BONDI BEAT: December 2016

By STEVE MASCORDrlw-december-2017

LETTNG Australian NRL players playing a role in determining the next 10 years of international matches might sound daft – but there could be method in the madness.
The NRL itself will play a huge role, of course, in determining what is played – and where – between the 207 World Cup in Australia and the 2025 tournament which will most likely (fingers, toes, tongues and all other appendages crossed) in North America.
The NRL, in turn, has chosen to consult Australia coach Mal Meninga. Now, there is a very good argument it should give David Kidwell just as much say but that’s another column.
Meninga, in turn has consulted his players. Before the England-Australia Test in London, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg was to address the Kangaroos about the options set to be tabled in Liverpool at the RLIF congress.
Here’s why listening to the players may not be such a bad idea: they like trips.
I surveyed a number of them at the Four Nations series launch about where they wanted the 2021 World Cup to be held and the US had sizeable support.
Before the London Test, Australia prop Matt Scott said he’d be willing to give up the post-season break mandated by the Rugby League Players Association in 2018 if it was possible to play a touring Great Britain side.
Scott head earlier told me he wished the Australian side was able to see more of Europe during the tournament.
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For what it’s worth, it is still likely to be a spring break in 2018 for the Aussies. There is a push for a full Kangaroo Tour in 2019 with perhaps an eight-team Federation Cup in 2020. That may be in America. The preferred structure is two pools of four teams, seeded, with a final.
Promoter Jason Moore has some different ideas on that structure.
But while NRL administrators are dominated by money and the clubs in in their concerns, empowering players who want to see the world might be the key to unlocking the potential of the international game at the highest level.
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AT the height of the is-Wayne-Bennett-rude controversy I called the RFL to find out exactly what the great man’s job entails.
When I asked Bennett at his now-infamous London media conference if his only responsibility was to coach the team, he responded: ‘That’s exactly right.”
Asked if there was anything else in the job description, he said: “No”.
I won’t go into who I called and who called back and who I thought would call back because there are some personal relationships at work. But suffice to say three people were involved, two of whom I spoke to, and after four hours I was told there would be no on-the-record comment.
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To me, Bennett is entitled to be himself. It’s not as if the RFL didn’t know what they were getting. I agree with colleague Paul Kent that if there was any additional abrasiveness during the Four Nations it could be a sign of vulnerability at the end of a difficult personal year in unfamiliar surroundings.
But the RFL needs to be accountable for the choice they made. They need to come out and say they only care about winning and support Bennett.
Or they need to have a word to Bennett about their bedside manner.
Or they need to explain why they didn’t have a word to him about his bedside manner.
To duck for cover and say nada says little for the courage or leadership at Red Hall. When the RFL challenged me on an aspect of my reporting about this issue, I challenged them back to have a go at me publicly because that would at least be be an on-the-record comment on the issue.
At the time of writing, I am still waiting.
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SOME of you, with an interest in such things, might find a look at the way the media was handled during the Four Nations somewhat instructive.
The Australians held media opportunities, on average, every second day at their hotel. There was an electronic media ‘all-in’ – usually involving NRL.com, Channel Nine and Channel Seven – followed by the same player speaking to print. That was usually just News Limited, Fairfax and Australian Associated Press but anyone covering the tournament was invited.
It was possible to request interviews outside this set-up.
I didn’t go to New Zealand media opps but I’m told they were rather weird – everyone speaking at once. What I mean by that is a coach and two players facing media representatives all at once, with questions and answers flying from everywhere. Also, the Kiwis openly labelled these as being for “travelling NZ media only” – not much help when you’re in Carlisle and there are still tickets to sell in Workington.
(It subsequently transpires this designation was only supposed to deter Kiwi journos at home, trying to cover such events over the phone – not locals)
The England media opps were just as complex but in a different way. England would have a ‘media day’ once a week. In my experience, a ‘media day’ involves reporters and players mingling and talking one-on-one.
But an England media day involved the coach and three players each sitting at a desk and speaking to everyone at once. The first part of each of these was open to radio, TV and agencies. Then the cameras were told to stop rolling and newspapers took over.
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The UK newspaper reporters would then collude to decide which day Mike Cooper or Josh Hodgson interviews would be run, agreeing all to quote the same player on the same day.
This system came a little undone when newspaper reporters from other countries, with other requirements, became involved. I approached with this philosophy: I would use answers to my own questions when I chose as I don’t really like being part of a cartel.
But even this approach causes some tensions.
While the England media manager could separate print from electronic, he could hardly dictate what day each story would run so it only took one dissenter for the system to fall apart.
As for one-on-one interviews, I made requests for players from Australia, New Zealand and England for Rugby League Week’s A-List feature. As I write this, I have not done a single one of these interviews.
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A way to raise money for the international game, aside from a second ‘property’ such as the Federation Cup, would be for funds from a sponsorship in all internationals to be handed over to the RLIF.
There is an idea out there that the referees in all internationals across the world should be branded with a sponsorship that goes straight to the RLIF.
You’d think, with there being relatively few internationals at present, it would be easy to achieve. Not so. Red tape abounds.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

 

The A-List: KEVIN PROCTOR (Melbourne, New Zealand Maori, New Zealand)

2013 Melbourne Storm HeadshotsBy STEVE MASCORD

 ON May 27, 2014, the Canberra times breathlessly reported that the Raiders “sign James Tedesco and miss out on Kevin Proctor”.

Subsequently, of course, the Wests Tigers and Italy fullback reneged on that contract with the Green Machine – thereby guaranteeing himself a lifetime’s worth of jeers every time the road gets smoother as he crosses into the ACT.

Many, many kilometres from Bruce – Liverpool, England to be exact – we learn exactly what a bad month May, 2014, was for Ricky Stuart.

How close did 26-year-old Kevin Proctor come to signing with Canberra?

“It was pretty close. I think we’d shaken hands and everything,” says the corkscrew-curled back-rower, across the table in the hotel coffee shop

“Something just didn’t feel right, when I woke up the next day. I told them the truth. You don’t really want someone going to your club if they aren’t 100 per cent committed.

“I just told them the truth and he was sweet with that.”

“He”, of course, being coach Stuart. Not someone I’d like to face in such circumstances. Wasn’t young Kev just a little intimidated?

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“I was but you don’t really want to go there half-hearted. You want to go there and put your full commitment behind it. I just told them how I felt.

“Especially because I’ve got a daughter to worry about now and I’ve got a partner as well. That all came into account as well”

During our chat, Proctor admits he “hated” Melbourne at first. But after sleeping on his verbal agreement, he found his view had changed so much that he just couldn’t leave.

“It’s just the lifestyle there. It’s so cruisy for a city, anyway. You’re not fully under the spotlight like Sydney is and Queensland and Canberra I suppose, north Queensland.

“It’s all AFL down there so you fly under the radar and do your own thing and my partner and daughter love living there too. That all came into account as well and Storm, they’re the ones who have given me my opportunity to start so I guess it’s a little bit of payback there.”

Perhaps because of the reduced scrutiny on Melbourne players, Kevin Proctor is probably one of those players you know little about outside the weekly green rectangle. He played three codes of football in four cities before he was 21, only picking up league because there was no local rugby union sides when he resided on the Gold Coast.

That’s where his second bombshell comes from. When his current Storm contract expires in three years, he’d like to go back to the 15-man game.

He says: “I loved my rugby union growing up. I played that pretty much my whole life, until I was 16, 17 and then made the transition. It was really good and I’d probably like that to be my second option.

“I wouldn’t mind giving it a crack, eh? Just because I grew up with it so much and I know the game so well.

“I don’t know, I suppose you could leave that to my manager to try and help me find a club somewhere maybe. I wouldn’t mind having a go at something like that.”

Born in Te Kuiti, Proctor is an unaffected sort of chap. He travelled from New Zealand to Perth to the Gold Coast, playing whatever was going before being unearthed by the Storm.

Suddenly, everything changed for him.

“Moving down to Melbourne, the culture they have down there and the professional side of things made me grow up a lot quicker,” he reasons.

“Because I was moving away from my family and didn’t really know anyone down in Melbourne, you kind of have to…

“.I really hated it the first week I went there but … I was only 18 and the first one (in my family) to move away from home and I suppose I just didn’t really like the lifestyle down there at the time.

“Now I love it. I think I’ve been there eight years now. It was the culture down in Melbourne that really got me to where I am now.. They teach you all the good traits and I suppose I take that onto the field with me. I Craig (Bellamy) has been a big help for me too. He’s such a good coach. He gives you things to work on and … oh, mate I can’t really explain it too much.

“He turns you into one of those players and if he doesn’t like you, you’re pretty much … if you can’t keep up with the Melbourne training and the workload and all that stuff I suppose you’re in and you’re out. He’s taught me most things I know with my rugby league today and … I wouldn’t have got too far without him and the Melbourne Storm.”

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Another beneficiary of that tutelage is Proctor’s New Zealand team-mate, Tohu Harris.

The recent Kiwis tour of Britain, of course, should have been Harris’ second…

 “It was kind of … it was weird how they did that, when they picked him and then Sonny Bill made himself available and they didn’t pick him,” says Proctor, happy to discuss one of the touchiest recent subjects surrounding the black jumper.

“It would have been good to have him … he would have been one of the young guys like Sio Sia (Taukeiaho) now and Curtis Rona and all those boys getting the experience. He could have had it back then and it probably would have made him a better player.

“He’s doing really well now anyway. I’m happy he’s playing some good footy.”

Like his club-mate, Proctor was approached mid-season by the NZRL about the tour – which saw the Kiwis just fail to snatch a draw in the final Test at Wigan.

“They told us what was happening and we probably weren’t going to get as much pay but it doesn’t matter. Once you get the opportunity to play for your country, I don’t think anyone’s stupid enough to turn that down.”

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And there’s an upside. Because Australian players cried off playing last Spring, the likes of Tohu and Kevin had their feet up for a few weeks with The Big Three sweated it out.

“We’ve had a fair bit of a clean-out actually. We’ve got a new conditioning coach, we’ve got a couple of new physios, a couple of new coaches. I’m actually excited to see what we’ve got when we get back to training.”

Maybe the next visit to Canberra, however, won’t be so exciting…

 Kevin Proctor’s Kiwi Tour Highlights.

One: Liverpool FC. “It was schmick, all their fields. It was probably the best ground I’ve trained on.  Their facilities, their pools, their spas, their gym, they had chefs there and the quality of food they had there as well … they had lamb shanks and all that stuff for dinner. It was probably one of the best feeds we’ve had for the whole trip as well.”

Two: South Of France & Barcelona. “Perpignan was a cool change and Barcelona, we went down there for a couple of days. I’ve never seen a city so big before. We went down that street (La Rambla), we got scooters to go around the city, we got to see … it’s a pity we didn’t stay there for as long as we would have liked. We had four or five hours there, we had a feed there.”

Three: London. “London was cool. It’s just so busy there. I don’t think I could ever live there. It’s just way too busy for me. That was probably the three things that stood out to me.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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BONDI BEAT: October 2016

Brlw-novembr-2016y STEVE MASCORD

THE departure of Stephen Kearney as coach of our number one ranked nation, just weeks before the Four Nations, raises a host of intriguing questions.
One must be the inescapable conclusion that coaching a tier one Test team is a post with decisively less prestige than heading up an NRL franchise.
Wayne Bennett would never have chosen England over Brisbane, not in a month of Suncorp Stadium Friday nights.
Mal Meninga at least chose Australia over Queensland but if he was offered, say, Bennett’s job, how long would he stick around? And he also upset Papua New Guinea by walking out on them.
And even though Kearney could have been ready to start work at the Warriors’ Penrose offices by the end of November, he chose to step aside immediately he was picked to replace Andrew McFadden.
At the time of writing, David Kidwell was favourite to replace Kearney. Like Kearney, he has been biding his time as an NRL assistant and comes well recommended.
What will be interesting is how Kidwell handles the politics in the Kiwis camp. Kearney was adept at politely sidestepping questions about why the likes of Benji Marshall and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves were on the outer for periods.
He was also adept at not picking players he felt did not fit into the culture in order to attract those questions. It was the diplomatic equivalent of one of Marshall’s best passes.
Whether Kidwell inherits an sort of unspoken blacklist or gives everyone a fresh start will be extremely interesting to observe.
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IT might seem self-evident but I’m still surprised that a club chief executive would come out and say it.
In a recent episode of the excellent Fox Market Watch podcast, Canberra’s Don Furner admitted the national capital’s cold weather was a key recruitment tool for English players.
Next year, Jordan Turner will join Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead at GIO Stadium
“Without a doubt there’s been a sea change in Australia,” Furner told the podcast. “People like to live at the beach and in the warmth and Canberra gets a bad rap.
“We didn’t have the beach and warm weather that could maybe attract players for less money.
“To get a kid from Manly beach or Newcastle beach to move down here, it’s not easy.
“We certainly changed our focus a while ago because we realised those guys don’t want to live here. It’s really hard for them.
“We’ve just extended Elliott and we’re signing up another one for next year actually, so we think we go all right with Englishman, they don’t mind the cold.”
Whitehead, meanwhile, said he “felt sick” conceding the penalty that allowed Cronulla to down the Green Machine in the first week of the finals.
An example of how highly Hodgson is held came from club great Laurie Daley, who said that while the Raiders could get into a grand final without the former Hull KR rake, they would not be able to win one in his absence.
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MORE often than not, a day or so before this column is due I am bereft of ideas. Many of the day-to-day happenings in rugby league are cyclical, if not downright repetitive.
But there are few other areas of human endeavour, particularly those to have been pursued for 121 years, so consistently capable of jaw-dropping ridiculousness.
And so it was one Thursday morning, on Facebook, I got an alert saying “Live: Eddie Hayson media conference”. Say what?
Now, I am familiar with Facebook Live. My wedding was on it. But former brothel owners who owe millions of dollars calling media conferences? This was innovative.
Hayson had called the Sydney rugby league media together to answer allegations he had been involved in match fixing. The New South Wales police had taken the issue so seriously, it had formed a strike force to deal with the allegations.
Hayson went on to name a bikie says had given the police knowledge of his involvement. He named a bikie, Antonio Torres, as the man who sold the cops a dummy and pornography baron Con Ange as the one who embellished it to journalists.
He named the journalists whom he believed had wronged him – the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, Channel Seven’s Josh Massoud and the Daily Telegraph’s Rebecca Wilson.
Then, he allowed two them to cross examine him!
Yes, he had tried to put $30,000 into the betting account of Kieran Foran. Yes, he owed boxer Jeff Fenech millions. Yes, rugby league players, police and judges had visited his brothel. Yes he had given them “freebies”.
He gave several people money “because he liked them”. He could afford PR to stars Max Markson because he had had a few wins on the punt recently.
Need I go on?
Hayson ended up denying two allegations and confirming a dozen others – while paying for the platform himself!
I’m sure these sorts of things happen in other sports. Just can’t think of one at the moment.
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LAST month we waved the flag (Stars and Stripes, of course) for the American 2021 World Cup bid. We kind of think it’s a good idea.
Of course, these things are dictated as much by money as anything else and the International Federation relies on the profits from World Cups to run the sport for the next four years.
An American World Cup with empty stadiums, little television income and a massive financial black hole would be a disaster for the game, both logistically and from the point of view of our image.
But here’s the thing.
Promoter Jason Moore plans to just give an “eight figure sum” to the RLIF for the right to run the tournament. That’s at least $10 million. Furthermore, he says he will plough another multi-million-dollar investment onto American rugby league.
Now, next year’s World Cup is currently projected to make only $7 million.
I know the offer in the UK is Stg15 million plus infrastructure. I am not sure if the infrastructure figure is conditional on Britain being granted the tournament.
But I ask you this, as a rugby league fans, would you really rather a few nice facilities than someone take on all the risk of taking the game to American and handing over a check for $10 million, making it the more successful than the previous tournament?
No doubt the RLIF would like to ease America in by giving them the new Continental Cup first. Moore doesn’t seem the sort of guy for consolation prizes, however.
Guaranteed 10 mill, no risk, America … Tweet me with your thoughts at @BondiBeat.

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The A-List: JEREMY SMITH (Newcastle & New Zealand)

smith-jeremyBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S the most obvious question to ask any retiring player, a clichéd query that invites a clichéd response, asked more out of obligation than anything else.
And it’s usually saved until last: “what was your career highlight?”.
Jeremy Smith, 36, has more than a few clichés from which to choose: the 2008 World Cup with New Zealand, St George Illawarra’s first premiership in 2010, a grand final success (to which there is no longer a title attached) in 2007 for Melbourne.
Adding to the odds of a response something like “that one!” is the fact that in 13 years of first grade, Jeremy Smith has not been known for outrageous utterances.
“Obviously winning comps and World Cups and Four Nations….” he begins, as he sigs on a concrete partition with A-List outside Wests Mayfield days before his final game.
“But I just think when you’re in the trenches with your mates, defending your line for set after set, the other team not scoring and then….”
He looks off into the distance, like he can actually see battles past.
“You get the ball back and you’ve gone 100 metres and scored a try. I think you take more out of those games than you do out of winning competitions.
“It’s just one of those things. You can look at your mate and your arse is hanging out and you can look at one another and give him a nod and know he was going to turn up for you.
“In tough games – that’s when you get the most joy. It might not be fun at the time, but….”
It’s a prescient metaphor for the entire 200-plus game career of Smith, which ends this weekend. It wasn’t much fun at the time – certainly not for his opponents – but it was pretty damn impressive.
It began in Melbourne – but not at the Storm. They knew nothing about him until he went to Queensland, a curiosity which will amuse cynics.
Smith recalls: “My parents up and moved us from Christchurch to Melbourne and I ended up playing for Altona Roosters down there. I was about 13 or 14.
“It wasn’t the strongest comp. I played there for a couple of years and we up and moved to the Gold Coast to play football and school as well.” There was an ill-fated stint with the Northern Eagles in there somewhere. In 2005, Smith made his debut for Melbourne.
And for a year after that … nothing.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy made it clear that this career might be over at one game, too. “I was playing reserve grade and getting suspended and (had) injuries and what-not.
“Bellyache called me into his office for one of those meetings and he said ‘you’ve got one year left on your contract and if you want to make the most of it, you’d better knuckle down’ and that’s what I did.
“I hit the ground running in the pre-season and the rest is history.”
History includes 22 Tests for New Zealand a fearsome visage at Melbourne, St George Illawarra Cronulla and Newcastle. Like Parramatta’s Beau Scott, he had a reputation as being on-field “security” for the most talented men in the game.
“I wouldn’t say look after them, as such. That’s a tough question, actually. I wouldn’t say I’m a bodyguard but I look after my mates, that’s for sure.
“If they were good enough to play first grade, they’re all equal that’s for sure.
“I definitely relied on my defence …. to be aggressive. Back then, 2006 … it was a pretty tough comp and you could be a bit more physical than what the game is now.”
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At times Smith was painted as a villain for the niggle but he’ll retire with an overwhelmingly positive legacy in the minds of most, to the thinking of this reporter. There’s no escaping, however, his proximity to two of the biggest controversies we’ve had in recent times – the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal and the Cronulla peptides affair.
“They were fairly big deals at the time,” he nods. “Darkest day in rugby league, it got touted at one time. I wasn’t at the frontline with the boys at Cronulla, that’s for sure. I was up here in Newcastle, we didn’t really get much and Wayne protected me from the media.
“(Current Sharks players) were right there and in the thick of it and I tried to keep in touch with the boys and make sure everyone everyone was going alright, what was getting said and what was going to happen.
“With the Melbourne one, I wasn’t there either. I’d moved on. Copping a bit of backlash from it, it’s part and parcel, isn’t it? I couldn’t really do anything about it. It had already been done.
“I’m not really one to worry about too much, I’m a pretty easy going, happy-go-lucky person. Whatever is meant to be is meant to be and whatever happens will happen. It didn’t really bother me.
“… with the Cronulla … they said that we were going to have the back-dated (suspension), a little three-month stint out … we didn’t really have a leg to stand on there at one stage.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s all done and dusted now.”
Surprisingly for such a fit man, Smith detests the gym and reckons he may never set foot in one again. The game itself was hard enough and he’s suffered enough for several lifetimes. “You get out of bed and you limp around and you come to training … I’ve got a sore knee, I’ve got a sore shoulder. I probably haven’t been 100 per cent fit since the start of the year. But that’s not only me.
“It is hard, but that’s what makes you who you are, isn’t it? You want to be a tough competitor, you’ve got to put up with bumps and bruises.”
We conclude with me asking if he still actually enjoys playing rugby league. There’s a cheekiness in his answer, but more than a modicum of truth, too.
“I still enjoy playing – you just don’t get away with any more high shots.
“It is still physical. It’s just not as grubby as it used to be….
“You’re not allowed to put your hand on people’s faces for some reason … “

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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BONDI BEAT: April 2016

By STEVE MASCORDRLW April 2016

THE clubs may not like it but do we now have enough English players in the NRL to revive a mid-season Test?

There is absolutely no reason why the Kiwis should not play while Origin is on, aside from the fact clubs would declare war if they had to stand down their New Zealanders along with their Maroons and Blues.

Even without the stand-down, though, the Test could be played on a Friday in the May split round.

The problem in the past has been opposition. But there is now enough Englishmen to need only a handful of others to take the long flight Down Under.

Of course, there is ideological issue of handing out England shirts to people who may not have earned it yet.

But as colleague Brad Walter pointed out to me after we watched Sam Burgess’ competitive return in round one, you could have a Great Britain selection that includes Ireland’s Tyrone McCarthy and any number of Scotland ‘heritage players’ such as Kane Linnett and Lachlan Coote.

What do you think?

WHAT about ‘The Bunker’, then?

Firstly, it looks like nothing so much as Mission Control at Cape Canaveral. It’s a real shame Chris Houston has left for Super League as I’d love to hear them say “we have a problem, Houston”.

I am someone who is extremely cynical about adding more apparatuses to officiating when you are always going to get human error.

But having said all that, I like what I’ve seen so far. It’s an improvement. And it puts the NRL even further ahead of Super League.

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MANY readers will be of the opinion that sport’s borders are set in stone and expansionary efforts by rugby league are bound to fail.

Upon my return to Oz, I saw a convincing rebuttal of that argument in the UFC. Walking to Allianz Stadum for South Sydney-Sydney Roosters, I overheard a lad being told he was looking forward to having a few friends around for a fight from Las Vegas.

No mention of the 108-year-old derby taking place up the road.

In the UK, darts provide us with an example of a sport that can grow its market share and cultural relevance.

Sadly we don’t seem to have a united strategy at all – or if we do, we don’t have the resources to even consider putting it into practice.

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IN Australia there is a thing in television sports coverage called “fair use provisions”.

This means that any website or television station can post highlights from any sporting event, whether on not they have the rights.

So while the BBC, for instance, will have still photos of soccer matches they do not have rights to, in Oz they would be allowed by law to show video from those games.

That’s why Australian newspapers declined accreditation for the last rugby union World Cup – because the IRB wanted them to sign away those rights. So the reporters just bought tickets and interviewed players at their hotels.

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What it means in a practical sense for rugby league is that when Chris Sandow kicked that amazing drop goal against Salford, the footage was all over Aussie sites within hours.

One suspects Super League would prefer the fair use provisions were introduced in the UK – the one-pointer on the hooter was a great advert for our game.

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It’s probably the best rugby league story in the world and it’s going unwritten.

Belgian officials brought some Brussels City Council officials to the World Club Challenge on February 21 and they were so impressed with the sport that are going to sink further resources into promoting it.

Where?

In Molenbeek, a hive of extremist activity and a place where police centred their manhunt after the Paris attacks.

Rugby league has a wonderful record in underprivileged areas of channelling aggression more positively.

I’m hoping to visit Brussels this year to chase up this story.

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THE round one NRL clash between Wests Tigers and the Warriors was dubbed the Ivan Cleary Cup by one cynic – because he’d be coaching whoever lost.

True to their form in recent seasons, it was the Aucklanders who fell a long way behind. Fought back, but still lost.

Cleary may not have a steady coaching income at the moment but he’s holding the whip hand when it comes to his future employment prospects.

It wouldn’t surprise if Hull KR sounded him out after sacking Chris Chester; even if Cleary went back to the NRL next year he could probably do some good things in East Hull in 2016.

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WHILE Super League continues with one referee, Down Under we have two in a competition which is planned to be scrapped!

Two referees are in use for televised Under 20s matches and all finals. In round one, because there was only one of these, they threw two whistlers at the Sydney Roosters-South Sydney Holden Cup match, just for practice.

amazonYet this is the last year of the National Youth Competition, which revert to state-based league next year. The NRL still has enough referees to field two in the matches.

Now when we compare this to England … well, lets start with televised under 20s matches and work backwards from there.

And the editor had the hide to ask for 500 words on the biggest differences between rugby league in Australia and in the UK. I could have written 50,000.

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GREG Inglis walked out of the dressing room at Allianz Stadium in round one with his eye on the prize – the fading sunlight at the end of the tunnel.

GI had already done a media conference and studiously avoided meeting the eyes of any of the waiting media.

Then a young Channel Nine reporter stopped him and directly requested a chat. He stopped, considered the request and eventually agreed.

donate2During those moments when he was giving serious thought to denying the cub reporter, I’d like to think he was considering his Queensland and Australian team-mate Jonathan Thurston.

Thurston has set such a high standard of accessibility over the past 12 months that he has almost shamed his colleagues into arresting the sad decline in co-operation with the media throughout the NRL.

He’s even allowed himself to be photographed at home and while in the UK recently did everything of which he was asked – and more.

JT knows that being in Townsville doesn’t help him when it comes to maintaining his profile and that he needs to go an extra yard to ensure his maximises his post-career employment prospects.

Throw in his game-day interaction with kids and he’s setting a high standard for everyone else.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

The A-List: Jason Taumalalo (North Queensland & New Zealand)

Taumalolo, JasonBy STEVE MASCORD

JASON Taumalolo is no expert on the ‘pathways’ paper that earned former NRL head of strategy Shane Richardson a little bit of derision and almost no thanks.

The uber-destructive North Queensland and New Zealand back rower doesn’t know how the document was going to achieve its aim of keeping youngsters at home with their families for longer.

But as he talks to A-List, perched on a plastic chair at a BBQ table outside the premiers’ training facility at suburban Kirwan, the 113 kg Taumalolo makes it abundantly clear what changing countries to be a professional sportsman at the age of 12 does to someone.

He wants to tell me even before I ask a question. At the age of just 22, Jason Taumalolo was burnt out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to play rugby league for a living anymore.

“Last year, the form I was in, I wouldn’t say it was the best footy, what I think I would be playing,” the Auckland-born giant says, not long after sitting down.

“I’ve had issues … I wasn’t eating right. I was turning up late to a few meetings. I wasn’t fully committed to what the team wanted.

“That happens, I guess, to everyone at some point – especially when you’re working. You sometimes think is being here what you want to do?

“Coming from New Zealand at a young age and moving here, not because of anything else but football, it was pretty scary thinking about it.

“It’s one of those jobs where everyone thinks you’re living the life and stuff. They don’t fully know what you have to do and the sacrifices you have to make to get there.

“I knew everyone was on the same page but me. I obviously knew I was letting the team down.”

You don’t hear from Taumalolo anywhere near as much as you should given his status in the game. There could be any number of reasons for this; the presence of one J Thurston sucking all the light away from other Cowboys is likely one of them.

But be honest: how many of you expected to read the words “quietly spoken” in this story?

Jason Taumalolo is NOT quietly spoken. Scarcely into his third decade on Earth, he has already defied the great Mal Meninga – and his own parents – to pledge his allegiance to a country from whence rugby league stole him when he should have just have been still kicking a ball around for fun.

A psychologist might say that choosing New Zealand (he can’t remember more than one or two of his Auckland school mates) was a way of reclaiming his childhood and sense of identity. But just making that choice himself, exercising some self-determination, also led to him questioning everything else.

“When I spoke to Mal Meninga it was a pinch-myself moment,” he recalls of the Maroons’ attempts to poach a Kiwi who qualified for them with one year to spare.

“I’m talking to one of the immortals of rugby league. That was a surreal moment.

“After we had that talk, how he wanted me to pledge my allegiance to Queensland, right then and there I was in awe of who he was and what he wanted. Obviously my parents were for me playing for Queensland.

“But I made up my mind when I was young, playing for the Australian Schoolboys team. I didn’t feel comfortable being in the green and gold jersey.

“When I spoke to Stephen Kearney and a few of the other New Zealand officials, I was quite relieved that all that pressure was over.”

Taumalolo has some great yarns to tell – like how he came to be called Jason despite being born Vaai.

“When I got enrolled in primary school my name was Vaai, what you seen in the passport. The first week in primary school, the teacher kept saying my name wrong and then she ended up just calling me Jason. Then I took my report card home and it said Jason and my mum said ‘ah, who’s Jason?’ And that’s how it happened. Haha.”

And about how James Tamou – the original 21st century Kiwi turned Aussie superstar – helped him to make the exact opposite decision.

“He was saying how much he loved (Origin). He told me ‘look ahead in 10 years. Look at both paths. Tell me which one you’d be more regretful in picking’. If I’d played for Australia, I’d probably regret it. I didn’t want that.”

Have you ever heard a 22-year-old talk about leaving a legacy? This is what Jason – sorry, Vaai – says when I ask him how he refocused after his period of doubt last year.

“When I was a junior in New Zealand I used to go watch the Warriors games, watched the likes of Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones and even Brent Webb back then. I didn’t even know he’s Australian.

World Cup ebay
“You look at rugby union too. I idolised guys like Jonah Lomu, a lot of All Blacks players.

“That was the path I saw. I wanted to leave a legacy as one of the greatest players to play for New Zealand.”

Heady stuff from someone you may have never even heard speak. But if there’s one thing to take out of this chat in steamy Thuringowa, it’s that kids should not have to change countries, states or even cities for football before they are even in their teens.

“It’s the last thing you would expect from a 12, 13 year old to be coming over here just for football,” he says. “Mum and dad were big on me trying to be an A-plus student at New Zealand. Like every good student, when they play a sport and become good at it, they don’t really concentrate that much on school work.

“The last thing a 12-year-old or 13-year-old needs if he’s playing good footy is to put pressure on them.

“There was pressure on me and a lot of wraps. I couldn’t cope, especially at a young age. I understand why the NRL would put a rule like that to protect those kids.

“I’ve seen players come here at a young age. I’ve played Australian 15s, made rep teams with them, they get that rap where they talk them up as the next big thing.

“I look at them now and they’re not even playing NRL. Some of them don’t even have jobs.

“I guess I was one of the luckier ones. I still felt the pressure of trying to live up to the standards that everyone put on me.

“It was a pretty tough period for me. I could tell during that period that I wasn’t playing my best footy either. Some of that led to be being dropped to Q Cup and stuff. I was in and out of first grade.

“The biggest example right now would be young Kalyn Ponga here at the Cowboys, who’s getting raps. I’ve seen him play. He’s a great player. For his young age, not many times have I seen a fullback play like that. I think the last time I saw someone play that kind of footy, pretty much carve every team, was … I remember playing against James Roberts, under 15s. He was playing for NSW, I was playing for Queensland and he was running rings around us like there was no tomorrow. I’d never seen someone single-handedly beat a team.

“To see a kid like Kalyn Ponga come along, and everyone put the pressure on him, I just hope he has the right head on his shoulders and the best support he can (get), mainly from his parents. I’d like to see him one day become one of the greatest players to play NRL.

“All these young kids, they should probably stay home, you know? And develop more as a person.”

We forget they’re people. And in the case of Jason ‘Vaai’ Taumalolo, pretty damn impressive people.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: JOSH HOFFMAN (Gold Coast, Indigenous All Stars & New Zealand)

Hoffman, JoshBy STEVE MASCORD

JOSH Hoffman is said to have greeted reporters for his first media opportunity this year by saying “haven’t seen you guys for a while”.

The smiling 27-year-old Titans fullback was a favourite of reporters during his six years at the Broncos. The Mackay product was always co-operative and good for a quote – perhaps too much so in the eyes of his club, at times.

But things went sour at Red Hill. Not once, but twice. First, while he was away at the World Cup, club-mate Justin Hodges was quoted as saying he was not fullback material. Hoffman’s father Shane attacked Hodges on social media, calling him a “dog”.

Then the cousin of new Queensland rep Dane Gagai – and relative of Wendell Sailor, Ben Barba and Travis Waddell – was repeatedly photographed with Canterbury members of the Kiwis squad – and asked for a release.

There was a season of truce while the Broncos waited for Anthony Milford and Wayne Bennett to arrive – and Hoffman finally got the hell out of Dodge, although only an hour down the freeway.

During it all, Josh maintained an uncharacteristic silence in the mainstream media – even if his social media accounts remained entertaining. This year, he’s dressed up as superhero for the club website, posted Instagram videos to kill the time during the commute to and from training – but has been interviewed only briefly.

A-List meets Josh during a break in training at Burleigh Leagues Club, overlooking the Gold Coast Titans’ new training ground. New, because they were kicked out of a school facility when the drugs story broke earlier this year.

A couple of times, looking back over the past couple of years, Josh will use an expression like “this blew up in the media” … before going onto confirm the story concerned was more or less right. There’s much to catch up with since he last spoke in depth about pretty-much anything. We’ll not pussyfoot around….

HOFFMAN left Brisbane for Gold Coast this year with a season left on his contract. “I had the chance to go in and meet Wayne (Bennett). I didn’t really even have to say much. He sort of knew my position. He just said Darius was coming to the LeagueWeek Back Issuesclub and he wanted Darius to play fullback and he said ‘I know that’s your preferred position and I’m not going to hold you back from going out there and finding another opportunity’. In saying that, he said ‘you’re signed with the Broncos and you’re welcome to stay here and you’ve always got a club here’. He was really good like that. At the time, Canberra were in the mix and Ricky (Stuart) was chasing pretty hard I had a young family, I had a little girl and my wife as well and we were trying to decide on whether we wanted to move to Canberra. It was a little bit too far away considering my wife and her mother were very close. We wanted to stay somewhere … stay in Brisbane. And the Warriors were chasing as well.

“There was a little bit of talk and a little bit of interest (from rugby union) but I don’t think they pushed too hard on getting me over there. That would have been another thing I would have considered but I really wanted to stay and play rugby league. I felt like I had more to give to the game. I rang my manager up and he rang around and I said ‘what about Gold Coast, do you reckon they’d be keen?’ and he gave Neil (Henry) a ring and we set up a meeting and happy days.”

A YEAR earlier, Hoffman had asked for a release while at the World Cup. “I wasn’t sure where I was going to be in the future because of everything happening at the club and my positional changes with everywhere I was being moved. I just didn’t know where I was going to fit in the team and I felt like there was no certainty there at the club. I spoke to Hook (Anthony Griffin) and asked for a release … like I said to Wayne, if I could find other opportunities out there to play fullback. I guess things went a bit sour after that. I stayed at the club. The best thing for me is I didn’t go around kicking stones and dragging my lip on the ground and feeling sorry for myself.

amazon“Me and hook, we don’t have any malice against one another.”

THE matter came to a head when veteran Broncos centre Justin Hodges was quoted as saying Hoffman was not the answer for the club at fullback. “Coming from your own team-mate, you sort of … I know I was young at the time and I took it the wrong way and I understand where Justin was coming from; the Broncos were looking for someone who could ball-play, someone who could be another five-eighth and my game, it’s purely a running game. I like to bring the ball back hard and get as many metres as I can. That’s just what I do. At the time I took it as a personal attack and I got a bit upset after that. That was another thing that made me want to leave the club as well. Having your own team-mate say that, it’s made my confidence go down a bit.” But he never approached Hodges over the slight. “I didn’t want to cause drama over it because at the time we were trying to keep our season alive. I didn’t want to cause drama between team-mates.”

AT the World Cup, Hoffman was photographed with Bulldogs players repeatedly, leading to intense speculation he was headed to Belmore. “I was walking down the street in Manchester and I was with big Sammy (Kasiano) and Franky (Pritchard) and Greggy Eastwood and they were in my ear, telling me to come to the Doggies, you know? They were trying to get me over there. And I was like ‘boys, I’m still with the Broncos and I’ve still got two years left and this and that. Being stubborn boys, they just kept pushing and pushing. We eventually got a photo together and it got in the paper and I think the Broncos took it the wrong way and it was blown out of proportion. It was a bit hard being over in the UK and reading all donate2this stuff on the website and being asked about it as well, getting attacked on Twitter from fans and that. It was pretty hurtful but there’s nothing you can do about that. Everyone’s got their opinions. “

HOFFMAN was overlooked for selection by the Kiwis at the end of the tournament and has not played for his father’s country since. “We played against Papua New Guinea and I did my shoulder and it was bothering me at the time. Steve (Kearney) knew I wasn’t 100 per cent but I was adamant I wanted to play. I guess he thought it was in the best interests of the team to play Kevin Locke. At the time, I was a bit disappointed, a bit angry about it because I would really have loved to finish the World Cup off playing in the finals but the boys really did well to get to the final.”

JOSH appears to be facing an up-hill battle to make the touring squad for England at the end of this season. “There’s a lot of competition for the fullback spot. Dallin (Watene-Zelezniak) has been playing a lot of fullback since (Matt) Moylan’s been out, he’s been going really well. And Roger (Tuivasa-Skeck) is the incumbent fullback at the moment. He’s been playing really good footy. There’s a lot of competition there and also in the backline as well. At this stage I’m just focusing on the Titans. If we can get some wins together, hopefully we can get to play in September.”

BUT since Hoffman signed on with the Titans, Aiden Sezer plus Nate Myles have left and Daley Cherry Evans announced he would not be joining, as originally agreed. DCE “It is a big loss for the club and something Neil’s going to have to shuffle around. I’d hate to be in his shoes right now, trying to figure out what he’s going to do for next year. But I guess in saying that we need to focus on this year. It was disappointing and sad to see Nate leave – such a great player with great experience. I really look up to him.’

Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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