By STEVE MASCORD
WE are constantly told that rugby league players have become vanilla, clichéd, boring. Either that, or that they are uneducated hoodlums.
The idea that they can be engaging, interesting, intriguing people is something that rarely enters the public imagination.
There could be a number of reasons for this.
Current NRL media guidelines do not guarantee any in-depth profile-type interviews at all … absolutely none. They are, instead, aimed at providing soundbites and clips to feed the churn of the day-to-day news cycle.
And what clubs don’t have to do, they more often than not don’t do.
Another reason would be players being burned by tabloid headlines and being unwilling to share anything of their personalities with reporters. And then there’s coaches, who tend to be bigger beat-up merchants than journalists when it comes to using the comments of rivals for motivational purposes.
But as a reporter, we talk to players before and after the digital voice recorder flashes green. We observe body language. We see how players interact with each other and with fans and officials … and there are some very interesting dudes out there.
Here’s a selection
FOR years, Greg Inglis was a quiet monolith. He destroyed defences on a weekly basis and said little the rest of the time. When South Sydney signed him from Melbourne in 2011, chief executive Shane Richardson famously declared “I think we just secured our 21st premiership”. Inglis soon began to appreciate his capacity to do good, particularly in the indigenous community. He worked on his public speaking – which has come in handy since he become captain of Souths. The transformation has been absorbing – and it will be very interesting indeed to see what Inglis does upon retirement.
BENJI Marshall has grown up in public. From that outrageous flick pass to Pat Richards in 2005 to calm organiser with the Dragons, a decade later, it’s not always been a comfortable ride. His time at Wests Tigers ended acrimoniously when he was dubbed “Benchy Marshall” before a failed foray into rugby union. Along the way, Benji learned to be humble – and he’s likely to be rewarded by a return to the Kiwis number seven jersey in October. “I thought I was going alright – and no-one was telling me that I wasn’t,” Marshall says of his tome at Wests Tigers. “Sometimes you need to hear the truth, especially when you’re an older player, or else you get caught just coasting and that’s what I was doing. I just got too comfortable in my position. There was never a time when I was under pressure from someone else coming through who was going to take my position Even my family wouldn’t say anything, which is … which is a shame.”
EVEN when ‘Choc’ wasn’t doing interviews – back when Manly were under intense media scrutiny – he would be cracking jokes with us.
Watmough comes across as stand-offish and friendly at the same time, a combination that seems to make absolutely no sense but has led to a budding radio career. ““The scrutiny that I was under at the time was pretty daunting and it was pretty hard on – not just myself but – my family,” he once told A-List. “My mum takes it harder than anyone, the things that are written. Me, my family, everyone around me, knew that I wasn’t a serial killer. I was on the front, back and middle pages every day for a while there. You don’t get anywhere fighting against the people who write about you every week. It’s more along the lines of just – grow up a bit, bite the bullet, get on with life.”
JAMES Graham is one of the more intelligent, humorous and engaging players in the NRL. Then he crosses the sideline; It’s the British Bulldog who was found guilty of biting Billy Slater’s ear in the 2012 grand final, and whose confrontation with referee Gerard Sutton sparked crowd trouble after the infamous South Sydney clash in April. Graham has also argued that if he wants to play on with concussion, he should be allowed to do so. It’s been suggested that Graham plays without concern for his own safety – or that of anyone else. ““In hindsight now, you just get on with it, but at the time you’re trying to get that point across,” he said a few days later. “Stakes are high, emotions are high and that’s not an excuse for questioning the referees decision because really, he’s not going to change his mind. It’s obviously not good behaviour, it’s not a good look.”
CONTRASTS are intriguing – and Michael Ennis is a man of contrast. On the field, he never shuts up and is known as one of the competition’s
primo sledgers. Off it, he’s a polished media performer, deep thinker and passionate advocate for players. His on-field ferocity becomes a joke, role play. But which one is the real Michael Ennis? ““I guess I skate a fine line,” he told A-List. “Well, not exactly skate a fine like but I have a competitive nature. I don’t know – not dirty things. Just competitive. I believe you should just get as much out of each game as you can. I could sit here and preach about what a good guy I am and how I’ve got kids and how I’m a nice family man but that’s not what I’m about, that’s not who I am. It doesn’t really worry me what people think.”
IN all my years as a radio sideline eye, no player has ever stopped a fulltime conversation with a rival so I could interview that rival. No player except Jared Warea-Hargreaves, who made it clear to his fellow player talking to thousands of listeners was more important than shooting the breeze with him. Before he was injured, JWH was the form prop in the NRL. He’s 198cm and weighs 116 kg but is also possibly the most gentle, softly spoken rugby league player on earth. “Schoolkids picked on me a little,” he told an incredulous A-List a few years back, “but then I started eating my veges and I had this little growth spurt!”
‘GIFTY’ Stewart has a bit of his brother Brett – the ‘wronged’ bit – and some of Anthony Watmough – the ‘reticent’ bit – in his complex make-up. He was aggrieved at his brother’s treatment at the hands of the NRL and the media, then about being forced out of the club without receiving an offer. There was rampant speculation about a rift with Daly Cherry Evans, who supposedly got his wages. Yet like Watmough, Stewart has mellowed somewhat and seems to have a decent relationship with the media for the first time. After his first game against Manly, he commented: “they’re all mates of mine … most of them”.
IT takes a lot for the public to take the side of journalists but Darius Boyd’s monosyllabic “media opportunities” at St George Illawarra and
Newcastle did the trick. “Yes”, “no” and “next question” came across very poorly on television, as did his response to being doorstopped by a reporter as he left Origin camp. But things changed dramatically for Boyd when good friend Alex McKinnon broke his neck last year. Boyd quit the game, sought help for depression and is now considered a future captain of the Brisbane Broncos. Boyd never knew his father but received a letter last year from a man claiming to be just that.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
1. 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
MELBOURNE coach Craig Bellamy revealed he would have given the job of kicking the winning field goal in an amazing comeback win over Manly to someone else if he’d known captain Cameron Smith had not booted one in his NRL career.
The Storm trailed 20-0 eight minutes before halftime, levelled the scores 15 minutes into the second half, hit the from with 13 left in regulation time and secured an historic when when captain Smith – playing a club record equaling 262nd game – booted a 22-metre field goal four minutes into overtime.
It was Manly’s worst capitulation at home and Melbourne’s equal-second biggest comeback, although hooker Smith described it as the best in which he had been involved.
“It’s the first field goal I’ve kicked since under 16s, actually – back at Logan Brothers,” Smith said. “The best I have is a couple of pot shots at the end of the week from 40 out, as a lot of footballers do … I don’t do any practice at all.”
The admission surprised Bellamy, who commented: “We sent out the message for Cameron to do it … I hadn’t realised he hadn’t kicked one before, I wouldn’t have made that decision if I’d known. We probably would have gone (Benny Roberts) on Benny Hampton”
The Sea Eagles were cruising at 20-0 when fullback Brett Stewart sought attention for a sore hamstring 10 minutes before halftime. Stewart did not return for the second half and in his absence, Australia captain Smith took firm control of proceedings.
The 29-year-old’s bomb to the north-eastern corner gave winger Sisa Waqa his first try seven minutes short of halftime and the long road back continued six after the resumption of play when the Fijian completed his brace off the pass of Billy Slater.
Again it was the no.9’s scheming which gave five-eighth Ben Hampton a 52nd-minute try – converted by Smith – that narrowed the gap to six.
The spirits of the 14,000 crowd, dampened by a rain shower, were completely drowned when Kenny Bromwich crossed between the posts after Hampton fielded a kick and Jesse Bromwich almost knocked on at 55 minutes.
The penalty which allowed Smith to boot his side ahead for the first time also landed Manly tryscorer Justin Horo on report for a high tackle. A penalty at the other end gave Lyon the chance to square things up and magnificent defence from Ryan Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hoffman precent a Cheyse Blair try shortly after the start of golden point time. Ben Roberts missed a field goal attempt before Smith’s successful pot-shot.
Manly coach Geoff Toovey admitted the loss of Stewart – who hopes to play against South Sydney on Friday – had been a turning point “but when you’re up by 20 points at Brookvale Oval, you don’t lose from there.
“There was a massive change in posession. It will be interesting to watch the video and see what happened.”
Bellamy said: “The score could have been more in the first half, we made some bad decisions in defence.
“We’ve got a few young guys in our side who it probably would have been easy for them to be shellshocked by that score. They made a couple of errors as well but they didn’t go away, they kept doing their job.”
According to Lyon, former Eagle George Rose knocked on while playing the ball, shortly before the end of regulation time. “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,” Lyon said.
Lyon approached referee Gerard Sutton about the alleged fumble but Rose countered: “It didn’t happen. Killer always goes up to the ref. That’s why they changed the rule!”
MELBOURNE 23 (S Waqa 2 B Hampton K Bromwich tries C Smith 3 goals field goal) bt MANLY 22 (S Matai 2 C Blair J Horo tries J Lyon 3 goals) in golden point time at Brookvale Oval. Referees: G Sutton/G Reynolds. Crowd: 14,200.
Filed for: SUN-HERALD
By STEVE MASCORD
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)
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
AFTER winning a National Rugby League premiership at his first attempt, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was none the wiser about the plans of his cross-code rugby superstar, Sonny Bill Williams.
The former All Black played a key role in the tricolours 13th premiership, his team twice coming from behind to secure a 26-18 win at ANZ Stadium in a decider that featured a rare penalty try to Manly centre Jamie Lyon and a number of other contentious calls.
New Zealand international Shaun Kenny-Dowall is believed to have played the second half with a broken jaw, with x-rays to confirm the extent if the injury.
Williams is yet to commit to the club for next season and there is intense speculation he will accept an AUD $1 million offer to box instead of playing in this month’s rugby league World Cup and then sign for New Zealand rugby union franchise the Waikato Chiefs.
“I haven’t asked him – I said ‘after the season’ but it’s only been 45 minutes,” said Robinson, who transferred from Super League side Catalan at the start of the season.
“Give us a little more time.
“After it gets past a point in a season, if he decides not to stay, that’s a huge hole you can’t fill anyway. You can’t find that type of player at this time of year, usually.
“That’s the risk you take with a player like that. He’s proved a lot of people wrong this year. We just decided to back him and we’ll do the same again.
“He can make a huge difference to a team.”
Lyon’s penalty try came three minutes into the second half and the decision looked like it would change the course of a contest at ANZ Stadium, during which his Manly side had endured the rough end of some first half calls.
Instead, Williams set up a try which lifted the tricolours back into the game and centre Michael Jennings touched down just millimetres short of the dead ball line, with seven minutes remaining, to secure victory.
The penalty try was one of a number of contentions calls at the end of a finals series that started with a seven-tackle try eliminating North Queensland.
Lyon chased Daly Cherry-Evans’ kick before he was pulled down by rival Mitchell Aubusson.
“I’ve got a try, I want to check the penalty try,” referee Shayne Hayne told video officials Ashley Klein
Six minutes later, centre Steve Matai added to Manly’s total with a converted try but just as Geoff Toovey’s side appeared set to take control, the Roosters responded with a try to Italy forward Aiden Guerra.
From the opening seconds, when Manly’s Glenn Stewart staggered out of an attempted tackle on rival Sam Moa and received medical attention before continuing, it was a grand final full of incident and contentious officiating.
Sea Eagles players claimed Sydney Roosters prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves had head-butted Justin Horo in the 33rd minute. There was definitely contact, but no classic butting action, and a previous penalty to the tricolours stood.
A penalty against Eagle Matt Ballin for tackling in the air was also highly contentious, as was a decision to award Sydney Roosters a scrum feed when their centre Michael Jennings appeared to play at the ball before it went into touch.
It was almost written into the plot that the trend should continue and when Sonny Bill Williams released James Maloney in the 60th minute, the pass to captain Anthony Minichiello drifted forwards – but went undetected – before Kenny-Dowall scored.
Well-known for his outbursts about refereeing this year, Toovey was measured post-match. “Pretty tough on the big calls again tonight,” he said.
“It was probably the lowest penalised game of the year.”
Losing halfback Daly Cherry-Evans was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal as man of the match.
Australia back-rower Greg Bird tweeted: “Am I the only person that finds it strange that every camera close up is on Sonny Bill. If he wins Clive I’ll retire!”
SYDNEY ROOSTERS 26 (A Guerra M Jennings S Kenny-Dowall D Tupou tries J Maloney 5 goals) bt MANLY 18 (J Lyon S Matai J Taufua tries J Lyon 3 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Referee: S Hayne/ B Cummins. Crowd: 81,491.
Filed for: THE GUARDIAN