THE JOY OF SIX: NRL Round One 2014

The Joy Of Six1. REMEMBER THIS
A CONCUSSION expert from Melbourne spoke to NRL chief executives in Auckland last month and spelt out the cold, hard facts of legal action from former players over concussion. The cost to the game, he warned, would be $3 billion. This would close the doors of Rugby League Central indefinitely. Sunday’s comments from former Australia international Ian Roberts, in which he said his memory had been affected by years of collisions, represented the first hole in the wall of a damn that could wash away Australian rugby league as we know it. By changing concussion rules, the NRL has stuck its finger in that hole. But it’s only a matter of time….

2. IT’S EVOLUTION, BABY
THROUGHOUT the modern history of rugby league, coaches have schemed to stymie the sport in interminable tackling and kicking, which extends their influence over on-field events, and administrators have sought to encourage passing and sprawling attack, which brings spectators through the gates and pays their wages. Like the eternal battle between good and evil, kinda. It’s clear from the weekend, particularly St George Illawarra’s 44-24 win over Wests Tigers yesterday, that administrators are on top right now. How long will the coaches take to nullify the changes to the rules this year? “I don’t think you’ll see too many 2-0 scorelines this year,” said Dragons coach Steve Price. “It’ll be fast for the first few weeks and then when the refs stop giving so many so-called penalties, it will slow down a little.”

3. MORE MAGIC REQUIRED
TWO weeks ago we discussed the dubious benefits of having a Magic Weekend – the entire round at one venue – in the NRL. But after disappointing attendances for three games at ANZ Stadium, a new benefit may have been uncovered. Why employ ushers and cleaners and pay three nights’ rent when you could stage all three matches on the same day and attract a bumper crowd? Obviously there are business-related hurdles but the Homebush venue received a shedload of bad publicity out of the poor turnouts; that would be instantly transformed by a festival day reminiscent of the Nines. The price of moving out of suburbia and into enormadomes may be playing more than one match on the same day, like rock bands who prefer to play together at festivals rather than separately at theatres.

4.EARL FEELING LESS GREY
SANDOR Earl says he would be “personally … devastated” if he was the only rugby league or AFL player suspended as a result of the ASADA investigation. “But in the fairness of it all, it wouldn’t bother me … if all the players got a fair warning and this never happened again, that would be a fair outcome … it would really annoy me, but….” he told Triple M. Earl believes he will soon know his fate and remains hopeful of playing again in August. “It’s been indicated I might be a week or two away from hearing a decision on what’s going on. I don’t know how the process will go down. I guess I’ll get my suspension and it’s just down to whether all parties are happy with it.The way I was told things would go down hasn’t happened. The lack of communication has made it really hard. Six months has flown

5. BY GEORGE….
DID George Rose knock on playing the ball at the end of regulation time in Saturday night’s thriller? It would have beeen a match deciding gaffe if a) the referees had seen it and b) it happened. Manly captain Jamie Lyon complained to the referees about it and later said: “It’s a bit hard (for the ball) to get from your hands to your feed without dropping it when you’re on the ground. Rose, who clearly remains popular at Brookvale judging by the reaction he received from the crown, countered: “It didn’t happen.” Then, in reference to the changes to the regulations surrounding players approaching referee, he added: “Killer always goes up to the ref. That’s why they changed the rule!”

6. GAGGING FOR IT
THIS is not another whinge about media access. It’s an open question to you, the potential spectator at ANZ Stadium on Thursday and Friday night. In the list of reasons you did not go, where does the paucity of meaty pre-match publicity rank? If Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams had spoken widely about their coming clash, and their reasons for going to rugby union, would you have been more likely to go? If you had heard more from Canterbury players after Friday’s game, would you be more inclined to go next week? Traditional media will soon have no impact on attendance at sporting events. Are we there yet?

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

 

THE JOY OF SIX: Pre-Season II

KoukashBy STEVE MASCORD

EARL GREY OVER DANK NEWS
EXILED footballer Sandor Earl was not best pleased to read on the Sun-Herald that controversial sports scientist Stephen Dank has a job with the women’s Indian Premier League Twenty20 Cricket Competition. “Unbelieveable – I can’t even play park footy. Flanno (suspended Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan) can’t watch footy and Dank gets a new job,” Earl Tweeted, presumably from Thailand. Flanagan, of course, is under investigation for attending a Cronulla trial while banned for his involvement in the club’s supplements programme. Earl, 24, remains the only player yet issued with an infraction notice. ASADA revealed last week it had concluded its investigations into the supplements issue. Dank, who denies any wrongdoing, insists he is yet to be interviewed. If he is still on staff at Hull KR, it isn’t helping much; Rovers were lapped 30-10 by Castleford on Friday night.

I DID IT HIS WAY
THE truth is out: Sam Burgess WAS inspired by Sonny Bill Williams in his decision to change codes. Burgess has steadfastly refused to talk about the motivation behind his switch; although despite suggestions he has been affronted by the coverage of the news, he is talking football with journalists and TV inquisitors again. His supporters reckoned the suggestion his decision he was influenced by the man he will face next Thursday at ANZ Stadium is nothing but scurillous gossip. But here’s what the Bath rugby union coach (and former South Queensland Crushers half) Mike Ford said on BBC Radio Manchester’s Rugby League Extra programme. “I think he’s seen what Sonny Bill Williams has done, switching from one code to the other and how successful he was, playing in New Zealand in the World Cup in 2011. He boxed as well, Sonny Bill. That’s the challenge he wants. Sam, once he makes his mind up he wants something, he more or less gets it every time.” Burgess has every opportunity to reject the associated speculation he wants to fight Sonny Bill. Over to you, Sam.

OOMPA LOOMPAS UNITE!
THE latest weapon being prepared to fight the financial might of the NRL was first devised by Roald Dahl half a century ago. Feisty racing magnate and Salford owner Marwan Koukash has called for Super League clubs to each be given a “golden ticket”, ala Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, to sign players outside the salary cap. “If a club does not want to use its golden ticket, I will buy it off them for 200,000 pounds,” Koukash told Sky before watching his Reds humbled 38-0 by St Helens on Thursday night. The marquee player concept was voted down last week but will probably return to the agenda of Super League clubs. Koukash is causing such a stir in England that it’s understood RFL chiefs are conducting an exhaustive search for an Everlasting Gobstopper. (photo: Dr Kockrash Twitter)

POACHERS WELCOME
PAPUA New Guinea’s new team in Queensland’s InTrust Super Cup has a message for NRL scouts: please steal our players. And Manly may be about to take the advice; Joy Of Six‘s sources at Dolphin Oval during the historic 24-18 win over Redcliffe yesterday tell us forward Mark Mexico is on the verge of signing with the Sea Eagles. Another World Cup Kumul, Wellington Albert, is already on Penrith’s books. “That’s why we have entered a team in this competition,” PNGRL chairman Sandis Tsaka said. “NRL scouts don’t come to PNG, we wanted to put our players in a competition where they will be seen. If one player leaves, we have 15,000 kids who will want to take his place.” Stand-outs for the Hunters included lock Sebastian Pandia and lock Wartovo Puara.

REFS ON FILM
A FEW weeks after the video referees was heard explaining his decisions on television coverage of the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, the NRL introduced a version of the system for the finals. Instead of appearing live as they deliberated (as happens in England), however, our officials got the decision out of the way and then gave a short explanation. Since then, the English have lifted the bar again for the local boys by showing the video referees on camera as they toggle the vision before ruling yey or nay. This necessitates spiffy suits and turtlenecks for the likes of Ian Smith and Phil Bentham. It didn’t stop St Helens winger Mark Percival being denied a fair try in the 38-0 win over Salford on Thursday. Will the NRL follow …. suit?

IT’S A GAS
HAVING got off to a winning start on Sunday, PNG Hunters coach Michael Marum says Australian teams are set for a culturally enriching experience when they visit Kopoko for their away matches. “Back at home, there will probably be a few gas guns outside chasing people away who are trying to get in,” he said enthusiastically. “That’s the way we play the game up there; people are passionate about the game.” Hunters players have spent 11 weeks in a police camp preparing for the Intrust Cup; many have not seen their families in this time. Mal Meninga is Kumuls nationa coach elect; Tsaka says he is trying to organise a Test against the winner of the Samoa-Fiji Test at Penrith in May and another against one of the teams warming up for the Four Nations.

Bonus item: RADIO NO-RAHRAH
WILL we soon have a 24-hour-a-day rugby league radio station? The emerging internet radio industry is awash with speciallist stations and Sydneysider Alby Talarico -the man behind the Coogee Dolphins – has spent a pretty penny setting up a footy frequency at his Steele Sports site. He already broadcasts for six hours on a Saturday afternoon during the season (he’ll be at Belmore Sports Ground next week for NSWRL fixtures), boasts decent audiences and has plans to further expland, offering airtime to the many league podcasts already being churned out by independent broadcasters. He reckons a full day of footy isn’t far away. Full disclosure time: he has even offered to air my hokey production when I get around to doing one.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

read on

BONDI BEAT: September 2012

STEVE MASCORD

SO who, exactly, is Sandor Earl – the latest “foreigner” to be contacted about playing for England?

Earl’s claims to have been approached by members of England management were considered such earth-shattering news in these parts that they were buried in a Friday gossip column in a Daily Telegraph liftout.

Bondi Beat tracked down the winger after a recent home game for Canberra, whom he joined mid-season from Penrith.

The 23-year-old is a thoroughly nice chap who, as you may or may not be aware, was born in New Zealand, has already played for the Maori – and whose ambition is to represent New South Wales!

And his junior club is listed as Paddington Tigers, home of another fellow whose eligibility is somewhat confused – James Tamou.

“It was kind of through my manager,” Earl tells Bondi Beat when asked about the contact with the RFL.

“It’s something to look at. I’ve definitely got the heritage there …. grandparents. It’s one of those things. I’d love to play Origin footy, that’s my dream.

“It’s an opportunity I need to look at, maybe.

“I don’t know if there’s much doing internationally (this year). I don’t know if, realistically, that would be (a possibility) but next year I’ll definitely look at it.

“I would definitely try and ask around, get a feel for it, see how it all works. If it’s best career-wise, I’d have to jump on it.”

Earl said his family and friends “obviously have got the same aspirations as me, that Origin … that’s childhood dreams, that. But they’re of the impression that if it’s going to help me, if it’s a decision that’s going to help my career, I’ve probably got to take those opportunities.”

Test football as a career opportunity? Over to you, dear reader….

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THIS month’s Bondi Beat comes to you from Townsville, where I recently had a somewhat un-nerving experience.

I was availing myself of a seafood lunch while reading this very journal, when I came across Dave Hadfield’s always-delightful ‘Last Tackle’ column.

And I was intrigued to read his team of Worst Ever Super League imports as the owner of the eatery I was in offered me a completely free tray of calamari.

Then I felt a chill down my spine. The hooker in the team was none other than George Gatis, ‘last seen frying fish in his Townsville chippy’.

The very ‘Townsville Chippy’ I was sitting in. And my host was none other than the self-same George Gatis. Did I tell him about this amazing co-incidence?

Not on your life. I wanted that calamari (George I think Dave was referring to your short time in the English game, rather than your ability).

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THE return of Sonny Bill Williams in 2013 is, predictably, proving a divisive issue.

As you are no doubt aware, Williams is expected to take up a one-year contract with Sydney Roosters after playing the off-season in Japanese rugby union.

The Roosters have bent over backwards (maybe even forwards) to accommodate $BW, allowing him to miss the pre-season and continue to pursue a boxing career.

But not even this has been enough to please his colourful agent, Khoder Nasser, apparently. Having got wind of a request by Williams’ former club, Canterbury, to host Sydney Roosters in round one, Nasser was outraged.

He and the Bulldogs’ CEO, Todd Greenberg, had apparently had a falling-out over one of the manager’s other clients, boxer Anthony Mundine.

Anyways, Nasser reportedly told the Roosters that Sonny Bill would refuse to play in that match if it was going to be a Bulldogs home game and therefore line the club’s coffers.

But the issue which concerns Bondi Beat is Williams signing 12-month contracts in league, allowing him to play every off-season in Japan. If he can do that, then others will attempt to do so.

Not only that, but choosing Japanese rugby union over our World Cup is something of a slight and an insult to all of us, doncha think?

Asked about this issue at a recent media conference to promote the October 13 Australia-New Zealand Test, Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney said: “Sonny’s Japanese rugby union contract this year does not start until October 20, so maybe we’ll run him out here!”

Kearney later conceded he was joking but would “check out” the possibility anyway.

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SOMETIMES typos sneak through into this column despite the best efforts of our diligent editors.

Last month I meant to say there were ‘new’ media guidelines based on the NFL, not ‘no’ media guidelines.

Here’s how it works. During the week, each club makes eight players available to the press in a “mixed zone” at training. You would have heard that expression a bit during the Olympics – it has nothing to do with the genders of those present. It means a mixture of important, famous athletes and unimportant, anonymous hacks.

These players kind of mill around and journos can approach them for interviews. If they are in demand, they might do an ‘all-in’ – that is, speak to a number of hacks and perhaps the odd camera all at once. Otherwise, they sit down with someone and answer questions.

On game day, reporters who are on deadline are allowed into the dressing sheds before everyone else to get quotes.

It’s been interesting to see the new system in action.

During the week, the problem has been that many of the Sydney (and Wollongong) clubs have called their media days at exactly the same time. This has led to the Spinal Tap Instore Effect – more stars than followers on occasions. But if the idea is to get more personality out there and a greater range of stories in the press, then it seems to still be effective.

Hopefully the clubs won’t complain that the new system isn’t working because no-one shows up. A little bit of co-ordination between them to avoid schedule clashes would solve that.

On game day, it’s been problematic. If a publication is only staffing a game with one reporter, it’s a big risk to miss the losing coach media conference and go into the rooms. It might be worth it if there is a specific incident that you want to ask a player about – but if the club PR is aware of the incident, he or she will stop the player talking.

So the take-up on the little wristbands has been slow, to say the least. Maybe if they threw in a free drink afterwards, it might be more popular.

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FOR years, clubs have used the excuse “it’s before the judiciary” as an excuse not to comment on spicy incidents.

If you thought your player was innocent, you would defend him to the hilt. I you thought your player had been the victim of an outrageous attack, you would says so.

But if you didn’t want to say anything, either because your man had committed an atrocity or because he had taken a dive to get a penalty, you would quote the NRL operational manual as a crutch.

South Sydney turned all that on its head the other day when Greg Inglis flattened Dean Young with a shoulder charge and St George Illawarra coach Steve Price compared it to an earlier challenge by his prop, Matt Prior, on Johnathan Thurston.

Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire – I’m sure you’ll agree, not known as a loose cannon – issued a media release attacking Price for “sensationalising” the incident and calling on the NRL to take action under a rule which was previously just there as an excuse for dodging questions.

Bondi Beat reckons the match review committee was more entitled to take umbrage than Price, since the implication was that they were influenced by the comments of the Dragons coach.

The finals must be around the corner, eh?

Bondi Beat is now on Twitter @bondibeat and we have a dedicated email address for your news tips and comments, bondibeat@hotmail.com.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD

THE BIG ISSUE: #20

By STEVE MASCORD

IF we wrote a column on every ‘Big Issue’ floating around our game as we sit here right now, there wouldn’t be enough room in your Rugby League Week for the Players’ Poll or anything else.

Stephen Kearney’s departure, Ricky Stuart’s arrival, the future of the NSW post, shoulder charges and the dual referee system are all hovering this week, just inviting people like you and me to offer up opinions – whether others want to hear them or not!

So let’s not get longwinded and boring. Let’s knock them all over one at a time – and move onto something new.

KEARNEY/STUART: It was fascinating to hear Wayne Bennett interviewed by colleague Allen McLaughlin at the weekend about the fate of Kearney, a man he won the World Cup with. Bennett said Parramatta was “a bridge too far” for any coach and that only the greatest ever, Jack Gibson, could make a success of the place. He said Kearney would have to “go sideways for a while” before finding a place to start all over again.

Few people know what happened behind the scenes during Kearney’s unsuccessful tenure at the Eels. But outwardly, he was a lesson to us all in how to deal with adversity calmly, kindly and – above all – with class. He refused to play games or suck up to interest groups in the hope of getting an easier ride. He just kept working at it and when it wasn’t doing any good, he quit. Bravo.

The same cannot be said of mysterious club chairman Roy Spagnolo. To be brutally honest, it’s an idightment against our game that a leader who runs for cover in the case of crisis, referring all inquiries to his chief executive, can remain in power. If we had a good, democratic system at our clubs the members would be able to demand to hear from him or he’d be out on his ear.

At its core, that’s what we are here to do as reporters. Not sell newspapers and magazines but hold people accountable and find out things people don’t want us to know. It’s up to the nine-to-five, suit-and-tie types to make money from our work, not us.

But Spagnolo won’t let us hold him accountable. Please Roy, call a media conference, answer questions.

As for Ricky Stuart, if Parramatta is a bridge too far for Stephen Kearney, does the NSW coach have the fortitude to keep walking across the metaphorical construct? Daniel Anderson says it’s more like walking the plank than a bridge.

Big Issue believes Stuart is still the best candidate for the NSW job and should stay on for one more transition year while he grooms a successor.

SHOULDER CHARGES: I’ve changed my mind. During round one, this hack said shoulder charges were the responsibility of the exponent, not the judiciary, to get right. But Greg Inglis’ challenge on Dean Young was sickening and as long as the tactic is legal in our game, those who run it open themselves up to litigation.

Michael Maguire lamented at the weekend that unfortunately such incidents are “part of the game”.

In future they probably should not be. You might leave a stadium talking about a shoulder charge but have you ever walked out saying to your mate “jeez, it was disappointing there were no shoulder charges today”. I don’t think they’ll be unduly missed.

DUAL REFEREES: Geoff Toovey’s outburst last Friday would not have covered any new ground for readers of this column. We said  last week there may not be enough depth in refereeing ranks to have two per game right now.

The suggestion of Daniel Anderson that the pocket referee be a permanent designation, rather than having him swap with the main ref during matches, is a sound one and is worth trying before scrapping the dual system completely.

The pocket referee should be rotated back to Toyota Cup at least once a month to continue his training in taking control of a match.

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OK now we’ve ticked all those boxes here’s a couple of interesting ones that have crossed my desk this week.

On page ??, you’ll see the story of Sandor Earl, the man born in New Zealand, who has played for the Maori, but is being chased by England and wants to play for NSW. That trumps poor old James Tamou, doesn’t it?

Don’t worry, no more rants on international eligibility that go round in circles. Not this week, anyway.

I want to touch on the passion that that particular debate engenders. If everyone who gets hot under the collar about the issue went to an international, bought a jumper and maybe sent an old set of jerseys overseas, then the international game would be flying!

The European Federation already offers membership to the public. Surely the RLIF should do likewise. I conducted a straw-poll on Twitter and people said they would be willing to pay quite large sums for membership if they were convinced the money was going to the right places.

Everyone gets a quarterly magazine, a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, cut-price Test tickets and maybe there are even travel packages to games like last week’s Canada-Jamaica game in Toronto.

Let’s make it happen.

Secondly, the best suggestion EVER about golden point is that missed field goal attempts count as knock-ons, with the ball being handed over to the opposition or a scrum packed depending on what tackle they occur.

Sure, that does alter the rules of the other 80 minutes but in most other suggestions where that is the case, there are other drawbacks. In this case, I can see none.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK