White Line Fever column: Toronto Wolfpack

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-9-54-35-amBy STEVE MASCORD

THE things that stuck out were the names. Young trialist Bomaly Costanby. Local NRL and Super League-savvy photographer Marvin Dangerfield.
We’re not at Leichhardt Oval or the DW, Toto.
When I first heard the Toronto Wolfpack were holding open trials (‘tryouts’ in the North American lexicon) across the continent, I was desperate to attend one.
But it was only the previous evening, standing under a tree at Eden Park, Wilmington Delaware, that I realised it was possible.
A Toronto Wolfpack delegation, including coach Paul Rowley and director Adam Fogerty, had been standing there waiting for the United States-Canada international to start. They were holding a tryout the next day at EE Garthwaite Stadium, Conshohocken – about 20 minutes’ drive from here – they told me.
Eden Park is not to be confused with it’s Auckland namesake. It’s a chopped up old paddock. The players got changed in the carpark, they had to break into a box to turn the lights on and the crowd numbered in the double figures.
And while the rugby league itself was quite engrossing, Wollongong-domiciled US Hawk Junior VaiVai racing away to secure a 20-14 win with two minutes left, the event was a bit of a damp squib (although the halftime food was delicious … and free).
So I held few high hopes as I took an Uber from Essington, Pennsylvania to the home of the Philadelphia Fight the next day – having been up all night blogging the NRL grand final for the Sydney Morning Herald.
But the immediate signs were good.
A Wolfpack banner at the quaint suburban ground, a documentary crew of four, the coaching staff in smart black-and-grey attire and numbered vests for the hopefuls.
amazon“I was named after Bob Marley – honestly,” says winger-in-waiting Costanby.
“I was just playing rugby union for four months. I’ve been working really hard from 4am every day and I thought I could test my skills out here, see what I can do.
“I just love everything rugby can offer a person. I’m kinda greedy. I just feel like rugby can give me a good life, you get a little pay cheque and you can have fun.
“It’s good to go out and battle with my mates.”
By the side of the pitch, an Atlanta Rhinos player is talking State of Origin and hit-ups. On the field, Rowley is presiding over three-on-two drills, schooling the triallists on unders plays and inside shoulder responsibility.
I admit, I learned a thing or two listening to him.
Rowley won’t move to Canada at all. The pre-season camp will be in Europe and they won’t play a home game until May.
Leaning over the fence with a pipe is Fogerty, the former Halifax, St Helens and
Warrington prop who was also a heavyweight boxer and movie star (once knocked out on screen by Brad Pitt).
Along with being a director of the new club, he is involved in Last Tackle – the production company turning these tryouts into a documentary. One fellow from Samoa is told to answer the question again and leave his country of origin out of the answer, mentioning only Ohio.
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donate2“It’s a story of redemption – giving these athletes in North America a chance at a sport they may not know much about,” says the Huddersfield resident.
“Only have a percent make the NFL, who leave college. We’ve got thousands and thousands of college athletes.
“It’s not X Factor. We’re not in it to show people up and make fools of people. We’re going to pick 15 of what we think of the best and bring them to England.
“They’ll be whittled down from there. It’s not a voting system where people ring in. They’ve got to have something special that we think we can mould into being rugby league stars.
“We want it to go out in everyone’s front room around the world.”
The Wolfpack are still regarded by many in Britain as a bizarre joke that will be lucky to last a season.
“People have got to take it to heart in Canada,” Fogerty admits. “We need to fill the stadiums for the home games and have them get behind us.
“You’re only as good as your supporters, in a way. They money men won’t keep throwing money into it forever and ever if it’s not financially viable.
“But we’re here because we believe in it.”
An hour in Conshohocken, and I believe again, too.

Filed for: FORTY 20 MAGAZINE

BONDI BEAT: January 2012

By STEVE MASCORD

HERR ‘ead ‘itter has given Bondi Beat an assignment this month: how should international rugby league be organised?
Easy for him to say! Things have never been so fluid in that particular part of our game, with the International Federation re-constituted over the past six months and registered as a company in Australia, the Asia-Pacific Federation about to be launched and the Independent Commission to (finally) be floated in Australia.
Middle East and Atlantic Federations are also in the starting blocks, I’m told. So we have to be careful to not suggest remedies which are already in the process of being applied.
Let’s identify our problems.

One, only three teams can win the next World Cup – and we are being extremely generous to include a side that has not beaten one of the others in any series for 39 years.
This is not a problem that can be solved in the short term and is tangled up with other issues we will list later.
But the way domestic sporting competitions address lack of competitiveness and predictability of results is to introduce drafts and salary caps. Drafts and salary caps don’t work at international level but surely we should do for our developing countries what Super League once did for London and what the AFL is about to do for Western Sydney and Gold Coast.
That is: give them as big a leg up as we can.
OK, we don’t have money (more of that later) but the RLIF should be aiming to lay out fixture lists four years in advance, with an objective of giving the other countries as many games each year as Australia, New Zealand and England. No developing country should have fewer fixtures in a year than any one of those three.
This would encourage players to commit to other countries. I feel sorry for Frank Pritchard, who took the leap from New Zealand to Samoa only for their tour to be cancelled.
The development will come. As one influential figure said to me, England can live with Australia for 65 minutes, New Zealand can live with them for 75 and Wales are up to about 15 – on the back of home-nourished players, not rugby union converts.
Maybe in RLWC13, the Welsh will be up to 30 minutes, then 50 – which should be more than enough to make the semis of the 2017 World Cup.
Our next problem is lack of funds.
I cannot believe no-one picked up the phone and called Gatorade or Coca-Cola last year and said “How would you like to sponsor the corner posts in Philadelphia, Rarotonga (oops), Belgrade, Avignon and London over the next two months?”
Is this property worth something? Yes! Did anyone try to sell it? No! Look at some of the other things that get sponsored in rugby league – lower division clubs’ training gear, for instance!
Again, I have had private conversations with movers and shakers about this issue. They say there are domestic agreements, red tape. Objective two is to cut that red tape and sell just one  – one – global sponsorship in the next 12 months.

Let’s put it bluntly: rugby league is such a small sport globally that it is a cartel when it comes to sponsors. Domestic officials don’t want to cost themselves sponsors by handing too much independence to international bodies. Only when they are fighting each other, as well as other sports, for cash will both areas of our game realise their potential.

Cartels allow people to take it easy, get complacent and – as a result – the consumers and the industry itself eventually suffer.
The IRB’s beer sponsor rings the Serbian rugby union and DEMANDS to give them 10,000 euros every year! “Please come and get it!”
OK, so we have every country playing four internationals a year and a coterie of global sponsors funding a modest office. What next?

Eligibility.

This is one of those issues where you just can’t please everyone. Again, an insider described to be a “philosophical divide between those who want the best players in the World Cup and those who want the best players who are eligible”.

The RLIF’s announcement recently that players would not be able to represent one country in qualifiers and another in the tournament proper was largely hollow since we have 12 automatic qualifiers for RLWC13 anyway! Players from those 12 countries can wait right up until the team is picked to choose their loyalty!

Bondi Beat would like to see the residential qualification pushed out from three to five years. We are tempted to call for the one permitted change of election within each World Cup cycle abolished but – again – without proper annual international programmes there is a danger developing countries would field badly depleted teams in the World Cup.

One policy of the RLEF deserves praise.

The body will not pay to fly in pros from Australia or elsewhere. In the recently-completed World Cup qualifiers, the most the Federation gave any team for travel was Stg4000. The RLEF’s aim is to give countries programmes they can afford to complete – which means a nation might be demoted to a lower level of competition because of its ability to get there as much as its competitiveness.

In the end, it is down to whether Anthony Minichiello is willing to sleep in barracks or whether Lebanon can afford Jai Ayoub’s airfare as to whether they play. It is also a matter for the individual countries whether they dump players who got them to the World Cup in favour of stars who can win games when they get there.

In the end, eligibility rules should be tightened when we have the fixture list that allows players to compare oranges with oranges in choosing which country to play for.

I don’t see refereeing as a problem. It is cosmetic to appoint Thierry Alibert or Henry Perenara to a “neutral” test just because of where they were raised. They live in Leeds and Sydney furchrisakes. If it is right that all NRL referees must live in Sydney then it’s OK that Matt Cecchin can control Australia.

What about programming?

Is it too hard to have the Anzac Test and the Exiles game on the same weekend and let all professional players go home and represent their countries mid-season? Is it? Really? Certainly, under the new TV deal in Australia, it shouldn’t be.

Our final problem, then, is club v country.

With the advent of the Independent Commission, NRL clubs think they are going to have more power and appear to have actually forced England to stay home at the end of this season. But that comes down to the late planning of everything.

When the NRL agreed with clubs – verbally, not in writing – three years ago that October and November would be “quiet” internationally, we should have already known there would be one test between Australia and New Zealand, on exactly what date, and that’s it. No argument – or have it then instead of now.

Let me know what you think international rugby league’s other problems are by going on the totalrl.com forums or coming to whitelinefever.ning.com, joining up, and posting in the forum there.

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WHEN a New Zealand official abused referee Matt Cecchin at halftime in the Hull Test, he got more than he bargained for.

At home Cecchin would have filed a report and shut up. At Hull, he gave it back to the Kiwi in spades – perhaps even using a cuss word or two. The touch judges and match commissioner were apparently left speechless by the Chech’s tirade!

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD