THE JOY OF SIX: Finals Week Two



ASKED on Saturday night why his Newcastle side was coming good in the finals, coach Wayne Bennett replied: “It’s spring”. Then quizzed if that was the reason just for him, he replied: “For all of us, that’s the time you want it to happen”. On the eve of the second preliminary semi-final, veteran Danny Buderus said Bennett was “a different coach” during the finals. That was apparent to outsiders after the 18-16 victory, when Bennett acceded to every interview request. On Sunday, he even made a rare appearance on FM radio. The reason Wayne Bennett makes himself scarce for most of the year is so he can cash in his media chips when it matters most, drawing attention and pressure away from the players by cracking jokes and hamming it up in public. The man with an image for dismissing the media actually strategies his interactions with them down to the finest detail.


YOU’D be forgiven for forgetting there is plenty of rugby league on after the grand final, by virtue of the World Cup. But will there be any star players still standing? Benji Marshall and Justin Hodges are already gone, Sonny Bill Williams is rated at long odds chose the tournament over boxing and then there are the walking wounded of the the NRL finals series. Greg Inglis, Anthony Watmough and Billy Slater (all knee) all look doubtful for Australia. Jack Reed’s shoulder has already cost him his England spot and if Brent Kite is playing with a broken hand, it’s hard to see Penrith encouraging him to play for Tonga. Sisa Waqa suffered a grade two medial ligament tear on Saturday night and seems set to be a Fiji Bati casualty. There will no doubt be more withdrawals – probably many more.


WOULD it really be such a bad thing for referees to be given a third option when they send a try decision upstairs, namely “dunno”. The signal could be arms at the side, bent at the elbow, with flat palms pointed at the sky. Maybe a head tilt as well. But seriously, is there not a logic disconnect in saying the on-field official must make a decision in 100 per cent of cases, only using technology to doublecheck his decision, then making it significantly harder for technology to disagree than agree with him? Surely the information of the video referees is being hampered to such an extent that we might as well not have them at all. Not having “dunno” seems a matter of pride rather than practical sense. At least I think that’s the case. I’m not sure.


LATE on Sunday night, Tony Smith – brother of Brian – was force to make a decision which he detested. Under the rules of the Super League play-offs, as the highest-ranking winner of week one in the play-offs, Smith’s Warrington got to choose their preliminary final opponents. The Wolves had a choice between Huddersfield, 76-18 winners over Hull, or perennial late-season-peak men Leeds, 11-10 winners over St Helens. Smith detests ‘club call’, as it is known, for old school coaching reasons – it gives the opposition ammunition. That’s how highly coaches rate psychology – they’d rather pass up the chance to choose their own opponents! The question is, who would 2012 Catalan coach Trent Robinson choose this year? I’m banking on the team where he used to be assistant under Tony Smith’s brother – Newcastle.


ONCE upon a time, all finals were played at the Sydney Cricket Ground or Sydney Sports Ground. You knew it was September in Sydney when the wind picked up and you waltzed onto the hill around midday to watch under 23s and reserve grade. But crowds were poor early in the finals, so we shifted matches to home grounds. Then we did that in week two, then week three. And we stopped using suburban grounds completely. But – as we saw at the weekend – attendances are still and issue. What is the logical next step? Tendering out finals to venues who can guarantee big gates and financial security, perhaps? Perth, Auckland, Brisbane, Wellington, Adelaide, Darwin? Seems to be worth a try, given that finals venues are already centrally controlled and the grand final is in Sydney until further notice.


SOME questions regarding Saturday’s NRL media release: One of the people interviewed as part of the probe, a reporter, says he was told by the SC’s assistant the alleged incident itself was not being investigated. If this is true, how can one investigate a cover-up without determining if there was something to cover up in the first place? And how can a person who was not investigated be exonerated in the subsequent press release? Given that that the release said there would be “no further comment”, I guess we’ll never know.  You might be wondering why this column is appearing, given its Sun-Herald predecessor. I’ve only stepped away from chasing news, because I can’t see the point under current conditions. I’m still hoping someone wants me to cover games and write columns and features. So far, so good. Fingers crossed.


Players Deliberately Obscuring Would-be Tries, Says Waqa

Melbourne - Sisa WaqaBy STEVE MASCORD

NRL players are exploiting a loophole in the current video refereeing procedure by deliberately obscuring would-be tries from television cameras, according to Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa.

The Fijian international had a crucial no-try call go against him in last Friday’s qualifying final, before a sickening fall after an aerial collision ended his evening prematurely.

“I got the ball down, I definitely scored the try,” Waqa tells Fairfax Media. “As soon as I got the ball, I went straight to the ground.

“But they said it was no try and when they went upstairs, they couldn’t see so unfortunately they didn’t give it to me.”
As was the case for a Steve Matai “try” in round 23, the on-field official ruled “no try” because he couldn’t see the ball on the ground – and the eyes in the sky disallowed it for the same reason.

Because the benefit of the doubt rule does not apply in the same way it did until this year, players can simply position their bodies between the ball and the television camera and it will be impossible for an on-field decision to be overturned.

“Everyone does that,” says Waqa. “I grounded the ball but the defenders get around it and block the view so they can’t get a good look at it on the ground.

“It’s a tough one. I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing in that situation.”

Waqa wasn’t sure of a solution to the trick. “They used to have benefit of the doubt but I think they changed that so that it was more clear-cut, the referee on the field said what he thought,” he added.

The ploy by defenders, usually in the case of attackers chasing kicks, puts the onus on the on-field official to almost guess whether the ball was grounded safely. If he guesses wrong, inconclusive video evidence means his colleagues in the grandstand cannot correct the decision.

Waqa, meanwhile, is gearing up to take on a good friend in his 50th first grade appearance – Newcastle flier Akuila Uate.

“He is on my side of the field. We are good mates,” said Waqa. “We spoke only last week. I played with his brother, Pana, in school. He was a very good player.”

Waqa has one appearance for the Fiji Bati to his name and hopes to add to that tally at the World Cup. He says Uate believes he can also play for his homeland, despite changing his country of election to Australia since the 2008 tournament.

“Aku can play for Fiji, yes,” said Waqa. “He is going to wait and see if he makes the Australian side and if he doesn’t, he will try to play for Fiji.

“I’d like to go to the World Cup but I have to get through the season with the Storm injury-free first.”

He’s confident the Storm will bounce back from last week’s defeat on Saturday at AAMI Park. “Souths didn’t beat us, we gave that game away,” he said.

Filed for: THE AGE

Waqa: The Night I Crashed Back To Earth

Melbourne - Sisa WaqaBy STEVE MASCORD

MELBOURNE Storm winger Sisa Waqa has spoken for the first time about the sickening mid-air collision which saw him carried from ANZ Stadium on a medicab and wearing a neck brace on the opening night of the NRL finals.

The Fijian international landed on his head and neck after coming into contact with Dylan Farrell in the 20-10 defeat to South Sydney yet will play this Saturday night in the second preliminary semi-final against Newcastle at AAMI Park.

“When I went down, the first thing I tried to do was move my hands and move my feet – before the doctor even got to me,” the 27-year-old told Fairfax Media.

“Once I could do that, I knew I hadn’t hurt anything major.

“I went straight to the hospital and they did some x-rays and some MRIs and they found out I had no structural damage.

“After that, I came back to Melbourne with the doctor. I was stiff for a few days and they had to do some more tests to make sure I hadn’t hurt any discs.

“But I’m definitely back in this week. I feel completely normal now, thankfully. It’s an honour to be playing for this club in such a big game.”

Ex-Rooster Waqa will be making his 50th NRL appearance opposite fellow Fijian flier Akuila Uate in a match the Storm must win to keep alive their premiership defence.

Speaking to journalists at training, captain Cameron Smith denied uncertainty over his own future beyond next year was distracting the team.

“I’ve made it fairly clear and the club’s made it fairly clear that there’ve been no contract negotiations at all,” hooker Smith said.

“My focus is on playing out the season with Melbourne as best I can.

“I’ve got 12 more months down here. I don’t understand why there’s such a rush. There’s talk that other clubs, or one in particular, having this huge offer and all these other circumstances but for me … there’s no rush.”

Smith said Brett Finch, named as 18th man, was still some chance of supplanting Gareth Widdop in the Storm’s starting side.

“Everyone knew Gaz wasn’t going to be at his best last week,” he said of Widdop, who made his return on Friday from a dislocated hip.

“He’d been out 14 weeks. I think he had 60 minutes in reserve grade and we were up against the most consistent footy side in the competition.

“He’s better for the run.

“It would be great to have them both on the field … if we win, there’s still an opportunity to be back in the team in future weeks.”

Smith was asked about North Queensland’s suggestions of a Sydney conspiracy to secure a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney decider.

“I think it would be a great story for the game if the Rabbitohs were involved and the Roosters were involved,” he said. “They’re two great clubs who’ve been around for a long, long time.

“I think you’re alluding to what Johnathan Thurston was talking about. I think at the time, he was running on raw emotion. You can understand where the bloke’s coming from.

“Johnno, he’s a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve.”

Filed for: THE AGE

Waqa Set For Miracle Return

BMelbourne - Sisa Waqay STEVE MASCORD

FOUR days after being carried from ANZ Stadium on a medicab after a spectacular aerial collision, Melbourne Storm winger Sisa Waqa is to be named in the side to play Newcastle in Saturday’s sudden death finals series game.

The Fijian flanker was fitted with a neck brace after face-planting on the turf when he came into contact with South Sydney’s Dylan Farrell on Friday night.

“He’ll probably be in the side tomorrow night,” a Storm spokesman said late Monday.

“It’s pretty remarkable but he didn’t get a concussion out of the incident and he’s passed all the tests on his back and neck. Sisa looks OK.”

Farrell was controversially placed on report over the collision, which appeared to be an accident, but on Monday escaped being charged.

One man who is yet to be passed fit for Saturday night’s preliminary semi-final at AAMI Park is five-eighth Brett Finch, who has shoulder and sternum problems. Gareth Widdop, who returned from a dislocated hip in Friday night’s defeat, would almost certainly be selected ahead of Finch in any case.

“Gareth’s been part of this system for a long time and I don’t think that’s an excuse and I don’t think it contributed to the result,” halfback Cooper Cronk told reporters.

Cronk was not willing to make any predictions about how the premiers would bounce back from Friday’s defeat.

“I can sit here and tell everyone we’re OK and we’ve regrouped but the performance will tell if we have or not,” he said.

“There’s no doubt we let an opportunity slip but I’ve seen people in Formula One win a race from not being in pole position.

“This club’s success has been built on hard work and that’s what we have to do this week.

“We’re in total control of our performance and that’s the way we approach it.

“We’re aware of … (Newcastle’s) … abilities. We’ve had two close encounters over the course of this year.”

Cronk was asked about claims by North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston of a pro-Sydney bias in the NRL.

“It’s nice to have a bit more support north of the border with Jonathan and the Cowboys,” he said.

“We thank them for that. Look, obviously they were involved in a game an emotionally disappointed two years in a row. They’re entitled to opinions but we’ve still got a place to play in these finals.

“The way we play football, we do everything we possibly can and take everything else (out of the equation).”

Filed for: THE AGE

“Parents’ Week” Has Special Significance For Exile Waqa

Melbourne - Sisa WaqaBy STEVE MASCORD

HIS team-mates’ parents were there in the flesh but Melbourne man of the match Sisa Waqa dedicated his block-busting performance last Friday to his own mum and dad who were 3800 km away in Fiji.

The Storm flew in parents from all around Australia for Friday’s clash with Brisbane, part of their annual Parents Week, with footballers of yesteryear like Jay Hoffman and Robert Finch forming a guard of honour at the start of the 32-0 win.

Only once has one of Waqa’s parents made it to Australia to see him play in person but the occasion still got to the winger, who scored a crucial try and pulled off a near-miraculous try-saving tackle on Lachlan Maranta.

“Cameron (Smith) spoke to us before the game and said ‘it’s parents week and we all need to stand up’,” said Waqa, a former Rooster.

“Normally the parents stay at home and watch us on television. Just my missus and the kids were here, my parents were back home in Fiji.

“It’s good because it’s live back home now, they watch it live. Only my mum came here once, she came to watch me play against the Dragons. That was last year.’

Waqa said knowing father Eddie and mother Susanna were watching at home was enough to spur him against the Broncos.

“My mother and father are the ones who believed in me and encouraged me to achieve my dream,’ he said.


NRL round 17: MELBOURNE 32 BRISBANE 0 at AAMI Park


THE advertising hoardings at AAMI Park claimed Brisbane and England centre Jack Reed as some of the best scrambling defence of the NRL season helped premiers Melbourne snap a two match losing streak.

Reed slid into signage on the eastern side early in Melbourne’s 32-0  victory and after playing on for around 15 minutes was replaced with a collarbone injury. While there was not believed to be a fracture, Reed was unable to resume and will undergo scans over the weekend.

It was reminiscent of an incident a decade ago at neighbouring Olympic Park, when Storm and Papau New Guinea winger Marcus Bai suffered a serious arm injury when he collided with a sign.

Brisbane could scarcely afford to lose a player of Reed’s calibre last night. Their winger Lachlan Maranta must have felt like he would never score another try by fulltime.

He was denied certain touchdowns by heroic defence from Brett Finch, then Sisa Waqa and finally Billy Slater. In normal circumstances, all three would have been tries.

Melbourne led 12-0 at the end of a first half in which Brisbane were repeatedly stymied by a combination of either poor options or heroic Storm defence.

The portents were not good for Brisbane early when Melbourne prop Jesse Bromwich rumbled right through the middle of the defence from near halfway after Cameron Smith darted out of dummy-half.

Bromwich came to Broncos fullback Corey Norman and stepped him comprehensively before taking another defender over the line with him. Captain Smith’s conversion made it 6-0.

But Craig Bellamy’s side was soon on the back foot, with only dogged defence – most notably from five-eighth Brett Finch – keeping their opponents at bay.

In the 11th minute, winger Josh Hoffman got a hand to five-eighth Scott Prince’s kick to the south-easter corner but was unable to field the ball cleanly.

Melbourne even fumbled deep in their own territory early in the tackle count, an uncharacteristic gaffe for which the Broncos were unable to punish them.

But when the world champions got into the opposition red zone, they still executed with ruthless efficiency. Cooper Cronk’s kick was fielded by winger Justin O’Neill in the 13th minute and he dotted down out wide.

From three metres in from the touch line, hooker Smith – back from an Origin eye injury – converted for a 12-0 lead.

It was then down to some magnificent scrambling defence from the home side to keep Brisbane scoreless until the break.

Justin Hodges roared into the clear at 29 minutes after taking an intercept and thought it wise to offload to Lachlan Maranta.

But Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa somehow managed to reel in Maranta and wrestle him to ground 10 metres out. The rest of the Storm defenders rushed back into position and denied the Broncos on subsequent tackles.

Earlier, Maranta had been denied from close range by the terrier-like Finch, when he seemed certain to score.

And right on the break, Hodges held off defenders, feigned this way and that and managed to give back rower Matt Gillett a clear passage to the line.

Gillett lowered his centre of gravity and launched himself – but fumbled just short of the stripe and was denied by video referees Justin Morgan and Jason Robinson.

Reed’s injury continues England coach Steve McNamara’s run of his players being injured while he is in the country.

Melbourne centre Maurice Blair was denied a try just after the break, when the video referees ruled he had knocked on after a round-the-corner pass from Slater.

But after Slater miraculously held Maranta up over the line, the Storm went 100 metres for Ryan Hinchclffe to score near the posts.

Waqa was rewarded for his toil by his fourth try of the year in the 65th minute, with Smith’s conversion missing. Then Blair underscored his side’s superiority with a late double.
MELBOURNE 32 (M Blair 2 J Bromwich R Hinchcliffe J O’Neill S Waqa tries  C Smith 4 goals) bt BRISBANE 0 at AAMI Park. Referees: G Sutton/L Phillips. Crowd: 16,828.

Filed for: THE AGE

BONDI BEAT: July 2013

NEXT year’s World Club Challenge in Perth? Someone should hurry up and tell Perth about it.
Normally reliable Bondi Beat sources have informed us the most isolated city in the world outside of Siberia is just about nailed on for the first WCC in Australia since 1994.
But John Sackson, the CEO of the WARL, tells us: “If an event of that magnitude was going to take place in Perth next year, I would say negotiations would be well under way.
“And aside from Gary Hetherington throwing up Perth at some stage, I haven’t heard a whisper.
“They’d need to be talking the West Australian Events Corporation, they’d need to be talking to nib Stadium and maybe other venues and I hope they’d be talking to us.
“I haven’t heard a whisper. WCC in Perth? Very doubtful if you ask me.”
All of which suggests two possibilities. One, we’re going to have a one off in the north of England for the fifteenth consecutive year or two, we’re doing things by the seat of our pants as usual.
“I’M Welsh. Does that make me a pom?”
With that, former Harlequins and Saracens chief executive Mark Evans introduced himself to the Melbourne media as the new boss of the world champion Storm – and the World Cup lost a consultant.
Evans has been appointed by Bart Campbell, a London-based New Zealander who will be the new majority shareholder of our greatest club side.
But amid all the business related questions at the media conference on May 21, there were others like “do you feel the Purple Pride?” – a good sign I guess from reporters who usually cover religion (ie: AFL).
Are you just bringing outsiders, they wanted to know – conveniently overlooking the fact that only one Victorian has ever played for the Storm.
Hence Evans’ question back to a reporter. “Well, it makes you British,” she responded.
“Right, I’m British. I’m the only Brit. Everybody else is Australasian including Melbournians. Is that how you say it?”
Having watched a live feed of the press conference on my Ustream channel (sorry about the plug!), one fan commented that Evans needed to learn how to say Melbourne.
It’s not “Mell born”, it’s “Melbin”
IT was gratifying to see the Rugby Football League’s Blake Solly reveal that what we suggested in last week’s column – a marquee player system for Super League – is under consideration.
The question now is: who would these marquee players be and which clubs would sign them?
I am sure Salford, whose owner has already vowed to cheat the cap, would be one. Although perhaps he means a “marquee player” in the Melbourne Storm sense, where funds for the hire of a tent are funnelled into players’ bank accounts.
Wigan could afford one, Leeds could afford one, Warrington, maybe Saints … who else?
Personally, I hope the system is introduced in time for North Queensland’s mercurial Matt Bowen to be a beneficiary. Why Warrington went cold on him, I’m not too sure.
But I reckon he’d be a hit in a town famous for outstanding Australian imports.
OK, I have a little bit of info about some warm up games that are due to be held the week before the World Cup kicks off in October.
Expect France to host the United States, England to take on Italy, Wales to tussle with Tonga and Fiji to clash with one of rugby league’s top countries, Rochdale.
Australia don’t believe they need a warm up. The Kiwis do, but there’s still no news on an opponent.
The World Cup remains a niche event among rugby league fans but I know plenty who are going or are trying to arrange the journey.
Aaron Wallace, the stats man who so superbly briefs the Fox Spots commentators, has never been the UK and is hiring a campervan to ferry himself and his girlfriend from match to match.
He might have a passenger at times….
BENJI Marshall is such a big name in Sydney that his wife has a Sunday newspaper column.
So you can imagine the uproar back in round 10 when he was dropped to the bench for the match against South Sydney.
Add that to the fact he has a column in the Sydney broadsheet the Herald and doesn’t say much to the tabloid Telegraph and you have an idea of the level of interest in his dramatic fall from grace
But the whole thing could be played out again come October and November.
Marshall was relieved of the Kiwis captaincy during the pre-season and it’s not impossible to imagine Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson keeping him out of the New Zealand side at some stage of the tournament.
Such a scenario would put Bondi Beat in mind of the 199five World Cup, when Gary Freeman was dropped and sulked on a bus at training.
One of Sydney’s favourite soap operas, coming to a field near you.
THIS is not a joke, people have suggested it as a serious promotion.
There are those who want the Burgess brothers – Sam, Tom, Luke and George, to engage in what is known colloquially as a game of “backyard footy” with the Sims boys – Ashton, Tariq and Corbin.
In fact, it was North Queensland back rower Tariq who came up with the idea.
“Dead-set, if we can get that to happen, I would love it. We could do it for charity – it would be awesome,” Tariq said in the lead-up to the City-Country game.
Of course, the Englishmen would have a numerical advantage – something that could be remedied by adding Ruan Sims, who plays for the Australian womens’ team.
She recalled on a recent television appearance that one night a week, the four of them were allowed to wrestle in the loungeroom.
It was no holds barred but once someone cried, the bell rang.
MORE and more NRL types are seeing the error of their ways when it comes to golden point time.
Another chip in the foundations of the controversial rule came in round 10, when Manly played a 10-10 draw with Melbourne in Melbourne. That was the score in regulation time and it was also the score after overtime but only following seven unsuccessful drop goal attempts.
According Sea Eagles coach Geoff Toovey, it’s all gone too far.
After 80 minutes, if it’s a draw, it’s only my personal opinion but it should be a draw,” he said. “When we’re having field goal shootouts, it’s just crazy.
“There’re 26 rounds in the competition. There’s enough football played. You want to see the guys busted and bleeding. It’s a gladiatorial sport, I know, but we’ve got to look after our players as well.”
Commentator Phill Gould agreed, writing the next day: “I was always a fan of the golden point and believed it added to the excitement of the close finish.
“However, when you witness a gladiatorial classic from two teams such as Melbourne and Manly this week, a draw and a competition point each is a fair result.”
A FUNNY moment from the same game.
Storm winger Sisa Waqa (you’ll see him in action for Fiji in a few short months” was called inside the 10 chasing a kick and started walking off the pitch, asking a touch judge why he had been sent to the sin bin!