THE JOY OF SIX: Round Eight

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

ASADA ARMADA LAYS SEIGE

HAVING circled the wagons in recent weeks, the NRL is now going to be expected to work for the Indians. ASADA’s decision yesterday would appear to mean the evidence you have already heard regarding alleged performance enhancing drug offences, at Cronulla in particular, will be used by the anti-doping authority in requests that the League issues infractions against players. It’s hard to imagine the League refusing to issue the infraction notices. But this is going to get messy. If ASADA is not happy with the stance taken by the NRL, it can ask the Federal and State governments to suspend the sport’s funding and it can also request WADA to kick Australia out of the World Cup for non-compliance. Imagine the pressure the NRL’s doping judiciary will be under when players appear, along with the publicity, with all that at stake. “Circus” doesn’t begin to sum it up.

DANIEL IN THE LION’S DEN

THIS correspondent suggested somewhat playfully a few weeks ago that the honeymoon period of referees coach Daniel Anderson was over. But now, it’s serious. Both teams at Skilled Park yesterday complained about calls and many of the other matches at the weekend had flashpoints associated with officiating. What are we to make of all this? We wanted ex-players in the box and we got them. We wanted discretion on obstruction calls and we got it. Yet most people think both of these innovations still gave us an incorrect call on William Zillman. Perhaps rugby league is just TOO flexible in comparison to other sports, who have to put major rule and interpretation changes to an international body which employs painstakingly slow beurocratic decision-making. Maybe we should all go back to playing the same game – from Balmain to Belgrade – and only the really worthwhile changes will ever make it into practice.

RABBITS AND CHOPPERS

WAS anyone really outraged by the kick-off of Gold Coast-St George Illawarra yesterday being delayed nine minutes so Phil Gould and Ray Warren could make to the stadium? Television funds our game and kick-offs are delayed for a variety of reasons each week. In any case, David Gallop leaving his passport at home and being allowed to travel to New Zealand without it so he could open the new grandstand at Mt Smart Stadium will take some beating. But Set Of Six would like to suggest Nine give something back. Let clubs broadcast their pre-match build-ups on the internet, allowing fans the chance to obsess over their favourite team from afar. At the moment, no footage including the playing surface or inside of the stadium can be broadcast by non-rights holders – even by the clubs who are playing.

A PUNCH AND DUTY

A PUNCH in the head is now a send off in English rugby league. In the Challenge Cup tie between Huddersfield and Leeds, Giant Joe Wardle threw a couple at Rhino Carl Ablett and out came the red card. Brisbane’s Josh McGuire should be grateful the same is not the case here. Upset at high challenge by Parramatta’s Mitchell Allgood on Bronco Peter Wallace, the Samoan international threw a couple of haymakers on Saturday night before the Eel finally responded. McGuire got a spell in the sin bin but it’s hard to see why Allgood joined him. Not many people would cop two punches and not bother to defend themselves. “Our halfback got hit and things happen,” McGuire said. “There’s no hard feelings. I’m sure he (Allgood) is OK about it too.” The way the Parramatta forward was mouthing off to McGuire after being given his marching orders, it’s just as well they were kept apart.

CAKETIN RISES

WHAT, then, can we learn from the 30,112 who went to a game in Wellington at the weekend compared with the 15,972, 9858 and 11,005 in Sydney? Perhaps that despite ASADA and other negativity, there are still places where the NRL is sexy. Back in the late eighties, the Winfield Cup was so popular in New Zealand that you could buy Mal Meninga-endorsed underpants. Yet we had to wait around to get an entire club of the ground to capitalise on this. Let’s not make the same mistake again. The NRL should identify 16 areas it wants to hit and require every club to shift one home game a year, independent of their own arrangements. At the moment, moving one game could cost a club $700,000 if sponsors and members ask for one-twelfth of their money back.

MESSENGER SHOOTS MESSENGER

TWO very different issues regarding the ASADA investigation are being confused in some quarters. One is the rights and wrongs of the Jon Mannah story and another is the NRL and its clubs standing up to News Limited. You can say all you like about whether the players and clubs SHOULD have been upset about the story. Some may even admit now to have been over-emotional initially. The yarn led to Stephen Dank admitting he offered Mannah peptides, something is unlikely to have emerged had it never appeared. More important information emerged in a thorough story yesterday. But the fact is, they WERE upset and the relationship between the NRL and its former owner has altered as a direct result. Even messengers can unwittingly shoot other messengers if they’re not careful.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

TRAVELS: XI

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD

THE relationship between rugby league in Australia and its former overlord, News Corporation, changed significantly at the beginning of the week.

Players across the game were upset with a story last week in News’ Sydney tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, which quoted from a leaked report into alleged drug use at Cronulla in 2011.

The independent report expressed concern that the substances used may have triggered a relapse of of Hodgkin Lymphoma in prop Jon Mannah. The disease claimed Mannah’s life at age 23 in January.

People are upset with different elements of the story. Some believe even the core facts should not have been published. Others didn’t like the way it was displayed, pulling heavily at the heartstrings. And then there were those who thought the reporters should have asked the family for a comment by phone and not gone to their home to meet them, armed with the report.

After NRL CEO David Smith told club bosses on Monday that senior players wanted the journalists involved banned, they opted for the less petty option of a press release criticising elements of the story and its compilation.

This would probably not have happened until News Limited divested itself of rugby league – one subsidiary of the media giant issuing a media release criticising the other. Given that it still owns the Brisbane Broncos and Melbourne Storm it must have been a big call by the CEOs of those clubs to agree to the censure.

According to South Sydney CEO Shane Richardson, the Telegraph hit back by cancelling a positive story on membership which was to run on Thursday. The story will now appear in the rival Sydney Morning Herald.

There were signs that the battle was going to get a lot nastier than this but so far it hasn’t.

Here’s what I think: newspapers should not involve themselves in wars, battles or campaigns. They should not even stand up for themselves if attacked.

Yes, I am willfully naive but I believe newspapers should be observers not participants, stoically serving their readers each day. They should not concern themselves with what they published yesterday and should give those who seek to discredit their earlier stories the same platform as those who offer support.

As UK readers know all too well since Leveson, newspapers have been able to not just participate in, but shape, public life due to their influence. And that influence has been brought to bear on democracy itself.

But newspapers are dying.

The scrutiny afforded by social media holds a mirror up to the hubris and churlishness that is endemic in the newspaper business – and it’s not a nice reflection. People won’t tolerate it anymore – because now they don’t have to.

If the Daily Telegraph had refused to cover rugby league for the rest of the week, for instance, the loser out of that would have been the Daily Telegraph. The same goes for the Fairfax press, for whom I do a fair bit of work (um, if Rugby League Week refused to cover rugby league….) The mood of the clubs now is that they don’t care if a media outlet “wages war” on them. They have a $1.035 billion tv deal. It’s a war they are convinced they would win in a canter.

This is an important turning point in the history of the game in Australia, where the Sydney media has pretty much always called the shots.

The traditional media now needs the game now more than the game needs it. If most people get their news from websites, why should sports leagues give newspapers preferential treatment over other websites?

And if newspapers are going to behave like commercial entities – retaliating to perceived slights by making editorial decisions based on issues other than news value – then what separates them from radio and television?

Radio and television pay for the right to cover rugby league. The best argument against charging papers right now is that they can no longer afford it.

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FOR the most part, the likely influx of English players to the NRL next year is being greeted positively.

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THE JOY OF SIX: Round Seven

The Joy Of SixTOUGH ON EVERYONE

AT this point, three days later, debating the merits of Friday’s Jon Mannah/ASADA story would probably only serve to reheat an emotional imbroglio which should be just started to cool down. That’s the last thing anyone needs. If Cronulla have written to ASADA, effectively dobbing themselves in over the administering of Peptides to Mannah, I’m glad I know about it and it wasn’t covered up by a well meaning journalist who was concerned about being maligned for writing it. These are the dilemmas most of us only face once in a career. There is a saying in tabloids: “a good display can turn a good story into a great story”.  “Display” is photos, headlines etc. But an over-the-top display can clearly also turn a worthy story into a community scandal.

A BRIDGE TOO FA’AOSO?

SHOULD repeat offenders within a single game be judged cumulatively? That is, should Richie Fa’aoso have been sent to the sin bin or even sent off after his second spear tackle on Greg Inglis last Friday? Referees coach Daniel Anderson said on the ABC yesterday that it was something which would be considered. In Super League they have a “general warning” signal (it looks like the whistler is casting a spell on the offending team) which basically means the next time anyone infringes, someone goes to the sin bin. There is some confusion over how long the warning lasts. But perhaps it is worth considering. Fa’aoso could have been dispatched for repeated infringements, even if the infringements happened to be foul play.

SIGNS, SIGNS, EVERYWHERE SIGNS

SET of Six hereby introduces a contest: fan sign of the year. And we have our first entrant in the banner brandished by a pair of Newcastle fans at Skilled Park yesterday: “Go Hard Willie”. @Muzza2501 Tweeted “At his age it should read: Please go hard Willie!! :)”We’ve not seen such excellence in the field of double entendres since St George Illawarra fans’ “Me So Hornby!”. Let’s see how many puns we can fit into the rest of this item. The sign was soon discovered by security and wasn’t up for long. It was so big it had to be handled by two people. And, in reference to our new contest …. it will take some beating.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST AP

IT’S fair to say that if Twitter and Instagram have a natural enemy, it’s the Canberra Raiders. The social media networks played a big role in Josh Dugan’s departure from the Green Machine and at the weekend, they blew coach David Furner’s cover over the return of Blake Ferguson from a fractured cheekbone.  Prop Brett White posted a picture of Ferguson on the plane to Townsville – which was interesting because Ferguson was supposedly not playing against North Queensland. “Got family up here so I made the trip with the boys! Still out till next week!’ Ferguson tweeted. Low and behold, when the team-sheets were posted at 4.25pm Saturday, Ferguson was on the wing for Sandor Earl. He insisted he did visit family – and was cleared to play on match eve. But if the Raiders do any social media training for players in future, perhaps it should perhaps be a simple message: “stay off it”.

SAM, SAM, $1 MILLION MAN

IS Sam Tomkins worth $1 million? Not while the salary cap is $5.85 million, no. But it will soon be $7 million – and Tomkins is the sort of man who puts bums on seats. Tomkins is bettered only by Billy Slater when it comes to broken field running – a fullback who can create opportunities like few others. But the club that can afford Tomkins may not be his best destination. Does Tomkins really need to come into a new competition and be relied upon immediately to win matches? St George Illawarra and Sydney Roosters would afford him a more gentle transition from Super League than the Warriors, based on the form of all three so far this season.

LOCATION, LOCATION

GOSFORD has now hosted more games this season that traditional venues like WIN Stadium, Leichhardt Oval and Campbelltown Stadium. The reason is simple: cash. Rugby league needs to compile a list of matches that don’t work where they are and farm them out in an organised fashion for a guaranteed return from venues and state governments next year. This can be factored into memberships – teams are already doing this. We shouldn’t accept sub-10,000 crowds anymore in this billion-dollar competition. In round 17, we have matches in Darwin, Perth and Mackay but these relocations are done in a piecemeal way. Let’s be organised. If we get the message out that you will lose your home game against Canberra or Melbourne or whoever if you don’t go, hopefully fans will respond.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

BONDI BEAT: March 2013

Rugby League World March 2013By STEVE MASCORD

THIS is March, which means Bondi Beat again has to make a fool of itself with a bunch of predictions for the forthcoming National Rugby League season.

Last year we listed Five Things That Could Go Wrong in 2012. Did the Independent Commission isolate Australia internationally? Well, the green-and-golds refused to play at the end of the year but, on balance, no.

“England are forced to play a home series in October and November against minnow nations. No-one shows up, the national media ignore the games and England are even beaten in one of the matches”. Two out of three ain’t bad.

“New Zealand are comprehensively flogged in their only two Tests, both against Australia. The green and golds go into the World Cup next year as unbackable favourites”. The Kiwis were beaten, but not flogged;

“Rugby league writers continue to be laid off on national newspapers and budget cuts at the BBC lead to the sport largely disappearing from your radio dials.” One out of two again.

“More Super League clubs go bust and are deducted competition points while Manchester Magic fails to attract any more people than the last round of magic”. One out of two there.

Here’s five more predictions:

· Sonny Bill Williams’ return to rugby league to be messy, an ultimately unsuccessful. He won’t play in the World Cup and his biceps injury will severely interrupt his season;

· Parramatta to be the biggest improvers of the year, Manly the biggest sliders;

· Israel Folau to return to rugby league at the end of the season, with South Sydney;

· Canterbury to win the competition;

· New Zealand to win a successful World Cup.

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I HAD the pleasure recently of interviewing United States forward Curtis Cunz on the 40th floor or his Park Avenue office building.

That night, David Niu, Marcus Vassilakopoulos and the rest of the AMNRL heavies were to meet in the same office to discuss American Rugby League business.

No, I still don’t know what happened to their website. More of that in a sec.

But I do know, thanks to Curtis, that US will be playing Samoa in a World Cup warm-up match in Hawaii some time in October. How cool does that sound?

From a travel point of view, the warm-ups are almost as exciting as the tournament itself. Before the 2000 World Cup, I remember seeing South Africa host Wales in Pretoria one day, and England take on the US in Orlando the next!

Mind you, it is to be hoped that the countries who have qualified for RLWC2013 don’t just play each other but rather give the other nations an opportunity to earn some coin and exposure during early October.

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NICE fellow that Curtis is, a few months before the World Cup bow of the Tomahawks it is difficult to conceive of a more confusing situation that that confronting the AMNRL right now.

I fancy myself as a follower of these affairs and even I had missed a report from last May confirming the sale of the governing body to Grand Prix Sports, the organisation that wants to play the World Club Challenge in Las Vegas.

On the US business site marketwatch.com, Grand Prix Sports’ Neal Pilson explained the company’s interest in investing in both codes by saying: “While maintaining the independent integrity of the rugby union and rugby league operations, yet folding them under one production umbrella, we at Grand Prix felt from a broadcast perspective this transaction was a smart move to avoid unnecessary confusion in a US media market at a very critical time in rugby’s growth.”

That sounds very much like buying out a competitor, from a rugby union point of view, doesn’t it?

Grand Prix were supposed to put on the Tomahawks v Melbourne Storm game. It never happened, due to lack of funds. The AMNRL website has disappeared, with questions about its absence on Facebook going unanswered.

Meanwhile, Grand Prix Sports is promoting a rugby union sevens tournament in mid-year with ONE MILLION DOLLARS as the first prize!

It would appear the AMNRL and its new owner are not on fantastic terms. Meanwhile, the rival USARL struggles on, with its players still expecting to be locked out of World Cup selection.

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THE worth of contracts in the NRL has never been more in question.

Penrith and Australia centre Michael Jennings was not appreciated at the foot of the mountains, even though he had three years left on his contract there.

Gold Coast, South Sydney and Sydney Roosters all showed interest. When he ended up at the Roosters, it set in train a chain reaction which illustrates just how weird the player market down under has become.

Souths instead signed Beau Champion back from the Titans. And the Titans then attempted to snare Jamie Lyon – Manly’s CAPTAIN – immediately, with less than two months remaining until the end of the season!

Lyon, who in 2004 was roundly criticised for walking out on Parramatta mid season, en route to St Helens, issued a statement denying that he wanted out of the Sea Eagles.

But when new Titans CEO David May approached Manly rival David Perry to ask about Lyon’s availability, he was reportedly “left with the impression” that the door was open.

Add to this the fact that clubs regularly contribute to the wages of players who have left, to relieve salary cap pressure, and you have a confusing situation for fans.

We used to look at the Brits and their custom of “loaning” players to rival clubs and scratch our heads. But in retrospect it’s a whole lot cleaner and more sensible than some of the things going on in the NRL right now.

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IF YOU are a regular reader of this column, you’d be aware I am not a big fan of taxpayers’ money in PNG being spent on a bid for NRL inclusion.

On the other hand, inclusion in the Queensland Cup seems infinitely less expensive and more practical.

To that end, South Sydney are linking their premiership game in Cairns on June 16 with the pre-season game against the Kumuls at Redfern Oval on February 9.

The Cairns league has a strong relationship with PNG – for obvious geographic reasons – and the Kumuls candidacy for Q Cup inclusion will be promoted during at the June game.

Souths could even end up shifting a home game to Port Moresby at some stage in the future.

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ONE of the more startling stories written in recent weeks suggested that if Craig Bellamy was to leave Melbourne, captain Cameron Smith could take over as player-coach!

Bondi Beat would have thought captain-coaches went out with contested scrums.

Has anyone seen what coaches do these days? And Craig Bellamy spends more time coaching than most.

Although ‘Bellyache’ does manage to stay as fit as the players. So I supposed the least they can do is be as smart as him.

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WE all have our ideas on what issues the ARL Commission should address, particularly when it comes to things we believe have been overlooked until now.

For me, it’s taking responsibility for Australia’s leadership of the international game.

For historians and journalists like Ian Heads, David Middleton, Sean Fagan, Gary Lester and Geoff Armstrong, it’s determining which was the first rugby league club in Australia.

Newtown have long laid claim to this distinction but the pointy-heads say Glebe held a meeting on January 9, 1908, which committed them to the new code.

Newtown stand accused of adding “January 8, 1908” to their minutes of their first meeting “at a later date” to give them bragging rights.

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GREAT to see Super League spending some money to show the ‘League Of The Extraordinary’ advert to a wider audience.

We’re yet to hear much about the NRL’s advertising strategy for 2013 at this stage. But give the trouble our players are capable of getting into, it’s unlikely it will focus on just one or two of them.

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YOU’D expect me to say something here about Jon Mannah, the 23-year-old former Parramatta and Cronulla forward who passed away from cancer during the last month, and I want to.

Much has been made of the Christian faith observed by Jon and his brother Tim.

But regardless of faith, the bravery which Jon showed in the face of a terrible, painful illness should be a lesson to us all.

The end is what gives the beginning and middle of life meaning, I guess. But this end came way too soon.

Vail Jon Mannah.

Follow @BondiBeat on Twitter.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

DISCORD 2013: Edition Three

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

NORMALLY in Discord, we throw up some strident opinion or another and offer you the opportunity to agree or disagree.

But this week, I’m going to give you a topic rather than an opinion and simply open the floor to you.

Michael Jennings swapping clubs two months before the start of the season. Jamie Lyon – the captain of Manly – being approached to quit the club immediately.

Do you care?

I remember, in the primeval past, writing stories about clubs accusing others of “inducing players to breach their contracts”. But those stories don’t seem to be written anymore.

It seems to be the modus operandi of clubs that players will be unhappy at rival joints and even though they are under contract, we can actually have them now.

And their current club will pay them to play for us! I never quite got my head around that…..

Discord never cared if a star signed with a rival club for next season and was paraded at a mid-season media conference in that club’s colours. But you did – and the practice was unofficially outlawed.

But you don’t seem to care about a player starting pre-season training – or even a season – with one club and finishing it with another. You don’t seem to mind the fact a contract is worth nada these days.

Or maybe you do. Tell me at the bottom of this column.

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BY now you’ve read a number of tributes to Jon Mannah. I probably had less to do with him than many other reporters.

But when I heard of his passing, I had to ask myself the questions: does death teach us more about the nature and value of life, or is it just something we say to make ourselves feel better?

Certainly, Jon’s friends and family are beyond such esoteric considerations right now – and understandably so.

But I think many people will look at Jon Mannah’s bravery and make better choices in their lives as a result. The realisation that it can all end at any time is something that dawns on most of us later in life and hopefully encourages us to make better use of the time we have.

At 23, Jon Mannah shouldn’t have had to worry about that.

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IT’S interesting that Wigan coach Shaun Wane has admitted fullback Sam Tomkins will not be spending his entire career with the club.

Wane is already trialling other fullbacks in the pre-season, even though England’s best player will be at DW Stadium at least until the end of next year.

It’s hard to see Tomkins joining another Super League club. The leaves the NRL at rugby union.

Let’s hope it’s the NRL.

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THANKS for all the comments last week. Long Xuyen wanted to bring replacements down to three with no-one who comes off being allowed back on the field. It sounds a bit radical but even the great Darren Lockyer believes we may one day have to have fewer than 13 players on the field.

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