NRL round six: MELBOURNE 28 ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 24 at AAMI Park

By STEVE MASCORD

VICTORIAN junior Young Tonumapea called it dream-like experience while St George Illawarra coach Steve Price immediately started asking why his own nightmare was allowed to happen.
Melbourne Storm produced the season’s greatest escape when Tonumaipea scored after the siren, with the ball swept from sideline to sideline, to beat the Dragons 28-24 at AAMI Park.
With 22 minutes left, the joint venture held what seemed to be a match-winning 24-10 lead.
“It’s something I’ve only dreamed of,” said Tonumaipea, 21. “To do it in real life, it’s awesome.
“This is my first winning try. It’s a great feeling, especially in my home town. I love it.”
But a shattered Price questioned whether play should have been allowed to continue when the siren sounded as the ball was played – by Toniumaipea.
“The siren was a bit later than what I was looking at on the scoreboard,” Price told radio Triple M. “When I thought it was zero, he still hadn’t played the ball. Stuffed if I know,
“Gut wrenching, totally gut-wrenching.”
There were other controversies, not least St George Illawarra finishing the game with 12 men with Joel Thompson off the field because of the concussion rule.
That should spur debate about adding an extra replacement in those circumstances. The Dragons also lost centre Dylan Farrell to a pectoral muscle tear just before halftime.
Price also claimed sterner action should have been taken over a Will Chambers shoulder charge on Josh Dugan. “He got him right in the head,” the coach said.
There was the suggestion of a shepherd in Cooper Cronk’s 71st minute try and, on the others side of the ledger, fullback Dugan appeared offside when Trent Merrin scored for the Dragons in the 53rd minute.
And the decision to deny Melbourne second rower Kevin Proctor a try for a forward pass seemed dubious.
But it all came down to club football’s answer to the State of Origin try from hell.
As the bell rang out, Tonumaipea played the ball, Cronk bombed to the right, Willl Chambers punched the ball down to Kenny Bromwich who flicked it to Sisa Waqa.
Waqa flung it to Tohu Harris, who straightened up in midfield before finding Cronk, who created space for Ryan Hoffman.
“Pass it Hoffy, pass it,” said Tonumaipea when asked what he was thinking during these frantic moments.
Hoffman passed it, the winger touched down and the crowd erupted. Hoffman said of the match winner: “We had to teach him to stop running at defenders and start running a space.”
Storm captain Cameron Smith said it was important his charges remembered how poorly they played in the opening hour.
“i think there’s only one other game that compares to that one – a few years ago when we beat the Bulldogs down here when Sisa put Will Chambers over in the corner,”said hooker Smith.
“This one probably beats that one as far as finishes go.
“I don’t want to take anything away from our win but, you know, I wish we could play like that early in the game rather than late.
“Tonight we had some simple errors – blokes trying to offload when they had three blokes on top of them, dropped balls where you’d like to think our blokes at the back would take them.
“That just puts so much pressure on our defence,”
Coach Craig Bellamy said: “If we’d finished at 24-22 or whatever it was, I would have been quite satisfied by that last 20 minutes.”

MELBOURNE 28 (W Chambers 2 J Bromwich C Cronk Y Tonumaipea tries; C Smith 4 goals) beat ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 24 (D Farrell B Morris G Beale T Merrin tries G Widdop 4 goals) at AAMI Park. Referee: M Cecchin/G Atkins. Crowd: 13,130.

Filed for: THE AUSTRALIAN

Revealed: Brett Morris’s Pledge

Brett MorrisBy STEVE MASCORD

FLYER Brett Morris has revealed be made a pledge to himself after fearing he had cost St George Illlawarra Saturday’s game against the Warriors.
Morris had the ball dislodged as he ran it out of the Dragons in-goal when the Eden Park clash was finely poised with 14 minutes left, the home side dotting down.
Video referees took considerable time to determine defender Ben Henry had been offside chasing the kick, meaning the try would be chalked off.
“When it happened, I thought they were probably offside in the first place but I shouldn’t have dropped the ball,” said Morris.
“I had it in my head that the next time I got the ball, I was going to make up for it.
“It worked out – I ran 100 metres to score a try.”
Grabbing a kick in his own in-goal three minutes later, Morris bagged a touchdown that will be tough to beat all season.
“I was lucky to scoop that up and run the length,” he said.
“To get that one and ease some pressure for the boys … it’s a big help
“I was buggered by the end of it, I just wanted to lay there a bit and catch my breath back.”
Meanwhile, boom five-eighth Gareth Widdop says match officials were to blame for his off-balance field goal with three minutes remaining. The one-pointer showcased the freakish skills of the Halifax junior.
“The ref was sort of in the way and i got a bad pass,” said Widdop. “It was just a reaction. I just put it on the left foot and it went over.
“I was setting up for one, but like I said, the ref was in the way a fair bit and I couldn’t get in position.”
And in-form Dragons forward Tyson Frizzel credits his World Cup campaign with Wales for his powerful start to the season.
“I’m a young fella, I can get through,” said Frizzel. “The older fellas, they struggle a bit. But they get good time off at the start of the season.
“I don’t mind playing a bit of international footy … As long as I’m right for the start of the (next)season.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Rabbitohs, Dragons Steal The March On Rivals

Sydney Roosters - Sam MoaBy STEVE MASCORD
OLD favourites South Sydney and St George Illawarra have been identified by rivals and their own players as the teams who have cunningly exploited the NRL’s new rules the best.
According to Sydney Roosters prop Sam Moa, Souths coach Michael Maguire has capitalised on the crackdown on gang-tackling, while Dragons winger Jason Nightingale says what was once a weakness for the joint venture – small forwards – has been transformed under the new rules to a strength.
The bunnies flogged premiers Sydney Roosters 28-8 at ANZ Stadium on Thursday while the Dragons topped 40 points for the first time in 111 matches, downing Wests Tigers 44-24 at the same venue on Sunday.
“When you play Souths, they’ve got a strike force across the field and they’ve got a really big pack,” Tongan star Moa explained to League Week.
“The rule changes enables quicker play and that kind of suits them but we’re playing of an even board and the same rules apply to us and we have to adapt.
“We didn’t connect very well in the middle, us forwards. We weren’t finishing off our tackles, that enabled their big forwards to get a quick play-the-ball. Issac Luke would jump out, he’d pass it to another big forward charging onto the ball.
“It seemed like we were on the back foot for a lot of the game.
“I felt that in the game, they were better than us at that part (holding up the attacker to halt momentum) but last year we came up with a pretty good formula. The boys will change, we have to adapt. We’ve got a pretty good defensive coach in Craig Fitzgibbon.
“He’s been teaching us a whole lot of techniques. It’s just down to us to apply them in the game and take them on board.
“There’s a bit of a shock but there’s a bit of positivity coming out of it because in some ways it was a bit of a kick up the arse that we needed. We won the World Club Challenge and we won the grand final…people keep writing off Souths but they trialled really well and they looked really good in the off-season.”
On page ?? of this week’s magazine, Wests Tigers coach Michael Potter says the new rule interpretations make it, literally, survival of the fittest – and Nightingale says the Dragons are pleased with the change in emphasis.
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the big, powerful people,” says the New Zealand international. “I think Souths are a great example of that – they’re big monsters but obviously they’re fit as well but they’re used in the right way. They’re effective even though their fitness might not be as high as other forwards or teams.
“It’s advantagous to us; we’ve always prided ourselves on being a fit team. We’ve been bent back, we probably do have a smaller pack, a more mobile pack, so those rule interpretations will – I think – help us. We haven’t got an unfit guy in our squad. They can all run all day.
“But like I say, that doesn’t mean you can’t have powerhouses run all over you because there’s a place in the game for those people.
“It’s gotten really fast – that’s great for our game. It puts a lot more responsibility on your backs when you’re coming out of your own end because those forwards are getting extra tired.
“I really enjoyed playing – and watching the games over the weekend. There’ve been some great initiatives to clean the game up and I hope it stays like that.”
Brisbane are another team who believe they’re better off under the new regime. “The ruck has really sped up, which is pretty good for forwards like myself and Benny Hannant,” said prop Josh McGuire.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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 BIG ISSUE: #59

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

HOW quickly they forget.

By the time you read this, the campaigns of eight NRL teams is are already fading memories. It’s worth pondering how arbitrary and brutal an industry rugby league, and professional sport in general, is.

You train like a dog all summer, you get locked into a weekly grind which is painful, repetitive and unforgiving. And just like that, sometimes at the whim of a match official, injury or suspension, it ends with a shrill siren in round 26.

Bang, you’re not competing anymore. It doesn’t happen so suddenly in too many other areas of human endeavour, except perhaps life itself.

The play-offs are, objectively, even weirder. You train and play for 10 months just to get into one of these things. If it’s a sudden death game, you have effectively put four days into each minute of that contest.

And if you lose – just one game off football – the entire 10 months is gone. The who 10 months is wasted for 575 out of 600 footballers, who have to start again or will never get another chance. Brutal odds.

GOLD COAST: An admirable rear guard action, desperately short on troops. If the comp was a month longer, they may have made the grand final.

PENRITH: Over-achieved due to own hard work. Ivan Cleary has some claim to coach-of-the-year voting, so impressive were the Panthers at times. Luke Walsh, in particular, will be missed.

WARRIORS: Same number of competition points as Penrith but a completely different performance in relation to expectations. Finding the ark of the covenant or King Solomon’s mines easy compared to making themconsistent.

BRISBANE: No-one seems to think they should be subject to the same cycles as other clubs, chiefly because they’re in the capital of the rugby league world. They still have to comply with the salary cap.

CANBERRA: If you can do a “drama and atrocity” graph and overlay it with a “Raiders results” graph, the lines would track each other pretty closely. Dugan, Ferguson, Furner, Earl just does not happen to the same club in the same year.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA: Still in the midst of a massive downswing post-2010 premiership. The system is designed to inflict such misfortune – but it shouldn’t last this long.

WESTS TIGERS: A woeful years which you could charitably put down to a new coach who had little influence over the shortcomings of the roster he inherited. Must improve.

PARRAMATTA: Not only is there no light at the end of the playing roster tunnel but the coaching and political tunnels each look pitch black as well.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Jamie’s Slim London Pickings

P1030071By STEVE MASCORD

FROM here, Jamie Soward could throw the ball over the crossbar.

We are sitting on the rock hard surface of the Richardson Evans Memorial Ground, training headquarters of the London Broncos, just over 20 metres out and to the right of the posts.

Of course, Penrith recruit Soward would not attempt to throw it over. Instead, he’d step back at right angles to the ball, extend his fingers like a sprinter, jog on the spot, and move in to strike the pigskin before replacing his headgear.

Squinting in the sunshine, he says one such goal attempt – missed – brought about the premature end of his St George Illawarra career.

“I guess I was disappointed I was dropped the week after I missed a penalty goal against Canterbury,” says the 28-year-old,

“Tough game, they’re a great team and we were in the game for only the last 10 minutes, really. So we didn’t really deserve to win.

“(But) It’s never one thing that breaks up a relationship.”

Soward was criticised for cutting his losses and not playing out the season with the Illawarra Cutters. The joint venture’s results since suggest he would have got another chance in first grade, where his long kicking game has been missed.

“I think that was a bit of loyalty from Dousty (chief executive Peter Doust),” the man himself says. ”He didn’t want to see me playing reserve grade for the rest of the year and having to answer questions week-in and week-out and I didn’t want to do that either.

“The results back home for the Dragons have probably stayed the same.

“Obviously the circumstances of a player signing for a rival club for the rest of the year is not ideal but in saying that, I’m a business, myself, and I need to look after my family going forward.

“Some people understood that. Some people weren’t happy with it. If I ask you the same question: if I give you security for the next four years, five years, are you going to take it or are you going to roll the dice?

“The relationship between myself and Dragons had been great while we had been winning. It was just a tough start to the year. All that sort of combined with me signing.”

The man with the Dragon tattoo – a 2010 premiership tattoo on an inside biceps – played off the bench a few hours after landing in London and endured a 70-0 Challenge Cup semi-final flogging at the hands of Wigan.

The Broncos play before tiny crowds – their entire season home attendance equals roughly one game at Suncorp Stadium by their Brisbane namesakes – and there is intense speculation their owner David Hughes will withdraw support and they won’t be in Super League next year.

“This experience has taught me about patience,” says Soward, about halfway through a wide-ranging chat conducted at the end of training.

“Sometimes I guess I’ve said the wrong thing or it’s came out the wrong way. I’ve had to really sit back and take it all in whilst losing and I’m learning quickly because I’m only here for a short time.

“I feel a lot more relaxed than I was back home. I guess the fishbowl effect gets to you and slowly, I think – keeping an eye on the game back home – some of the media’s starting to understand that.

“It is 24-7, your job. You get paid well and we do understand we’re role models but we need to work together to grow our game. You need to work on your game and I need to work on my game.”

Soward is a magnet for criticism, perhaps because – as a general sports nut who wants to work in the media upon retirement – he is acutely aware of it and all too happy to engage his detractors.

When he quotes Wally Lewis on the subject of dealing with critics, those critics think he is comparing himself to the The King as a player.

Even in the Challenge Cup semi, there were reports of him jousting with fans, who chanted ‘taxi for Soward“

“It said that I spat at the crowd but I just turned around riled them up a little bit – just a little bit of fun,” he explains.

“I think most media people that sit down and talk to me one-on-one realise that I’m not the prickly guy that (I am when I) get 10 people in front of him, asking why we keep losing.

“I couldn’t understand their chants so the one I did understand, I just turned around and … taxi’s universal, isn’t it?

“Back home, there’s a lot more fans. Being at St George, you might go to a function and there’s 2000 fans who want to talk to you after you’ve played.

“Sometimes, I’ve probably not been in the mood and I haven’t wanted to talk to every single person but they keep the game going.

“I’m just human. I’m not in a good mood every day and I don’t say the right things every day. I’m seeing a lot more support for the players, especially since the new TV deal’s come in.

“The media want more access but they have to realise that we’ve got careers we’ve got to protect and if we’re getting bagged every day then it’s not going to help either of us, really.”

Soward says he speaks to some Dragons players daily and that he’s looking forward to learning the names of his new Penrith team-mates (“like the first day at school”), although in truth he probably already knows their weights, heights and nicknames.

He’s tried shutting footy culture out, he says, but it doesn’t work for him

“When I come up against the Dragons, I guess I’ll get booed. But what’s the difference? I get booed everywhere I go.

“I’m not a big head by any stretch. If I say it, I say it how it is. If I get booed, I get booed. I was happy they even knew who I was, over here. It’s all good fun, mate.

“I need to be more relaxed and the media probably need to take me less seriously.”

Filed for: SUN-HERALD

NRL round 22: BRISBANE 26 ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 24 at Suncorp Stadium

By STEVE MASCORD

CURSED Australia centre Justin Hodges wasted no time in completely ruling out the possibility of retirement after he snapped an achilles tendon in Brisbane’s win over St George Illawarra.

“It’s not the end of me,” 31-year-old Hodges told reporters after the Broncos rallied in his absence when he collapsed without a hand on him, taking the ball one off a scrum in the 18th minute at Suncorp Stadium.

“No player ever wants to retire injured. That’s not me. That’s not how I’m built. I’ve had many injuries and it tests your character. It’s not going to be the end. I’ll fight.

“I’ll be bouncing back bigger and better next year. It’s a good challenge. Bring it on.

“I’ll get it done and finish my career the way I wanted.”

The left achilles injury follows a right achilles rupture in 2010 which required a year-long convalescence as well as a knee reconstruction, shoulder reconstruction and chronic lower back and problems.

This year’s will be the second consecutive World Cup Hodges has missed through injury and his run of outs is now comparable with those of fellow Queenslanders Mal Meninga and Brent Tate, who he will have to emulate to re-ignite a glittering carerr,

“I can’t figure it out – his whole body just keeps breaking,” said coach Anthony Griffin. “It took him, probably, a year to get over the last one.”

Brisbane’s ability to win every remaining game and sneak into the finals without Hodges is certainly under question; but so too was their ability to beat the Dragons on Sunday and they did so – only just.

St George Illawarra exploited the defence in the part of the field Hodges would have filled and led 18-14 with 23 minutes remaining.

But after going down with cramp near the posts, Brisbane captain Sam Thaiday made a miraculous recovery to score the try that put his side in front for the final time.

The lead opened out to 26-18 before a late Dragons try made it a nervous final two minutes for 31,191 fans enjoying the Broncos’ first Sunday afternoon home game in more than a year.

The joint venture was also hit with casualties. Prop Trent Merrin’s World Cup involvement is at least under a cloud due to a medial knee ligament injury, while fullback Josh Dugan suffered a suspected broken thumb.

The worst case scenario would see each out for the season. Coach Steve Price said a soft try conceded to Matt Gillett early in the second half, after lead-up from Ben Hunt and Jack Reed, was particularly costly.

“I felt like we were the better team for the majority of the game,” said Price. “A couple of decisions … a lot of wounded blokes out there but they kept finding a way to turn up.

“That’s what what we’re about at this footy club.”

The Broncos were fuming over a number of officiating decisions, not least hooker Andrew McCullough’s disallowed try at 63 minutes.

“The same as everyone else, I thought it was a try,” said Griffin. “There was a bit of separation there but he got the ball down. We are just having to battle through those things at the moment.”

Thaiday said there “were probably times the Dragons should have run away and won that game … to hang in there and win was an enormous effort.’

The happiest man at Suncorp Stadium late Sunday was teenage debutant Jordan Drew, who scored after only 19 minutes.

“I only told my closest friends and family I was playing,” said Drew. “I didn’t put it on facebook or anything.”

BRISBANE 26 (J Drew M Gillett S Thaiday A McCullough tries S Prince 5 goals) bt ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA 24 (D Vidot 2 A Quinlan 2 tries J Dugan 4 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Referees: J Robinson/G Reynolds. Crowd: 31,191.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD