Five Things We Learned: 2015 NRL Nines

dick-smith-nrl-auckland-ninesBy STEVE MASCORD


IT’S hazardous to make judgments on premiership candidacy in February and bordering on delusional to do so after a nines tournament. But it wasn’t so much South Sydney’s 18-14 win over Cronulla in a wonderfully offbeat final as little pieces of body language that foreshadowed a robust title defence. Dylan Walker approached defenders with an arrogance in his gait that indicated he knew he could beat them – then did. Adam Reynolds did the same kick over and over again, knowing it would eventually work. Issac Luke lifted a trophy after missing the grand final through suspension and simultaneously declared his elation and downplayed the reason for it. Is there a better way to transition from a championship to its defence than by winning three trophies in the intervening pre-season? Glory, Glory, Glory and finally, Glory.


RUGBY league would no more lose face in New Zealand because of misbehaving players and absent stars than the same reasons would damage the Premier League’s or NFL’s IP in Australia. More than a quarter-century after the Winfield Cup first burst onto Kiwi TV screens, the competition has a sheen of glamour on this side of the Tasman that has too often been tarnished in its birthplace. Local fans supported all teams but reserved their most cacophonous reception for the Warriors and the Kiwi Ferns women’s side, who won a three-match nines series against Australia. The tournament is locked in for five years; reading between the lines, the NRL wants to add teams and the organisers would rather not.


COACH Shane Flanagan walked out of a close-season media opportunity when he was repeatedly asked about the ASADA controversy and many doubts have been expressed about whether anything has really changed in the Shire. The words and deeds of the Sharks at Eden Park strongly suggest they have. The “new culture” mentioned by Tinarau Arona in one interview was well represented by the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes, among others. But the Sharks are still luckless, cruelly denied in the final despite some defensive heroics and losing Nu Brown for possibly the season with a knee injury. He’ll have surgery on Monday.

THERE were enough stuff-ups in the absence of the video ref to for him not to be worrying about his future employment prospects. Jarrod Mullen succeeded in dispossessing an opponent in-goal but the try was given, Bodene Thompson was denied a touchdown for a team-mate’s knock-on-that-wasn’t and there were more. But the old Super League rule of giving the man (or men, or women) upstairs limited time to do their thang might have merit. The lack of stoppages was refreshing. Another bonus: players interviewed about officiating errors at the Nines did not know they had been dudded because they had not had time to watch the replays themselves!


MORE than 16 hours of rugby league will test even the most voracious treiziste and virtually no-one who passes through the gates at the NRL Nines watches every minute of every game. It’s de rigueur for league fans to pontificate about how superior a spectacle their sport is but even caviar and champagne get tedious if they are shoved down your throat every two minutes for an entire weekend. That’s OK. Dress up as a naughty nun, buy a pre-mixed bourbon and coke and punch that inflatable ball back up into the air. The Nines is about the party more than it’s about the football and is definitely best served with a beverage.


How International Rugby League Will Look Over The Next Five Years


CANBERRA can be rather fetching in Autumn. And it’s in Australia’s capital, late last month among the yellowing leaves and ring roads, that the Great Britain rugby league team was fetched back from the history books.

The rumours have been around for quite some time but when the World Cup executive met in the days leading up to the April 19 Test between Australia and New Zealand, the news finally leaked out – GB’s flag will most likely be hoisted after an eight-year break in 2015.

It’s something RFL chief executive Nigel Wood wanted to keep quiet but RLIF chairman Scott Carter spoke openly about it in the lead-up to the meeting. A tour at the end of the 2015 season will comprise two Tests against each of the trans-Tasman rivals and mid-week matches against yet-to-be-determined opposition.

The executive also heard of plans to expand the World Club Challenge, with the top three NRL teams to play exhibition games in Perpignan and London to help pay for the trip.

Next year, the WCC will likely head to Perth as a two-team competition. The next, it will be six teams played over an entire weekend in the UK, with the final on Sunday and the second- and third-ranked teams playing off on Friday and Saturday night.

Two out of the three NRL teams will ape the expansion efforts of the AFL by playing before what is expected to be big expat crowds in Super League’s two outposts. It’s the sort of thing many of us have been calling for, for years.

We often whinge that our sport is depressingly small-time on a global scale. But on the flipside, isn’t it great that Forty20 Magazine can ring up the head honcho of the sport worldwide and he’ll tell us a bunch of things about the upcoming international calendar that have not been reported anywhere else?

Let’s start with the 2014 mid-season internationals. Carter says it’s gratifying that Australia have committed to the Anzac Test for another four years. We’ve been told by Australian sources that NRL wants to play two different countries in the Pacific Test next year, even though Tonga and Samoa seem convinced they are locked in again.

Fiji and Papua New Guinea are favoured next year. If NRL clubs agree, this could become a double header with Tonga-Samoa. We asked Carter about the Pacific All Stars concept and he said that would be a matter for the Australians.

Onto the 2014 Four Nations, to be shared between Australia and New Zealand, then.

“The highest ranked Pacific nation (in the World Cup) will be the fourth team in the 2014 Four Nations, which is in the southern hemisphere,” Carter tells us from Auckland.

“Australia, New Zealand and England had some discussion about logistical issues – stadia and such. It will come down to a bidding process, where the games are played.

“In recent years, governments and councils on both sides of the Tasman have been interested in staging such events. This has included non-traditional areas for our sport so it is wide open.

“A lobbying process will now begin where we let the authorities in various cities know which fixtures are available. There is absolutely nothing to say the final must be in Australia.

“If a New Zealand city wishes to host the final and puts together the right bid, then that can happen.” For financial and television reasons, it seems unlikely the fourth nation in next year’s tournament will host a match.

OK, we’re doing things in chronological order. Here’s what most of you really want to know about: the return of Great Britain, who’ve not tackled a foreign infidel in anger since 2007.

“As I said before the meeting in Canberra, there’s a lot of interest in a Lions tour,” Carter says. “The idea is that Great Britain would play four games in Australia and four games in New Zealand, of which two each would be Tests.”

Carter wasn’t in position to say who the opposition would be for the mid-week games on the western side of the Tasman – but was happy to discuss the New Zealand schedule.

“There’s a great history for Lions tours and one tradition we really want to maintain is the Maori team,” he says.

“If you remember, in 2010 England played the Maori and it was an 18-all draw. So that would be one of the games.

“There is also a feeling that we should keep the tradition of regional teams who have played touring sides in the past. One of the obvious ones there is Auckland, who have actually beaten international teams.”

But wait, dear traditionalist. There’s more!

While the international programme as we know it now has a Four Nations in the northern hemisphere in 2016, there is another idea doing the rounds.

“There has been some discussion about having an outgoing New Zealand and outgoing Australian tour to the UK at that time instead,” said Carter.

That’s right, Australia and New Zealand on tour in Britain at the same time, perhaps playing the home nations and even out-of-season club sides – similar to what happens in the other code.

“But I stress, it was just something that was thrown up,” said Carter. “At the moment, it’s a Four Nations which is in the international schedule and that’s what is more likely to happen.”

OK, are you flipping over the decade-long calendar on your fridge? We are now in 2017. There is another World Cup on.

“I have two hats here,” Carter begins. “As RLIF chairman, I can say that there are two bids.

“There’s South Africa, a country where there is definitely the infrastructure and experience to stage an event of this magnitude. There is definitely still interest there.

“However, the South African Rugby League is having recognition issues with the government.”

(The South African government refuses to recognise rugby league as a separate sport to rugby union. If the public has the same position, we simply MUST stage the World Cup there!)

Bid documents have gone out to the SARL, ARL and NZRL.

“As NZRL chairman, I would say that the joint bid of Australia and New Zealand, considering the audience and facilities, would have overwhelming merit,” he said.

The 2017 World Cup final is not assured for Brisbane, or even Australia. “It’ll come down to competitive tenders,” said Carter.

“There is no reason whatsoever why the World Cup final cannot be held in New Zealand.”

As for the qualification process and number of teams in 2017 … it’s too early for that. The RLEF has said that the European Shield, now being contested over two years, will act as a qualifying tournament in 2014 and 2015.

Of course, the reason all this discussion took place in Canberra in mid-April is that there happened to be a game on. Canberra was awarded the Anzac Test because it is the city’s centenary and we were rewarded with a sold-out 25,628 crowd.

The Kiwis had a wretched build-up. Injuries disqualified Benji Marshall and Sonny Bill Williams from selection, Krisnan Inu was under spear tackle ban and captain Simon Mannering was ruled out with a calf injury on match eve.

But despite having three first half tries disallowed, the scores were 6-6 at halftime. Then the Australians made a minor tactical adjustment at halftime.

“We definitely readjusted our gameplan in that second half,” said halfback Cooper Cronk.

“The conditions play a part in terms of New Zealand playing field position and (being) camped on our line. We threw a few long passes in that first half which allowed the New Zealand rushing defence to shut us down.

“We shortened things up (in the second half), played down the middle third of the field and obviously used the wind behind us.”

Whereas in Townsville last October, the Kiwis looked like they would have won if given more time, on this occasion the impressive Australians triumphed going away.

On the morning of the game, the Daily Telegraph reported that the 2015 Lions would face a combined Anzac side to mark the 100th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli – in April, months before the proposed GB tour.

“Some things do get discussed without really being considered seriously,” Carter said when asked about the idea.

“There was a light-hearted suggestion that … “well they invited us to a Turkish beach back then, so we might reciprocate.”


THE JOY OF SIX: Round 10


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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?


DISCORD 2012: Edition 12


I’M not going to take credit for this idea – it came from a reader on Rugby League Week’s facebook page- but the Under 20s State of Origin is bad news for New Zealand.

There is a war going on out there between NSW, Australia and the Kiwis for talent given the mixed backgrounds of many youngsters. Daylight is fourth and the island countries such as Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands are next.

The Under 20s State of Origin will make it more attractive than ever for kids to commit to NSW or Queensland. In case you missed it, the first Under 21s Origin will be played at Centrebet Stadium on April 21.

The only way for this to be countered is to add a second New Zealand team in the Toyota Cup. I know there are no robust bids for an NRL franchise from Wellington or Christchurch but why can’t we start treating the Under 20s like a second division?

I think the AFL have done it. You enter the junior comp a few years before the senior competition to give you a head start on assembling players and sponsors. Perth should be running around in the Toyota Cup now. As I’ve written before, I’d love to see an English team in the Toyota Cup as well.

It’s not the ARL Commission’s place to make decisions which deliberately disadvantage a country like New Zealand. They need to compensate New Zealand for the massive handicap the Under 20s origin is going to impose upon them.

Read the full column here: