THE JOY OF SIX: Finals Week Two

The Joy Of SixBy STEVE MASCORD

WAYNES WORLD VIII?

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.

WALKING WOUNDED CUP

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.

WHO KNOWS?

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.

CLUB CALL

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.

GROUNDS FOR CONCERN

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.

MORE QUESTIONS

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.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

DISCORD 2013: Edition 38

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD
YOU know how some rugby league columnists seem to have a go at the game’s administration every chance they get?
You know how you read their columns and wish they’d talk about something else?
I was one of you. Really, I was. Here at Discord, we’ve staunchly defended new NRL CEO David Smith, for example, saying he should be accountable to the game, not the Sydney media. I’ve never met him – and regard that as a healthy sign.
But recent events – on both sides of the world – have got Discord wondering whether rugby league really is going to some version of Hell in some version of a hand basket.
You already know what we think of a club administrator who presided over an alleged cover-up then getting – and so far, retaining – the second most senior position a headquarters. Not much. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that ringing people and asking them questions will be rendered a pointless exercise for rugby league reporters if the NRL endorses providing incorrect answers by doing nothing about that situation.
Let’s take you to Super League now, where Huddersfield – having secured the minor premiership – fielded an entire team of reserve graders on national television in the final round and were lapped 58-6 by Bradford.
The Rugby Football League found that the Giants fielded the best available team – even though all of their stars were miraculously back on deck for the play-offs the next week. Come again?
Unlike broadcasters in Australia, Sky try to help the game by giving all clubs more or less equal exposure throughout the season. Their goodwill has been thrown back in their faces by a club which – to be fair on them – is only playing by the rules. Rules that should be changed immediately.
We now move to Saturday, when North Queensland coach Neil Henry threw up – although didn’t explicitly endorse – the prospect of a conspiracy to get a Sydney Roosters-South Sydney grand final after his side was beaten by a seventh-tackle try.
“If you were … conspiracy theory (sic), you’d say ‘we’re so Sydney-centric, we don’t care about the boys up north’. The press talks about the ideal grand final – Souths-Roosters. Bring it on. Don’t worry about Melbourne. They’ve won a couple. Don’t worry about North Queensland. That’s what you want: the heartland of the game.
“Yeah, well we’ve just been dudded of an opportunity to maybe make a dent in this competition. Where’s our pull? We’re out of mind out of sight up there. You get a bit bitter when it’s happened to you two years.”
Later, Henry added: “What do you say, that there’s – as I said – a conspiracy theory? Let’s keep it Sydney-centric, as I said before?” If you watch the video, Henry then shrugs. “Who knows? How can you go down that track?”
In 2008, Craig Bellamy said this about the judiciary suspending Cameron Smith from the grand final and the link with bookmakers: “Bookmakers and betting agencies, they don’t guess, they’ve got good information – take that as you may.
“As soon as I saw that (market) on Wednesday morning … he was thousands.”
The club was fined $50,000 and the judiciary members initiated defamation action, even though Bellamy was specifically asked at the press conference whether was he suggesting the judiciary tipped off bookmakers and said no.It’s nonsense to say Saturday night’s conspiracy theory was aimed a reporters and not referees.
Did reporters give Beau Ryan a try on the seventh tackle? That was the entire context of the media conference: referees.
I am not calling for Neil Henry to be fined, I am calling for the NRL to pull itself out of this freefall of inconsistency before it finds itself splattered all over the ground. I don’t think Neil Henry believes the referees were in cahoots with the League but as a result of his comments, hundreds – or maybe thousands – of people do.
As we said in – ahem – Joy Of Seven, the NRL has extended its powers to fine coaches beyond comments which are defamatory to criticism deemed “excessive”. As a result of being subjective, this rule is unenforceable and stupid. It’s no co-incidence that this change came when the solicitor who used to run the NRL, David Gallop, left.
Solicitors know the importance of precedence, consistency and transparency. Footy officials, historically, have struggled with those concepts.
Do Saturday’s match officials have grounds for any legal action over the “conspiracy theory”? One thing’s for certain, the events of last weekend indicate Manly were dudded by their $10,000 fine almost as severely as the Cowboys were by their seventh-tackle try.
Like I said: Hell, hand basket.
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QUICKLY through the comments.

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THE BIG ISSUE: #58

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

SOME people don’t seem to mind being lied to.

When the photo of a woman’s bloodied lip appeared in News Limited Sunday papers, along with the revelation that the person depicted had complained to the Bulldogs in February she had been hit by Ben Barba, the implications seemed to take a long time to dawn on many.

Let’s spell it out (as things stood when we went to press):

· The highest profile player in the NRL was stood down from the start of the season and we weren’t told why;

· A woman complained she had been assaulted by a Canterbury player and the club told neither the NRL or the police;

· The player was arbitrarily allowed to resume playing with the governing body of the competition in the dark over what had occurred;

· The club CEO who presided over all this now holds a senior position at the National Rugby League.

Let’s look at some of the alleged extenuating circumstances. One, Barba may have been in a fragile mental state at the time and making the allegations public would have exacerbated the situation.

Surely he should not have resumed playing until he could deal with the consequences of the allegations. Instead, he resumed playing when he could deal with something that remained a secret. How does that help him?

Two, the privacy of the alleged victim needed to be protected. Well, she is still denying anything happened now – so how would that have been different in February if the claims had been properly dealt with?

Three, that she did not want to go to police. Well, the law of the land and the regulations of the NRL require that such claims be passed onto the police and League Central, regardless.

Todd Greenberg no doubt believes he did the right thing by Barba at the time and if he has to take a fall for it, he’ll have a clear conscience.

But given that the biggest issue in fighting domestic violence (which we stress we are not accusing anybody of) is that it is horrendously under-reported, how can Canterbury promote the Women In League round with a clear conscience?

Hopefully, between me writing this and you reading it, some new evidence has come to light explaining the actions of the club. If not, action against those involved must be swift and harsh.

And if you don’t think a fan has any right to know that a club is covering up alleged misconduct by players, costing it the services of its best player, then I can’t help you.

We’ll just keep working for those of you who believe you do have that right.

NB: Since this story appeared, the Bulldogs have insisted there was no actual complaint from Ainslie Currie. The club has not detailed how apparent her injuries were when she met with club officials, or if there were any injuries.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

TRAVELS: XIX

TravelsBy STEVE MASCORD
WE are one week away from the play-offs in the NRL and have two major controversies hanging over rugby league.
Both of them had their origins in the pre-season. Call them slow-burners.
The announcement in February that Australian sport had been infiltrated by organised crime and performance-enhancing drug use shocked everyone.
But when the investigations dragged on and on, and nothing happened, cynicism grew. Was this whole thing merely a political football?
But last week, Canberra winger Sandor Earl (who once claimed he had been approached by England to play in the World Cup) was suspended for using and trafficking a banned peptide.
Earl, who is supposed to be joining French rugby union club Pau next year, is co-operating with authorities in the hope his ban will be reduced to six months. The coach of the Essendon Aussie Rules team. James Hird, has also been suspended for allowing peptide use to occur on his watch.
There are two clear implications of this development. A) No Cronulla player confessed, because they were interviewed before Earl and B) The defence that the substances involved were not named in the WADA code at the time is not going to work, because Earl has been banned over those very substances.
The second drama has also been lying in wait all season, waiting to pounce.
When Ben Barba was stood down at the start of the season because of “personal problems”, there were immediately rumours of domestic abuse. When I say ‘rumours’, some media men were so confident in their sources, they went public with the allegations Barba had hit his ex-partner, Ainsley Currie.
One of these media men was the great Wally Lewis, who was forced to apologise for repeating the allegation.
As the season wore on, rumours of a photo showing the injuries emerged. That photo was finally published on Sunday by News International papers and it has – rightly – caused a firestorm.
Not only did the Bulldogs apparently not tell the police or the NRL of the allegation, they consistently denied any such issue when specifically asked by media outlets.
Currie, speaking through her lawyer, has denied Barba hit her. Text messages to a friend, in which Barba was not named, from the time of the alleged incident have become public in the last 24 hours.
And the Dogs’ chief executive at the time, Todd Greenberg, now works at the NRL as director of football! He has said nothing since the photos were published.
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ONE of the best parts of my flying visit to the UK for the Challenge Cup was the opportunity to address the Rugby League European Federation meeting in London on Wembley-eve.
It was the biggest roll-up they’ve ever had for the AGM and I was planning to share some of my rather dubious wisdom with you here. Alas, I lost my notes the very next day so I’ll spare you such tedium.
Basically, I talked about using wider reference points to “sell” stories, something that is second nature to journalists but often doesn’t occur to others.
A couple of years ago, I mentioned in a story about a World Cup qualifier that it was being played in ‘the murder capital of the US’. An official challenged me, saying ‘what does that have to do with the story?’
The answer was: “nothing, but it will make someone with no interest in a rugby league game between the United States and Jamaica read further’.
I also advised countries to use their NRL and Super League players wisely, as they can win you exposure if you plan carefully.
I think it was the Danish delegate who asked why he should care about exposure in Australia or Britain. He wants publicity in Denmark.
Good question.
One, the principle about finding wider, non-RL reference points is applicable to the domestic market. Two, overseas publicity (if it’s positive) can be used to fill up your website and social media pages.

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WORLD RUGBY LEAGUE POWER LIST: Year Two

Power ListBy STEVE MASCORD
WE certainly picked the right time to kick off our World Rugby League Power List in 2012 – if only because it bore little resemblance to rankings we now present to you 12 months later.
Last June, the game had just lost NRL chief executive David Gallop, who went to the FFA, and Rugby Football League executive chairman Richard Lewis, who is now back in tennis.
But at the time, the NRL didn’t have a CEO while no-one has really replaced Lewis at Red Hall, although former Football League CEO Brian Barwick is now the chairman and Maurice Watkins is on board a senior non-executive director.
But it’s at League Central in Sydney that the biggest shakeup has taken place. Since Gallop’s departure, Welshman David Smith has taken over as chief executive and he has designed and instituted a detailed administrative structure.
Todd Greenberg is head of football, Jim Doyle is chief operating officer, Shane Mattiske is head of strategy and Paul Kind runs commercial with three positions to be added.
The old guard is largely either gone, or going.
Last year we summed up the aim of this list thus: – if rugby league has a “direction” as such, who is behind the thing, pushing the hardest? These aren’t necessarily people who throw their weight around most often – but equally we have not favoured wallflowers who could action enormous change for the sport with their wealth and influence but who have so far done nought.
In achieving this aim, we looked at appointing a panel of judges. In future years, that might happen but for now we are sticking to the informal process observed by most journalists gathering information most days – ringing people and talking to them.
The buck for this list stops with the name at the top of the page.
1. John Grant
ARLC chairman: Grant has receded into the background somewhat but is still David Smith’s boss. He attends marquee events, presses the flesh, does interviews and recently presided over the decision to prioritise 30 tasks that the ARLC wanted to achieve over the coming months. He’s the most active and influential member of the commission and still spends a great deal of time at League Central – although much less than before Smith’s appointment. Because of his personal interest in international football, the game’s progress in that area will be significantly influenced by him.
2. Dave Smith
ARLC chief executive: For months last year, the only rugby league official we seemed to see on television was the Commission’s chairman, John Grant. He was everywhere – but has virtually become invisible since he found his man in Welsh banker David (now ‘Dave’) Smith. The name change is eerily reminiscent of predecessor David Moffett, who used to ring open line radio programs posing as ‘David From Hornsby’. Despite being labelled a ‘dunce’, Smith completely remodelled the NRL administration and was at pains to point out the changes were all his. By this time next year, he should go up a place on this list.
3. Gary Pemberton
ARL Commissioner. It seems strange to have three ARLC types at the top of the list and then no more. But Pemberton, Grant and Smith are seen as the men who run rugby league in Australia while the others six commissioners work behind the scenes. We called him a “head kicker” last year but he has been less obtrusive since then. However, clubs hear from Pemberton regularly. Pemberton has experience in TV rights negotiations but unlike others in that area of expertise, has held his spot in the top 20. The likes of Ian Frykberg and Lachlan Murdoch will next be heard from here in four years.
4. Cameron Smith
Melbourne player. Cameron Smith’s influence was best exemplified by David Smith telling the assembled club CEOs earlier this year the hooker wanted the accreditation of three journalists revoked overthe Jon Mannah story. If an Australia captain has ever been so politically active, we haven’t known about it. Smith regularly talks to players around the competition and reportedly would like to be Queensland coach one day. His steady demeanour means he inspires trust in others. As influential as any player has even been off the field.
5. David Gyngell
Television executive. With the NRL’s TV deal signed since our last power rankings, the executives of the stations that got the rights have held their places and those who missed out have disappeared completely. Channel Nine remains central to the way most Australians consume rugby league. People who tweet scores from games they are showing on delay are regularly abused and Nine’s commentators are arguably more famous than most players. Nine succeeded in convincing the NRL to allow them to delay Sunday games and keep grand finals in the evening by throwing truckloads of money at the new administration.
6. Todd Greenberg
NRL official. Despite his high profile, Greenberg didn’t make our list last year because we were told he was not a wheeler-and-deaer, preparing to focus on what was in front of him at the Bulldogs. But having handled the Ben Barba episode at the club earlier this year, Greenberg has been appointed as David Smith’s frontman at Moore Park. He’s the man who knows it’s Ben Barba, not Benji Barba, and will speak on football-related matters in future. Presumably, given Dave Smith’s pre-occupation with the corporate side of the business, Greenberg will increasingly seem like the boss of the NRL to average fans.
7. Patrick Delany
Television executive. Our first new entry, the Fox Sports CEO has been very proactive this year as his pay television channel completely overhauled its rugby league coverage, cutting a talent-sharing deal with Nine. A former Commonwealth Games swimming trialist, Delaney is known to be in constant contact with clubs about innovations such as the Fox Kopter and cornerpost-cam. A great corporate link with News Limited and a big move into tablets and mobile technology increases Fox’s – and Delany’s – influence.
8. Phil Gould
Penrith general manager. Gould was David Gallop’s no.1 nemesis and saw him off. No other club official commentates on games and writes columns in newspapers. He has the ear of David Smith and the respect of most, putting in long hours and leading the fight against the GWS AFL franchise. Gould appears to be a fan of the ARLC but history shows he will be a formidable adversary if they get him offside. He talks about politics, football and personalities and shapes public opinion in each these areas. And he almost prised Johnathan Thurston away from North Queensland.
9. Ray Dibb
Canterbury chairman. The rise of NRL club chairman has been a key development since our most recent power rankings. The group succeeded in getting an advance on the TV rights income which has been estimated at some $7 million per franchise. Initially, there were fears they would block the introduction of the commission completely if they didn’t get their way. Dib is in constant contact with other club bosses, recently appointed the first female chief executive of the NRL era, Raelene Castle and played a key role in the recent restructure of the NSWRL.
10. Gary Hetherington
Leeds chief executive. Our highest ranking English power broker, Hetherington runs the dual code Leeds Rugby conglomerate and is the man behind bids to expand the World Club Challenge which now look like being successful. Hetherington is always thinking outside the box, be it taking games to places like Dubai and Hong Kong or tinkering with the domestic season, and has more influence than anyone at Red Hall given the recent financial problems at Bradford and the near-collapse of Salford.
11. Dave Trodden
Wests Tigers official. The Balmain solicitor stepped down as Wests Tigers chairman at the end of his term last year but by then he had already played a key role in establishing the NRL chairmans’ group and won significant funding from the Commission, creating a new power group in the game. At the end of 2011, he was quoted in RLW saying the clubs were refusing to sign licence agreements with the NRL, which could have freed them to form their own competition. Despite no longer being a club chairman, Trodden remains active. Also a huge influence over NSWRL restructure.
12. Graham Annesley
NSW Sports Minister. The next big revolution in the NRL is going to concern the stadiums policy, and attempts to match venues to events more sensibly.. That will mean a painful departure from suburban grounds and better deals for clubs and fans at the super stadia. As NSW sports minister, former international referee Graham Annesley will be at the centre of the paradigm shift. He’s rocketed up eight spots in our world rugby league power rankings as a result.
13. Wayne Beavis
Player agent. With the television deal done and the competition structure settled, player agents such as Beavis come into their own once more. When it was reported recently that Neil Henry had two weeks to save his job as coach of North Queensland, it was a meeting Beavis held in Townsville which sparked the rumour. Beavis manages Trent Barrett, who has been linked to a coaching job at the Cowboys. He also represented the players in talks with the RLPA about representative payments and is also deeply involved in the Agent Accreditation scheme.
14. Wayne Bennett
Newcastle coach. The supercoach has dropped a few spots because he has had enough on his plate at Newcastle, restricting the time available to influence the sport as a whole. Nathan Tinkler has gone from the top 20 completely for similar reasons. But when Bennett has something to say, like recently regarding cannonball tackles, people listen. Having brought back the Tri- (now Four) Nations, he has reportedly moved his focus to Australian sport as a whole. Bennett knows how to use his influence and is anecdotally close to ARLC chairman John Grant.
15. Jim Doyle
NRL chief operating officer. Already influential in his role as the chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby League, the Navman millionaire has crossed the Tasman and is helping run the NRL. Doyle turned Kiwi league around in the wake of the SPARC report, winning many admirers, and could even be regarded as over-qualified for his NRL gig. His oversight includes the new NRL integrity unit and he gave an early indication he won’t be a wallflower by speaking out against the practice of sweeping off-field incidents under the carpet.
16. Shane Richardson
South Sydney chief executive. Richardson has a finger in plenty of pies. As one of the longest-surviving club CEOs, he has plenty to say at CEOs conferences. As a former Super League club boss, he is on the committee that liases over the future of the World Club Challenge. And as the boss of the competition’s form team, he has a big input on competition-wide policies, such as media procedures. Richardson is also not afraid to make a public statement, meaning he can use the media to apply pressure where necessary – a lost art among most NRL CEOs
17. Isaac Moses
Player agent. A new entry by unlucky to miss out last year. Moses is the man who manages Cameron Smith, the current Australian captain, and the recruit the game most covets, Israel Folau. As part of Titan management, which also handles Karmichael Hunt, he has been involved in some of the most seismic transfers in recent rugby league history – ones which affect the overall health of the game by shifting athletes from one sport to another. Moses was banned from operating by the Agent Accreditation Scheme over his involvement in the Storm salary cap drama but the suspension seemed to have little or no impact on his operation
18. Simon Moran
Warrington majority shareholder. The English “pop impresario” rarely gives interviews but is too polite to decline them, simply going missing at the appointed time. He’s the man behind some of the biggest bands, festivals and venues in the UK but his big passion is rugby league and, more specifically, Warrington Wolves. He has single-handedly turned them into a Super League force and is part of a powerful group that is negotiating over the future of the World Club Challenge. A man with enough money to make things happen.
19. Paul Gallen
Cronulla captain. Gallen has become increasingly outspoken in recent years and the ASADA investigation at the Sharks has brought his leadership qualities into shark focus. Cronulla’s decision to stone-wall the drugs agency has forced it to change tack and probably prolonged the investigation. On the field, he took the law into his own hands in Origin I as NSW skipper and probably went a long way towards determining the result. Number 19 with a bullet.
20 Owen Glenn
Warriors shareholder. Probably holds the fortunes of rugby league in New Zealand in his hands. The billionaire took a share in the Warriors last year, with an announcement he and Eric Watson would share the ownership on a 50-50 basis. Without the club as a flagship, rugby league in New Zealand would not be able to keep its head above water in comparison with the dominant rival code. The owners last year announced they wanted to make the club the biggest sporting franchise in Australasia. That’s got off to a shaky start.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK