By MARIA RECOUVREUR
WATCHING the Roosters get trounced by the Rabbitohs 60-8 was not how I expected to spend last Friday night.
By MARIA RECOUVREUR
WATCHING the Roosters get trounced by the Rabbitohs 60-8 was not how I expected to spend last Friday night.
THE overall record of expanded World Club Championship matches was left at 60-8 in favour of the southern hemisphere by this 2016 opening night mismatch – but Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson launched an impassioned defence of the concept.
The St Helens-Roosters clash at Langtree Park marked the 40th anniversary of the firsrt clash between the Australian and British champions – involving the same clubs at the Sydney Sports Ground in ’76 – and by halftime the NRL team had racked up a 22-0 lead.
World Club Challenge games were adjudged to have such potential that in 1997 the Super League competitions merged mid-season but those from the Australasia won 48 of the 56 matches played. Since the revival of the idea last year, NRL sides have been successful in all four games.
“I don’t think questioning it is a good idea. It’s about loving it and investing some time,” said Robinson following a match in which the performances of young halves Jayden Nikorima and Jackson Hastings was a feature.
“It’s awesome to go to St Helens and Wigan and Leeds.
“It’s here to stay. We want to promote the players between England and Australia. There’s some great English players down in the NRL as well.
“We have to continue the concept. The fans love it, They’re turning up.”
But after some determined defence from St Helens the Roosters hit cruise mode, making light of the absence of Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner and the departed Michael Jennings, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and James Maloney.
Boom centre Latrell Mitchell beat four players on a dime in the lead-up to the opening touchdown of the game, for prop Kane Evans, while Nikorima overcame an early head knock to star.
St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham described both Nikorima and Mitchell as future superstars.
“There’s been a lot written in the last month but we’ve always been confident about what’s ahead,” said Robinson.
“I thought we came up with stuff that usually takes a few months.”
One selection surprise was the omission of Wigan recruit Joe Burgess from the Roosters squad. “He’s a very good player who will play a lot of NRL,” said Robinson.
“But he’s only been with us five or six months. He’s probably a little bit short but Latrell developed well over the off-season.”
Cunningham said: “The difference was the outside backs of the Roosters … it’s unfortunate the scoreline blew out the way it did.”
Nikorima was not made available to the media after the match.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS 38 (A Guerra 2 K Evans D Copley D Tupou S Kenny-Dowall B Ferguson tries J Hastings 5 goals) beat ST HELENS 12 (D Peyroux 2 tries L Walsh 2 goals) at Langtree Park. Referee: Ben Thaler. Crowd: 14,008
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
With 1:45 left in the Broncos-Sydney Roosters epic at Suncorp Stadium, most of the 33,381 crowd was eying a bar on nearby Caxton Street and after that, destination unknown with the home side headed to a famous victory, leading the premiers 26-24.
But halfback Pearce found second-rower Cordner arrow towards the left upright and the 11th hour try ruined – and probably ended – the nights of many. For the Broncos, the operation was a success but the patient died during a breakneck second half when the lead changed every few minutes.
A brisk first half finished at 12-12. Brisbane halfback Ben Hunt, taking the ball on the blindside in the south-western corner, threw a dummy and glided over for the opening try in the sixth minute, which was duly converted by Corey Parker.
But former Rooster Martin Kennedy lost the ball from the kickoff in a thunderous tackle And ex-team-mate Michael Jennings scored from the next set. Jennings stepped inside Dale Copley with apparent ease, James Maloney tying the scores on 10 minutes.
Roosters prop Sam Moa seemed to be stopped well short of the line five minutes later but his formidable leg drive propelled him across the stripe, grounding the ball for a converted try despite the attentions of several defenders. The premiers seemed to be on a roll and they were sternly tested for an extended period at Brisbane launched incessant waves of attack at the southern end they defended.
Hunt’s kick was fumbled by Anthony Minichiello under his own posts and Sam Thaiday pounced, saluting a rapturous crowd after planting the ball in the in-goal.
Parker snaffled an easy goal and that was the sum total of the first half’s scoring.
Sydney Roosters replacement Kane Evans was reported for a high shot on Matt Gillett in the 30th minute and Jake Friend went off for concussion assessment not long afterwards.
When an in-goal divot delayed a Sydney Roosters line dropout just after halftime, Parker walked over and put the turf back in place.
His immediate reward for the sense of urgency was his team reclaiming the lead, via his own penalty goal after 44 minutes,
Anthony Minichiello had been penalised for delaying tactics in front of his own posts; “that’s three in a row,” Parker told Shayne Hayne, “someone’s got to go.”
But Brisbane’s shifting of gears was more lavishly rewarded when Hunt cut out Copley with a pass that found winger Lachlan Maranta, who dashed over in the north-eastern corner.
Parker’s missed touch line conversion left a six-point Broncos advantage – but it didn’t last long.
Parker complained defender Josh Hoffman was obstructed by decoy Mitch Aubusson as Tricolours centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall crossed out wide. “He held him up for half a second – which was the difference between Hoffy getting him and not.”
Video referees Luke Patten and Steve Clark disagreed, flashing the green light for a converted try which again tied the scores.
The Broncos then seemed to won the game with a merciless one-two punch. First, Jack Reed forced his way over off Josh Hoffman’s pass, then Hunt was rewarded for an outstanding evening by scrambling over for a four-pointer of his own.
SYDNEY ROOSTERS 30 (B Cordner M Jennings S Kenny-Dowall S Moa R Tuivasa-Sheck tries J Maloney 5 goals) bt BRISBANE 26 (B Hunt 2 L Maranta J Reed S Thaiday tries C Parker 3 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Referees: S Hayne/ C James. Crowd: 33,381.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
By STEVE MASCORD
SEEING RED OVER MOSES
WHAT if Dallas Donnelly pulled up outside an NRL ground in his time travelling Delorian and went inside for a gander? What would he make of a competition where you are sent to the sin bin for punching someone but stay on the field for a deadset coat-hanger? How can we be SOFTER on an offence now than we were in the seventies? It defies logic. The ban on referee comments stifled the debate on Saturday night surrounding Mitchell Moses’ shot on William Zillman. Set of Six will debate it; Moses should have been sent off. Flailing fists deter parents from letting their kids play rugby league – do we think mum wants little Johnny to do his best rag doll impersonation every weekend?
WELL may Phil Gould and Penrith oppose an external draft – they have more juniors than most other clubs. But one change in the game that has gone un-noticed over the summer has been the rebranding of the state leagues, aside from NSW and Queensland. The South Australian Rugby League is now NRL South Australia – and so on. They are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Moore Park HQ. No doubt, the aim is to do the same with the NSWRL, the QRL and the CRL. The NRL wants to be to rugby league what the NBA is to basketball – that is, just about everything. It will take care of all development and clubs will be shells focused only on winning first grade matches and attracting fans. Set of Six likes the idea.
COCKY FOWLS NOT SCARED OF FOULS
LOTS of things have changed this season by according to Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan, one thing hasn’t. “It’s a little bit faster, sides are trying to find their feet. Sides don’t want to give away too many penalties away – bar the Roosters. They were quite happy to give penalties away and then defend ‘em.” The Roosters do not like accusations they deliberately give away penalties. Flanagan nominated Trent Robinson’s team, South Sydney and Parramatta as sides who had “put their hand up” over the weekend. The Sharks boss wasn’t sure how he’d feel going to Remondis Stadium last night for his first game back from suspension. “Surprisingly, I’m pretty calm about the whole thing,” he said. “It’s not about me. I’ve got a job here to do and I’ve just got to get on with it.”
SOME random observations about our first taste of premiership football for the year. One, the game IS faster and there IS less wrestling, and the crowds like it. Friday night at Pirtek Stadium, particularly in the first half, was a revelation; the word “fickle” just isn’t in the dictionaries of western Sydney. Your correspondent was at Headingley, where they sing all night, eight days previously and the local Blue and Gold Army outdid their British cousins easily. A bulked-up Anthony Milford in the halves is a gamble. We won’t get reliable forward pass rulings until there are chips in the balls. Dane Gagai and Joey Leilua could be the centre pairing of the year. Pat Richards could easily realise his ambition of playing in the 2017 World Cup. Live free-to-air TV coverage on a Sunday should have happened years ago.
THE SHAFT FOR SHILLO AND SHANNON
TRENT Merrin was only “dropped” for Monday Night Football if you don’t count the game against Warrington, which he also started from the bench. He was in the starting side for round 26 last year, though – we checked. Two men who WERE dropped, by any definition, are big Canberra forwards David Shillington and Shannon Boyd. They were named in Canberra’s first grade side on Sunday – Shillington in the starting front row – but played NSW Cup. Coach Ricky Stuart admitted the hot conditions were in his mind but “there’s a few other reasons – nothing untoward in regards to the two boys. We made the decision earlier in the week.” Stuart reckons the quicker rucks this year mean “dropped balls and penalties are making a big difference between winning and losing.’
CARNAGE IN FRANCE
EVEN a broken rib for Todd Carney took a back seat to the scoreline in the Catalans-Salford Super League game over the weekend. The match finished in a 40-40 draw – which in the Australian premiership would make it the highest scoring drawn game ever, beat three matches which finished 34-34.. In England, there’ve been higher scores in draws – and there almost certainly have been in France, too. After a tackle by Lama Tasi, Carney – who missed the opening two rounds through injury – tweeted: “Just got home from the hospital, Broken Ribs Fingers crossed I won’t be out for long.” Dragons coach Laurent Frayssinous said the tackle was illegal. “It is not acceptable that there is a late tackle on Todd Carney that has left him in the hospital with a broken rib,” he told reporters. Oh, and the penalty which gave Salford a late draw was a tad controversial, too.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
By STEVE MASCORD
RUGBY league often boasts that it can replace the stars it loses with a rookie of comparable talent, almost instantaneously.
But this Saturday at Alianz Stadium, the maxim will be taken to its extreme when an 19-year-old Englishman called Burgess plays against the Sydney Roosters.
Joe Burgess – no relation to rugby union-bound Sam – started the season third choice winger at Wigan behind Ian Thornley and Josh Charnley and got a start a fornight ago because of an injury to Charnley.
He scored a try – and when he was given the nod ahead of Thornley in the World Club Challenge warm-up against the Warriors half a week later, promptly scored four.
“Pat Richards left, which gave me a good opportunity to work hard and get that permanent spot,” the local Wigan junior tells Fairfax Media.
“I played amateur for 11 years, moved onto Wigan when I was 16 and went fulltime when I was 17.”
Young Joe has been to the southern hemisphere once before, on a schoolboys tour, but said playing 48 hours after crossing the world in the 46-22 win over the Warriors was a completely new experience.
“It was tough, he said. “After the first 20, 25 minutes, I started really feeling it in my legs. But it was good to get it out of the way and move onto next week.” One experience the youngers liked was playing under two referees.
“I think it makes the game better – they’re more precise in their decisions. It was good.
“(We have to be) more aggressive, Getting up off our line and really getting in their (Roosters’) faces.”
The latest Burgess has made coach Shaun Wane’s 19-man squad for the WCC; Thornley has not.
“I can’t picture it. It’s been a dream, I can’t imagine the goosebumps. When we do find out the team and if I do get the chance to play, I’ll make sure I’m better than my opposition.”
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
By STEVE MASCORD
THERE Is something unnatural – even mean-spirited – about the finals.
For 26 weeks, rugby league is just THERE. Some weekends, there aren’t eight NRL games but no matter how well or otherwise your team plays, there’ll be a match to watch again in a minimum of a fortnight
That’s 24 matches in all – pain, sweat, ecstacy, danger, drama and heartbreak. Leave aside the commercial aspect and look at it as a football competition – 1920 minutes are played purely for the right to make the finals.
Once there, the maximum number of minutes of football you will be afforded is 320. The mathematics, therefore, answer the most basic of questions: how much more important is a final than a regular season match?
Six times more important. Every minute in a final is worth six during the home and away rounds. Put another way, the NRL season is the equivalent of running six times around a track to decide whether you make the final one-lap sprint, and what your handicap will be.
But it’s those six laps that often give us our best stories and our memories. Those six laps are what makes a season for most of us, not the hare-like sprint at the end.
From a logic standpoint, the play-offs are clearly an artifice – a construct intended to add excitement and therefore profitability to the back end of a sporting competition. We are often told performances under the pressure of sudden death are “the true test” of a team.
Who says? Why? Surely how many tries and goals you score, and how few you concede, are more impartial barometers. That’s why Manly coach Geoff Toovey said the minor premiers were not given enough credit.
Here at League Week, we’ve tried to redress the balance this week by recording and honouring the players and teams who passed the post first in 2014.
A football season is often described as “a journey” but for your correspondent, it has been many. At the time of writing, I have travelled 162,922 km this year, mostly in pursuit of rugby league.
A season for me is a blur of airports, insane taxi-drivers, rental car desks, wifi passwords and hotel loyalty programmes. What do you ask Greg Inglis after he scores the try of the century? How do you report Alex McKinnon’s injury when no-one will talk about it? How do you get Steve Matai and Anthony Watmough to comment on reports they’ve just asked for a release?
Here are my moments of the season – from the point of view of a travelling hack trying to cover them for radio, newspapers and the great Rugby League Week. They are feats which weren’t only observed, they were lived (your favourite memory may have missed the cut for a simple reason – I wasn’t there).
April 14: MELBOURNE SCORES AFTER THE BELL TO BEAT ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA
THE NRL would later confirm fulltime should have prevented the Storm scoring the winning try in a 28-24 win. Working for Triple M, your reporter grabbed the winning scorer – Young Tonumaipea – right on fulltime. Unfortunately, we were on the same frequency as another outlet, meaning Young sounded like he was broadcasting from Venus. The mobile phone was quickly produced, and interviews were submitted by email. The trouble with the clock was not immediately obvious but Dragons coach Steve Price told us on air: “When I thought it was zero, he still hadn’t played the ball. We were truly the better team tonight – by far.”
April 20: BIG PAUL VAUGHAN BAGS A TRY ON THE DEATH TO BEAT MELBOURNE’
WE were on the scene within seconds of the Italian International danced nimbly between defenders to score the try of his life. “I just picked up the ball, I don’t know what happened, it happened so fast,” said Vaughan after the 24-22 victory.. “I think there was a loose ball, I saw a couple of lazy defenders and skipped across and gap opened up and I went for it. I thought it might have been a possible obstruction.” It was the Raiders’ third win of the year – they would find them harder to come by over the balance of the camptain.
April 25: GREG INGLIS SCORES LENGTH OF THE FIELD SOLO TRY BEATING SIX DEFENDERS
THERE was a collective withholding of breath in the Suncorp Stadium media box as Inglis set off on this run for the ages. Surely, he won’t get there – will he? Even gnarled hacks applauded when he did. Coming to the South Sydney dressingroom doors later in the evening, Inglis said: “I think anyone can score one of them. You’ve got Benny Barba …you see a try like that from (Michael) Jennings over the years at Penrith. You just see all these naturally gifted players. It’s a bit unfortunate in our game that you don’t see enough of it.” He came close with another beauty in the return encounter.
June 7: CRONULLA WINS FROM 22-0 DOWN
CRONULLA’S season has been bleak by any measure. The ASADA controversy and suspension of coach Shane Flanagan meant 2014 was a write-off from the start. When they arrived at Suncorp Stadium in late Jun,e captain Paul Gallen had publically questioned whether caretaker Peter Sharp was giving 100 per cent. No-one expected them to win and they duly trailed 22-0 after 27 minutes. What followed seemed impossible; the Sharks started their comeback just before halftime and won 24-22. “I think it’s a turning point for the club – it doesn’t matter where we finish this year, and in my career – where we’ll remember when everything turned around,” he said. Days later, Carney would be sacked over the bubbling incident.
June 15: CRONULLA WINS FROM 24-0 DOWN
GENERALLY speaking, I don’t cover Sydney games for the newspaper. There are enough rugby league reporters in Sydney. But when they Sun-Herald gave me one, it was a doozy. Eight days after the biggest comeback in the Sharks’ 47 year history, they broke the record again – by beating the reigning premiers and world champions. Not only that, they did it without Sharp, Carney and captain Paul Gallen. Jeff Robson scored the winner with three minutes remaining, and the Roosters crossed with 11 seconds on the clock but the try was disallowed because the referees were unsighted. “I thought I got it down,” Mitch Aubusson said. Cronulla’s round 25 display in Townsville almost got the wooden spooners three mentions here.
JULY 20: RISE FOR ALEX
NEVER mind that Newcastle lost their home game to Gold Coast, 28, on the Rise For Alex weekend. McKinnon’s injury was the saddest event in the careers of most of us. I covered the match and will never forget that night and what I witnessed and heard from the sidelines. But the Rise For Alex round was a testament to the compassion of the rugby league community and a platform for a brave, stoic young man who has already made a difference n the lives of so many and will continue to be beacon. The character, bravery and hard work of Alex McKinnon and those around him was best thing about 2014, and will remain so no matter what happens over the next four weekends.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK