By STEVE MASCORD
rugbyleaguehub.com Long Reads: I don’t know where to begin but I guess we might start with your most recent endeavour and work backwards- and that’s something Rugby Rules. What is Rugby Rules?
Former NRL CEO David Moffett outlines his bid to take on World Rugby with a new version of the sport before going into previously unaired detail about South Sydney’s omission from the NRL and his own departure from the 13-man game. Essential listening.
By THE MOLE
LIAM Coleman will attempt to pick up the pieces of his shattered career in the Ron Massey Cup when football gets back underway in coming months.
By STEVE MASCORD
WE are constantly told that rugby league players have become vanilla, clichéd, boring. Either that, or that they are uneducated hoodlums.
The idea that they can be engaging, interesting, intriguing people is something that rarely enters the public imagination.
There could be a number of reasons for this.
Current NRL media guidelines do not guarantee any in-depth profile-type interviews at all … absolutely none. They are, instead, aimed at providing soundbites and clips to feed the churn of the day-to-day news cycle.
And what clubs don’t have to do, they more often than not don’t do.
Another reason would be players being burned by tabloid headlines and being unwilling to share anything of their personalities with reporters. And then there’s coaches, who tend to be bigger beat-up merchants than journalists when it comes to using the comments of rivals for motivational purposes.
But as a reporter, we talk to players before and after the digital voice recorder flashes green. We observe body language. We see how players interact with each other and with fans and officials … and there are some very interesting dudes out there.
Here’s a selection
FOR years, Greg Inglis was a quiet monolith. He destroyed defences on a weekly basis and said little the rest of the time. When South Sydney signed him from Melbourne in 2011, chief executive Shane Richardson famously declared “I think we just secured our 21st premiership”. Inglis soon began to appreciate his capacity to do good, particularly in the indigenous community. He worked on his public speaking – which has come in handy since he become captain of Souths. The transformation has been absorbing – and it will be very interesting indeed to see what Inglis does upon retirement.
BENJI Marshall has grown up in public. From that outrageous flick pass to Pat Richards in 2005 to calm organiser with the Dragons, a decade later, it’s not always been a comfortable ride. His time at Wests Tigers ended acrimoniously when he was dubbed “Benchy Marshall” before a failed foray into rugby union. Along the way, Benji learned to be humble – and he’s likely to be rewarded by a return to the Kiwis number seven jersey in October. “I thought I was going alright – and no-one was telling me that I wasn’t,” Marshall says of his tome at Wests Tigers. “Sometimes you need to hear the truth, especially when you’re an older player, or else you get caught just coasting and that’s what I was doing. I just got too comfortable in my position. There was never a time when I was under pressure from someone else coming through who was going to take my position Even my family wouldn’t say anything, which is … which is a shame.”
EVEN when ‘Choc’ wasn’t doing interviews – back when Manly were under intense media scrutiny – he would be cracking jokes with us.
Watmough comes across as stand-offish and friendly at the same time, a combination that seems to make absolutely no sense but has led to a budding radio career. ““The scrutiny that I was under at the time was pretty daunting and it was pretty hard on – not just myself but – my family,” he once told A-List. “My mum takes it harder than anyone, the things that are written. Me, my family, everyone around me, knew that I wasn’t a serial killer. I was on the front, back and middle pages every day for a while there. You don’t get anywhere fighting against the people who write about you every week. It’s more along the lines of just – grow up a bit, bite the bullet, get on with life.”
JAMES Graham is one of the more intelligent, humorous and engaging players in the NRL. Then he crosses the sideline; It’s the British Bulldog who was found guilty of biting Billy Slater’s ear in the 2012 grand final, and whose confrontation with referee Gerard Sutton sparked crowd trouble after the infamous South Sydney clash in April. Graham has also argued that if he wants to play on with concussion, he should be allowed to do so. It’s been suggested that Graham plays without concern for his own safety – or that of anyone else. ““In hindsight now, you just get on with it, but at the time you’re trying to get that point across,” he said a few days later. “Stakes are high, emotions are high and that’s not an excuse for questioning the referees decision because really, he’s not going to change his mind. It’s obviously not good behaviour, it’s not a good look.”
CONTRASTS are intriguing – and Michael Ennis is a man of contrast. On the field, he never shuts up and is known as one of the competition’s
primo sledgers. Off it, he’s a polished media performer, deep thinker and passionate advocate for players. His on-field ferocity becomes a joke, role play. But which one is the real Michael Ennis? ““I guess I skate a fine line,” he told A-List. “Well, not exactly skate a fine like but I have a competitive nature. I don’t know – not dirty things. Just competitive. I believe you should just get as much out of each game as you can. I could sit here and preach about what a good guy I am and how I’ve got kids and how I’m a nice family man but that’s not what I’m about, that’s not who I am. It doesn’t really worry me what people think.”
IN all my years as a radio sideline eye, no player has ever stopped a fulltime conversation with a rival so I could interview that rival. No player except Jared Warea-Hargreaves, who made it clear to his fellow player talking to thousands of listeners was more important than shooting the breeze with him. Before he was injured, JWH was the form prop in the NRL. He’s 198cm and weighs 116 kg but is also possibly the most gentle, softly spoken rugby league player on earth. “Schoolkids picked on me a little,” he told an incredulous A-List a few years back, “but then I started eating my veges and I had this little growth spurt!”
‘GIFTY’ Stewart has a bit of his brother Brett – the ‘wronged’ bit – and some of Anthony Watmough – the ‘reticent’ bit – in his complex make-up. He was aggrieved at his brother’s treatment at the hands of the NRL and the media, then about being forced out of the club without receiving an offer. There was rampant speculation about a rift with Daly Cherry Evans, who supposedly got his wages. Yet like Watmough, Stewart has mellowed somewhat and seems to have a decent relationship with the media for the first time. After his first game against Manly, he commented: “they’re all mates of mine … most of them”.
IT takes a lot for the public to take the side of journalists but Darius Boyd’s monosyllabic “media opportunities” at St George Illawarra and
Newcastle did the trick. “Yes”, “no” and “next question” came across very poorly on television, as did his response to being doorstopped by a reporter as he left Origin camp. But things changed dramatically for Boyd when good friend Alex McKinnon broke his neck last year. Boyd quit the game, sought help for depression and is now considered a future captain of the Brisbane Broncos. Boyd never knew his father but received a letter last year from a man claiming to be just that.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD (with research by David Middleton)
THE salary cap is often given credit for the fact we have had 10 different premiers since 1998 – but you can’t thank the salary cap for what Cronulla have done this year.
Maybe you can blame ASADA.
From wooden spooners in 2014 to eliminating the reigning champions in the first week of the finals in 2015, it’s a feat that has perhaps not really sunk in yet. We’re all taking it ‘one game at a time’, right? How will it be remembered? We love giving things context here at RLW.
In these days of fulltime professionalism, we perhaps expect things to go more or less according to plan. In the 1930s, when the premiership was played for beer money and there were only a handful of teams, we’ll believe such feats were possible.
But not now.
In the AFL (then VFL), Fitzroy actually finished last AND won the competition in the SAME year. It was 1916, and all but four clubs had withdrawn from competition due to the Great War.
So the same four teams played the regular season, and all of them made the finals. That’s how Fitzroy performed a feat we are never likely to see again, even if it does sound better as a trivia question than a real achievement.
In rugby league, we have only ever had a team go from last to lifting the trophy the next year on one occasion – Western Suburbs in 1933-34.
But there’ve been some pretty big form reversals over-all – very few of which we can fairly attribute to the salary cap. Where would you slot the Sharkies into this list?
1. 1. NEWTOWN 1928-29
THE 1928 had no official minor premier but that didn’t matter to Newtown, who were last, . with just one win from 12 matches. This was the year where an administrative dispute led to the League deserting the Sydney Cricket Ground for Sydney Sports Ground (now Allianz Stadium, although the field ran east-west). And there, the first-ever night match was staged post-season, nine-a-side, without the approval of the administration. But anyway … the 1929 Kangaroos left halfway through that season and it could be argued this game the Bluebags something of a leg-up. The Bluebags finished clear fourth, beat St George b a point in the major semi-final and went down 30-10 to South Sydney in the decider. The outhouse to the presidential suite, if not the actual penthouse.
2. WESTERN SUBURBS 1933-34
KANGAROO Tours were actually an early version of the salary cap! Back in the 1930s, there was no question that international football was more important than the club scene and the Test side could hardly just hop on QF 1 to London. So, up until the time the Roos left in July, Wests had won four of their six games and had drawn another. After the team left, they did not win again. Gone were backline stars Frank McMillan, Cliff Pearce, Alan Ridley, Les Mead and Vic Hey. When they returned the following year, the Magpies made up for lost time. In a year which saw University begin a run of 42 consecutive losses (and the league ban radio broadcasts because they believed it was affecting crowds), Eastern Suburbs and Wests each finished on 24 competition points, with the black-and-whites taking out the premiership final against the Roosters, 15-12. That’s the feat the boys from the Shire were trying to match this month and next.
3. SOUTH SYDNEY 1955
LIKE Fitzroy above, South s squeezed their highs and lows into a single season. After nine rounds they were equal last, having won just three matches. They did not lose another for the rest of the regular season, finishing fourth to slip into the finals. It was a magnificent run – they actually could not have afforded to drop a game during that nine-week run. It is immortalised (pun intended) in the second-last game of the home-and-away rounds when Clive Churchill broke his arm against Manly but still kicked the winning conversion on the bell. In the grand final, the bunnies played the minor premiers and defending champions Newtown and they were without Churchill and Greg Hawick. The 12-11 win made it five GF triumphs for captain Jack Rayner.
WHAT would happen today if a side collected SIX consecutive wooden spoons? Perhaps that’s where the salary cap does even up the competition! That was Parramatta’s dismal run from 1956. But in 1962, they didn’t just get off the goot of the table – they made the finals! The man behind it was Ken Kearney, a 1947-48 Wallaby who had switched codes with Leeds and returned to play for St George in 1954. It was a classic early case of a coach remodelling a club, like Wayne Bennett at the Dragons years later. Parramatta coaxed him away from Saints for just three years, with ’62 being the first, and he changed things for the better. But in a reminder of how slowly the wheel turns in sport, they would have to wait until ’81 for their first premiership.
5. EASTERN SUBURBS 1966-67
SYDNEY Roosters proudly celebrate the fact they’re the only side to have competed every year since 1908. There’s a new book about their glory years, The House That Jack Built, that has tricolour pride pouring from its pages. But if the Roosters could miss one of those seasons, then they would no doubt choose 1966. Eastern Suburbs lost 18 from 18 that year. Then Gibson started as coach, and they finished in the top four, before being eliminated by Canterbury in front of 47,186 fans at the SCG. This was the first year for Penrith and Cronulla in the premiership and the first year of limited tackle football (four). Gibson welcomed innovation and dealt with these changes better than most.
6. CANTERBURY 2008-09
In 2008, Canterbury finished a round inside the top eight on only three occasions out of 26. They ended up last, with five wins and 19 losses in the year Sonny Bill Williams walked out for France.. Coach Steve Folkes did not survive to see the following year, with injuries and high profile departures given as the contributing factors. They led Sydney Roosters 20-0 at halftime and lost. Brett, Kimmorley, Josh Morris, David Stagg, Michael Ennis, Greg Eastwood and Ben Hannant joined the club the following year, Kevin Moore took over as coach and the Doggies finished second before being eliminated 22-12 by Parramatta.
SLUGGED a wad of cash, two premierships and all their competition points in 2010 for their infamous salary cap breach, the Storm showed what they were made of the following year. The loss of Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Brett Finch, Aiden Tolman, Jeff Lima and Brett White prompted many to predict they would struggle but Craig Bellamy’s men won the minor premiership with 19 wins from a possible 24. In the play-offs they beat Newcastle before losing to the Warriors in a preliminary final, 20-12. It’s a season that set the tone for everything that came afterwards for the Storm, and perhaps made a statement about the bona fides of what had happened before. A year later they would win a premiership which no-one has since taken off them
8. SOUTH SYDNEY 2014
RUGBY league’s greatest comeback story – ever. Kicked out of the competition in 2000 and 2001 in an episode that because a cause celebre for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, the team named after depression street hawkers selling rabbit carcasses returned in 2002 and stumbled around for a few mediocre seasons (three straight wooden spoons) before actor Russell Crowe and businessman Peter Holmes a Court bought the joint in 2006. The Rabbits returned to the finals almost immediately and last October, Sam Burgess became the first South Sydney player to accept the medal named after one of its greatest, Clive Chruchill, when he led Souths to break a 44-year premiership drought despite a broken cheekbone. Sharkies, that is going to take some beating.
Malcolm Andrews writes:
“My first daily column for the Telegraph in 1983 was an interview with Wests winger Alan Ridley (of the early 1930s) urging the NSWRL not to kick Wests Magpies out of the Premiership. And interesting bloke. I wish I had accepted his offer to take away the diary he kept on the 1933-34 Kangaroo tour.
I have a feeling I read somewhere about Frank ‘Skinny’ McMillan that he ended up broke and used to cadge a few pennies for a beer at the Ashfield Hotel, just around the corner from Pratten Park, the Magpies home ground.
I lived 100 yards from Pratten Park and that’s why I always followed them. My first match was in 1953. That was the year when they won the wooden spoon, 12 months after winning the premiership.
The premiership win is unique in that they were coached by the former Test referee Tom McMahon – it was his first and only year as a coach. A perfect record. It was also the year that referee George Bishop is said to have backed Wests against the red-hot favourites Souths.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
IF Aaron Gray becomes South Sydney’s next home-grown great, The Burrow and all bunnies fans will have a broken toe to thank for it.
With his close friend Kirisome Auva’a suspended for nine months over an incident of domestic abuse, the 20-year-old will be battling the likes of Joel Reddy and Bryson Goodwin for his spot in the centres for the World Club Challenge against St Helens and NRL round one opposite Brisbane.
At first glance, it seems a natural progression a kid who grew up in the local area, under the guidance of dad Brian, a country footballer of note.
Just one problem: Brian is also the Sydney Roosters’ junior program manager.
“I’ve been playing footy since I was about five years old, for Mascot Jets, which is a local club in the South Sydney comp” says the polite youngster, a late call-up for NSW Under 20s in 2014.
“But my dad worked at the Roosters for about 20 years – so I was over there for a couple of years, funnily enough. I went over to the Clovelly Crocodiles, which is a Roosters junior team, for a couple of years.
“I had an injury, I didn’t get picked for the Roosters team so then I switched over to Souths. When I went to Souths, I switched back to Mascot Jets.
“Then I came over to Souths when I was about 16, playing Harold Mat’s then SG Ball and 20s and then I’ve moved into the first grade squad now.”
The injury that changed the course of his football career and may give the cardinal and myrtle more ammunition in their eternal war against the tricolours? “I think I was about 15 and I snapped my toe,” he says. “I had to have a few screws put in my toe.”
Gray played in the 2013 Return To Redfern game against Papua New Guinea Residents but still hasn’t made a top grade NRL appearance.
Yet Souths have already taken him to Arizona for high altitude training and he has his fingers crossed he’ll be making his first trip to England for the WCC – all before his 21st birthday.
But Gray, whose brother Brock also plays for the Bunnies, will take no pleasure in replacing Auva’a.
“It’s pretty unfortunate what’s happened to ‘Some because he’s one of my close mates and I’m feeling for him at the same time,” he said.
“I had a chat to him this morning. He’s going alright. There’s not much he can do at the moment. He’s just taking it day by day and he’s not going too bad.
“I don’t feel expectation. There’s a good opportunity there for someone. If that opportunity comes my way, I’m willing to grab it with both hands.
“My goal is just to get fit and play in all the trials and hopefully get a crack in the World Club Challenge and go from there. I haven’t been to England.
“It does add that little bit of extra spark when you know there’s a position available there. I’m just going to do everything in my power to get there.”
Rugby union often sells itself to young athletes as a better way to see the world than rugby league – but Gray can have no complaints over his experiences so far.
While some say Rabbitohs will be adversely affected by travelling to the United States and England in the off-season, Gray says he’s still buzzing from the high altitude training in Arizona.
“We did the Grand Canyon and Mount Humphreys and the Grand Canyon walk was just amazing,” he enthuses shortly after his return to Sydney.
“I never thought I’d actually enjoy walking eight hours up and down massive mountains but around every corner was a better view than the last one.
“It was really good to see a bit of the world with the boys, get a bit of bonding going with all the lads.”
He says the high altitude training works. “Definitely, it’s a lot harder to breath and get oxygen into your body.
“(We were based) about half an hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon. The hotel we stayed in was just a normal hotel but we had a guy, he specialises in all that kind of stuff.
“He deals all the Olympians, the cyclists … who are over there for the high attitude training. We’d wake up around seven o’clock, go out and do some skills and some conditioning, straight into weights and then to cross training and then recovery after that and maybe a massage.
“We’d finish around 12 o’clock, one o’clock each day. Some days we’d have cross training in the afternoon. We had a day off here and there, nothing too big.
“We went into Flagstaff. There was a shopping mall there, heaps of the boys did some shopping because it’s a bit cheaper over there. A few boys came back with a few extra bags.”
Gray got more of an adventure than he bargained for on the final night of the trek, when an earthquake hit the area.
“I was rooming with John Sutton. I had my earplugs in sleeping and I heard Sutto screaming in the middle of the night, saying “Azza, Azza, what’s going on?” he recalls.
“I woke up and the hotel was shaking. I didn’t pay too much attention, I just went back to sleep.
“Sutto was stressing out. Me and Sutto were up on the sixth floor of a seven-floor hotel so we felt it pretty good.”
Most Souths fans have the first encounter with the Roosters circled in whatever passes for a diary these days, as soon as the draw is announced each year. Gray insists he’s not focused on it.
“We try not to buy into it too much but there is definitely a good rivalry there,” he says, when asked about his dad’s likely allegiances when that date rolls around.
“He’s a Roosters man through-and-through. He’s alright. My little brother’s with the team as well, with the 20s team, he’s got no choice but to support the bunnies as well.
“That’s a good question. If I was playing first grade, he’d probably be cheering me. If not, he’d probably be cheering for the Roosters.”
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD
SOUTH SYDNEY CAN SURVIVE THE DEPARTURE OF SAM BURGESS
IT’S hazardous to make judgments on premiership candidacy in February and bordering on delusional to do so after a nines tournament. But it wasn’t so much South Sydney’s 18-14 win over Cronulla in a wonderfully offbeat final as little pieces of body language that foreshadowed a robust title defence. Dylan Walker approached defenders with an arrogance in his gait that indicated he knew he could beat them – then did. Adam Reynolds did the same kick over and over again, knowing it would eventually work. Issac Luke lifted a trophy after missing the grand final through suspension and simultaneously declared his elation and downplayed the reason for it. Is there a better way to transition from a championship to its defence than by winning three trophies in the intervening pre-season? Glory, Glory, Glory and finally, Glory.
RUGBY LEAGUE’S STAR REMAINS ALOFT IN AUCKLAND
RUGBY league would no more lose face in New Zealand because of misbehaving players and absent stars than the same reasons would damage the Premier League’s or NFL’s IP in Australia. More than a quarter-century after the Winfield Cup first burst onto Kiwi TV screens, the competition has a sheen of glamour on this side of the Tasman that has too often been tarnished in its birthplace. Local fans supported all teams but reserved their most cacophonous reception for the Warriors and the Kiwi Ferns women’s side, who won a three-match nines series against Australia. The tournament is locked in for five years; reading between the lines, the NRL wants to add teams and the organisers would rather not.
SOME THINGS HAVE CHANGED AT CRONULLA, OTHERS HAVEN’T
COACH Shane Flanagan walked out of a close-season media opportunity when he was repeatedly asked about the ASADA controversy and many doubts have been expressed about whether anything has really changed in the Shire. The words and deeds of the Sharks at Eden Park strongly suggest they have. The “new culture” mentioned by Tinarau Arona in one interview was well represented by the likes of Jack Bird and Valentine Holmes, among others. But the Sharks are still luckless, cruelly denied in the final despite some defensive heroics and losing Nu Brown for possibly the season with a knee injury. He’ll have surgery on Monday.
THERE were enough stuff-ups in the absence of the video ref to for him not to be worrying about his future employment prospects. Jarrod Mullen succeeded in dispossessing an opponent in-goal but the try was given, Bodene Thompson was denied a touchdown for a team-mate’s knock-on-that-wasn’t and there were more. But the old Super League rule of giving the man (or men, or women) upstairs limited time to do their thang might have merit. The lack of stoppages was refreshing. Another bonus: players interviewed about officiating errors at the Nines did not know they had been dudded because they had not had time to watch the replays themselves!
NINES RUGBY LEAGUE IS NOT ABOUT THE FOOTBALL – AND THAT’S OK
MORE than 16 hours of rugby league will test even the most voracious treiziste and virtually no-one who passes through the gates at the NRL Nines watches every minute of every game. It’s de rigueur for league fans to pontificate about how superior a spectacle their sport is but even caviar and champagne get tedious if they are shoved down your throat every two minutes for an entire weekend. That’s OK. Dress up as a naughty nun, buy a pre-mixed bourbon and coke and punch that inflatable ball back up into the air. The Nines is about the party more than it’s about the football and is definitely best served with a beverage.
Filed for: THE GUARDIAN