THE BIG ISSUE: #39

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

THERE has been some conjecture over the past couple of days that the number of players who have pulled out of City-Country suggests the fixture has (again) run its course – and when it is killed off this time, it shouldn’t make another comeback.

But since when did players decide what games were in the calendar? Maybe they don’t like going to Campbelltown or Canberra in winter or Townsville in autumn so we should call those games off too!

City-Country should be scrapped, or amended, when it is decided it is no longer good for rugby league, not when players all suddenly develop previously unknown injuries.

The problem with the fixture is really that only one of the teams inspires any passion. Have you ever met someone who described themselves as a ‘City’ supporter?

Our All Stars fixture will eventually encounter the same problem. The NRL All-Stars are a little sexier than City but for a while in Origin, NSW were just the Washington Generals to Queensland’s Harlem Globetrotters.

NSW then started caring about the Blues. Sydney has had a century to start caring about City and clearly does not.

We need to approach these fixtures with the same mentality we are attacking our venues problems. The right game for the right venue? Make it the right opponent for the right rep team.

Scrap City and have Country play someone else? Then we don’t have a NSW selection trial. So City-Country will be here as long as we believe the Blues need leading selection candidates to play each other.

Personally, I don’t think they need it now. The absence of selection trial has not hurt Queensland.

But if City-Country goes, I still believe Country has a place on the representative weekend. What if they played Tonga or Samoa? The interest in this week’s Penrith international (almost 500 ‘shares’ of team-sheets on our facebook page at the time of writing) suggests there’d be plenty of support.

What about Country v the Pacific All Stars? Now there’s a representative game!

The other way to prevent players pulling out of games under the assumption that “the clubs pay them, after all” is to make sure they clubs don’t pay them anymore.

The NRL has the expressed ambition of making sure the grant to clubs equals the salary cap. In effect, the NRL will then be providing all the players’ wages.

So why pay the clubs first? Have the NRL put the money straight into the players’ bank accounts, which aside from insulating them against their clubs going broke, will ensure they take games run by the league – their employer – equally seriously, no matter what colours they are asked to wear.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 16

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

WHILE this column, among others, has welcomed the advent of the representative weekend as a step forward for international rugby league, the mass withdrawals from the City and Country teams reveal an inherent flaw in the scheduling.

When City-Country or a Test was played on the same weekend as a full round of club games, players who were unfit for the rep match were most often unable to play for their clubs that weekend. Sometimes this was enforced, sometimes is was a convention followed out of guilt.

The rep weekend gives clubs a get-out-of-jail-free card – there is no punishment for compelling a player with a minor injury to sit out the weekend and back up for his club the following week.

Even so, there have been reports Country already expected Brett Stewart to miss the clash with City before he played for Manly at the weekend. If so, it’s got me beat.

City-Country pretty much has to stay as long as NSW believe they need a selection trial. Any other format, such as Probables v Possibles, would be even less attractive to fans and less digestible to clubs.

But we need to tighten up and standardise the procedure at representative medicals. All players MUST be examined by the representative team doctor. If they don’t show up to the medical, they have to sit out a club game. If that means flying from Auckland to Coffs Harbour in a plaster cast just to be ruled out, sobeit.

The time for doing things by “consensus’ is over because the goodwill is being abused.

And when the NRL grant to clubs equals the salary cap, then cut out the middle man and have the League pay players directly. That way, the clubs won’t be able to say “we pay them” any longer. It will also make the salary cap a little easier to police and protect players from their clubs going broke or their superannuation not being paid on time.

By the way, I don’t think NSW needs a selection trial any more. But hopefully the Under 20s Origin and Pacific internationals with grow in stature as City-Country fades, and eventually they;ll replace the fixture as a matter of evolution.

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A QUICK word about Ross Livermore.

Ross was the last of the traditional league administrators who had, a touch of showbusiness and a talent and instinct for hype.

I had my disagreements with Ross but I knew that if I called him, he would invariably say something interesting – especially around Origin time.

In latter years, State Of Origin was supposed to raise money for the NRL Partnership and the state leagues were expected to just live off a grant. But Ross know how to “leverage’ the prestige of the series with stadium tours on match-day and the like to bring in a few extra dollars for the QRL.

Ross was a showman. He was more worried about creating interest for the game than avoiding conflict by saying nothing. These days, we have administrators with greater academic qualifications and more experience in the business world but I doubt we’ll see more flair and enthusiasm for a long time.

You’ll be missed, Ross.

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THERE were a few comments last week. Jim wanted to know why the Sharks have got more bad publicity than Essendon over the drugs drama. I’ll be honest here Jim and say I don’t follow AFL at all and don’t feel qualified to comment.

A Rule Change Is As Good As A Holiday

untitledBy STEVE MASCORD

CHRISTMAS in summer really isn’t that weird.

It’s a common refrain I hear in the northern hemisphere, that to get sunburnt on Christmas Day, to be outside in shorts and thongs (either meaning of ‘thongs’ will suffice) is almost Grinch-like.

But the pool is every bit as convivial as the fireplace. Prawns, in all honesty, taste better than mince pies. And lager still tastes …like lager.

And as for Boxing Day, where would you rather be? The MCG for the cricket Test, or Mount Pleasant for Batley v Dewsbury? Actually, I’d rather be at Mount Pleasant but I’m weird like that. At least you could watch the Boxing Day Test on television if you couldn’t get there.

With no actual rugby league being played Down Under right now, there is a smug satisfaction over what is in store from March 7. Big TV deal, Sonny Bill Williams is back, you’ll be able to watch games on your ipad, for the first six weeks there’ll only be three days where there is NOT an NRL game being played.

Between Christmas and New Years, a story ran about how rugby league players would soon be the highest paid in Australian sport.

And it’s a World Cup Year …. ? Well, they ain’t talking about that so much in these parts…

Just before everyone donned the board shorts for Christmas Day, the NRL finalised some rule changes. Unlike the RFL, they didn’t leave it until Christmas Eve….

The decision to outlaw the shoulder charge was an executive call, and no doubt the concerns – expressed publically – of doctors (and therefore lawyers) played a part.

But when it came to how the ban would be worded, the ARL Commission called in the experts – like Wayne Bennett – and it was kind of …un-banned.

As long as the arm of the defending player is not tucked into the body, it’s business as usual. Players will not be cited for shoulder charges the referees miss – the video review committee will not look at them unless there is contact with the head.

Forty-20 understands referees have been told the changes to the rules regarding the shoulder charge will be, in all practicality, negligible.

The benefit of the doubt rule, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the rugby league world and the flaws of which were exposed when Manly eliminated North Queensland from the finals last year, has been ditched by new referees’ boss Daniel Anderson.

For those of you who don’t watch a lot of NRL, the “benefit of the doubt” has gone to the attacking team where a try sent upstairs to the video official has been too tough to call.

In the majority of cases under the old rule, the referee would say “I have an opinion” when he sent the decision on a try upstairs.  As a keen listener to Sportsears (Sean Hampstead once said during a game “don’t worry, the only person listening is Steve Mascord”), I can tell you the intonation of the referees often implied very strongly that he knew better than the eye in the sky what had happened.

Sometimes, the man on the field would “coach” the video referee over what replays to watch, which always seemed arse-about to me.

Now, one of the two men in the middle (we’re sticking with that one, thanks) will give his opinion on whether a try has been scored first, then ask for the fellow in the grandstand to double-check if he deems this necessary.

The new system seems sensible. But if a whistler is otherwise having a blinder but keeps getting over-ruled by the man upstairs, will it affect his appointment for the following week? Will it affect his confidence?

Anderson knows the answer to the first question. No-one knows the second solution, until it happens.

There were three major policy changes announced by the ARLC a week before Christmas. The third is a matter dear to the hearts of most Forty-20 readers – representative eligibility.

The problem: players moving to NSW or Queensland to be professional footballers were being deemed eligible for that state – defeating the “of Origin” part of the competition’s name.

From a domestic point, of view, that meant Greg Inglis being raised in northern NSW but playing his whole career for Queensland.

Of more interest to most of our readers is James Tamou representing NZ Maori and then NSW and Australia – and Aquila Uate switching from Fiji to Australia.

The rule they’ve come up with is beautiful in its simplicity– though not without its own questions. Players must have lived in NSW or Queensland before the age of 13 to be eligible for that state.

They must also be eligible for Australia, which is not what we hoped for  – but it’s a step in the right direction.  Origin had started to do to other countries what NSW did to Queensland in in the 1970s – attract all the best players using money, then turn them against their place of birth.

A couple of days later, the ARLC announced a television deal with IMG Media that it said would “guarantee access to key markets including the UK, USA, Asia and the Pacific”.

But what it has done is sell the international television rights to IMG, who on-sell for the likes of Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the ATP Masters Series, International Rugby Board (IRB), MotoGP, the National Football League (NFL) and the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB).

IMG hasn’t announced any new stations for the NRL yet but one aspect which should excite fans outside Australia is “”free digital NRL Channel for international fans featuring match vision and a mobile NRL app”.

If there is no NRL on your local station, the ARLC statement said, games should be available on YouTube or Ustream. Let us know when round one comes around how that plays out…

On the surface, it sounds pretty damn positive for rugby league fans everywhere. Your local players don’t get stolen by Australia, and now you get to watch them play every one of their NRL matches.

For those of you in the northern hemisphere, it should give you an idea of what Christmas in summer feels like.

Filed for: FORTY-20 MAGAZINE

DISCORD 2012: Edition 48

meprofileBy STEVE MASCORD

GIVEN the space this column has devoted to State Of Origin eligibility over the past 12 months, it’s as plain as the nose on the face of someone with quite a big nose that we have to address the ARLC’s decision on the issue this week.

The first aspect of the decision – that you must live in a state before the age of 13 in order to be eligible for that state – which is interesting is the way it surprised everyone.

Have you ever known rugby league to keep a secret like that right up until it was announced?

Once again, the commission has shown some grace by conducting its investigations, taking recommendations, and handing down decisions away from the glare of the media and the confusion of incremental leaks.

As Discord has said before, this sort united, organised behaviour is bad for beat reporters like us but good for the game.

OK, a few questions thrown up by the ruling.

1)      Can Greg Inglis still have his offspring born in Queensland and qualify for the Maroons if that child continues to live south of the border?

The question of what constitutes “living” in a state has not be explained. If you get straight out of hospital after being welcomed into the world and are then whisked to another state, who do you play for?

(NB: As a reader pointed out, Greg Inglis is a bad example for this question as due to the father-and-son rule, his son will automatically be eligible for Queensland)

 2)      What happens to players raised in other Australian states?

This is NOT a problem, in my view. If you were raised in Western Australia or Northern Territory, why SHOULD you play for NSW or Queensland? Wouldn’t it be great to see those states play curtain-raisers to Origin with NRL players involved? NSW and Queensland nicking those players previously was unseemly and destructive.

 3)      Will clubs steal Kiwi players under the age of 12?

New Zealand high performance manager Tony Kemp seems to think so but there appears to be a misapprehension across the Tasman that the clubs work for NSW and Queensland. They do not. Club recruiters work for their clubs and there is no reason they will start signing tiny kids to help State Of Origin teams. If clubs don’t sign 11-year-olds from New Zealand now, these new rules provide absolutely no incentive for them to start.

 4)      Can players represent an Australian state and a foreign country in the same year?

Sadly, the answer still appears to be ‘no’. What the ruling has done is ease the problem which caused us to back that change. It would have been nice – but for the time being this regulation will slow the terrible trend of players who go to Australia purely to play professional rugby league then representing Australia. That was hurting the game and now won’t happen as often. If you move with your family for economic reasons at a young age, you can play for Origin. If you go because an NRL club offered you a contract, you represent where you come from. There’s beauty in it….

 5)      Does the rule apply to Australia?

OK, you still have to be eligible to play for Australia if you want to take part in Origin. But what if you moved here AFTER the age of 13 and still want to represent Australia? Will you be eligible? Certainly, on residency grounds, you will be. That rule applies equally to all countries. So we’ll have the completely new situation of men turning out in green and gold who are unable to ever play Origin! The first man to do this will be one helluva player, though..

 6)      So, can Feleti Mateo, Akuila Uate, Jarryd Hayne and Tariq Sims go back to representing other countries at the World Cup if they miss out on Australian selection?

They haven’t told us yet. Please let us know. And please let the answer be “yes”.

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DISCORD also likes – and campaigned in our own small way for – the abolition of Benefit Of The Doubt.

But how about what they’ve replaced it with?

If a referee makes a series of try calls on the field which are subsequently over-ruled by the video ref, but is otherwise officiating well, is having a shocker – even though no mistakes have actually been made – or are we supposed to overlook it?

Will it count against him in appointments? Will it dent his confidence to “go public” with his opinion only to be over-ruled repeatedly?

Personally, I believe the more up-front and transparent we are at all stages of the decision-making process, the better.

But these are all issues worth considering.

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ON the shoulder charge, my understanding is that very little will actually change next season – in what will be seen by many as a softening of a stance that was unwelcome in many areas.

As long as the arm is out and not tucked in, all the same hits will occur. It’s like challenging a kicker. If you get there too late or don’t wrap your arms around him, you’re in trouble but people still do it.

Sonny, just remember to have your arm out when you smash blokes and you’re sweet.

Also, unless there is high contact, the incidents will not even be reviewed on Monday.

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LAST week’s column appeared in, at last count, three forms so I understand it was hard for you to leave comments. You can find an unedited version of it over at stevemascord.com.

read on

WHITE LINE FEVER Column: Four

By STEVE MASCORD
THIS time last year, Darren Lockyer and Jamie Peacock were tackling each other in the Four Nations. Yesterday, they met in London to tackle the vexed issue of rugby league’s eligibility rules.
Of course, the retired captains of Australia and England (Peacock is still playing for Leeds) had a little prompting from NRL.com when we caught up with them at the  offices of London PR firm Fast Track, who have been hired to promote the 2013 World Cup.
Lockyer is in the United Kingdom as part of his role as the ARLC’s ambassador for international rugby league. He has been mobbed at functions in Leigh, Wigan and Hull – requiring security to get him out of a banqueting suite on one occasion.
Eligibility shapes as one of the biggest issues in the game in the 12 months until the World Cup, to be hosted by England and Wales.
Lockyer says players who miss out on selection for Australia, New Zealand and England must be allowed to play for other countries.
“Those developing nations at the moment need all the support they can get and if we can get the services of some NRL players, that’s only going to benefit them,” the record-breaking five-eighth told us in a sixth-floor boardroom on Victoria Street, before doing a host of phone interviews.
“Once they get a black and white picture around eligibility for Origin, that will be a good thing for the game. But when we’re trying to develop countries like Papua New Gunea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Wales, all those countries … I think having these players who have had NRL experience but can’t represent Australia … well at this point in time, it’s the right thing to do to allow those guys to play for other countries.
“Once those countries get a foundation and become a lot stronger, then we should look at altering the rules. But at this point in time, we need to make as many nations as we can competitive against the so-called Big Three.
“We’ve got to face the facts that our game, at an international level, has still got a long way to go. We need to put things in place where we can get it to a point where we don’t have to have these issues.
“At the moment, eligibility rules are relaxed in a World Cup year. That’s the right thing to do.”
Peacock, who retired from representative football earlier this year, offered even more forthright views – supporting calls from Origin and Australian eligibility to be separated.
“With guys like (James) Tamou, he should play for New Zealand and New South Wales,” said Peacock, “That rule needs to change over there.
“If you’re born in New Zealand or have New Zealand parents but you play your first club football in NSW or Brisbane … I think (Origin) is killing (international football) a bit, really.
“And if you had a bigger international scene, you wouldn’t have it as much. Players think they won’t get the chance to play the big teams so they choose to represent Australia or England or New Zealand.”
And the man who captained Great Britain in its last Test before the home countries were split, in 2007, said a return to the famous red, white and blue strip would
stop the drain of players from Wales, Scotland and Ireland to England and its feeder team, England Knights.
“That’s down to losing Great Britain – pure and simple,” Peacock said. “If you had Great Britain playing every four years, you wouldn’t see that.
“You’d see the players who can play for Scotland, play for Scotland. You’d see the players who can play for Ireland, play for Ireland and you’d see the guys who can play for Wales, play for Wales.
“And then once every four years, you get together for Great Britain. These guys will play in a strong side against Australia.
“Great Britain is an unbelieveably big brand … hugely after the Olympics … and should be brought back, not every year but every four years.”
Lockyer, whose trip is mostly funded by the NRL, will enjoy a holiday in Hong Kong on his way home early next week. He says his first year of retirement has been an adventure.
Television, he said, was “nerve-racking. You have to learn a whole new set of skills.
“At the start of the year, the enjoyment wasn’t there for me and I probably questioned whether it was the way to go or … did I really want to be doing this?
“But as the season wore on, I got a bit more comfortable and obviously the guys I played a bit of footy with … and guys I haven’t worked with before, once I got a bit more comfortable with them, I started to enjoy it.

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DISCORD 2012: Edition 40

By STEVE MASCORD
FURTHER to our treatise last week on international eligibility, and thanks to several readers, Discord has come up with a formula that would strengthen Origin’s integrity and that of international football – at the same time.
The only reason we have residency allowing players to turn out for Queensland and NSW is that we must have it at national level – to bring us into line with other major sports.
Cut the link between Origin and Australia and you can KEEP residency for the Australian team but SCRAP it for the State sides.
What does that mean? James Tamou and Aquila Uate can play for Australia, but not Origin, unless it can be proven that their first senior rugby league after the age of 16 was in NSW or Queensland.
And, chances are, they wouldn’t want to play for Australia in that case – which helps the international game. If Origin is first senior football after the age of 16 and that’s it, it’s more fair dinkum.
But if someone qualifies under that stringent criteria and still qualifies under the (different) international rules for another country, let em play!
I want to clarify what I was saying last week – I am not proposing Sam Burgess play Origin. What I am proposing is a situation under which Nathan Cayless could have played his entire career for NSW and New Zealand – because he qualified for both.
He is a fair dinkum New South Welshman, having played his junior football in western Sydney, and a bonafide Kiwi under international rules, through parentage. So let him play for both!
That’s what’s great about the internet and social media. A column like this is just the first big Tweet and by throwing the conversation open and reading everything, answers present themselves.
I hope the ARLC is reading.
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SPEAKING of social media, I’m currently in Manila with the team that Facebook built – the Philippines Tamaraws. There was a Facebook page for the Philippines Rugby League before there was a Philippines Rugby League.
People just got on board with the idea and it has turned into a fully-kitted out team including NRL stars on tour in two countries.
I’m going to shoot a  hole in my own logic before someone else does. On one hand, I say you need to maximise the number of people who see and play rugby league as a prime directive.
On the other hand, I am defending a game last Sunday in Bangkok that attracted 150 people, as a worthwhile exercise.
Having mounted a damning argument against myself, I am now about to launch a spirited defence, also of myself.
Yes, the game itself on Sunday may not have had the impact we hoped for on possible spectators. And if the team representing Thailand had been made up of foreign based players, any positive impact would have been negligible.
But, as the score would suggest, the team consisted of local rugby union players who can be relied on to spread the word. Next year there is talk of a nines tournament and tri-series against the Philippines and Japan.

Greg Inglis Wants His Children Born In Queensland

 

By STEVE MASCORD
AUSTRALIA centre Greg Inglis plans to future-proof his children against changes to rugby league eligibility rules by insisting they be born in Queensland.
As the wrangling over who should play for which state and country reaches its climax amongst officials, Inglis suggested the criticism he has received for chosing the Maroons despite being raised in northern NSW had made him determined that his future offspring be Queenslanders.

Greg Inglis

“I’m pretty sure they’ll be Queenslanders … we’ll go back over the border,” Inglis told the Herald in the lead-up to tomorrow’s trans-Tasman Test at Dairy Farmers Stadium.
“But we’re talking, probably, another few years yet. It’s their choice in the end, whatever they want to do.”
Inglis said he had sympthathy for Australian team-mate James Tamou, who switched to Australia this year after representing the Maori and was so stunned by the backlash he stayed in his Auckland hotel room before his green-and-gold debut in April.
“I was copping a lot of criticism over it,” said Inglis, who qualified for Queensland due to Melbourne’s feeder team being Brisbane Norths.
“When it was first asked, ‘who do you want to play for?’ … what it says in the rule book, that’s just the way it is.
“They pledge their eligibility. If people don’t like it, they’ve just got to live with it. They’re putting on the green and gold and that’s it.”
The Herald this week reported that the Rugby League International Federation wanted Australia to end the current situation where the lure of Origin was helping the
green and golds recruit players who would otherwise represent other countries.
But the ARLC has no plans to present any proposals when the boards of the two countries meet on Saturday and the only scheme currently under serious consideration is
stopping Junior Kiwis from playing Origin.
There are fears this would simply disuade players from making themselves available for the Junior Kiwis and make the Junior Kangaroos stronger by virtue of the same process that has led Tamou and Josh Papalii to opt for Australia at senior level this year.
The ARLC does not believe it owes the RLIF or New Zealand any undertakings on changes to Origin selection criteria as it is a domestic issue. This could lead to Origin
players being chosen by other countries, as Anthony Minichiello was last year when he represented both NSW and Italy without changing his country of election.
Tim Sheens’ Australians had yesterday off while the Kiwis followed a morning media session with school visits.
Prop Adam Blair, whose role as the competition’s highest-paid forward has proven the catalyst of the upheavals at Wests Tigers over the past 12 months – including the
axing of Sheens – admitted he did not deserve to be in the Kiwi squad.
The recruitment of Blair, who replaced the injured Jeremy Smith for the Dairy Farmers Stadium international, prompted the departure of Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita last year and others such as Beau Ryan and Chris Heighington moving on recently was reported to have turned players against Sheens.
“With how I played this year and what I did for the club, I didn’t think I deserved to be front of the boys who played finals footy,” said Blair.
“I got caught up in that kind of stuff where it took me away from what I do best for myself and how I play footy. Once I got that sorted, which was the back end of the season which was really too late,
“I tried to do the things I used to do but it wasn’t what the Tigers needed of me. When I’m defending well, I’m playing well. That’s one of the things I went away from this year,  being a strong defender. That’s one of the things I need to work on.”
Blair said he was relaxed about Wests Tigers not having appointed a coach for 2012. “My future’s secure at the Tigers, I can’t worry about anything else,” he said.
“Coming from a well-structured club (Melbourne) and coming to a situation where you’ve got to find your feet, it was really hard for myself to work off the players that we have there.
Blair said the axing of Sheens was unexpected. “I obviously just met him this year … I got along well with Tim and it was surprising to myself and a few other pkayers,” he said.
The Kiwis have not made Sam Kasiano, who has been implicated in controversial Mad Monday comments, available for interview this week. “He doesn’t say much but when ie does talk, it’s pretty funny,” BLair said.
“You guys are trying to get to him – you can’t miss him anywhere. He seems to get away from everyone. He kind of sticks to himself and he has been going about his business this week and doing the right thing at training.
“He’s looking sharp for a big guy … I think he finds it hard getting out of bed!’
Kasiano chose New Zealand over Queensland just last week. Blair observed: “We were lucky to have those Bulldogs guys there. That had an impact on his decision. I think if we didn’t have those guys there, he would have been wanting to go somewhere else.”
Team manager Tony Kemp said Kasiano was shy around team-mates, let alone media and had been tentative when asked to address the squad at one point in camp. Kemp said Mad Monday had not been mentioned internally
Wests Tigers star Benji Marshall will come face-to-face with the deposed Sheens at a media conference in Townsville this morning

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD