THE JOY OF SIX: International Season week one

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

1. WHAT IN THE WORLD?

ACCORDING to the Rugby League International Federation constitution, the gates of all Tests are to be levied with the money going into central funds. The levy is supposed to apply, as a percentage, the same to Saturday’s Vanuatu-Niue game in Port Vila as April’s Australia-New Zealand match in Canberra. But is it being applied at all? The 2008 World Cup made a reported $4 million profit. How was this spent? If we are all to get behind the 2013 tournament with our cash and enthusiasm, surely a little transparency shouldn’t be too much to ask in return? The fact is, domestic leagues don’t want the RLIF taking sponsors and other financial opportunities off them and that’s been holding back international footy for years.

2. INS AND OUTS

ANOTHER player who could have shone in the World Cup is out. Hooker James Segeyaro’s shoulder injury forced him to withdraw from the Papua New Guinea side over the weekend. Italy have lost both first choice halves, Terry Campese and Craig Gower, but Tonga’s Brent Kite is playing on despite hand and wrist injuries. Samoa coach Matt Parish has not had a good time of it. Frank Pritchard, Krisnan Inu and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck were nabbed by the Kiwis while Jeff Lima, Steve Matai and Carlos Tuimavave were ruled out injured. It appears Matai played in the NRL grand final with a serious hand injury. He ran straight up the tunnel at fulltime against South Sydney the previous week – perhaps he suffered it then. He’s been named as a technical advisor for the Samoans.

3. PACIFIC PRINCES

IT used to be that you could comfortably make it to every rugby league international played in a given year. Yet on one of the quietest weekends of the year, NSW Country beat South African Clubs Selection 50-0 in Silverton, Vanuatu beat Niue 22-20 in Port Vila and Greece downed Thailand 90-0 in Bangkok. The Port Vila game was a great spectacle, with players from both teams forming a circle for a prayer at fulltime and celebrating long into the night – with the referee! Self-starting countries like these need all the help they can get from the RLIF. But it’s a double-edged sword – the Federation probably wouldn’t let them use players who qualify through great grandparents (and there were plenty of them), or allow five reserves!

4. THAIS HAVE LEGS

ON the surface, there wasn’t much for the Thais to be happy about when they were beaten 90-0 by Greece at Technology Stadium, Bangkok, on Saturday. But in the stands for the game run by Shannon Crane’s Thai Rugby League was the boss of the rival organisation, Andrew Charles. Charles’ Thailand Stars play the Philippines away next week and several of those players – including Queensland-based Charlie Jones – turned out in Crane’s team. Charles was also invited to a sponsor’s function. The result of the game is compelling proof a country that has so far hosted just two rugby league games cannot continue with the folly of two governing bodies. Despite the thrashing, everyone also seemed to have a good time afterwards.

5. SMALL WORLD

STROLLING along Port Vila waterfront on Sunday night, Joy Of Six was stunned to run into Gold Coast Titans hooker Matt Srama and his girlfriend. With a trip to the Philippines on hold because of a shoulder injury, Srama decided to head to Vanuatu completely oblivious to the fact a rugby league international was being played there. Titans official Matt Francis – who spoke to several promising local players – must have missed Srama at the airport by a matter of hours on Sunday. Honourable mention, too, to the local French film-makers who shot the Vanuatu players walking towards the camera, Melbourne Storm style, at training two days before the Niue game and turned it into a slick promo video at lightning speed. One suspects they were not paid anything like what our game shells out for similar clips in England, New Zealand and Australia.

6. AMERICAN CIVIL WAR CONTINUES

JACKSONVILLE Axemen owner Daryl ‘Spinner’ Howland continues to rail against the number of foreign-based players in the United States World Cup team. Now comes a claim the team might actually be, in some regards, illegal. Howland has cited the Ted Stevens Act, which impacts on amateur sports in the US and their relationship with the US Olympic Committee. However, given that other sides at the World Cup have fewer, and even no, domestic players, it’s hard to see anything changing with regard to the Tomahawks. In more positive news for Spinner, the Axemen have launched their own beer.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 10

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

1.HOW’S TRENT?
Long before Cronulla players were reportedly visiting him at home to find out what he had been telling ASADA, Parramatta trainer Trent Elkin had already written himself into the rugby league lexicon with the expression “How’s Trent?” Elkin used to be the referees’ conditioner and the phrase was code for “what’s the penalty count?”. Canterbury coach Des Hasler revived memories of “How’s Trent” by strongly suggesting the match officials were aware of the count at halftime in the 44-8 loss to Newcastle – and then spelt it out a little more plainly on Triple M. “It’s almost comical,” he said. “It’s 8-3, come in, check it out, all of a sudden it’s 8-7.” The Bulldogs acknowledged they were beaten by a better side but reckoned a slew of penalties in the Knights’ favour shortly after halftime, when they trailed by just four, was extremely damaging. The answer to “How’s Trent?” these days is a bit more complicated than a number, we suspect.
2. BEAU RYAN, UNDERPANTS AND WILLIE
NOT everything Willie Mason said on the field was invective aimed at Ben Barba. When a scrum was packing down early in the contest, apropos of nothing, he asked the opposition pack of forwards: “did you see Beau Ryan on the back of Rugby League Week? He was in his undies.” At first Set Of Six thought he was having a shot at someone in the Canterbury camp for not playing in City-Country. Mason and Ryan were Country squad members and Bulldogs half Josh Morris withdraw from the City side. But then Mason said “I’m not talking about rep footy”. As it turns out, Mason had no ulterior motive in raising the issue. He just thought it was funny. As 1200 kg of rugby league beef collided in front of 18,982 fans, Mason was making idle conversation with his opponents.
3. NEW ZEALAND WORRIERS
WESTS Tigers’ poor form does not hurt rugby league in any great sense. South Sydney’s good season so far probably does more good thaN the joint venture side’s shocker does bad because it wins back a few fans who lapsed during the Super League War. But the Warriors being beaten 62-6 is disastrous for the game because they are rugby league’s flagship in an entire country. Crowds at Mt Smart Stadium have always been fickle and while some recession-proofing has gone on over the past 10 years, an unsuccessful Warriors gives rugby union a leg-up and has the potential to cause damage right down to the game’s grassroots in the Shaky Isles. The attendance figure this Sunday against Newcastle will be very interesting indeed.
4. DUGAN (UN)CHAINED
ON balance, Peter Sterling’s idea of banning Josh Dugan from turning out against Canberra this year is a sound one. It’s hard to legislate a rule that fits all situations when players are axed for disciplinary reason but this simple measure would be a constant reminder that you can’t stuff up, have a break, and then carry on as if nothing happened. Parramatta signing Gareth Hock pushed Wigan into loaning him to Widnes but it was a condition of his loan he could not play against the cherry and whites. It would be fair to impose a similar restriction on Dugan. I still think the NRL would have to approve such each one of these conditional bans on its merits though, just to make sure a club is not exploiting the rules unfairly.
5. HAVES, HAVENOTS AND NOT SURES
ANY debate about the inequalities of this year’s competition should have become clearer on Friday night when first played last. Sure enough, first won by 44 points. But clearly there is an emerging middle-class too, teams who have either a) illusions or b) potential for grandeur. Each weekend, these teams take polite turns giving their fans reason to suspect upward mobility by waltzing around with top company before slumming it again, nursing a figurative bottle of plonk in a paper bag, the very next weekend. Gold Coast, Canberra, Brisbane, Penrith and St George Illawarra are in this group. You might be able to add Canterbury now too. Cronulla’s improvement seems more reliable and North Queensland are playing well without getting the results. They have to win on Friday against Wests Tigers though, and do it well.
6. DON’T TRIP OVER YOUR LIP
THERE is something wrong with our society when you can’t show so much as a nipple on television but Matt Srama’s bone sticking out of his finger and James Maloney’s lip sliced in two are objects of mirth and instagram frenzies. Both injuries were truly hideous and had the capacity to instantly transform any witness into a vegetarian. Maloney’s gash was so deep it actually affected his speech as I interviewed him on the field at fulltime on Saturday night at 1300SMILES Stadium. Srama apparently caught his injured finger in an opponent’s jumper on Friday night, aggravating the horrible gash which somehow did not involved a fracture. David Mead played half an hour with a broken jaw in the loss to the Broncos. Tough, tough men – but I’d rather just read about their feats than see things in living colour on social media. When did surgery become light entertainment?

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Titans To Unveil Private Combinations In Derby

Greg Bird 2By STEVE MASCORD

CO-CAPTAIN Greg Bird has issued a pre-derby warning that private combinations honed during the summer by staying back after training are on the verge of bearing fruit for the Titans.

Back-rower Bird tells Rugby League Week Gold Coast stars have worked on attacking formations in their spare time, in position-specific groups,  and the tricks nutted out during a long, hot off-season are now being tried on opposition defences.

The Titans go into Friday night’s Skilled Park showdown with Brisbane in better shape than their ‘big brothers’,  with just one defeat from the opening month of the season compared with the Broncos’ 1-3 record.

“As you watch, week-in, week out, you’ll see little combinations working,” says Bird, “like Jamal (Idris) and David Mead, they’ve been doing things.

“Albert Kelly and Matty Srama around the rucks have been doing a bit.

“We’ve seen a little bit but they’ll keep getting better.  If we keep our focus on our defence and let the individuals work out their combinations,  that’s going to be best thing for us.

“The onus has been put on the players. Carty (coach John Cartwright) hasn’t been putting us in groups and saying ‘work your stuff out’.

“It’s been after training, blokes have been getting together and working on their little combinations and I think that’s the best part about it.

“It hasn’t been coach-enforced or senior player-enforced. The onus has purely been put on them and I think it’s been showing.”

Bird also gave RLW an insight into the areas he has been focusing on with the players around him.

“I do a bit of work with Aiden Sezer on our edge – just picking when he’s going to run and trying to push into holes because he’s such a strong runner,” he said.

“It’s such a stong part of his game that I’ve got to try and keep an eye on him because he’s so deceptive … and getting that offload ready for Willy Zillman, that’s been one of our strengths as well.”

The Australia star says St George Illawarra’s win over Cronulla on Saturday proves that there is no room for complacency in derbies.

“That’s the thing about rivalries and the thing about the derbies – where you are on the table doesn’t matter,” Bird said.

“The local derbies, everything comes out. The emotions come out. Fans come out of nowhere. The winner of the game is all about who’s most passionate, who is most determined on the night.

“They’ve got a strong forward pack, very similar to us. The Benny Hannants and the Matt Gilletts will be out to prove a point.”

Titans players previously told us new trainer Dan Ferris with their improvements this year.

“The focus on our defence has been a big thing,” says Bird. “We’re trying to hold teams our rather than putting all our emphasis into scoring points.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

“Rugby Is Not Something You Sniff”

P1020185By STEVE MASCORD

“LOOK at him – he’s barely said ‘boo’ the whole tour and now he’s got a big smile on his face and you can’t shut him up.”

A member of the Philippines team management is pointing at Sam Bernstrom, Sydney Roosters’ 198cm back rower. We are at the Nayon ng Kabataan Welfareville Compound – a Manila orphanage – on a scorching Wednesday afternoon.

Bernstrom is directing kids, hauled in off the streets by welfare officers, in passing drills. Soon, he will be buried under a pile of young boys so big that he looks like he’s genuinely concerned. Then he’ll put one tiny tot on his shoulders and they will wade through a group playing basketball and execute a cheeky slam dunk.

Three days before, the Philippines rugby league team – made up almost entirely of Australian-based players with a couple of Aussies playing rugby union in Asia thrown in for good measure – had brought our game to Asia for the first time with a 86-0 flogging of Thailand at Bangkok’s Royal Thai Police Stadium.

The crowd had been only about 150 – with any lasting benefit of the fixture in Thailand down to the local rugby union players who copped a pasting but who must now be relied upon to spread the word in the popular holiday destination.

For the Philippines boys, the real mission lay in a two hour plane ride the next day – to a place that in most cases one of their parents had come from but to which many of them had never been. Even if not one person in Manila, population 10,444,000, picks up rugby league as a result of their visit, the benefits to the young men in the touring party (who mostly funded the trip themselves) will be incalculable.

They are told about a garbage tip where fossickers dig out rancid food scraps and cook and sell them. Sitting in cabs going to the casino at Resort City each night, they see towering commercial buildings give way to abject poverty. They drink coke from plastic bags so the shops can keep the bottles and claim the refund.

Sam Berstrom buried under a pile of orphans - and looking worried
Sam Berstrom buried under a pile of orphans – and looking worried

But today, at the orphanage, is the most dumbfoundingly moving experience. The superintendent, Kumi Kobayashi, is a cousin of Gold Coast Titans hooker Matt Srama – who went straight home from Bangkok – and his brother Luke, who plays for Coventry Bears in the Conference League.

When she explained to about 40 orphans that the men in front of them did not represent “the rugby you know”, she wasn’t referring to the 15-man game. “Rugby is a drug that they sniff,” she tells me. “It’s like a glue. It’s unfortunately very popular on the streets. We have to explain to them that these boys have nothing to do with that. ”

The orphans here were either abused or abandoned. They are street kids, picked up by social security services and brought here. “We try to get them training to get a job, and at 17 they go back out there,” says Kobayashi.

The children were presented with Philippines Tamaraws (dwarf buffaloes, the mascot of the team) t-shirts and tiny stuffed koalas. They are not unusued to being visited by sports stars, as it turns out.

“We had David Beckham here late last year,” she said “There was him and about 12 members of his entourage. There was a five-minute photo opportunity and he did pose with the (orphanage) soccer team but then he was gone.

“Some of the kids were disappointed. They wanted his autograph but you couldn’t get near him.

“When Matt (Srama) came the next month, he stayed until every kid had his photo taken with him or he signed something. Today, with all these boys here, the kids will remember for a long time.”

Another Titans star, Kevin Gordon, finished the visit by dancing for the kids while his part-time DJ brother, Dennis, spun some tunes on the tannoy. Later, Kevin got an early start to pre-season training by pushing a food cart up a gravelly road outside the orphanage.

If rugby league does make an impression in Asia, those who support it can expect a wealth of new sights, sounds, smells and experiences.

Has a referee ever been serenaded (in this case, with Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’) by a national team after an international, as was Kasey Badger in Bangkok? Badger’s part in the first husband and wife refereeing team in the history of world sport was, of course, featured in the Observer (costing this writer a fortune in overseas roaming phone calls and leaving him cursing the thoroughness of Andy Wilson).

Aussie Andrew Charles did an unbelievable job origanising the game in Bangkok, attracting sponsors. Next year, it is hoped there’ll be a four-team domestic competition in Thailand with a sports bar in the holiday town of Pattaya particularly keen to get involved.

orphanage“The local rugby union, they don’t do much and they say no to a lot of ideas,” said 14-year-old Jonathan Boley, a player from an expat family, who watched the game in near-awe, said.

“With rugby league coming to Thailand, they don’t have to go through the TRU. They can do what they want to.”

Pattaya may also host a Nines tournament, with Pacific countries keen to reward those who missed out on World Cup selection by sending them to an exotic far east event, next year.

The Phillipines players, meanwhile, pressed flesh with the great and the good during their busy week in Manila, organising a nines tournament (touch rules) the Saturday after their international.

They have plans for a tri-series involving Japan and Thailand on a decomissioned airforce base around the same time next year. And there is a good chance the crowd will be bigger than 150. Kumi Kobayashi says the kids are always keen on an excursion…

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

WHITE LINE FEVER Column: Two

By STEVE MASCORD

‘NEXT try wins!” came the call from the Philippines side as a scrum packed near the end of the first ever rugby league international in Asia yesterday.

The scene was the Royal Thai Police Stadium, Bangkok, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. The score? Philippines 80 Thailand 0.

In front of a crowd of family and friends, a Filipino side including Gold Coast Titans stars Matt Srama and Kevin Gordon had run in 14 tries against an opposition made up mainly of local rugby union players.

The call, from an anonymous Filipino player, was intended to motivate his team-mates to keep their brave opposition scoreless as the Thais fed the final scrum.

But there was still something more at stake.

Between them, Matt Srama and his brother Luke had scored 26 points. They were one of five sets of brothers in the side. Kevin and Dennis Gordon, had scored 22.

The scrum was won by the Thais but they couldn’t hold onto it. Both benches were told the game was over. But before the siren could sound, Titan Kevin Gordon was in the clear – as we have seen so many times in the NRL – and he ran 65 metres before converting to edge his clan ahead of his club-mates’.

“My two goals got me close to my brother, anyway” said Kevin.

Meanwhile, Matt and Luke Srama got to play together for the first time.

“First time ever – we’ve been waiting for this day for years and years and years,” said Luke, who played hooker yesterday.

“We didn’t think it would ever happen but it finally has.”

Matt: “He reminds me of myself when I’m playing hooker – really tough, gets in there, popped the ball out four or five times. He gives me tips when I go back to Gold Coast.”

This was no explosive arrival for our game in a new region – but it was an arrival nonetheless. Some things that people imagine about international development games are better in reality. Other things are probably worse.

The commitment of the players, the nerves of the coaches and staff, the intensity of the warm-ups and the talk – it’s like anything we see in the winter months in Australasia. Players from pub competitions (or not playing at all this year) run out alongside highly-paid professionals, put their bodies on the line and new friendships are forged.

On the other hand, crowds are impossible to predict and often tiny, facilities are commonly poor (‘this shed is still better than Brookvale,’ a filipino wag commented) and everyone has to pitch in when it comes to lugging equipment, marking lines, filling up drink bottles and booking training facilities.

Playing international rugby league outside the top four countries mixes the passion and emotion of the game’s highest levels with the menial, humble chores of its lowest. There is no room for prima donnas or superstars.

People say it’s a waste of time and, says Srama, “I’ve got to admit, I was probably one as well.

“But the coaching staff, the Filipino rugby league, have all done a great job and hopefully we can promote the game over there a little bit in the Philipines.

“There are a lot of juniors coming through. Now there is a benchmark out there that there’s a team. When I was a kid, I would have loved it if there was a Filipino league team.

“We’re part of the first one ever.”

Referees are also often a problem at this level – thankfully they weren’t yesterday with the world’s first husband-and-wife officiating team in any sport taking control. They featured in a large story in the UK’s Observer yesterday morning – getting almost as much space as a Wembley or Old Trafford final.

Asked about the experience of controlling a match with partner Kasey – on the occasion of their second wedding anniversary – Gavin Badger said: “I didn’t get to have a go – she just kept taking everything.

“It’s just the way she looks at me sometimes.”

read on

FAR & WIDE: Number 14

By STEVE MASCORD

GOLD Coast winger Kevin Gordon has spoken of his excitement about representing the Philippines in Bangkok on October 20 alongside his brother Dennis.

Gordon will be joined in the Philippine team by clubmate Matt Srama and South Sydney winger Andrew Everingham.

“I was approached about seven months ago – the start of the season,” said Gordon. “There was a bloke putting together the Philippines team.

“About five days before the game, there’s going to be a little camp and we’ll have a few training sessions together.

“After that, we’re going to try to promote the Philippines team. We’re going to play in Thailand and a couple of days later we’re going to go to the Philippines.

“We’ll do some clinics, go around to schools and teach the game.”

Gordon qualifies because his mother was born in the Philippines. “She’s part Filipino, part Chinese. I’m probably a quarter Filipino.

“I’ve always wanted to do it, ever since I started playing – I thought there could be a Philippines team. Finally, someone’s stepped up and a couple more players are coming in.”

Dennis is a second rower with Queanbeyan Blues.

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CONGRATULATIONS to the lads from the Serbian Rugby League for their hosting of an Under 18s festival last week.

The tournament involved three teams, with English Midlands winning the title after beating Serbia 30-0 and Lebanon 46-4. The other game resulted in a 46-4 win to Serbia over Lebanon.

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MANY happy returns also to the winners of the AMNRL, New York, who beat Connecticut 60-40 a fortnight back.

The beaten Wildcats actually led 24-22 at halftime.

Meawhile, officials say the cancellation of the US v Melbourne game will not affect the Tomahawks’ clash with Queensland Indigenous in Hawaii on October 27.

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THE European Federation had a meeting in London ahead of the Challenge Cup final last week, with Poland represented for the first time by our friend, US-based Australian nuclear physicist Dan Andruczyk.

Trinidad & Tobago were recently accepted as observer members of the RLEF, which seems to be overseeing development on the Caribbean.

Filed by: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK