World Cup: UNITED STATES 32 COOK ISLANDS 20 at Memorial Ground, Bristol

By STEVE MASCORD

AFTER 60 years of false dawns and half a decade of bitter civil war, American rugby league celebrated its finest hour in a midweek West Country rain squall at Bristol’s Memorial Ground.

When Mike Dimitro’s American All Stars toured Australia in 1953, there were overtures for the United States to be invited to the first World Cup – in France – the following year.

Their eventual exclusion became the first of a litany of snubbings, missed opportunities, hair-brained schemes and outlandish promotions for rugby league in the land of hype and glory since.

But when the Americans finally made it to the Coup Du Monde on Wednesday, they made their mark and declared afterwards there was finally something to build on and end the bitter internal wrangling and cycle of disappointment.

Late tries to prop Mark Offerdahl and halfback Craig Priestly secured a 32-20 win for the Tomahawks over a Cooks side including NRL stars Drury Low, Issac John, Dylan Napa, Brad Takairangi, Dylan Napa and more.

“To be honest, it’s probably the proudest win I’ve been involved with,” said Penrith’s Clint Newton, who as the son of golfer Jack was born in Myrtle Beach.

“Everyone thought we were just here to make up the numbers.

Key figures in American league had roundly criticised the number of heritage players selected by the Tomahawks, with incumbent captain Apple Pope missing the squad altogether.

Coach Terry Matterson and players called on the detractors to support them now the Tomahawks off to a winning start. “if they could just be here and see the bond the boys have built,” said Matterson, “it’s amazing”.

Newton added: “USA Tomahawks needed to field the best possible team to give it the exposure it needed to hopefully grow the game in the States.

“By that result tonight, hopefully people will say ‘this is something we can persevere with.

“I’d like to think (critics) will get behind us. Instead of throwing the knives in, let’s support it and be positive.”

When five-eighth Takairangi scored after only only six minutes, the portents were not good for an American team drawn from everywhere between the NRL and Hawaiian rugby union.

But winger Bareta Faramaimo dashed over off halfback Priestly in the 13th minute and then former Parramatta and Gold Coast winger Matt Petersen took his chance on the other side of the field.

Canterbury’s Low tied it up at 10-10 for the break and, as was the case the previous night with Tonga, Cook Islands seemed destined to win comfortably.

But when Tomahawks captain Joseph Paulo dotted down after regaining a kick a minute after the resumption of play, it was clear the US were not willing to fill the role of unlucky losers.

The sides exchanged tries before the moments that defined the event: replacement Offerdahl taking captain Joseph Paulo’s pass to score in the 71st minute and then Priestly winning the race to the ball two minutes later.

Cooks coach David Fairleigh said his men “lost some ball control at critical moments. This competition so far has been one of upsets.”

UNITED STATES 32 (Bureta Faraimo, Matt Petersen, Joseph Paulo, Tui Samoa, Mark Offerdahl, Craig Priestly tries; Paulo 4 goals) beat COOK ISLANDS 20 (Brad Takairangi, Drury Low, Lulia Lulia, Domique Peyroux tries; Rapana 2 goals) at Memorial Ground, Bristol. Referee: Ben Thaler (England). Crowd: 7247.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

Inglis: ‘Anyone Could Have Scored That Try’

By STEVE MASCORD

GREG Inglis last night claimed anyone could have scored his amazing first half try against Brisbane.

While the thrilling ANZAC Day win by South Sydney finished amid controversy, Inglis’ effort in beating seven defenders on a diagonal run from his own 10-metre line will be remembered long after contentious refereeing calls are forgotten.

“I think anyone can score one of them,” the 28-year-old said late on Friday as he left Suncorp Stadium.

“You’ve got Benny Barba that can do it, you’ve got Benny Barba who’s another freak. You see a try like that from (Michael) Jennings over the years at Penrith.

“You just see all these naturally gifted players. It’s a bit unfortunate in our game that you don’t see enough of it..”

The try puts pressure on Australian and Queensland selectors to consider Inglis as a fullback ahead of Melbourne’s Billy Slater but that’s another issue the 2009 Golden Boot winner was keen to play down.

“We’ve got a great fullback there in Billy (Slater) and I’ve always said when it comes to rep footy, I’ll be happy to play anywhere,” he said.

“Representative footy is one of the highs of your career , aside from the ultimate winning a grand final with your mates.

“In the end … going back to centre, I do like the contact and I do like just a little more in your face.”

Inglis said he did not read stories pushing for him to be fullback for Queensland and Australia. “I just aspire to be in the … side,” he said.

“In the end, I’ll go back to the team effort and what suits the team.”

Recalling his try, which started with him fielding a Ben Barba chip kick, Inglis said: “I just put my head down and did my best and it paid off in the end.

“I was actually looking for the other winger, AJ (Alex Johnston). He’s quite fast, white Nippy. In the end, it was just one of those things, one of those lucky events that happened on the night.

“(You’re thinking) ‘I hope I get there, I hope I don’t get a cramp or something’.

“You just put your head down and run as fast as you can and that’s what I did.

“I was satisfied that I’ve still got it in my legs and I can get there in the end. In the end, I was just so happy to finally get there.”

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 24

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

TOMKINS GOING NOWHERE

WE long ago just started assuming that Sam Tomkins is joining the New Zealand Warriors next year. But at one point, his coach at Wigan Shaun Wane was supposed to be going as well. Wane has now extended his tenure at DW Stadium – and had it extended by another year as a result of Sunday morning’s Challenge Cup final victory. And according to Wane, his fullback is going nowhere. “He’s a contracted player with us,” Wane told Joy Of Six. “I’m hoping he’s going to be here next year and I don’t see that changing”. Team-mate Blake Green said he had a gut feeling on Tomkins’ intentions but didn’t say what it was while Parramatta-bound Lee Mossop reckoned Tomkins was “a closed book”. What did the man himself say? Nothing. Media were kicked out of Wembley before he emerged from the dressingrooms.

SOME THINGS DON’T CHANGE

MELBOURNE’S 60-point mauling of Parramatta only fuels the perception that we have a lopsided competition. This has led to a number of proposals for change, including the Eels coach Ricky Stuart calling for the return of reserve grade. But stats guru David Middleton recently conducted a study of average margins in premiership games going back to 1908. He also tried to assess the evenness of competitions in the salary cap era by looking at the number of teams who won 50 per cent or more of their games. The results, published in the current edition of Rugby League Week, show very little change over the years. The average margin in 1908 was 14 points, this season it’s 15.4. In 1925., the average margin was 6.7 points but Souths won the minor premiership by such a stretch, mandatory finals were introduced the following year!

SHOULDERING RESPONSIBILITY

THE North Queensland-Newcastle game was a microcosm for the debate over the shoulder charge rule and allegations of diving. Referees say the deterrent to players staying on the ground is that the video referee can only intervene if the offending player deserves being reported. The tackle on Brent Tate, which stunned the Cowboys centre, was worthy of a penalty only. Tate didn’t take a dive but the way in which it was dealt should have discouraged others from doing so, even though the lack of a penalty was somewhat unjust. On the other hand, Kade Snowden’s challenge on Ray Thompson would have brought stern action in any era, regardless of whether shoulder charges were banned. He clearly made contact with the head – Thompson suffered a broken jaw.

ON REFEREEING

IF THERE is one inequality in the way we use the video referee in rugby league, it was summed up when Gold Coast’s Albert Kelly took an intercept defending his own line – something that is generally physically impossible – and streaked away from the Warriors defence. Nearing the tryline, it was as if he was looking for someone to tackle him. Why? Because if he had been pulled up short and the Titans scored on the next tackle, the video referee would not have the power to go back and check if he was onside. The old cliché, ‘what if this decides a grand final’, comes to mind. Video referees should be able to tip to referees in this circumstance. On the BBC on Sunday morning, we had the video referee mic-ed up and his discussions with the on-field officials broadcast. What do you think?

PRESSURE DOWN

COLLEAGUE Peter Fitzsimons touched a raw nerve by going over the records of South Sydney coach Michael Maguire and prop Jeff Lima with wrestling and extreme tactics. Some would say if you go into a game with an injury, you have to expect it to be targeted. But most would argue that targeting a specific injury with an illegal tactic or manoeuvre is different than just running at someone and is beyond the pale. That being the case, should we take intent into account in handing down charges and suspensions? Is illegally attacking someone with a known injury a case of bringing the game into disrepute? We will only find out the level of premeditation years after players retire, when they start spilling the beans. If there are beans, media men and judiciary members will look back with a good deal of regret at have gone easy on the nastiness.

JA, THE WORLD CUP

IT may seem like the longest shot in sport but South Africa are serious about staging the 2017 World Cup. Your correspondent witnessed a detailed presentation from the SARL in London Friday night, to countries attending the European Federation AGM. I’m not sure how much I can repeat but suffice to say the Africans are bullish and intend to use major stadia, 13 of which hold more than 40,000 people. Even with 60 per cent ticket sales, they are confident of turning a massive profit. And each country would get a fairly significant grant from the organising committee, which includes key members of the syndicate that attracted the FIFA World Cup. But in a country where the Olympic Committee still refuses to recognise that there is more than one rugby code, would anything like 60 per cent of tickets be sold? We can’t keep holding World Cups in England and Australia but 2017 is probably too soon to take a leap of faith like this.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

The Immortals: Joey’s English Peerage

By LYLE BEATON

MUCH more will be written in coming days about the sterling contribution of Andrew Johns to rugby league. His consideration as an eighth Immortal will, in itself, guarantee that.

Many icons of the game have indicated Andrew Johns should be regarded as the best rugby league player to ever play the game. Included in their number are such luminaries as Phil Gould, Peter Sterling, Brad Fittler and Warren Ryan; all figures with exemplary records at playing and/or coaching level.

While such arguments are, by their very nature, entirely subjective, it is still useful to examine them against the historical record as best we can.

Rugby league, as a sport with 117 years of history, has a wonderfully long and rich tradition of producing players of exceptional calibre. Furthermore, unlike a certain unspecified competitor on the Australian sporting landscape, it also features a number of other legitimate playing nations – each with their own history of competition at club, provincial and international levels. Not least of these is the game’s birthplace in 1895 – England.

It is perhaps trite to say that, over time, Australia has performed exceptionally well in rugby league. Nine World Cup titles since 1954 is clear testament to this fact. But it should also be remembered that Australia did not win a Test series against England/Great Britain for thirty years in the period 1921-1949 (inclusive). Other countries, most particularly France, Wales and New Zealand, have had periods of glory of differing lengths and frequencies. All of these leading teams have produced exceptional players.

It can also be safely stated that Australian rugby league has an unfortunate tendency to ignore the remainder of the world and to understate the importance of other countries to the overall fabric of the game. This has sadly been to the detriment of international football since the Super League War.

Without making judgments as to respective qualities, it is useful to compare the record of Andrew Johns and that of another great rugby league player from days past. Not an Australian player. But a man who did play in the same position and who was similarly dominant on the sporting landscape in a different era: the former St Helens, Leigh, Warrington, Lancashire and English/British halfback, Alex Murphy.

Murphy played a career total of 575 matches: 319 for St Helens (175 tries), 118 for Leigh and 67 for Warrington. Added to this were 27 Tests (16 tries) for Great Britain, two internationals for England and assorted other representative matches. This included smashing wins against Australia on tour with the (then) mighty Great Britain Lions in 1958 and 1962.

His first tour to this country, 1958, coincided with the career of the great Western Suburbs, NSW and Australian halfback, Keith Holman. The first Test of that series, played before 68,777 fans at a jam packed Sydney Cricket Ground, saw Murphy comprehensively outplayed (in his Test debut) by the wily and experienced Holman.

The quality of the then St Helens star, who had been signed at one past midnight on the day of his 16th birthday (League rules prevented a player under 16 being signed by a professional club), shone through brightly in the famous Second Test of 1958 played before a capacity crowd at the Exhibition Ground in Brisbane and won 25-18 by a British side reduced to 11 men – and with captain Alan Prescott carrying a broken arm from the third minute of play (he saw out the full game in one of the greatest acts of sporting courage ever witnessed).

Murphy was at his superlative best, carving up the Australian defence and playing a hand in the creation of Britain’s first three tries, then scoring the fourth himself. This form was carried into the third and deciding Test, again at the SCG before another massive 68,000 crowd, in which Britain played majestic football to run out 40-17 winners.

After the lessons of the First Test, Murphy had proved himself a player of the absolute highest order – missing the only other loss in the remaining 22 games played by Britain on tour. In contrast, the great Keith Holman never played another Test for Australia.

After helping Britain win back the 1960 World Cup in England, Murphy again toured Australia and New Zealand in 1962. Once more, Murphy dominated major matches on this tour. After comprehensively outplaying Australia’s Barry Muir in Britain’s First Test 31-12 win (in front of a dangerously large 70,000 plus crowd at the SCG), Murphy backed up with a winning performance in Britain’s Second Test victory, 17-10. Despite suffering an ankle injury 55 minutes into this match, Murphy was again the difference as the Ashes were retained by Britain in the first two Tests.

Even in losing sides, such as the 17-18 loss to Australia in the third “dead rubber” Test at the SCG, Murphy would often demonstrate his brilliance with superb displays. His majestic solo try in this match must still rate as one of the greatest ever witnessed in international rugby league.

Perhaps Murphy’s highlight on this remarkable tour, however, was his masterful display in the first ever club match against a touring side in Australia, the game between Britain and St George hastily scheduled for a midweek afternoon at the Sydney Cricket Ground. St George, at the very heart of a world record 11 straight premiership run between 1956 and 1966, were crushed mercilessly 33-5 before nearly 58,000 disbelieving fans; Murphy again contributing to the scoreboard with two slashing tries.

It could be reasonably suggested that if Murphy had not refused a third tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1966 (on the grounds he was not appointed captain by Britain’s selection committee), the narrow Australian win by two Tests to one may not have occurred. Certainly this was one of the closest Test series on record with the deciding game of the series, the Third Test, going right down to the wire (won 19-14 by Australia with Britain on the attack at the bell).

Alex Murphy’s record at club level was no less impressive: Challenge Cup wins at Wembley in 1961 and 1966 with St Helens, 1971 with massive underdogs Leigh (also winning man of the match) and 1974 as captain of Warrington; and five championship wins (four with St Helens and one with Warrington).

His playing career was both long and highly successful, albeit often marred by off-field controversy.

Like Johns, Murphy possessed every skill needed to control and win a game of rugby league: sublime passing, kicking, running and tackling being fundamentals of his repertoire.

Unlike Johns, Murphy was genuinely fast. He was undoubtedly one of the fastest halfbacks to ever play the game. The great Jim Sullivan had trained him hard to be just that. His scrum-base partnership with the formidable Wigan five-eighth David Bolton was arguably the fastest ever seen in the game – at any level. His ability to shred the tightest defences was appreciated by all other countries – his then equal record four tries against France in 1959 being further evidence of this fact.

A try scorer of note, his 37 tries in the 1958/1959 domestic season was a record for a halfback in England.

None of this is to downplay the ability and contribution of the magnificent Andrew Johns from Newcastle. There is no need to reflect on the qualities of this irrepressible competitor and modern phenomenon. Enough on that subject has been written previously by a range of commentators.

This brief glimpse into the career of another great halfback, whose career spanned the (poorly recorded) years 1956-1975, is simply a reminder of the richness of rugby league’s great tradition – and a cautionary note to those who would immediately portray all previous players as subservient to those playing the modern game.

THE BIG ISSUE: #11

By STEVE MASCORD

THE thing about evolution is that it keeps its own pace, hitting dead ends, taking wrong turns, dancing all the time with its natural enemy; extinction.

In rugby league, evolution moved fastest in the mid-nineties, with four new teams in the national competition and a rebel league that sped things up too much. Like an elephant that suddenly sprouted wings, the full-scale World Club Challenge, the Adelaide Rams, the World Nines and Paris St Germain all launched themselves confidently and came crashing down to earth, leaving a big mess.

And, in true Darwinian fashion, this accelerated and failed evolution was followed by a period of stagnation. If rugby league was a species, it’s safe to say our life expectancy and heights did not improve – and probably regressed – in the lead-up to the turn of the millennium. We were mired in our own primordial soup after the Super League War, with survival our over-riding instinct.

We now find ourselves in the throes of developmental puberty once more. Teams are being encouraged to leave their suburban homes forever, expansion is again on the horizon, State of Origin in Victoria or the US, and expanded World Club Challenge, talk of Pacific All Stars and a Test match in Hawaii this very weekend.

As the game’s DNA is tested and maybe even altered by these new conditions, a new body is in control: the Independent Commission.

And its task can be summed up pretty simply: to minimise the evolutionary dead ends. To make sure if we develop wings, gills or an 11th toe, we get to use them and they stay – not wither until they are useless as a coxyx. Given their mandate is to do what is in the best interests of the game, they should facilitate evolution rather than stunt its progress as previous administrative structures may have unwittingly done.

Evolution eliminates the weak and accentuates the strong. To an extent, its behaviour can be predicted. Our game will grow back its Perth arm, continue to court the US and always exert financial pressure in the overcrowded Sydney market. These are all natural forces.

Because the hubris of this column knows no bounds, we are now going to list the current growing pains of rugby league and then offer an opinion on which direction would allow the IC to let evolution to take its natural course:

1.       CENTRALISING SYDNEY STADIA

IT’s  a fair bet that when the AFL moved into the MCG and Etihad Stadium permanently, they were getting much better suburban crowds than we are at the moment. As long as we still have crowds below 10,000 at suburban grounds, it’s too early to move into Allianz and ANZ en masse.  The secret is the flexibility we now have during the finals. If each club did a two- or three-game per year deal at the enormo-domes for their biggest drawing games and at the same time moved their poor-drawing matches to the likes of Darwin, Adelaide and Perth, we would be able to match our attendances to venues. Wests Tigers are the model here. Let’s treat each game as an event that needs to find its own audience;

2.       STATE OF ORIGIN ON THE ROAD

IF the questions is: what is in the interests of rugby league then the answer is to take one of the three games every year on the road. Apparently it’s financially attractive too. Once you prevent NSW and Queensland from ever getting a second game in a series, the argument stops over who’s advantaged or disadvantaged. Showcasing our best competition in Melbourne, LA or Auckland is the perfect way to convert new people to our sport. How can you argue that it’s good for the sport of rugby league to keep playing it in the same places? In the case of Sydney, the stadium’s not even always full! No, it’s in the interests of NSW or it’s in the interests of Queensland or it’s in the interests of you. But it doesn’t help rugby league;

3. EXPANSION

THIS is a tricky one because it raises the important question of whether it is simply in the best interests of rugby league to get the most money it can out of the next television deal – which means a second Brisbane team for sure – or whether there are other considerations. Last time we grew in these directions, did it work? Perth were competitive but collapsed under the pressure of having to pay the expenses of visiting teams. South Queensland, on the other hand, were liquidated with debts totally $3 million after an 11th hour merger proposal with Gold Coast failed to bear fruit. Like any proposed new franchise in Brisbane, the Crushers played out of Lang Park. There must be some concern over putting a new team into a region where the Titans already require a cash injection from the governing body. Since 1988, the Broncos are the only franchise who have made a success of South-East Queensland – and others have tried. Central Coast would bring back the Bears logo and tap into a rugby league-mad market but their bid seems to have been almost completely discounted. Perth is definitely in the interests of the game and seems a natural evolutionary step. Another Brisbane team also seems inevitable – but how do we avoid it leading us down another dead-end?;

4. WORLD CLUB CHALLENGE

THE 22-team 1997 World Club Challenge was arguably the biggest folly in the entire history of our sport – so disastrous that the title was not even contested again for four years. Now, a company called Grand Prix Sports wants to take an eight-team competition to Home Depot Stadium in Los Angeles next February. Historically, there is hunger going back to 1976 for international club competition so it’s unlikely the WCC represents a dead end for the sport. Pre-season competitions are dormant in both hemispheres, playing it post-season is bad because it hurts international competition so this seems the right proposal at the right time. But they can give up on “composite” New Zealand and Pacific sides. Will the clubs who miss out on invitations really want to release players for those teams? Um, no.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK