THE BIG ISSUE: #59

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

“A person is intelligent and sensible,” someone remarked to me at the start of the week, ‘but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

The comment, about the fascinating and scary herd mentality we call “mob rules”, came in the wake of the outcry over Cronulla’s seventh-tackle try on Saturday night.

Let’s look at the facts: the referees miscounted. The video referees, who are supposed to help them keep count, didn’t. Cronulla scored a try on the seventh tackle and subsequently won by a margin which meant the try in question – mathematically – determined the result.

A completely different officiating error, this time by the video referee, also ended North Queensland’s season at the same venue last year.

Those are the facts. From there, the Cowboys’ coach throws up, without explicitly supporting, the idea there is a conspiracy that everyone wants a Sydney Roosters v South Sydney grand final. Somehow, in the minds of thousands of people, this becomes fact.

Here’s where this column splits in two.

Strand A goes like this: to even address the suggestion that the NRL is in cahoots with referees and would willingly embarrass themselves and the sport to ensure a team that has been the subject of a drugs investigation all year progresses in the finals is an insult to your intelligence.

That’s the end of Strand A.

Strand B goes like this: Neil Henry is right. The Sydney media does want a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney grand final. The Sydney media, and the television and radio broadcasters, have an audience in mind.

You could argue the news values employed in a Sydney newsroom are just representing the genuine priorities of its audience – or you could contend the motivations are purely cynical and commercial. That’s a debate for another column.

But the referees are a furphy. The real issue is that media outlets are inherently selfish and inward looking and the NRL isn’t doing enough to counter this.

The referees are a furphy but in truth, the NRL IS Sydney- and Brisbane-centric.

Because ratings in those cities are the ones that attract advertisers and raise advertising fees, they are more important to the broadcasters. Magazines know which players and clubs on the cover will sell, and which won’t, as another example.

But the NRL has no control over who is on the front of magazines. It can control when games are played.

It is frankly outrageous that Brisbane Broncos should be on every second Friday night, that Canberra are never on free-to-air television and that Melbourne should have to play in every timeslot possible, being tossed around by broadcasters like a hand grenade with the pin removed.

Brisbane, South Sydney, Parramatta, St George Illawarra, Canterbury, Manly and – thanks mainly to SBW – Sydney Roosters are the pretty girls everyone wants to dance with because they represent dollar signs to broadcasters.

And the NRL is happy to make those damsels dance to the broadcaster’s tune, impacting on the very fairness and parity of their own competition (through scheduling), which becomes collateral damage.

The NRL is really about the size of an American college competition, in terms of reach. Because we have a small market and canibalised ourselves a decade and a half ago, the compromises detailed above have been deemed a necessary evil.

We’re happy to cut corners. Canterbury and Sydney Roosters each got to play at their home grounds in the first week of the finals – but one of them had to share it with another game, and the other didn’t. We have some teams who play in giant stadia and others who go round at suburban parks. One team has a whole country to draw on, another has a cluster of inner-city suburbs.

The NRL is Sydney- and Brisbane-centric because those are the cities that make the cash registers tinkle. But as this column has always said, a professional sport needs to be capitalist to the outside world but intensely socialist internally to succeed.

Until everyone is treated equally, all the time, the dumb, the panicky and the dangerous will always have something to latch onto.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 38

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
YOU know how some rugby league columnists seem to have a go at the game’s administration every chance they get?
You know how you read their columns and wish they’d talk about something else?
I was one of you. Really, I was. Here at Discord, we’ve staunchly defended new NRL CEO David Smith, for example, saying he should be accountable to the game, not the Sydney media. I’ve never met him – and regard that as a healthy sign.
But recent events – on both sides of the world – have got Discord wondering whether rugby league really is going to some version of Hell in some version of a hand basket.
You already know what we think of a club administrator who presided over an alleged cover-up then getting – and so far, retaining – the second most senior position a headquarters. Not much. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that ringing people and asking them questions will be rendered a pointless exercise for rugby league reporters if the NRL endorses providing incorrect answers by doing nothing about that situation.
Let’s take you to Super League now, where Huddersfield – having secured the minor premiership – fielded an entire team of reserve graders on national television in the final round and were lapped 58-6 by Bradford.
The Rugby Football League found that the Giants fielded the best available team – even though all of their stars were miraculously back on deck for the play-offs the next week. Come again?
Unlike broadcasters in Australia, Sky try to help the game by giving all clubs more or less equal exposure throughout the season. Their goodwill has been thrown back in their faces by a club which – to be fair on them – is only playing by the rules. Rules that should be changed immediately.
We now move to Saturday, when North Queensland coach Neil Henry threw up – although didn’t explicitly endorse – the prospect of a conspiracy to get a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney grand final after his side was beaten by a seventh-tackle try.
“If you were … conspiracy theory (sic), you’d say ‘we’re so Sydney-centric, we don’t care about the boys up north’. The press talks about the ideal grand final – Souths-Roosters. Bring it on. Don’t worry about Melbourne. They’ve won a couple. Don’t worry about North Queensland. That’s what you want: the heartland of the game.
“Yeah, well we’ve just been dudded of an opportunity to maybe make a dent in this competition. Where’s our pull? We’re out of mind out of sight up there. You get a bit bitter when it’s happened to you two years.”
Later, Henry added: “What do you say, that there’s – as I said – a conspiracy theory? Let’s keep it Sydney-centric, as I said before?” If you watch the video, Henry then shrugs. “Who knows? How can you go down that track?”
In 2008, Craig Bellamy said this about the judiciary suspending Cameron Smith from the grand final and the link with bookmakers: “Bookmakers and betting agencies, they don’t guess, they’ve got good information – take that as you may.
“As soon as I saw that (market) on Wednesday morning … he was thousands.”
The club was fined $50,000 and the judiciary members initiated defamation action, even though Bellamy was specifically asked at the press conference whether was he suggesting the judiciary tipped off bookmakers and said no.It’s nonsense to say Saturday night’s conspiracy theory was aimed a reporters and not referees.
Did reporters give Beau Ryan a try on the seventh tackle? That was the entire context of the media conference: referees.
I am not calling for Neil Henry to be fined, I am calling for the NRL to pull itself out of this freefall of inconsistency before it finds itself splattered all over the ground. I don’t think Neil Henry believes the referees were in cahoots with the League but as a result of his comments, hundreds – or maybe thousands – of people do.
As we said in – ahem – Joy Of Seven, the NRL has extended its powers to fine coaches beyond comments which are defamatory to criticism deemed “excessive”. As a result of being subjective, this rule is unenforceable and stupid. It’s no co-incidence that this change came when the solicitor who used to run the NRL, David Gallop, left.
Solicitors know the importance of precedence, consistency and transparency. Footy officials, historically, have struggled with those concepts.
Do Saturday’s match officials have grounds for any legal action over the “conspiracy theory”? One thing’s for certain, the events of last weekend indicate Manly were dudded by their $10,000 fine almost as severely as the Cowboys were by their seventh-tackle try.
Like I said: Hell, hand basket.
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QUICKLY through the comments.

read on

THE JOY OF SEVEN: Finals Week One

se7enBy STEVE MASCORD
BEARING BAD NEWS
SHOULD referees be told at halftime if they have committed a major error in a big ticket match that has the potential to affect the outcome? The argument in favour of informing them is that they are likely to find out anyway, with video officials, reserve referees, strappers and even spectators coming into contact with them at the break. The argument against is that even if they don’t feel pressure to square up, there will be a perception to that effect which can be plausibly denied if they are not aware of their error. Neil Henry and  Shane Flanagan each decided against telling their players about the seventh-tackle try. “It’s like coaching players, you have to take into consideration what makes people tick,” video referee Justin Morgan said on ABC when asked whether it is common practice when asked whether it was common practice to tell referees at halftime of their stuff-ups.

SWINGS, ROUNDABOUTS AND EMPTY STANDS
LAST week we wrote about how rugby league has a habit of solving one problem, and then revisiting an old one as a result. The NRL insisted the double header was not a result of this interminable cycle, that they wanted it regardless of the AFL’s intentions. OK, we liked the double-header so well done. How about this? Finals in week one are poorly attended because teams in two games have a second chance. We respond in 1999 by introducing a system under which most week one games are potentially sudden death. This is scrapped as unfair. We return to a formula where the elimination games are clearly identified – and the crowds stay away. Back to square one? (Doesn’t explain the poor crowd on Sunday though).

CENSORS CENSORED
IS the NRL seriously suggesting that a coach who throws up suggestions of a conspiracy involving the administration and referees to influence the result of matches won’t be fined next year? The NRL censors have come badly unstuck with the seventh tackle drama. Neil Henry stopped short of saying he believed the conspiracy theories; under the previous League policy, that may have just saved him. But under this year’s crackdown on “excessive” criticism, it’s an insult to the intelligence to say he didn’t “step over the mark”. The only defence was that the situation justified the reaction – and that’s the very reason the NRL itself overstepped the mark in its draconian censorship.

BETTER OFF ALONE
ONE of the few positives at the weekend for the NRL administration was the double-header, which produced two fantastic games and a memorable atmosphere. Or was it? As it turns out, Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was not a fan. “I thought we could have filled that (stadium), just a Manly-Roosters game, if it was ticketed as that,” said Robinson. “It was a big clash, we could have done that better. Logistically, it was fine but I’m not sure if the crowd was as big as it could have been. From a Roosters point of view, I thought it could have been done differently from the NRL.” The combined attendance on Saturday was 32,747.

SHARP RETORT
PARRAMATTA chairman Steve Sharp has backed suggestions by Nathan Hindmarsh and Matthew Johns that Eels players were not all that unhappy to see coach Ricky Stuart leave. “I think the players were looking for a fresh start,” said Sharp. “I think that influenced Ricky’s decision. It may have been on his mind and influenced his performance.” Sharp also had this to say about Denis Fitzgerald’s offer to become involved in the club again: “Denis and other people who have been working behind the scenes to downtrod (sic) our club over the last few months need to take a bit of a holiday.” On players who reportedly have get-out clauses, Sharp said on ABC: “I’ve had no contact with any player managers saying they are not bringing their players to the club. In fact, if they don’t want to come to our club, I don’t really want them there.”

AND IN OTHER NEWS
ON a bad weekend for officiating, it’s worth noting that an innovation helped get two decisions right in one of the Under 20s finals. With the scores tied between Brisbane and Wests Tigers near the end of regulation time at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, Brisbane received two penalties in kicking distance. On each occasion, Wests Tigers used the ‘captains challenge’ facility being employed in Holden Cup this year and on each occasion, the joint venture won. The match went into overtime and Wests Tigers kept their season alive. The captains’ challenge is almost certain to be used in first grade eventually. Intriguing, though, than in identical circumstance in the NRL, the result would have been different.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT
IT’S always bitter sweet when your favourite parodist joins the mainstream. And so it was when Denis Carnahan, the man behind the “That’s In Queensland” jingle, became part of the match-day entertainment at the weekend. Denis had to learn the words to “Give Your Love To A Cowboy Man” pretty promptly. But the implications of meeting those you send up was more stark when was asked to write and perform a song at the Canberra Raiders’ annual presentation night. A Raiders fan, Carnahan was initially given carte blanche when it came to subject matter. But as the Green Machine came a cropper, the list of taboo subjects – from Pineapple Cruisers to ASADA – got longer. He must have done a good job; the lyric sheet is destined for the pool room of club patriarch John ‘JR’ McIntyre.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

NRL round 23: NORTH QUEENSLAND 22 GOLD COAST 10 at 1300smiles Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

NORTH Queensland prop James Tamou has agreed that the sacking of coach Neil Henry will be deemed premature if the Cowboys qualify for the finals.

NQ last night disposed of eighth-placed Gold Coast to continue an unbeaten run that began three weeks ago when Henry’s contract extension was rescinded.

The coach said after the 22-10 win – which ended the career of Titan Luke O’Dwyer when he was forced off with a snapped anterior cruciate knee ligament – that any discussion about why the Cowboys started winning after he was sacked was “going over old ground”.

But when Australia prop Tamou was asked whether a finals appearance would prove the club had acted hastily in disposing of Henry, he answered: “I think so, yeah.

“I heard about it in the media and all of that but when it actually happened and they sat us down and told us, I was very surprised.

“If we do make the finals, it will be really good for him and good for us. We do have the guns … teams will definitely do a longer video session on us

“It means more now because of the situation we’ve been through with Neil Henry and a few of the boys retiring.

“I didn’t think that would ever happen. Neil Henry’s been unreal. For someone who’s lost his job, he’s happy. Training sessions are better. All the boys are on a bit of a high. It doesn’t faze him.

“I feel for him because it’s a shame we couldn’t do this five weeks ago.

phonto (1)“The boys, it means more to them. You can see it in the little things. There’re always blokes there in support. That’s the difference, everyone’s keen.

“We definitely let him down. If that was me, I wouldn’t be as happy as he is if I lost my job.”

Henry said the Cowboys were “just poking along”. “We’re enjoying training and looking forward to a game on the weekend. We’ve got three at home, out of four.”

Asked about the link between his sacking and the purple patch, he said: “We keep looking for reasons we’re playing good footy. Let’s just celebrate…”

The Cowboys led 12-4 at halftime, saw their lead whittled down to 12-10, and then won going away. Rookie winger Kyle Feldt posted a try brace.

Titans coach John Cartwright said the turnaround from the upset Monday Night Football win over Canterbury had made last night a tough assignment.

They remain in eighth but face the Warriors, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne on the run home. “it probably went the way I hoped it wouldn’t, but thought it would,” said Cartwright.

“It’s still in our hands and I knew that coming up here. We got (William Zillman) and Matrty Srama back tonight and they’re going to be better for the run. Albert Kelly is going to be really close next week, and Luke Bailey as well.

“We’re getting fresh troops back at a really important time.”

O’Dwyer had planned to retire at the end of the season. “It’s a tragedy if it’s what they think it is,” said Cartwright. “He’s definitely going to be missed for the rest of the year.

“There’s a faint hope, I supposed, that it’s not an ACL but they’re not usually wrong when they diagnose those things.”

Gold Coast’s Greg Bird (back spasms) and North Queensland’s Matt Scott (ankle) were other casualties, although each is expected to play next weekend.

Cowboy Ashton Sims was booked for a high shot on Titan Ryan James. Tamou said fullback matt Bowen, who will either join Wigan or retire, “has woken up, I guess, with the realisation he’s maybe not going to be here.”

NORTH QUEENSLAND 22 (K Feldt 2 G Cooper G Hall tries J Thurston 3 goals) bt GOLD COAST 10 (K Gordon D Mead tries A Sezer goal) at 1300smiles Stadium. Referees: M Cecchin/A Shortall. Crowd:12,003.

Filed for: SUN-HERALD

THE BIG ISSUE: #54

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN most areas, the NRL follows the trends of other professional sporting competitions that are more advanced in terms of commercial success.

But we should pause for deep thought before we follow their leads when it comes to sacking coaches.

“We don’t want to get to the point where the EPL is, where if you lose three games in a row, you’re gone,” sacked North Queensland coach Neil Henry said on the ABC on Sunday.

“That’s just a bad environment for everybody.”

On the surface, sacking the coach of an under-performing team is justifiable. The coach usually plays a big role in recruitment. He devises tactics. He picks the team each week. He determines the public image of the club more than anyone else with his (at least) weekly media conferences.

There’s just one problem though. Recent evidence indicates sacking the coach makes very little difference to results.

Under Stephen Kearney and Brad Arthur in 2012, Parramatta won six games and lost 18. Under Ricky Stuart in 2013, they’ve won three and lost 15.

Under Tim Sheens in 2012, Wests Tigers won 11 games and lost 13. This year under Michael Potter, they’ve won six and lost 12.

People on both sides of the decision to sack a coach – and those in the middle, the players – will tell you rugby league is a “results-driven business”. But recent evidence suggests results don’t benefit from sacking a coach.

phonto (1)And if it really is a results-driven business, then it shouldn’t matter if the coach “loses the dressing room” or isn’t talking to the chief executive or doesn’t get on with sponsors. If you’re sacking a coach to improve results, then the figures above indicate you just shouldn’t sack him.

Perhaps the answer is what has happened at Parramatta and Penrith this year – significant and painful cleanouts of playing staff; paring things back to a best-case scenario even if you end up like the Eels and can only afford a fulltime squad of 21 players the following season.

Even if you’re paying multiple ex-players to play against you for rival clubs.

Or maybe it’s what Mal Meninga suggested at the weekend; giving the man who has a contract some more help.

If Neil Henry is willing to accept an assistant coach’s job at another club – as he said he would in that ABC interview we did on Sunday – then who’s to say Trent Barrett, Paul Green, Nathan Brown, Justin Morgan and the rest wouldn’t be willing to assist HIM?

Or who is to say Henry wouldn’t accept a demotion at his own club to assist one of THEM? It would certainly save him the hassle of picking up his family and moving interstate. Has anyone asked him?

Perhaps what we really need to do in order to get results is take the ego out of coaching and of coaching appointments. It’s an old saying – put to good use by Meninga for the last eight years – that performances improve when no-one cares who gets the credit.

Instead of hiring one of the many on their long list of candidates, the Cowboys could effectively offer them all a job and then work out who is in charge. Won’t work, you say? It works for Meninga.

How is it good business to pay someone to do nothing? The money you are paying someone to sit on their backside could be much more constructively spent paying someone to help them while they continue to come to work.

The thing you are paying for when you sack a coach today is his replacement’s vision; the football nous to come in and make changes and employ a program that will eventually bring you success.

And that’s OK if the man in question has been around long enough to HAVE a program, have a system, have a philosophy. But many of the people being discussed as replacements for Neil Henry are ex-players with limited coaching experience.

Having the previous coach on staff, it would appear, would only help them.

Everyone says South Sydney’s success is largely down to Michael Maguire but what is overlooked is that John Lang did not want the job last year. He was always leaving at the end of 2011. Similarly, Trent Robinson had done an apprenticeship under the man he replaced, Brian Smith.

This sort of professional, dispassionate succession plan soothes players, allows recruiters and agents to plan and takes the drama and pain out of coaching upheavals.

Yet there are rumblings Wests Tigers have at least discussed making the same mistake again – paying out another coach without even knowing who is going replace him.

Why is it that coaches and players are expected to learn from their mistakes but clubs are expected not to? Sacking a coach is not “doing something”, it’s just being seen to do something

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Brent Tate: We All Bought Into Cowboys Hype

North Queensland - Brent TateBy STEVE MASCORD

NORTH Queensland star Brent Tate says Cowboys players were guilty of believing their own hype this season and has called on management to consult team-mates Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott before appointing a replacement for Neil Henry.

Five days after Henry was told his services would not be required next season, the Cowboys turned on a startling display to thrash NRL hotshots 30-12 at 1300smiles Stadium.

But Tate says players should have realised that despite predictions of a premiership in 2013, the absence of a settled half and hooker was always going to make it a difficult season.

“So much expectation has been heaped on us and I think we got ahead of ourselves, really,” Tate tells RLW.

“We didn’t handle it very well. I’ve spoken to Neil about this – we started the season with an untried hooker and without a stable halfback. They we had injuries to our fullback, Mango (Matt Bowen).

“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to notice that all the top clubs have nine, six, seven and one nailed down.

“I was like anyone, I was excited about this year and what we could do and had a heap of belief in the team but in hindsight, you peel the layers back and see what the real situation was.

“I’m not point the finger at anyone because we have all played poorly at periods this year, me included, but those positions just weren’t settled and all the great sides have those positions settled.

“Hooker and half has been our Achilles heal, through injury and form. “

Tate says he understands Henry’s frustration that Saturday night’s performance didn’t come sooner. “If it did, we wouldn’t be in this position,” he said.

“I think maybe there was a feeling of a pressure valve being released for the players, knowing the decision has now been made. But really, you can’t explain it.

“it’s probably our first 80 minute performance of the year, it’s probably the only time we’ve played to our potential.”

The Australia centre says players weren’t consulted before the NQ board decided to rescind Henry’s contract extension.

“I certainly wasn’t asked and I’m part of the leadership group,” he said “That’s a decision the club had to make and I didn’t hear about it until Monday.

“But if not the leadership group, you’d like to think Johnno and Matt would be consulted because they’re the captains and they’ve put a lot into the club. I think they should be consulted, it’s important they are.”

Aside from finding the right man as coach, the Cowboys have to make sure they don’t start 2014 in the same positional disarray as they did 2013.

Tate believes Robert Lui at seven and Ray Thompson at nine could be “the answer”. But no recognised fullback is contracted for 2014 yet.

“Ray Thompson hasn’t been playing hooker in his entire career. Both are getting better and better. Robbie just needed an opportunity and some football under his belt. He could be the answer for us.

“As for fullback, I hope something is sorted out soon. All the good players in that position tend to be locked up way ahead of time. You can see how important Mango is to the way we play.

“Hopefully the club can sort something out with him.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Prince, Henry In Dark Over Futures

By STEVE MASCORD

WINNING coach Anthony Griffin stopped well short of denying reports that Peter Wallace and Scott Prince were on the way out of Brisbane while rival Neil Henry continues to wait for the Noerth Queensland executioner’s axe to fall.

Brisbane’s 18-16 derby win over North Queensland at 1300smiles Stadium was played amid anticipation of seismic changes at both clubs, who face near-Herculean tasks to qualify for the finals.

Broncos five-eighth Scott Prince – who kicked the winning goal – has reportedly been told he will play reserve grade if he stays at the club next season, while sometimes-half Peter Wallace is not wanted.

And Henry – whose side must now win all their remaining matches to make the play-offs – is tipped to be told as soon as this week his services will not be required in 2014.

Prince said when asked about his future: “I’m not sure.

“At the end of the day, I’m signed for next year and we’ll just see how this year unfolds and, yeah, we’ll see what happens.”

Given the opportunity to deny the speculation, Griffin said only: “They’re things that are in the paper and I’ve got no control over what they write in the paper.”

Henry, meanwhile, again indicated he would not jump and would have to be pushed by directors. “I don’t know, it’s up to the board to discuss that,” he said when asked about a decision on his future.

“As I said, at the moment I’ve got a contract for next year and I want to stay up here and fulfil that obligation. We’ll see.”

The match was one in which changes made by Griffin, with Ben Hunt moved to halfback and Josh Hoffman back to fullback, worked – although the Cowboys roared back from 12-0 down.

Henry was upset no action was taken when outstanding Brisbane rookie Corey Oates made contact with NQ winger Kalifa FaiFaiLoa as he chased a 66th-minute kick into the in-goal.

“Kalifa was that close to it, he would have scored,” Henry said. “I can’t see how it wouldn’t have been a penalty.”

But the Cowboys coach said the main reason his men did not hold on after Matt Bowen’s 58th minute try gave them the lead was that they let each other down.

“Obviously our right edge strugged a little with their left-edge attack,” said Henry.

“We’re bitterly disappointed … people are doing their job and other people come up with poor decisions. We’ve got half a dozen of those in the game.

“It wasn’t outstanding attack. It was a poor defensive read or a lack of urgency or maybe communication.”

Retiring Dallas Johnson suffered a hip injury.

Griffin reckoned: “They had us by the throat there for, probably, 30 minutes of that second half. To their credit, (Johnathan) Thurston and (Matt) Bowen wouldn’t let us out.

“If we leaked anymore than 16, we were gone.”

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD