BONDI BEAT: August 2014

RUGBY-LEAGUE-WORLD_AUG-14By STEVE MASCORD

JOURNALISM is full of new experiences, even after 400 issues of this esteemed organ. For the first time in my career, I am about to write a column which attempts to rebut another column written by the guy paying me for this column. 

Most of you will know the back story.

I recently wrote a yarn saying rugby league had a terrible image. League Publications chief Martyn Sadler responded on totalrl.com saying – I think – that I was wrong. Or that I shouldn’t have written that, anyway.

Rather than make this tit-for-tat throughout, which will age very quickly, I’d like to develop this column into a discussion about what is really at the core of rugby league, what its soul means to you and how that differs from myself and Martyn.

That is something people might still find interesting when the 800th RLW rolls off the presses.

This debate has laid bare the fact that some people believe the game is being “taken from them” by poorly behaved players, while others believe pandering to the media and moral outrage would take it from them.

But first, the good thing about Martyn’s piece, which I liked very much, was that he posed a series of questions to me.

Firstly, the story was not prompted by a Tweet from a player agent. His language simply gave me a way into the subject. His comment was made several hours before the Todd Carney photo emerged.

Secondly, I did not “put the boot into rugby league players generally”. There is a paragraph there, which Martyn excludes, where I point out I have praised the behaviour of most players many times before.

The column is about rugby league’s image, mainly in Australia, and the influence of player behaviour on that image.

Martyn completely misses the point when I say a development officer in Hobart suffers when an NRL player stuffs up. It’s not that the development officer thinks less of the sport, it’s that everyone he is trying to sell it to is scared off!

Since the column appeared, grassroots people In Tasmania, Germany, Greece & Thailand have contacted me to thank me. Shannon Crane from Thailand said a 14-year-old boy came up to him and asked “what’s bubbling?”. Simon Cooper sent me a German language clipping about Carney.

These people believed their largely unrewarded efforts were being undermined by badly behaved professionals.

I was also contacted by two extremely high profile former coaches, two well-known former Test players and an ex PR at a pro club. They said I had not gone too far. The PR said the behaviour he witnessed put him off the game “for life”.

Martyn the SMH is a sister paper of  The Age. They print the same stories. Rugby league is a mainstream sport in Australia. All stories are written with the expectation they will be read by the wider public, including those who dislike the game. As a writer, if it’s what you believe to be the truth, the opinions of the publisher and the reader do not matter.

You, however, usually write for the converted. My aim was deliberate  – to upset insiders by pointing out to them the way the product of rugby league was seen by everyone else, in front of everyone else.

Someone said to me that Martyn’s main error was to confuse the game with the product. I have chased the game all around the world. I’ve seen and experienced all those wonderful things Martyn speaks about. Visiting a Filipino orphanage with young men who had never been to their  parents’ home country will live with me forever.

But I firmly believe the product of rugby league is poorly positioned in Australia.More of that later.

Martyn asks if I feel ashamed of rugby league. Yes Martyn, at times I do. And despite your belief that I was playing to the gallery of AFL and rugby union apologists, if you look at comments at the bottom of the column and elsewhere, you will see many other rusted-on league fans in this country feel the same.

One fellow even felt inspired enough to write an open letter to David Smith, detailing the extent of his embarrassment.

Do Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson make me ashamed of being Australian and a journalist as well? Yes! They do! But I remain both nonetheless.

Martin mentions scandals in other sports, as others have. But in Australia, rugby league would already have a down-market image even if players behaved, because a history we all have some understanding of.  It’s the lower class rugby here, too.

What bad behaviour does is confirm those prejudices.

That’s where I want this column to go, if there’s room. The huge question we face is: do we just accept our place in the world as a fact of life or do we move to alter our entire demographic?

The AFL aren’t trying to win over rugby league and rugby union fans. They’re trying to convert their kids. They built infrastructure, visit schools, give things away and they have an aura of being cool, genteel and family oriented.

And parents in NSW and Queensland see them as being less “bogan” than rugby league, which is always in the news for badly behaved players. Sure,.it’s in the news because it’st he biggest show in town – but every times someone stuffs up, it plays into their hands.

I believe the AFL will win this war unless we dramatically overhaul our image. The NRL can either be the flagship for a community pursuit or an extreme sport.

A Canberra fan answered some of Martyn’s comments for me. To the point about Ed Ballis: “Yes I can Martyn. It happened after Carney led police on a high speed chase through Canberra after running a red light, while having a suspended licence, then running away from his car to leave Steve Irwin carrying the can – what happens is Carney got let off by The Raiders, The NRL and the courts, as long as he didn’t do it again. ”

To the point about Richard Scadamore:” Barking at women outside All Bar Nun wasn’t particularly complimentary. But then again, nor was pissing on someone else’s neck in the men’s room.”

Martyn once wrote that players who take performance enhancing drugs should not be labelled cheats – which I frankly found outrageous – so we are not going to ever agree on many of the points raised here.

But I believe rugby league is a sport of noble origins that has a fatal flaw. It’s biggest strength is that it is a working class game but its biggest flaw is that for 119 years it has been a gravy train for too many people with no other way of making a quid.

Decisions have been short term-selfish and narrow-minded.

Somehow we have to not only amputate those on the gravy train but also those who facilitate or even ignore them.

The answer to the question of what makes it “our game” is straightforward: it’s not. By the time we get to 500 issues, maybe we’ll have realised it’s everyone’s and have eliminated those who want to keep it mired in a past which NEED NOT have any relevance to the next generation.

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I was going to write this column about Jim Savage, who is my closest friend and who I first met as an Open Rugby penpal in 1986. 

Jim is now a bartender in Boston, Massachussetts.He buys a season ticket at Warrington every year, even though he can’t go (and if he does, he buys another ticket).

His father stood on the terraces at Wilderspool, so did his grandfather. He was disgusted by the Carney episode.

He inspired my original SMH column.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD  

 

James Roberts Has Famous Uncle Amos To Thank For His Rebirth

Penrith - James RobertsBy STEVE MASCORD

REBORN Panther James Roberts has revealed how his famous Uncle Amos helped steer him towards Penrith when he was just about to sign with Cronulla last summer.

Roberts, sacked by last year by South Sydney for disciplinary breaches, enjoyed a career high on Saturday night with a hat-trick in the 40-18 win over Gold Coast at Darwin’s TIO Stadium.

But he tells Rugby League Week he went within an ace of being a Shark.

“I was really close to signing with the Sharks – then I met Phil Gould,” Roberts, 20 says. “I don’t regret a thing and wouldn’t have liked it to be any other way.”

Roberts was raised by former St George, Eastern Suburbs and Wigan flier Amos and says his uncle’s advice played a big role in the decision to head west. He only stopped living with Amos Roberts this year.

“He’s more like a father,” Roberts said. “He’s always calling me before and after games.

“He left it to me but through his career he’s a good relationship with Gus and he said he’s a good bloke. I trust my uncle and I took his word.

“When I met Gus, I sort of knew what I wanted.”

The final disciplinary breach at Souths for Roberts was causing a disturbance at an adult establishment while wearing club gear*. “I can’t really do anything about that, the past,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to go backwards to go forwards.

“I’ve learned from my mistakes; it won’t happen again.

But the flying wingman has endured a horror start to his tenure at his new club.

“I did my syndesmosis in one of the trials before the season started so I was out for three months,” he says.

“I played two reserve grade games just to get my fitness up and went back into first grade and fractured my eye socket and was out another four weeks.

“It was depressing, especially after last year when I had two arthroscopes on my knee.

“To score three tries in first grade, it was definitely a career highlight for me.”

Coach Ivan Cleary comments: “James is an undoubted talent. He’s shown that in under 20s and in his brief stint in first grade.

“He’s got a ways to go, not just on the field but off the field (where) it’s been well-documented he’s had issues.

“(The Titans game) will only help with his confidence and his role in the team. It was good to see. The second try he scored, not many could have actually got there in time to take the kick.

“That was a real crunch play. It was either a 20 metre tap (to the Titans) or it was a try.”

NB: Since this story appeared, James Roberts has denied he was wearing club gear during the incident.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

James Tamou: “I Thought I’d Be Sacked”

 

James Tamou
James Tamou

By STEVE MASCORD

JAMES Tamou says he thought he would be sacked by North Queensland and banished from rugby league in the wake of his high range drink driving charge.

Tamou, fined $20,000 and banned from Origin II selection after recording a blood alcohol reading of .197 on June 10, made his return in for the Cowboys in Sunday night’s 24-4 win over Cronulla. He  hopes to win back his Blues jersey with a strong showing against Canberra this weekend.

“It has been a very stressful time,” the 24-year-old tells League Week.

“Obviously when the incident happened with Blake Ferguson around the same time, there was talk about him not having his job at Canberra anymore.

“And I really thought that would happen to me, that I wouldn’t have a job anymore. It was scary thinking I would be out of a job, that I wouldn’t be allowed to come here and train with the boys and play anymore.”

Ferguson is currently facing charges of indecent assault after a night out on the eve of going into camp for NSW’s 26-6 Origin II defeat on June 26. While there was speculation that Canberra may opt to cancel his contract, the club has so far indicated it will stick by him.

Tamou’s financial penalty has been described by Australia captain Cameron Smith as being too harsh and his management is making representations behind the scenes for leniency.

“I have been trying to keep a low profile, just quietly coming to training and then slipping away,” he says.

“I’ve had a lot of support from people, a lot of text messages. The way I see it, it’s a learning curve. You live and you learn from your mistakes because I know for a fact I will never do anything like this ever again.

“I can’t wait to see myself in a couple of months and be able to look back on it from some distance.”

Despite suggestions, Tamou says he has been given no indication by NSW coach Laurie Daley that he will be in the Blues’ side for the deciding encounter with Queensland at ANZ Stadium on July 17.

“After a couple of weeks off, I just wanted to rip in for the Cowboys side and get a win,” he said.

Asked if he could bring something to the Blues side that was missing in game two, he responded:  “Mate hopefully.

“It was really tough sitting on the couch watching the second Origin game. It’s going to be much harder in the next game.

“You’d like to think you could do a job for them but you’ve got to get picked first.”
Tamou clocked up 200 metres with his 19 runs in 48 minutes on Sunday night. Coach Neil Henry said the former New Zealand Maori representative was short of condition after his enforced break but impressed with his attitude at training while suspended.

“He was huffing and puffing there over the speed of the game but he ran for good metres and I like what he did out there,” said Henry.

“He certainly added a bit to the team.

“He’s been great at training. He’s enthusiastic and he hasn’t missed a beat. No doubt he’s disappointed at missing a game for his club and also that Origin game.”

NB: Since this story appeared, Tamou was selected for Origin III

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Dylan Farrell: Souths Saved Me From Drink And Drugs

South Sydney - Dylan FarrellBy STEVE MASCORD

SOUTH Sydney star Dylan Farrell says he leaves South Sydney convinced the club saved him from falling victim to drugs and alcohol.

NSW south coast product Farrell heads closer to home when he joins St George Illawarra on a three-year contract next season but he says joining Souths in 2008 probably saved his career.

“I was training with the Steelers when I signed with Souths,” Farrell explained. “I’ve had heaps of family members who’ve sort of been in the same position as me – they lived at home while travelling to games.

“It just didn’t do anything for them. They got into drugs, alcohol, that sort of stuff so my dad wanted to get me out of the area and – I suppose – let me grow up quicker.”

Farrell says he is a distant relative of dual international Andrew Walker, who was suspended for two years for cocaine use in 2004.

“Myy cousin Ben Wellington, he played at the Roosters in ’03 and ’04, he actually did a knee injury.

“Andrew Walker’s a distant relative. My dad played lower grades at Parra – Darryll Farrell – but he got homesick when he was young and just took off home.

“He still regrets that to this day. I wouldn’t be here without them. They’ve (Darryl and mum Kim) really encouraged me and pushed me in the right direction.

“Looking back, I still would have been living with my parents, travelling up from Wollongong to play, even the travel gets you, I don’t know how I would have lasted. “

Farrell, who made a tryscoring return to first grade on Sunday, wanted to repay Souths by re-signing.

“I really wanted to stay here but I’ve got a three-year-old daughter and a son on the way and it was really just all about looking after them,” he said.

“It’s closer to home. My parents still live down there, all my family live there, it’s going to be easier. It’s easier to get baby sitters. It’ll be easier to live. I’m going to be able to afford to get a house there, I couldn’t do that here with kids. I’d only be able to buy a unit.

Farrell had back surgery in the off-season and started the season in first grade before being dropped. In his place another Dylan – Walker – has risen to prominence.

“He’s only a young kid but full of confidence,” said Farrell. “I just know him through the juniors.

“He came up and started training with us this year, had a really good pre-season, started killing it in the Under 20s and NSW Cup.

“If Souths are going good, I’m going good. They’re like my family. I want to finish out this year on a high note.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 26

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

LET’S start this item about the $15,000 fine meted out to Ricky Stuart on Monday by saying we understand what the NRL is trying to achieve.

Yes, respect for referees is paramount and yes, there is culture of criticism – some would say attempted manipulation – in our competition which is probably unhealthy.

But the thing about the rule as it stood until about 5pm on Monday was that you could defend it as an apparatus that kept rugby league out of the courts.

Generally speaking, aside from a couple of times when coaches have used swear words in their criticism, the comments which have attracted fines could conceivably have led to defamation proceedings.

No-one wants referees suing coaches for libel.

But on Monday, the goalposts moved – or more precisely, they got wider and higher, so much so that they now cover most of the tryline and the uprights go up to the back row of ANZ Stadium.

Here are the comments that could vaguely be described as questioning the integrity of officials

“We cannot be so different every week to the opposition in regards to – not penalty counts but – what we’re getting penalised for”

“The same actions aren’t being penalised for the opposition team”

Now, every weekend captains make comments like that to referees out on the field. Those comments are broadcast, via SportsEars, to television and radio audiences nationally and internationally.

Are we going to start fining captains for bringing the game into disrepute?

Or was Stuart fined for questioning the “competency” of Daniel Anderson? Our whole game was born out of questioning the “competency” of authority, back at The George in 1895.

Without rabble-rousing and rebellion, there would be no rugby league. Do the current inhabitants of League Central understand that? It’s the purpose of rugby league, it’s in every strand of our DNA.

You can say that coaches should not be allowed to intimidate referees – that’s right, referees shouldn’t allow themselves to be influenced and I don’t think they do.

The precedent set by Monday’s breach notice is that if someone says “David Smith is hopeless” or “the commission are doing a crap job”, they can now be fined for bringing the game into disrepute by questioning “competency”.

I don’t think anyone would stand for such oppressive censorship. Not only is it Orwellian and even somewhat fascist, it’s against what rugby league has always been about.

PS: And if Stuart is being picked on as a repeat offender – isn’t that what he was accusing referees of doing to his team in the first place? It suggests he might be right.

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OK it’s comments time, going back to last week’s column, and there have been lots of them.

read on

DISCORD 2013: Edition 25

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

LAST week Discord was rightly criticised for posting yet another column on the Origin I biff, a couple of readers pointing out that they’d already read much more than enough on the subject.

Fair cop.

But sometimes, when the current debate on a footy-relate issue seems to be missing something, Discord feels a duty to point out the elephants in the room. So we’ll do that regarding recent events and move straight on to something else.

The first elephant is not in any way highlighted as an excuse for some of the boorish behaviour we have seen over the last week… but it is a major contributing facotr and has been completely overlooked for some mystifying reason.

It’s hormones. While columns like this love to point out that players have limited careers and should learn to stay indoors and out of trouble, to the players the limited time span is a reason to go out. They’ll only be this fit, this famous, this single and this good looking – all at once – for less than a decade and there are plenty of wild oats to sow in that time.

To a 23-year-old, there is a fear that if you don’t take advantage of these unique circumstances, you’ll regret it in your old age. The jealousy of your contemporaries can be over-powering. Of course, getting in trouble creates even bigger regrets … but that may not happen … so it seems worth the gamble.

To Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan, NOT going out on Sunday night would have seemed a terrible, tragic waste of an opportunity.

Secondly – and I will use this as an excuse for the Mal Meninga ‘incident’ – how easy is it to be refused service or even entry to a pub these days? I’m sure many readers have been refused entry in Sydney when they have not had a single drink, just because the guys on the door don’t like the look of their eyes as a result of some training course they did.

I have been refused service, or entry, in licensed establishments at least 20 times. I probably deserved it on more than half those occasions but I have never done anything more anti social than drop a glass on the floor.

It’s easy to understand why Mal would feel aggrieved that every daily newspaper saw fit to put his transgression on the back page today. But footballers (and their coaches) are really just reality TV stars these days. Without television, they’d be amateur or part time.

Bluntly, the media machine sees them as merely being there for our amusement, offering us two-dimensional pulp morality tales with everything they do.

So they get treated the same as reality TV stars. If Joel Madden was in town to promote a record, his little dope stash would get less space than if he was judging a massive talent show, publicity for which has been deliberately whipped up by a television network.

Same with Mal. If he is asked to leave the local pub in Redcliffe in November, it would be lucky to rate a paragraph in a gossip column. But Origin is the best rating piece of reality television in Australia.

If the players thought of it more like The Voice, they might understand a little better the way the gossip-obsessed mainstream media treats it.

OK, onto something else.

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FOR the record, your correspondent was only joking on Monday when he described Daniel Anderson’s trip to the NHL “bunker” as a junket.

Of course, it’s a good idea for the NRL referees’ boss to drop in on the way back from the World Cup. We were just making the point that commercial radio stations have already set up similar facilities in this country which would be worth checking out.

Of course, commercial radio stations don’t need to communicate with referees and touch judges. And they often have communication breakdowns with their people at the ground which would be disastrous for match officials.

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COMMENTS now, and I’ll go through everything written on the bottom of a story on leaguehq.com.au or stevemascord.com for the last week.

read on

Players In NSW And Queensland Don’t Understand Damage To Game’s Image

Queensland - Cameron Smith 2By STEVE MASCORD
MELBOURNE and Australia captain Cameron Smith has lashed out at misbehaving players who live in cocoon in rugby league’s heartlands and don’t understand how much they are hurting the game in its frontiers.
In an eight-day period which has seen NSW prop James Tamou, would-be team-mate Blake Ferguson and South Sydney prop George Burgess all charged by police, Smith said many players in NSW and Queensland don’t understand the harm they are doing.
“It’s huge – we’re trying to grow the game in new places like Melbourne and they think they can do what they want,” Smith told Fairfax Media in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, shortly after the Queensland’s team announcement.
“Living down in Melbourne you’re constantly hearing about how far our game is behind and this sort of stuff only adds to that.
“The players who live in NSW and Queensland aren’t confronted with that, they don’t see it.
“I don’t want to make too much comment on it because it’s been dealt with by the NRL and the respective clubs but it’s disappointing because it’s a few blokes letting the whole game down really.
“Nearly the whole competition, except for a few, they uphold their responsibility to the game and to the public.
“They can go out and a have a few beers and do the right thing. But it’s these blokes who think they can do whatever they want who let the game down.
“For someone to say what they did is OK – they’ve got to have a serious look at themselves.”
Smith also defied the conventional rugby league wisdom when it came to the punching ban introduced since Paul Gallen’s attack on Nate Myles two weeks ago. Maroons coach Mal Meninga said during the team announcement media conference he could not guarantee there would be no punches at Suncorp Stadium next Wednesday.
Referees coach Daniel Anderson said at the weekend that Smith’s contention on television last week that the Gallen-Myles incident was “not a good look” was taken into consideration in handing down the edict.
“He changed the rule because of me? I think it’s a good move,” said Smith. “Probably a lot of people would disagree but I think the sport is moving with society.
“It’s unacceptable to go around punching blokes whenever you want now.”
Motioning to a junior player in uniform who had been part of the announcement, he continued: “If we want these little fellas playing the sport when they’re 20 years old….
“And kids being born this year, if we want them playing rugby league then we’ve got to be showing their parents that it’s a good game to play and a lot of people would have seen that incident in game one and though ‘oh, maybe I want my kid to play soccer or something else.”
“It’s a good move for the NRL to come down hard on starting fights because there’s no place in the game for it now.”
Ferguson has been kicked out of the NSW team for indecent assault, Burgess has been stood down by South Sydney for wilfully damaging a car and Tamou was disqualified from Origin selection and suspended by his club for driving unlicensed at four times the legal alcohol limit.
Maroons and South Sydney star Greg Inglis told reporters yesterday he knew nothing about the Burgess incident.
The Maroons dropped Gold Coast lock Ashley Harrison and Canberra prop David Shillington for a game they must win to keep alive their seven-year winning streak against New South Wales.
South Sydney’s Chris McQueen comes into the starting side and Canberra’s Josh Papalii is on the bench with Sydney Roosters’ Martin Kennedy 18th man.
“We’ve got a culture of loyalty … we had to make a touch choice,” said Meninga. “There are young kids poking their heads through who have been in our system for a while.
“There was a long 10 metres … we needed to pick a side with more mobility in the ruck.”
On the punching ban, he said: “I understand where they’re coming from with it.
“But it’s an aggressive and combatative game. It’s difficult to control your emotions. Origin is all about emotion. “
Asked if he could guarantee there would be no punches, he answered: “I don’t think you can guarantee that in any sport … any combatative sport be it rugby or soccer.
“It’s a tough one. It’s black and white. We’ll see what happens.”
Meninga is a confidante of Ferguson and said: “It’s sad to see what happened to Blake.
“He doesn’t have a tendancy to mix with the right people. He’s easily led.”

Filed for: THE AGE