THE BIG ISSUE: #46

The Big IssueBy STEVE MASCORD

IN last week’s Rugby League Week, Nate Myles raised the spectre of the “prowler” or “cannonball” tackle.

During the round 11 game between his Gold Coast Titans and Parramatta, he had appealed to the referees to do something about the practice. During a remarkably civil on-field debate with rival captain Tim Mannah, it was pointed out that Titans were doing it too.

Myles didn’t want us to make a big deal about the issue in last week’s mag.

Newcastle coach Wayne Bennett, on the other hand, clearly wanted to make an issue of the practice when his back rower Alex McKinnon suffered syndesmosis of the ankle, allegedly after a dangerous challenge by South Sydney’s Nathan Peats on Saturday.

It seems a straightforward process to stop a third defender diving at the knees when two others have an attacking player held.

But the bunnies point out that Peats was only tackling around the legs, as players are taught from the age of five. Of course, the legs used to be the first port of call for any tackler in rugby league.

Now, they’re the second or third priority and that’s why we have these injuries.

It’s unrealistic to expect professional players to go back to tackling around the legs but we can encourage referees to keep a look out for a “third man in” diving at the knees and start giving penalties, as happened in the second half of the Mudgee game.

Many readers no doubt oppose the recent mid-season rule changes in the NRL. But if they are concerned with player safety, like this one, are they OK?

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I’VE been quiet on media access for a while, now haven’t i?

But how is it that you can waltz into a State of Origin team hotel, have 19 minutes with a NSW forward (see Trent Merrin A-List page 12-13) – and a brief chat with another for a news story – and yet that is completely impossible at club level.

There are only 34 Origin players and roughly 450 in the NRL – yet it’s easier to crack it for a chat with an Origin player. Crazy.

The new NRL media guidelines were a step in the right direction but clubs are now just trying to meet quotas, in some extreme cases putting up fringe first graders on weekend mornings at the exact same time as other events in the same city.

The ALRLC desperately needs a co-ordinated media strategy in each city to effectively combat other sports, instead of allowing the current situation where NRL clubs are undercutting each other with chaotic media schedules.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

DISCORD 2013: Edition 15

DiscordBy STEVE MASCORD

IT’S now common for clubs to put media conferences up on their websites. You won’t get any print journalists asking good questions at morning recovery sessions as a result – but that’s not what I want to talk about here.

The interview marked “Round Five recovery” on the Newcastle Knights website features Darius Boyd on Monday, and is pretty unremarkable. However, it is just an “edited highlights” of the encounter.

Apparently Darius – famous for his antisocial media opp at the Dragons a couple of years ago – refused to answer innocuous questions like “what do you think of your own form?”

“Next question” and “no comment” were the responses to the sort of Dorothy Dixers that players at, say, Cronulla would kill to be fielding right now. Excerpts were shown on the Matty Johns Show this week.

Discord is not going to do the predictable thing and just have a go at Darius. I’ve got a slightly more complex point to make.

A number of players and coaches over the years – Darius is one but former St George Illawarra captain Ben Hornby and, at times, current Dragons coach Steve Price to much lesser degrees – have appeared to take their cue from Wayne Bennett when it comes to dealing with the media.

But what they have done is copy the substance of Bennett’s public utterances without any appreciation of the subtlety and strategy involved.

Wayne Bennett says very little so that his opinion becomes a rare commodity. When Bennett needs to get something ‘out there’, his comments have greater currency because he doesn’t say much when other people want him to.

He says more in defeat, generally, than he says in victory. Last Sunday was a classic example when Price’s Dragons beat his Knights at Kogarah.

Instead of writing about Knights great Kurt Gidley being consigned to a gruelling career as a hooker, for instance, we all wrote about how Bennett bagged us.

Bennett also often sacrifices himself for his team, saying nothing so we focus on his reticence rather than his team’s poor performance.

He has been known to ring journalists when he wants to get a point across. How many of his acolytes do that? The number of former Queensland greats who have criticised Maroons forwards on the morning of a match when he was coach may or may not be a coincidence.

But it is clear from the behaviour of those who have done their apprenticeships under Bennett that he has not shared the nuances of his strategies with them. They have just aped his “give ‘em nothing, take ‘em nowhere” exterior.

Without the intellectual underpinning, this often comes across as just plain rude.

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ANOTHER coach bites the dust in Ian ‘Basil’ Millward at Castleford.

A friend of mine commented on Facebook yesterday that if Maggie Thatcher had never been born, Castleford wouldn’t be such a struggling club, since her policies hurt the industrial north more than anywhere else.

Basil’s had such a hard couple of years and a break from coaching will do him good. Discord wishes him luck

I can’t believe Brian Smith does not have a job in Super League by now. Or Stephen Kearney (I think he has to stay in the southern hemisphere to keep the NZ job).

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LOTS of comments last week after a slow response to the previous column.

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THE WRAP: NRL Round One

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD

WHILE you were glued to your television set – and hopefully a grandstand seat or two – watching the colour and drama of the NRL kick-off at the weekend, the competition’s leading coach saw nothing.
Not only that, but Wayne Bennett told his Newcastle players not to view a minute of round one action on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I haven’t watched a game, actually – I haven’t watched one game,” said Bennett, for whom it must be said the blackout worked, given his side’s 42-10 win over Wests Tigers in Monday Night Football at Hunter Stadium.
“You kind of get braindead by Monday night if you start watching games on Thursday.
“I asked the players not to do that and I think they’ve been good … So we could get here tonight and be excited
“I think it worked for us.
“I know this much: what starts off in March doesn’t really equate to what’s going to finish up in September. I’ve seen teams go off in round one – “how you going to beat them?” – and by the end of the season, they haven’t even made the eight.
“There’s a lot out there in front of all of us.”
Speaking before his side was pummelled, Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah said what those of us not covered by Wayne’s ban had observed – that round one featured quicker rucks and a resultant faster game.
It was too fast for Farah’s side, with the side Bennett assembled via a painful clean out at New Lambton over the past 18 months racing to a 24-8 halftime lead.
“We weren’t tough enough or strong enough to handle the adversity we came up against,” the hooker said.
“We need to turn it around quickly or otherwise it’s going to be a long year for us.”
The defeat meant all three new coaches – Sydney Roosters’ Trent Robinson, the Warriors’ Matthew Elliott and Wests Tigers’ Mick Potter – had losing starts to their seasons.
robinson lost 28-10 to South Sydney,
For Potter and Robinson, it was also their NRL debuts after being recruited from Super League. The three of them conceded 110 points and scored just 30.
“Welcome,” was Bennett’s comment when he asked for a comment on newcomer Potter.
But after his club Bradford Went broke last year and he volunteered to coach for nothing last year, the former Dally M Medallist wasn’t about to get too distraught about a round one defeat.
“The season’s not over in round one,” he said.
Just as well, or Wayne Bennett would have missed the whole thing….
BEST OF ROUND ONE: Cronulla’s stirring victory over Gold Coast despite being surrounded and besieged.
WORST OF ROUND ONE: A photo finish between the performances of the Warriors and Wests Tigers but it’s the Aucklanders by a nose.
WEIRDEST OF ROUND ONE: Chase Stanley scoring a reverse try – chasing the ball out of the in-goal and touching down in the field of play.
CLEVEREST OF ROUND ONE: Not one but two superb flick passes in Lachlan Maranta’s 34th minute try in Brisbane.
WHAT I SAW: Journos Joe Barton and Ben Horne not just going to a game on their day off but flying interstate for one.

Filed for: NRL.COM

THE WRAP: NRL Round 23 2012

By STEVE MASCORD

GRAHAM and Eve Harwood from Thornton got more than a birds-eye view of Newcastle’s Monday Night Football win over Cronulla.

They got an up-close look at the enigma that is Wayne Bennett.

While the Knights coach again failed to appear on Fox television screens last night in the lead-up to the 26-4 victory at Hunter Stadium as the jockeying surround new NRL media guidelines continues, the seven-time premiership-winning coach invited the two two retirees to share his box throughout the game.

Bennett – who was fined two weeks ago for declining an interview request with Fox and only made himself available yesterday at a time which was unsuitable for the broadcaster – chatted amiably to the ‘Knights Insider’ contest winners as the vital game kicked off.

“Actually, it was Wayne’s idea,” Eve told NRL.com when asked about the contest.

“We have met him before. We met him at the meet-and-greet at the beginning of the season.”

Graham Harwood added: “As soon as the game started, he came in and said hello and whatever. He was a gentleman.”

Graham said the most surprising aspect of the experience was how calm Bennett and his coaching staff were during the crushing, powerful win.

“It was observing how they control the match from up there,” he said.

“The calmness of them most of the time … it was keeping an eye on the play-the-balls and seeing where they were making their moves through the opposition and things like that.

“He was more or less calling down to Rick (Stone, assistant) to pass the message down to the players.

“(At halftime) we stayed up there … “

Standing next to her husband in the stadium tunnel as they waited to see Bennett again, Eve chimed in: “It gives you a different perspective on how they see the game – from where we normally sit.”

Bennett told the post-match media conference that he was somewhat surprised the Knights were still in the finals race so late in the regular season.

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DISCORD 2012: Edition 30

By STEVE MASCORD

EVER since Great Britain played its last Test – a 28-22 win over New Zealand at Wigan in 2007 – there has been a growing push for a return to Lions tours. And from what Discord has been told over the last couple of days, someone is finally listening.

Rugby Football League chief executive Nigel Wood touched down in Sydney on Monday afternoon and went straight to Campbelltown Stadium to see Gareth Ellis and Chris Heighington in action for Wests Tigers. On Tuesday, he attended a meeting at Rugby League Central to discuss the direction of international football.

Nigel declined to be interviewed when Discord ran into him at Campbelltown but we hear he is over the Four Nations concept and wants a tour at the end of 2014, with eight games including Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific All Stars.

Unfortunately, the clubs want to play the expanded World Club Challenge in Qatar, Dubai, Las Vegas or where-ever at the same time.

The big issue, as we see it, is the fact the proposed tour would still be in the name of England and not Great Britain. “Dividing up the home nations” since 2007 has not been dividing at all – it’s been a case of chasing Sport England funding by calling one team England, and that team plundering Scotland, Ireland and Wales for talent.

“England” has been bad for international rugby league, robbing Scotland, Ireland and Wales of players like Danny Brough, Michael McIllorum and Rhys Evans. It’s a similar situation to Origin and what it has done to the Pacific nations including New Zealand.

The NRL clubs are already telling Super League how to distribute their own WCC prizemoney if they want the expanded concept to happen. They should tell Nigel to bring out Great Britain – not England – in 2014 or stay home.

We also have it on very good authority the RFL has seriously discussed our suggestion (well, not in this column but two others written by the same hack) that one of the England-Exiles games be played in London, on Anzac Day. Next year there is likely to be only one England-Exiles match – the “away” game against a stadium full of drunken antipodeans may have to wait until 2014.

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COLUMNS like this frequently bag rugby league officials for not showing leadership but the NRL deserves credit this week for standing up to the super coaches, Wayne Bennett and Des Hasler.

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Costigan: Clean-Out Took Its Toll

Neville Costigan/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD

ENFORCER Neville Costigan has admitted the mid-season shakeup of players at Newcastle left stars “down in the dumps”.

Serious wooden spoon contenders just over a month ago, the Knights have now won four of their last five, culminating in a 24-19 comeback success over the Warriors on Saturday night that captain Danny Buderus described as “season-defining”. But what has really defined the season for the Novocastrians has been the seismic changes under new coach Wayne Bennett.

“There’s was something wrong , you know, maybe it’s because people are leaving and stuff like that,” Costigan tells League Week. “It shook up the joint a bit. People were down in the dumps. It sort of brought a bad mood.

“It’s been a bit of a weird year. We’ve got all the good players there….

“But I think now everyone knows what they’re doing next year, it’s a lot more fun. Training’s a lot more fun. Everyone looks forward to going to training now.”

According to mid-season signing Dane Gagai, the finals are well and truly within reach. “We still have our eyes on the top eight and being a part of the finals,” he said. “We’re not shutting anything out.”

Centre Timana Tahu, the scorer of a crucial try at Mt Smart, says he has never played in game that changed momentum so decisively – and that the same can be said for Newcastle’s season as a whole.

“Usually when teams score two early tries … it’s a long day and a blowout score,” said Tahu. “I’ve never, ever played in a team that’s done that. In the season , as well….”

Aside from the players having a more settled outlook, Costigan points to on-field changes too – including his adherence to his call in RLW earlier this year for the forwards to display “more mongrel”.

“Our defence has picked up a lot in the ruck and that’s improved our attack too,” he said, “and that’s helping our backs a lot more. The backs are benefiting from our tough work up front.

“I didn’t play last week (in the win over Manly) but after the game, the boys thought it was better than last week.”

Asked what has changed in recent weeks, Bennett says: “What’s changed is the players are getting used to me, I think, and we’re getting used to what we want to do and how we want to do it.

“We’ve had a pretty stable side for the last five or six weeks, as well, and I kind of .. I’ve worked out who can get the job done here and who can’t.

“We’re starting to get a base underneath us where if we haven’t got a key player available, someone else will put their hand up. That’s what the good clubs have.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

WORLD RUGBY LEAGUE POWER LIST: Year One

By STEVE MASCORD

FIRST it was the Davis Cup tennis player. Then the Sydney first grade cricketer.

In the space of just under two months, rugby league lost two of its biggest administrative names in Rugby Football League executive chairman Richard Lewis and NRL CEO David Gallop. From a leadership point of view, it was without doubt our biggest shakeup since the Super League war.

Sure, they leave the sport in very different circumstances on opposite sides of the world.

In Australia, Gallop’s departure is linked in no small part to a boom. The next television rights deal is expected to bring a windfall which the new Independent Commission needs to manage by balancing a myriad of competing interests. Gallop was one of the final vestiges of News Limited’s half ownership of the National Rugby League.

In England, Bradford has been to death’s door and back this season and the Red Hall administration has been criticised for the poor financial state of the game after giving away competition naming rights in exchange for free advertising on the side of trucks. The collapse of Crusaders put Richard Lewis’ franchise licensing under the spotlight and club bosses are beginning to grumble about the parlous financial state of the game.

But in their own ways, Gallop and Lewis leave big holes – which is why this is an ideal time for Rugby League Week to publish our first annual Power List of the most influential league people in the world.

You’ve seen similar lists elsewhere but to our knowledge it’s the first specific to rugby league but still wide enough to include the game on a global scale.

There’s no beating around the bush – lists like this are terribly subjective. The buck stops with me this year – in future we might get more democratic and scientific. The writer took advice from people but in the end this list is based on my own observations.

The criteria here is simple – 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.

Let us know what you think

1.        John Grant

ARLC chairman: The former Australian international and IT tycoon comes across as a genial chap but he left no doubt about his ruthlessness with a tap on the shoulder that was felt around the rugby league world last Tuesday. The Independent Commission could have been as convoluted and impotent as a government department but Grant has made sure this is not the case by driving a steak into the heart of the old establishment from the outset. The challenge for Grant now is to find a CEO dynamic enough to be an effective frontman but pliable enough to work with the Commission more smoothly than Gallop did.

2.        Gary Pemberton

ARL Commissioner. The former head of Billabong, Qantas and TAB boss has a reputation as a head-kicker but Pemberton reportedly played a key role in keeping Michael Searle in charge of the Gold Coast Titans when Gallop wanted more decisive action. Pemberton’s power remains pretty much in reserve. Unless the commission becomes more open about its inner machinations, most of his head-kicking or job-saving will remain the preserve of rumours and unsourced reports. But rest assured, he’ll be close to the action.

3.        Wayne Bennett

Newcastle coach. No-one in rugby league – or indeed Australian sport – knows how to use his profile and status more effectively than the Knights mentor coach. Bennett keeps his public utterances scarce so they have maximum impact and much has already been made of his footballing friendship with Grant. As well as being employed by a millionaire in Nathan Tinkler, the winner of seven premierships has strong, long-lasting relationships with many other members of our top 20. Thus his influence is twofold – public and private.

4.        Rupert Murdoch

Media mogul. It’s only been four months since the Commission took over in Australia but already Rupert Murdoch’s influence over rugby league is far more significant in the United Kingdom. If Sky was to stop showing the game, it would be the equivalent of bombing us back to the dark ages – certainly, fulltime professional rugby league would probably disappear. But News owns half of premier sports which owns half of Fox Sports in Australia – meaning there’s still plenty of influence in the southern hemisphere when you include Sky Sports NZ as well

5.        David Gyngell

Television executive. When ranking television executives its unwise to underestimate the power of the current free-to-air rights holder in Australia. Nine has the rights to make the final offer in the current negotiations and its influence over the National Rugby League is all-pervasive. The reason one game kicks off at 2pm every Sunday is that it is over before Nine’s delayed telecast of the other match. Radio stations are banned from calling Friday night matches that are not live on Nine. And the network’s contract-defying refusal to show matches at a reasonable time in the sport’s developing states has been responsible for many a letter to the editor.

6.        Phil Gould

Penrith general manager. Gould’s outspoken war on the AFL incursion into western Sydney has had an impact on the independent commission and his criticism of Gallop clearly also found influential ears. Gould has played the role of contrarian for a decade now, criticising the NRL at every turn and turning up the heat on the administration over most issues. After a period in the media, the former premiership coach was coaxed back to clubland and has asked the League for cap concessions to help keep the Panthers strong in the face of the GWS menace.

7.        Ian Frykberg

Television executive. The manager of International Sports Television is an imposing and important figure expected to represent the interests of Fox Sports in the NRL’s continuing TV rights negotiations. Insiders tell us he is omnipresent at talks despite his low public profile. Even though there is now an independent consultancy working for the NRL during talks, all sides respect ‘Frykers’ opinions when it comes to the value of rights and how best to handle them when they are secured. Renowned for getting things done when negotiations reach a stalemate.

8.        Russell Crowe

Actor. It may not make sense immediately but Russell Crowe is our biggest powerbroker outside the traditional league hotbeds of Australia, New Zealand and England. Yes, he owns South Sydney. But fears he would be brash and push the NRL around have proven baseless. It’s in places like the United States that Crowe has made a difference for the game, getting our game on national talk shows and attracting a six figure crowd to a pre-season game in Jacksonville. He considered investing in the AMNRL and supports taking the World Club Challenge to Las Vegas.

9.        Nigel Wood

RFL chief executive. With Richard Lewis’ departure, Nigel’s is the undisputed seat of power in British rugby league. The former Halifax officials has risen through the ranks of Red Hall, which is now turning a profit instead of the losses that followed the disastrous 2000 World Cup. Wood is also the tournament director for the 2013 World Cup and the longer the search for a chairman continues, the more his influence deepens. But the fact Stg500,000 had to be raised by fans to save Bradford, and the collapse of Crusaders, are black marks against his administration.

10.     Nick Politis

Sydney Roosters chairman. The collapse of the NRL partnership committee was expected to erode the influence of the City Ford millionaire. But then came the rise of the chairman’s group and the downfall of David Gallop, with whom Politis reportedly fell out. At one point last year, the chairmen demanded guarantees the commission would be put in place and asked for what amounted to an advance on the next television deal. Those close to the game say Politis is still as active politically as ever, even if his direct and obvious influence isn’t what it was.  Reacting last week to David Gallop’s departure, his predecessor David Moffett commented: “You also have to question what influence Nick Politis is having behind the scenes. It’s all very much ARL.”

11.     Gary Hetherington

Leeds chief executive. A self-made mover and shaker who started out as a rugby league missionary at Sheffield and ended up running a dual code club in Leeds that has given us our current world champions. Hetherington is on most committees that matter in England, has been pushing for an expanded World Club Challenge for years and this year gave his players more than the total prizemoney for beating Manly. His power comes from years of putting in the hard yards.

12.     David Leckie

Television executive. The former Nine heavy hitter is now at Seven, a serious challenger for NRL and State of Origin rights. Leckie is the CEO of Seven West media, which owns the network, and it was he who paid $1.25 billion for the AFL rights last time they were up. He was recently included in The Australian’s top 50 most influential people in Australian sport. The newspaper noted Leckie was “the only man to take two television networks to number one”. Even if seven gets no rights, its involvement will push the price up considerably.

13.     Lachlan Murdoch

Television executive. The son of Rupert, like Leckie, is in a good position to cause current rights holders Nine a lot of heartache. Aside from his obvious connections as a member of arguably the most powerful media family in the world, Murdoch was reportedly good friends with Gallop, goes back a long way with Bennett and is a passionate Brisbane Broncos supporter. Gallop met Murdoch on April 11 to kick off talks with non-incumbent bidders for the TV rights.

14.     Petero Civoniceva

Brisbane player. With all the wheeling a dealing going on between the ARL Commission and television networks, players are feeling a little left out. RLPA chief David Garnsey recently complained the NRL had announced next year’s representative format without consulting his organisation. Petro will be directly involved in the Collective Bargaining Agreement and has widespread respect from a cross section of the game’s players. He’s made it clear he believes they deserve a better deal. Only last week, Civoniceva reacted to David Gallop’s departure by saying: “The playing group must be consulted about the replacement. The playing group will obviously be heavily affected by the decision.”

15.     Cameron Smith

Melbourne player. Australia’s captain showed he was an independent thinker before the State Of Origin series when he signed an endorsement deal with Victoria Bitter, the sponsor of the Blues. Occasionally outspoken on political issues, Smith has been through the Storm salary cap drama and has the even temprement to deal with players, media and officialdom. It would not surprise to see him move into administration upon retirement.

16.     Ian Lenagan

Wigan chairman. The former Wigan fan who got rich and ended up chairman, with Harlequins RL his stepping stone. Lenagan has restored the fortunes of arguably our most famous club to something resembling former glories in the age of the salary cap – no mean feat. Notoriously frugal and running an extremely lean operation at DW Stadium, Lenagan has quickly risen through the ranks of influential British rugby league men on the back of his beloved Warriors.

17.     Shane Richardson

South Sydney chief executive. Like Hetherington, Richardson’s biggest strength is his longevity. His connection with Crowe and experience in England with Gateshead and Hull also help him connect the dots. When it comes to getting the numbers to effect change at CEOs conferences, Peter Doust and Steve Noyce are sometimes his equals but no-one is better. Comes from a fan-boy background like Lenagan and Hetherington but arguably more hard-nosed than either of them. Probably the number one draft pick if they had one for CEOs.

18.     Nathan Tinkler

Newcastle owner. It could be argued this is a man with great potential power but we haven’t had the chance to see it in action yet. But he has already attracted Wayne Bennett, Kade Snowden and Danny Buderus to the Knights and his capacity to wreak havoc with sport was grimly illustrated by his decision to surrender the Newcastle Jets licence after a clash with soccer administrators. A similar stand against the ARL Commission would be catastrophic – let’s not forget the Super League war looked to have been won by News Limited until Paul Harragon paid for a mini-bus and drove his team-mates to Phillip Street.

19.     Wayne Beavis

Player agent. Others such as George Mimis may have big names. David Riolo may have moved the goalposts by taking clients to AFL. But old stager Beavis has arguably the biggest stable and the most influential contacts in the game. It’s Beavis who has been representing the players in talks with the RLPA over representative payments. He is also a driving force behind the Agent Accreditation Scheme which recently suspended Issac Moses and George Mimis over the Melbourne Storm salary cap drama.

20.     Graham Annesley

NSW Sports Minister. It’s not every day that a former referee and leading NRL official gets such a senior government position and Annesley is our top ranking polly for that reason. As sports minister in the state where the NRL is headquartered, Annesley makes decisions that have a direct impact on the sport. It’s understood several of his decisions have paved the way for the stadia policy which will come into force in Sydney next year. A fellow the game considers itself lucky to have in its corner.

Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK