of our game before last week was our defence.

“It’s a mental state to start the game.”

The Storm coach also reckoned that despite denials, South Sydney and Sydney Roosters were distracted by their looming minor premiership tussle when they played Wests Tigers and Gold Coast respectively last week.

“I’d image after what’s happened the last three or four weeks, Souths would be the favourite,” he said. “They’re in a bit better form at the moment, they just seem to have a bit more momentum.

“I’m sure the Roosters will be up for it, they’ve had a wonderful season, but their momentum has been slowed, probably, by their last two efforts.

“Perhaps some of the Roosters’ minds might have been on Friday night. Souths, some of their minds last Friday night, could have been on this week’s game. It’s a huge game Friday night. A minor premiership, it’s a huge accolade for your club.”

NB: Since this story appeared, Gareth Widdop made a successful return from injury in the Queensland Cup

Filed for: THE AGE

Taking Out The Burgess Brothers

p1_coverBy STEVE MASCORD

WHEN Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson saw Steve McNamara at Allianz Stadium on July 1, he had a proposal for the visiting England coach.

“Trent here was hoping I could go to as many Souths games and do him a favour by taking out a few Burgess boys,” McNamara told Forty20 in the tunnel shortly after the conversation.

That’s not out to dinner, Steve explains. “Last year unfortunately I came and Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess got injured in the same game. James Graham got injured last Friday, thankfully he’s alright I’ve seen him today.”

Yes, McNamara has a reputation Down Under as something of a jinx. Whenever he shows up at an NRL ground, any Englishman within a 1 mile radius is likely to slip over on the footpath, get hit by lightning or – if he’s a rugby league player – do a knee, foot, shoulder or something.

It happened against in round 15, when stand-off Gareth Widdop suffered an horrendous injury, a dislocated hip, playing for Melbourne Storm in Monday Night Football against Gold Coast.

At least the England coach was on hand to visit Widdop in hospital the next morning. “He was surprisingly good,” McNamara says.

“ From the state he was in the previous night … obviously when they got it (hip) back in he was pretty much up and running again. And he was. He was standing on his feet, he had crutches but he could stand up. He’s a chance, he’s a chance. He’s in a real positive frame of mind, which helps.”

That’s right folks, Gareth Widdop’s World Cup hopes are not dead yet. Playing without a club game under his belt between now and then, however?

“We’d have to look at that. That would be difficult but you never say never. He’s in a really positive frame of mind, he thinks he’s a chance of being back to play some games before the end of the year

The primary reason for the visit to Oz, as you will have read elsewhere, is to spend time with NRL-based players. In future, there may be so many of them that England actually plays internationals in the southern hemisphere.

It also happens to be Origin time.

And it seems that the parallels between England and Queensland will increase as the years pass. Many of the Queensland players live and play in NSW but have no trouble raising the requisite motivation – even hate –when he interstate series comes around.

The Queensland bus driver got McNamara into the Maroons’ final training session before Origin II.

“You look at the Queensland team and the consistency and continuity over a period of time – they really look like a team, don’t they?” McNamara observes.

“Sometimes you see a rep team and all the players do different things by different systems because they just don’t play with each other.

“Queensland just look like they’re so much on the same page.

“There’s a little bit of that in us. We’re sort of the minnows. We haven’t got as many players as Australia, we probably don’t have the same sort of climate to train in (the Maroons can’t play that card) so there’s a lot of things that go against us which I think, Queensland, in their own little way, use.

“We’re the underdogs, in some regards. The players we’ve got, we’ve got fewer to chose from than Australia and New Zealand but we’ll be very tight knit, very close as a group.”

You’ll hear Steve Mac talk about that a lot. The main reason for his trips to Australia are to “take out” his players – but not in a bad way..

“We’ve had four camps back in England this year as a group of players,” he explains. “We’ve had a fair bit of time together, we’ve played a Test match, and at the end of the year when our NRL-based players come into camp, I want them to be fully up to speed. I don’t want them to feel they’ve been isolated across here. My intention is to spend as much time with those players as I can and constantly remind them of England with videos … I want them to feel as close to that group as possible, even though they’re 12,000 miles away. I’m never astonished by the patriotism they show, when I speak to them individually. When they come together as a group, they’re very, very focused on doing well at the end of the year.
“It’s our two-team mentality, something we’ve worked on extremely hard – that you feel that you play for South Sydney or Brisbane Broncos AND England – not that you play for South Sydney and England is something you do every now and then. It’s important that you feel like you’re part of two teams and that’s something we do right through Super League and that is part of our NRL players too. These players actually feel that they are England players.”

The surprising aspect of all this is that everyone in Australia seems happy to help McNamara. Seeing him at NRL grounds, he comes and goes as he pleases and seems to know everyone.

“I think there’s a real sense of people wanting England to do well,” he reckons. “There’s a history there and there ’re a lot of good memories of a lot of good English players who have played in this country and competition. And not only of how they’ve played but how they’ve conducted themselves and there’s a number of boys now. So there’s a real affection towards English rugby league and, yeah, I see that. The hospitality and the access to everything is incredible. I’m grateful for it.”

What is the most surprising aspect of prowling behind the scenes at an NRL game? “How many people you have in the dressingroom, that’s for one! It’s ridiculous! The press aren’t in there (anymore) but I think everyone else in the stadium is to get a piece of the action.

“The competition is very strong. It’s still not too different to our competition. There is still a gap out here between the best teams and the others. That’s been quite clear to me since I’ve been out here. As much as we talk about in England that being a problem and an issue, it’s similar. There are some teams (here) that are definitely better than the other teams.”

McNamara says England have nothing to learn from the Aussies in terms of sports science and training methods – the national team are at the cutting edge there.

“It’s just the size of the game over here and the publicity it generates and on the back of that, they have a lot of kids playing the game,” he says when pressed for other observations.

“We have between 50,000 and 60,000 participants in the whole of the country. That’s the difference. I couldn’t bear to think how many people are registered as players here. We understand that that’s where we’re at and we have to do the very best with what we’ve got and that’s what we plan to do.”

Before speaking to me, McNamara was seen chatting to Manly’s England-eligible stand-off Daly Cherry Evans. But he says there’ll be no more additions to his squad when it comes to foreign-based stars.

How about another issue: the biff. Will the crackdown on punching be carried over to the World Cup?

“I think it’s very difficult for the authorities. They do have a responsibility for the image of the game and everything else that goes with it. I think there was a quote from Sonny Bill during the week – “it’s parents’ responsibility to raise kids, not the rugby league” and I agree with that. We don’t have to clean everything up. Rugby league isn’t a black and white sport. It’s not a line in the sand where if you cross it, you’re offside. It’s not American Football where the game stops.

“Each incident should be judged on its own merits and not just …. I think there’s varying types of ill-discipline. Some deserve to be punished, some don’t. I think the referees are having that taken out of their hands in some regard and that makes it tough for them.”

Sounds like a ‘no’ then.

Forty-20 may have played a its own little role in England’s preparation when we asked if England would be in South Africa in October at the same time as the NSW Country teams. Steve didn’t know anything about the tour.

“We might get in some opposed sessions against them. Where are they playing? I’ll have to try and get a number off you.”

Always happy to help good people. If I’m there at the same time, maybe Steve can return the favour by taking me out.

I mean, you know, to dinner ….

Filed for: FORTY20 MAGAZINE

Widdop Tells McNamara He’ll Be Right For World Cup

Gareth Widdop/FootySocial
Gareth Widdop/FootySocial

By STEVE MASCORD

STRICKEN five-eighth Gareth Widdop has told England coach Steve McNamara he is a genuine hope of playing in the World Cup – and finishing the NRL season with Melbourne Storm.

Brett Finch has again been named as Widdop’s replacement in the side to play traditional rivals Brisbane this Friday at AAMI Park, after the Englishman suffered a rare and agonising dislocated hip nine days ago in Monday Night Football.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy yesterday described last Saturday’s 22-4 loss to Wests Tigers as their worst performance of the season and as being full of “very poor signs”.

Last year the Storm lost five matches in a row during the State Of Origin series; they’ve now dropped two on the trot.

But while Widdop is widely expected to miss the rest of the campaign before joining St George Illawarra next year, McNamara tells Fairfax Media: “He’s a chance and he’s a in a real positive frame of mind.”

Asked if Widdop would play without any club games between now and the tournament kick-off, McNamara said: “We’d have to really look at that. That would be difficult but never say never.

“He thinks he’s a chance of being back to play some games before the end of the year and if that happens, he’s a great chance.”

Captain Cameron Smith is back from an eye injury while seven players have been bracketed on the bench against the Broncos. A calf strain has kept Brisbane representative forward out of their side.

Hannant aggravated the injury before the Sunday’s 18-16 loss to the Warriors, a game Bellamy described as the best he has seen this year.

The Broncos are in camp in New Zealand. Coach Anthony Griffin has retained the line-up that played at Mt Smart and added Jarrod Wallace as 18th man.

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

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

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

Filed for: THE AGE

THE WRAP: NRL Round 15

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD
ENGLAND coach Steve McNamara will today visit stricken Gareth Widdop in Robina Hospital and says its a huge blow to the host nation’s World Cup chances that the Melbourne five-eighth is out of the tournament.
Widdop was carried off in agony 51 minutes into Gold Coast’s 18-12 win over Melbourne at Skilled Park and after initial fears he could return from a dislocated hip within six weeks, Storm coach Craig Bellamy admitted late last night his season was over.
McNamara arrived in Australia on Wednesday to run the rule over selection candidates and told NRL.com after discussing the injury with Craig Bellamy in the sheds that it was a horrible thing to witness.
“It’s terrible – devastating for Gareth individually and certainly for his club Melbourne Storm who he’s been playing very well for,” McNamara said.
“And for us internationally, if it’s as bad as first feared, it’s going to be very tough for Gareth to be available and fit for the World Cup.
“But you never know. He’s obviously in very good hands there and we’ll see what happens overnight and first thing in the morning when I go and visit him in hospital.”
Bellamy told Triple M late last night: “I just spoke to the doctor, it doesn’t look good.
“It looks like he’s not going to play again this year and that’s even the best case scenario.
“It depends what the x-rays or scans show. It could be a real long-term injury. Hopefully they’ll get it (hip) back in and go from there.
“I haven’t seen too many dislocated hips in all my time in the game, maybe only two or three. He’s quite resilient too.
“I’m a little bit shattered in myself that that’s the way he’s going to finish his career with us.”
McNamara had hoped to see George Burgess play for South Sydney on Sunday but he was suspended last week for disciplinary reasons and the former St George lock instead witnessed the debut of brother Tom.
He showed up at Skilled Park last night hoping to run the rule over Widdop, who played off the bench in the 2011 Four Nations and missed the 2012 Autumn Internationals through injury.
“You could tell just by his reaction on the field that he was in severe pain,” said McNamara. “Basically, he didn’t want anyone near him at one stage.
“It was obvious it was severe but I honestly didn’t think it was going to be as bad as the doctors and medics think it’s going to be. Our thoughts are with Gareth and his family.
“I’m sure he will recover, he’ll definitely recover but it’s just a matter of how long that process is going to take.”
When Wests Tigers centre Chris Lawrence dislocated his hip in 2011, it was four months before he could even run again.
“I’ve probably not seen one like this before,” said McNamara. “It’s very difficult to do that sort of injury. “
McNamara has been criticised for not making greater use of Halifax-raised Widdop in the past. “I’ve said all along … people have made comments about ‘what’s your team going to be, why are we playing these guessing games?’
“And I’ve said ‘it will be very doubtful that we’ll get through the season without some injuries and this just goes to show that. It can happen in the blink of any eye.
“We’ve got plenty of people in that position on the field but Gareth was putting himself in a very strong position by the standard of his performances in the NRL this year.

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