Round One: Champs & Chumps

MELBOURNE Storm are the most successful round one team in the history of the NRL – and the reason is simple.
Since the club was founded in 1998 – the same year the competition was rebranded – getting bashed for 80 minutes has been a relief compared to what the players endured during the pre-season.
Melbourne have only ever lost one game on the opening weekend of the season, a 14-6 defeat to the Warriors in Auckland after returning from the first World Club Challenge of the current batch, a thrashing of St Helens at the start of 2000.
“At the Melbourne Storm, you are put tested mentally every day – to a far greater extent than you are in matches,” says five-eighth Scott Hill, who played 177 games for the club between 1998 and 2006.
“So when you get to a game situation, you are raring to go. The training has tapered off and you are confident that if you stick to your processes, you’ll be successful. After what happens in the pre-season, you’re just happy to have football underway.
“You know how much it’s going to hurt, but you also know it’s not going to last forever. Once the season starts, it’s a matter of maintenance.
No-one trains harder than the Storm but in 2000, the long trip to England – before it was a common pre-season practice for the NRL premiers – may have had an impact.
It was the night their football manager, Michael Moore, died when he fell into Auckland harbour. Hill can’t say for sure why the game was lost, because the death of Moore overshadowed everything else that weekend.
“There are memories from that weekend that will live with us forever,” he says.
But Hill – who with 29 has made the most offloads in round one NRL matches – does believe that the Storm’s rugged pre-seasons also insulates them against injury. “If you look at Wests Tigers last year, by round three or four they had 11 players out or something,” said the man who will soon start a new life as a player agent.
“That, to me, indicates they didn’t prepare hard enough for the season.”
League Week asked Sportsdata to assess the performances of all teams on the opening weekend of the premiership since the NRL was born in 1998. That means we had results for St George, Illawarra, Western Suburbs, Balmain, Adelaide, North Sydney and the Northern Eagles as well as the current 16 franchises, and the feats of certain individuals who love the start of the season.
We also had a look at previous opening-round match-ups between the sides playing over this (long) weekend.
Sydney Roosters have played South Sydney 11 times in round one, the tricolours winning eight of these matches; that has helped the Bondi boys become the second most successful opening-week team, with a 75 per cent success ratio.
Like Melbourne, the Roosters have lost to the Warriors. But these the Aucklanders’ overall record is a paltry 26.7 per cent! Who says there is no such thing as bogie teams?
Let’s look at some of this weekend’s other clashes.
Canberra and North Queensland have met once, with the Raiders taking the spoils; Cronulla and Gold Coast have met once, with the Sharkies winning; Manly and Melbourne met once as you already know who won that; Newcastle and Penrith have played twice with the Knights successful on both occasions.
The Warriors and Parramatta have done battle four times, with honours split, while St George Illawarra and Wests Tigers have been drawn against each other three times, and the Dragons are yet to have any luck.
After Melbourne and Sydney Roosters, Newcastle (68.8 per cent) and Brisbane (62.5) have also fared well in round one.
While the Roosters owe much of their success rate to their dominance of the Bunnies, it’s no longer a fixture the ‘Pride of the League’ are hung up on.
“In the old says, we needed a good performance in the Charity Shield and again in round one to pump up our memberships, or season ticket sales, and sponsorships,” said Souths CEO Shane Richardson.
“Things are different now. We take more of a whole-of-season approach. That’s not to say we don’t want to win, though. I’m not saying we don’t care about the result.”
Rabbitohs winger Nathan Merritt clearly likes round one; he has scored 13 tries in eight games, while Melbourne fullback Billy Slater – in doubt for the clash with Manly but always fast out of the blocks – has posted 11 in 10 appearances.
North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston needs 18 more points to bring up a round-one century, with Canterbury icon Hazem El Masri having bagged 104 during his career.
If we imagine round one of the premiership is a competition unto itself then our roll of honour includes Luke Burt with most points in a match (28), Parramatta with the biggest winning margin (58), Jordan Atkins with the most tries in a match (four), Luke Bailey (14) with the most appearances, Nathan Hindmarsh with the most tackles (396 and ready to be overtaken by Cameron Smith), Matt Ballin with the most sin bin stints (two), Luke Burt and Corey Parker booted the most goals (20).
Seven players have been sent players sent off: Geoff Toovey, John Hopoate, Brad Fittler, Ben Walker, Paul Aiton, Sonny Bill Williams and Ali Lauitiiti.
Johnathan Thurston needs only one try assist to lead that category. The man who holds Wests Tigers’ record for most first round points, with 20, will be watching this weekend’s events from the sideline. He is 2GB commentator Joel Caine.
Of the existing teams, Penrith have the worst round one record with a win ratio of just 25 per cent. Darren Lockyer is responsible for the most line breaks.
The draw for round one, of course, is not fair. South Sydney and Sydney Roosters have played each other so often simply because the game is a big draw and can generate a lot of income. Ditto Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra, while the Broncos and Cowboys have met eight times, the Sharks and Dragons three times, Newcastle and the Northern Eagles three times, Parramatta and Penrith thrice as well.
Since 1998, most of these rivalries have had a dominant team and one trying to catch up – and the results at the start of the season have merely reflected that.
So if there’s anything lasting about round one, anything you take away from reading this, perhaps it is not about records or training regimes or scoring trends. Maybe what we we should remember most at this time each year is Michael Moore, a popular footy man who lost his life on this weekend 14 years ago.


Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad … But One Out Of Seven?

State Of Origin 2013By STEVE MASCORD
#1 QUEENSLAND 11 NEW SOUTH WALES 7 at Lang Park, June 8 1982.

NSW FULLBACK Greg Brentnall remembers the first time he met Gene Miles. “He ran over the top of me,” the former Australia fullback says, recalling the initial occasion NSW went into game two of an Origin series in Brisbane one-up in a series. The Blues had won the opening match of the first full series 20-16, also at Lang Park. It was the third Origin match ever played and the first won by the men in sky blue. For the return bout, Maroons coach Arthur Beetson gambled by including Rod Morris – then in the twilight of his career – and a young debutant in Miles. Morris was man of the match and Miles went on to have a glittering career for Queensland and Australia. “You’ve got to remember, just getting a trip to Brisbane was a novelty for us,” said Brentnall. “Aside from that, the furthest we went for a game was Penrith. So, for the first two years, we probably didn’t prepare as seriously as we could have. They were just exhibition games. By 1982, with a Kangaroo Tour at the end of the year, we probably treated it a bit more seriously and knew what was on the line.” Myles and Brentnall toured together with the Invincibles at the end of ’82. “I got him with a pretty good shot on our line but with his size, he still went over,” Brentnall says. “I did a function on the Thursday night down at the Gold Coast and they just kept playing it over and over again, this young kid going right over the top of me.”

#2 QUEENSLAND 5 NEW SOUTH WALES 4 at Lang Park, May 20 1992

ALLAN Langer’s field goal secured the Maroons victory after the Blues won the opening game at the Sydney Football Stadium 14-6. But time does unpredictable things to the memory and Maroons centre Mark Coyne has different recollections of the evening to the rest of us. “It was me who flicked the ball out for Billy Moore to score and that was the night he did the magic finger,” Coyne says, in reference to a famous picture of the Queensland lock, pointing to the sky after a touchdown. “After Alf (Langer) kicked the field goal, we got the ball back from the short kick-off and for the rest of the game, Alf and Kevvy (Walters) were telling me they were going to do a chip over the top and to be ready for it. I’m going ‘what are they thinking?” When they game was over they said to be ‘gotcha’. It was all a gee-up”. Coyne was in the Maroons’ sheds after game one this year and is convinced Queensland can again level the series, as they did 21 years ago. “The boys were very disappointed in themselves, that they couldn’t match NSW’s attitude and enthusiasm,” he said. “If you’re one-down in an Origin series, there’s no place you’d rather be than Lang Park.”

#3 NEW SOUTH WALES 28 QUEENSLAND 10 at Suncorp Stadium, May 24 2000

“WE looked at t as a chance to make history,” says NSW five-eighth Scott Hill recalls now. Little did Hill and the 2000 Blues know, they would 13 years later remain the only side from south of the border to go to Brisbane one-up in a series and win. The middle game that year is actually the least-remembered of the three. In the first encounter, Gorden Tallis was dismissed for calling referee Bill Harrigan a cheat. In the third, NSW won 56-16 and celebrated with theatrical post-try celebrations, which motivate Queensland teams to this day. “I think you’ve just got to isolate yourself from things you can’t control,” says Hill. “You can’t control the crowd, you can’t control how Queensland play. But the field is the same size as other fields and they don’t have more players than you. This team, I think they just need to take confidence from what they did in game one. They gave Queensland enough ball to win the game but they held them out. Mitchell Pearce, to me, had an ‘only just’ game. He can improve. He still hasn’t proven he’s a genuine Origin halfback but there’s no better stage to do that than an Origin game in Brisbane. And I think the age of the Queensland team has started to show”. The 2000 series has been Hill’s one comeback to neighbours since moving to Queensland from London four years ago. “I always say ‘remember 2000? We had a pretty fair team….”

#4 QUEENSLAND 26 NEW SOUTH WALES 18 at ANZ Stadium (Brisbane), June 5 2002.

IF you think NSW are riding a wave of hype after game one this year, imagine what it was like 11 years ago when the Blues won the opening game 32-4 with young fullback Brett Hodgson running 390 metres! On form, the New South Welshmen were tipped to win Origin II in a canter. “If you’re 1-0 down in a series, you just hope the next game is at home,” the Maroons captain and tryscorer in their win at ANZ Stadium (Brisbane), Gorden Tallis, reflects. “One-nil is fine … well, it’s not fine but if you’re home in the second game it’s a big advantage. The other team knows they only have to win one more game and that plays on their minds a bit, you are desperate.” This game is remembered for Justin Hodges’ horror debut, in which he made a couple of errors leading to tries and ended up driving home to Sydney and missing training with the Roosters after he was hooked during the match. But generally speaking, says Tallis, in these situations: “It’s the young guys who come through and surprise you, the guys no-one expects to be in the team. They come out and do the job.”

#5 QUEENSLAND 22 NEW SOUTH WALES 18 at Suncorp Stadium, July 16 2004

MATT Gidley says the Blues will go close to winning the series next Wednesday if they can replicate the performance his side put in, facing the same situation, nine years ago. Having won the first game with an unforgettable Shaun Timmins field goal, NSW were faced with an injury crisis in the second match, forcing coach Phil Gould to bring Brad Fittler out of representative retirement for the remainder of the series. The move didn’t immediately bear fruit, given the four-point defeat in Brsibane. “I think you’ll find we played quite well,” said centre Gidley. Indeed, it took one of the all time greatest Origin tries, with Billy Slater chasing Darren Lockyer’s kick, chipping ahead again, and regathering to dot down, for Queensland to get the points. “Phil Gould was criticised for leaving his place on the sideline early,” said Gidley. “His response was that he wanted to get an early start on game three. Well, the proof was in the pudding because we won game three and the series.” Indeed they did, 36-14.

#6 QUEENSLAND 30 NEW SOUTH WALES 6 at Suncorp Stadium June 14 2006

CHRIS Flannery has played rugby league all around the world but Origins at Suncorp Stadium aren’t easily forgotten. Having been the selectors’ last resort in game one, NSW halfback Brett Finch went on to kick the winning field goal in Sydney. In game two, Queensland’s position was further eroded by the withdrawal through injury of Greg Inglis, with Adam Mogg taking his place. “I remember I put Carl Webb over for a try from the scrum base which worked perfectly,” says Flannery, who started off the bench. “Adam Mogg debuted and scored two…” According to Flannery, a home team 1-0 down in an Origin series almost always has an advantage. “Especially coming to Queensland,” he says. “The crowd obviously lifts you and as a player and you know that if you don’t win this game the series is over so there’s definitely a lot more desperation from the team down 1-0.” Now a Sunshine Coast real estate agent after finishing up at St Helens last year, Flannery will be hosting some corporate from his old club the Sydney Roosters at Suncorp Stadium next Wednesday.

#7 QUEENSLAND 30 NEW SOUTH WALES 0 at Suncorp Stadium, June 11 2008

YOU can train too hard in Origin camp, according to a veteran of the most recent time NSW went to Queensland one-up in the series and came away empty handed. “We put a fair bit of work into our build-up and I don’t know if we were flat on the night,” says NSW interchange forward Steve Simpson, of the game that followed an 18-10 Blues victory first up. “It was a big build-up, I’d only been back playing a couple of weeks and for one reason or another, I didn’t feel 100 per cent. It wasn’t our best performance.” Queensland made a host of changes after their first-up loss. Darren Lockyer was still missing, they brought in Dairus Boyd and benched Billy Slater in favour of Karmichael Hunt while Scott Prince came into the halves. “Hopefully the boys can go up there this time feeling fresh and get the job done,” says Simpson, who now works in the Hunter Valley mines. “I think they can. Their debutants went really well in the first game and they can take some confidence from that.” In 2008, NSW made seven changes for game three and were beaten 16-10.


When State Of Mind Means More Than The State Of Play


PRESTON Campbell briefly searches for the right phrase. “It’s not spoken about a lot, is it?” says the 2001 Dally M Medallist. “It’s not like it’s … in the Rugby League Week or something.”

Well, now it is.

The issue at hand is mental illness and its toll in our game. To say that it is “topical” is obscenely trivial and callous. But that’s the reason this feature is “in the Rugby League Week” now, and not last week or next month.

On February 28, Wests Tigers forward Mosese Fotuaiki took his own life after being injured at training. On March 4, Hull halfback Brett Seymour was hospitalised after crashing his car in what his wife strongly suggested on Facebook had been a suicide attempt.

The second incident, particularly, struck a chord with the recently-retired Campbell. He has always stopped short of spelling out what he had been trying to do when he crashed his own car into a tree at Christmas, 2002.

But when asked about the plight of Seymour, who had recently been dropped from Hull’s senior squad, he says: “Well, you know my story – I did the same thing at a time in my life when I felt I couldn’t cope.

“Some car crashes can be avoided.”

Mental  health issues in rugby league aren’t discussed widely because they’re not easy to discuss. But increasingly, those touched by the illness feel they have a responsibility to say something. It might save a life.

Campbell’s chief executive at the time of his crash, Shane Richardson, says: “Driving up there to Lismore that day – it was the worst day of my life.

“I still remember the empty feeling. I thought Presto was dead.”

A lifetime in football has taught Richardson the danger signs. “I remember the first time it ever came up, the first time we every thought about mental health in a football club I was part of.

“A fellow came to training one night with a snake around his neck. Everyone laughed about it … a few weeks later he had taken his own life.”

Men in their late teens and early 20s often stake their entire self-identity in their careers, Richardson observes. Their extended families rely on them for an income. An injury or demotion to reserve grade can be devastating – and as adolescents they lack the life experience to put such setbacks in perspective.

“I don’t think our coaches realise what impact they have on young peoples’ lives,” said Richardson. “Our players hang on coaches’ every word.”

Our game is not sitting on its hands in the face of this silent scourge, of course. NRL welfare officer Paul Heptonstall says there are at least two staffers at every club trained dealing with mental health issues – and there are plans to train more.

“I am pretty sure I was the first club welfare officer in the competition when I started with Wests Tigers at the time of the merger,” says Heptonstall, related to Warrington’s Monaghan brothers through marriage.

“I had no idea what I was doing.”

Eventually, though, Heptonstall found his feet. “The first challenge was to destigmatise it – to get past this attitude of ‘oh, harden up, will you?” he recalls.

“The next step was to encourage the people affected by this to take the appropriate action, to spot the signs and not be afraid to seek help.

“One in five people are going to be affected by metal health issues in their lifetimes – that’s a pretty big percentage. I know people who have taken their own lives.”

The NRL works closely with the Black Dog Institute, which works hard to help members of the public identify forms of clinical depression. The Institute runs compulsory workshops for NRL players and officials.

In England, Test hooker Terry Newton’s 2010 suicide after becoming the first athlete in the world suspended for the use of Human Growth Hormone led to the establishment of State Of Mind, a charity that soon had a Super League round named in its honour and a series of powerful videos promoting the idea that problems are there to be discussed rather than hidden.

Designated welfare officials within NRL clubs are bound by a code of ethics which prevents them from sharing information with the coaches or team-mates of those who come to them for help.

“We’d like to get to the point where all trainers and strappers have training in these issues,” said Helptonstall, “so they can see the signs as well.”

Campbell, Andrew Johns Matt Cross, Owen Craigie and Scott Hill all help with the NRL’s program.

Fotuaki gave no indication he was struggling with the expectation surrounding his likely promotion to the NRL side this year. Seymour was moved to tears by the number of fans who joined a Facebook group called “Brett Seymour, Get Well Soon”.

Last week in RLW, Sharks caretaker coach Peter Sharp said he feared for the wellbeing of some players caught up in the ASADA investigation.

But while rugby league applies the pressures associated with many of these problems, the support network it provides can also be part of the solution.

“I’ll always be grateful to my mate and coach, John Lang,” Campbell says of the weeks and months after his Christmas, 2002, car crash.

“He grabbed me by the ear and dragged me in to see a counsellor. I was sceptical at first about the whole thing – but I can tell you that it really helped.”

But young footballers about to enter first grade and older stars who have fallen out of favour are not the only groups affected by depression.

Australian Hill and Englishman John Skankevich have each spoken about the desolation that comes with retirement and dealing with the fact the biggest single component of your life is gone.

Injury forced Stankevich to retire at just 25, creating a financial nightmare for him and his family. “I’ve had bailiffs knocking on my door, my house ­repossessed and I had to hand back the keys to the bar that I bought,” he said.

“Young players simply must think before they put all their eggs in one basket – and I should know.”

Hill told in 2011: “It got to the point where I was struggling to get motivated to even go out with the kids. My wife ended up putting me in front of the computer and said ‘have a look at these symptoms of depression’… and I had eight out of the 10.”

Campbell escaped serious injury from his car crash and went on to win a premiership under Lang at Penrith the very next season.

“These things only help you if you are willing to accept their help,” he says. “Pressure to perform and the pressure for financial security – it plays on your mind.

“I think it’s important for Brett Seymour to know he’s not alone, that others have gone through what he is going through. I can’t comment on his specific circumstances and but  if he is suffering from anything – I’m not even going to use the term ‘mental illness’ – then he needs to see someone as soon as possible.

“Footballers are put on a pedestal. People say they are “superstars”, they’re famous and people look up them. I think we forget that they come from somewhere, they’re someone’s brother, someone’s son.

“And sometimes we players forget it as well.”