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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Halftime Spray #4 (2014)

All the talk this week has been around attendances and the lack thereof. So far this year, 747,246 people have attended the games from the first 6 rounds. In 2013, all records were broken by some 40 odd thousand over the same period. Crowds were getting bigger and more of the same was expected this year.

Instead what has transpired is quite the opposite. A whopping 135,568 less people have attended games this year compared to the same time last year. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find a year whose crowds over the first 6 rounds were less than those in 2014. But in 2006, there were only 7 games per week, not 8 like today.

The last time crowds were this low for a season comprising of 8 games per round over the opening 6 rounds was back in 1999, a short time after the Superleague war brought the game to its knees.

The figures also show that it’s not just one or two bad weeks that has dragged the number down, it’s been an issue since Round 1.

Round 1, 2014 – 126,590 - The worst opening round attendance since 2003 (123,405 in 7 games)
Round 2, 2014 – 137,805 – The lowest Round 2 attendance of the past 3 years
Round 4, 2014 – 118,112 – The lowest Round 4 attendance since 2006 (103,791 in 7 games)
Round 6, 2014 – 107,821 – The lowest Round 6 attendance since 2007 (98,127 in 6 games)

Total attendance 2014 – 747,246 – The lowest attendance in 16+ team competitions since 1999 (737,806) and the lowest since 2006 (732,277 in 42 games – 6 less than in 2014)

First 6 Rounds total attendance:
2014: 747,246 (48 games)
2013: 882,814 (48 games)
2012: 836,111 (48 games)
2011: 838,732 (48 games)
2010: 846,273 (48 games)
2009: 841,476 (48 games)
2008: 857,869 (48 games)
2007: 838,649 (46 games)
2006: 732,277 (42 games)

With club memberships breaking the record set last year at the same time, one can only wonder why crowd figures are going in the opposite direction.

The game is faster, more open and exciting this year compared to past seasons. The results are more inconsistent. The game cannot be considered as boring by any means at all in 2014. The weather cannot be used as an excuse. It’s a winter sport. Rain happens.

Perhaps members aren’t going to games? Or maybe non-members aren’t going because of the cost of tickets? Is it scheduling?

Whatever the reason, the NRL needs to work out if they need to start making some changes to rectify this issue, sooner rather than later.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Halftime Spray #3 (2014)

With the devastation of Alex McKinnon's injury from a spear tackle still very raw in the minds of every Rugby League fan, official, player, administrator and family members, one could understand that a crack-down on spear tackles and an influx of lengthy suspensions would follow to try and wipe the tackle out of the game for good.
And not one person would be angered or upset by that. In fact, it would have been met largely with open arms and support.
This past week we saw a number of dangerous tackles, most notably one by Dragons talented forward Jack de Belin against South Sydney's Sam Burgess, which saw Burgess fall head first into the ground with his feet pointing straight up. Burgess was able to roll himself so as to avoid a serious injury. Jack de Belin was put on report.
He wasn't sent off. Not even sin binned.
But the travesty doesn't end there. He was eventually given a Grade 1 Dangerous Throw charge, the lightest possible charge you could receive. This resulted in him copping a suspension for one week.
Wests Tiger's five-eighth Braith Anasta was suspended for the same amount of time for a lazy and careless shoulder charge. 
But in no way was Anasta's illegal tackle as dangerous as de Belin's was, yet according to the NRL's Match Review Committee, they were about the same.
Is it only possible that justifiably long suspensions for illegal tackles can be handed down only when the tackled player is seriously injured? What sort of a backward Mickey Mouse operation is this?
It's high time that lifting in tackles started getting very hefty penalties. So here's my idea. Scrap these 5 separate gradings, it allows for too much leniency. Three should be ample.
Grade 1: If a player puts his hand between a players legs and lifts - 1 to 2 weeks suspension.
Grade 2: If a player is lifted to the horizontal, not beyond it -3 to 6 week's suspension.
Grade 3: If a player is lifted and tipped beyond the horizontal - at least 7 weeks suspension.

It may seem excessive, but really, what would we rather see, spear tackles eradicated from the game, or more players who have to go through the ordeal that has tragically befallen poor Alex McKinnon.
The NRL is seriously lacking in consistency. On Tuesday the Bulldogs were handed an infraction for not following their new concussion guidelines, when they allowed Josh Jackson to play in Round 2.
While the decision against the Bulldogs and Anasta show that they can get these decisions right, the decisions against de Belin and other players who committed illegal tackles, especially over the last weekend (spear tackles, crusher tackles), which can cause very severe injuries have been given excessively soft penalties.
If the NRL continues with this stance, they are simply telling clubs that these illegal plays are tolerated. Is that what they want?

The Halftime Spray #2 (2014)

This year the NRL introduced new concussion rules to deal with the management of players who suffer head knocks, entirely for the benefit of the players. This is a great scheme and is long overdue.
However, it also needs some extra work.
Some clubs are sticking by decisions to omit players from a game if they suffered concussion the week before, while others are opting against this. Many over the course of the year will end up being inconsistent with this rule depending on who it is that cops the head knock.
The NRL should step in and say that, in the benefit of player safety, any player who has been deemed to have suffered concussion (whether it be mild or severe) is not permitted to play for the next 10 days. This rule would also ensure that diving is not condoned or promoted, as any player who tries to dive to get a player sin binned will not be allowed to play the following week.
Further to this, each club should be allowed to replace a concussed player with a fresh reserve from outside their starting 17 players, with no loss of interchange. I'd also only allow NSW Cup players to fill these roles.
If the players concussion is the result of an illegal play, the offender (if he hasn't been sent off) should be sin-binned for 10 minutes, put on report, his team penalised and the sin binning should count as one interchange when he runs off the field (despite not being replaced). This would prove to be quite a strong deterrent from high tackles. There is no purpose for players to tackle around a players head and if the NRL is serious about reducing the risk of head injuries, then they need to have a hard line stance across the board.
Mistakes and accidents do happen; they are unavoidable in a body contact sport.
Some have suggested that a sin binned player should be replaced, but I think this fails to be a punishment. Players need to know and learn that their actions impact their team very heavily so as to help promote safe and fair play and to reduce the number of illegal incidents that happen in the game, specifically those impacting a players head.
The NRL took a strong stance last year when they introduced the one punch rule. And as a whole, it has been a great success. My idea should be seen as an extension of that.
The time to act is now.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Halftime Spray #1 (2014)

The Friday night clash between Wests Tigers and Souths was one that should be a great worry for referees. It was pretty clear that in the last 10 minutes, that the referees had lost control of the players. This was entirely due to the on-field referees being too timid about sending any players off the field.
Whether this fear is due to not wanting to make things unfair by allowing one side to have more players, or to avoid scrutiny by fans, or being a prominent factor in the result, either way, they failed.
Several players were put on report, 2 were sent to the sin bin (albeit one was for a professional foul not harming other players) and both fullbacks copped high shots, leaving Greg Inglis unable to play after just 5 minutes, and James Tedesco copping three heavy high tackles.
On Monday night, Melbourne Storm were penalised on several occasions in the first half alone for lifting in tackles, one of which went horribly wrong just seconds before halftime which has now left Newcastle Knights player Alex McKinnon in hospital with severe neck damage which could take between months and years to fully recover from.
Accidents do happen and that is the nature of the beast. However, I believe in both games, intervention from referees could have been vital in changing the players attitudes regarding their repeated infringements and thus changed the way the players acted.
Over the past few years there has been an immense increase in the number of players being reported for infringements and, compared to over a decade ago, a dramatic reduction in sin-binnings and send-offs for dangerous conduct.
I believe that if an incident is bad enough to be penalised and put on report, then it's bad enough to warrant at least 10 minutes in the sin bin.
If this policy was in place, it would make every player on the field, not just those on the team of the sin-binned player, to pull their heads in, as they know any illegal hits will mean that they are not only going to get ten in the bin, but it will also risk their team conceding points.
It will also allow referees to retain control of a game when things get heated after an illegal action.
And no one is going to complain when referees are making decisions based on the safety and welfare of the players, while also cleaning the game up and making it very clear that foul play will be dealt with immediately, which sends the right message to all involved.
As a side note, I'd like to send my best wishes to Alex McKinnon and I hope he has a full and speedy recovery. Right now, getting better and back on your feet is the only important thing.

Wests Tigers - Season Preview (2014)

In the space of just 18 months the Tigers went from being premiership favourites to narrowly avoiding the wooden spoon. Since 2012, the club has endured its most turbulent days in the last decade. It eventually lead to a swag of prominent first grade players leaving the club, the head coach getting sacked and the star player for so long, Benji Marshall, walking away from the club after salary negotiations broke down. But, much like in 2004, amidst all of this drama and chaos, a batch of exciting and brilliant juniors has made their way into the top grade.
2014 isn’t shaping to be a year that the Tigers will push for premiership honours, but it will be one where they plan to gain some consistency and form some solid combinations amongst the youngsters to secure the clubs success over the coming years.
Where they can win
Out wide. Boy do the Tigers have some firepower in the backline. James Tedesco is finally injury free and is looking faster than ever. Chris Lawrence is also free of his many niggling injuries and has shed some bulk too, so he will also be back close to his blistering speedy self. Throw in the exciting Tim Simona, the all-round power, skill and speed of David Nofoaluma, the exhilarating pace of Marika Koroibete, with the experience of Pat Richards and Keith Lulia and you can see that the Tigers backline is very impressive indeed. This coupled with the creative rookie Luke Brooks will see the Tigers playing exciting football once again.
Where they may struggle
In the middle. Up front. Anywhere there are forwards, the Tigers will struggle. While they have proven performers in Robbie Farah, Aaron Woods and Liam Fulton, there simply isn’t enough firepower, especially in the back row. Wests Tigers have recruited some decent toilers, but the club has been sorely lacking since Gareth Ellis departed and Adam Blair failed to live up to expectations.
Match winner
Robbie Farah. Arguably the best attacking rake in the competition as well as being a stubborn and tireless defender, Farah will have more responsibility on his shoulders in 2014 than ever before. He no longer has Benji Marshall to help him organise attacking plays. However, if he can form a solid combination with Tedesco and young half Brooks, then Farah could also be in for one of his best seasons, which will be key to the Tigers success.
Rookies to watch
Luke Brooks is the one who will have all eyes on him. After just one game (where he was Man of the Match on debut) he immediately drew comparisons with Andrew Johns. Massive wraps. He’d be best to try and ignore that and become Luke Brooks, not the next Andrew Johns. He has the skills required to make it, great passing game, a good short and long kicking game, solid in defence, a good step and quick off the mark. He just needs to get comfortable directing the team around and he will be all but certain of a great year.
The big plays
Brooks will form a lethal combination with Curtis Sironen, James Tedesco, David Nofoaluma and Tim Simona. They will link up often and in many various ways which will ensure that the Tigers won’t become predictable. Throw in the off the cuff attacking prowess of Farah and the Wests Tigers could prove to be a hard unit to contain when they get the ball out of the middle.
Best team
1. James Tedesco 2. David Nofoaluma 3. Tim Simona 4. Chris Lawrence 5. Pat Richards 6.Braith Anasta 7. Luke Brooks 8. Andrew Woods 9. Robbie Farah (c) 10. Adam Blair 11. Liam Fulton 12. Cory Paterson 13. Curtis Sironen
Interchange: 14. Keith Galloway 15. Martin Taupau 16. Ava Seumanufagai 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Season Preview - Cronulla Sharks (2014)

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 2014 Preview

In 2013 the Sharks had assembled arguably the best pack in the comp coupled with improved backs and a halves combination that complimented each other well. The fact they made the finals was not at all a surprise. The ASADA investigation and the ramifications that stemmed from it should have been enough to see the club struggle to remain focussed and consistent. Surprisingly, they managed remarkably well to rise above those pressures as the season wore on.

An emotion charged first round victory against the Titans at home followed by a hard fought loss to Souths and a convincing win over the Warriors showed that the Sharks were serious. But as the off field dramas continued, the Sharks went on a 4 match losing run. They then won their next four games, the last of which was their most emphatic victory spearheaded by prop Andrew Fifita. The Sharks defeated Souths and Fifita’s performance was so strong it earnt him his first State of Origin jumper. The Sharks form would be like a see-saw for the remainder of the year, however they had done enough to finish 5th.

After defeating the Cowboys in the first week of the finals in a game marred by errors by match officials, the Sharks, playing without injured playmaker Todd Carney, went down in a gallant battle with rivals Manly, thus ending their season.

The 2014 season looms as another that should see the Sharks finish in the top 6, especially given that all their recruits over the past few years have now had time to form good partnerships, coupled with the emergence of some bright young prospects coming through the ranks.   

Where they can win
Up front. This has been strongest part of Cronulla’s sides for the last few years. They have a game plan designed to force teams to slug it out in the middle of the park with them. If the Sharks pack dominates their opponents, it gives Todd Carney and fullback Michael Gordon room to move and create opportunities for their outside, especially speedsters Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki.

Five-Eighth Todd Carney is integral to the sides attack and he needs to get his outside backs more involved in games. He showed himself to be a true leader when the club needed him to be and has shown a commitment and passion for the game greater than before. In 2014, the coach needs to devise game plans that will allow Carney off the leash more often. Let him take some risks and make the Sharks a less predictable side and they will become more difficult to beat.

Where they may struggle

Out wide. But it’s not through not having the cattle for the job, but more so due to the game plan the Cronulla side employs. They have the power and straight running new recruit Blake Ayshford, the fast and agile Leutele and the all-rounder Jonathan Wright. And outside them are the speedy Feki and the safe hands of the reliable Beau Ryan. 2013 showed us that the Sharks back are quality but were starved of the ball and forced to play the game plan employed by the forwards. Carney had great combinations back inside with the likes of Fifita and Gallen, but out wide, the combinations aren’t as strong.

Match winner

Todd Carney. Obvious really. Not only is he the strongest attacking weapon the club has had in a number of years, but he’s also key to getting his backs more opportunities this year. His kicking game suits Cronulla’s game plan and his passing game is superb, especially when attacking close to the line and using his forwards. Carney works best with fast backs around him and with Leutele and Feki both on the same side of the field; expect him to run their side a lot more. He has also has Beau Ryan and Michael Gordon on the other side of the field who are great under the high ball, which provides Carney with an aerial option to the other side of the field.

Rookies to watch

Michael Lichaa is the cream of the crop as far as Sharks young guns go. The Junior Kangaroos hooker for the past two years will be seen as the replacement for the consistent John Morris. Creative and nippy, he will be seen as a future Origin player in the not too distant future. Playing in such a powerful and experienced pack such as the Sharks have will be the best environment for the youngster to make the step into the top grade. Other notable young players are back rower Tupou Sopoaga, utility back Fa’amanu Brown, big forward Junior Roqica, half Penani Manumalealii and back Jacob Gagan. With Origin duties taking a big chunk out of the Sharks forward pack and possibly Carney and Gordon, these rookies are a real chance of getting game time this year.

The big plays

With coach Shane Flanagan suspended for the year, it’s uncertain whether caretaker coach (and assistant to Flanagan) Peter Sharp will continue with the forward dominant style of play, or whether he’ll allow the side to play a more expansive style. As strong as the Sharks pack is, the simple game plan they employ is one which can cause risk in its lack of variation, something which the better teams are able to overcome, as evidenced by the fact that the Sharks lost 9 of the 13 games they played against the top 7 teams in the competition last year.

Ins and Outs

In: Tinirau Arona (Sydney), Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers), Jacob Gagan (Manly), Eric Grothe Jr, Daniel Holdsworth (Hull FC), Matt Prior (St.George-Illawarra)

Out: Jayson Bukuya (Warriors), Jon Green (Brisbane), Stewart Mills (Brisbane), Tyrone Peachey (Penrith), Ben Pomeroy (Catalans Dragons), Ben Ross (retired), Mark Taufua (retired), Chad Townsend (Warriors), Matthew Wright (North Queensland)

Best team

1. Michael Gordon
2. Sosaia Feki
3. Ricky Leutele
4. Blake Ayshford
5. Beau Ryan
6. Todd Carney
7. Jeff Robson
8. Andrew Fifita
9. John Morris
10. Paul Gallen (c)
11. Luke Lewis
12. Chris Heighington
13. Wade Graham

14. Anthony Tupou
15. Isaac DeGois
16. Sam Tagatese
17. Matt Prior

**************this article appeared on the www.leagueunlimited.com website**************

Friday, 7 February 2014

1917 (2013)


The 1917 season started amid public pressures against the game for continuing to run during the war. Administrators of the game believed that competition should continue as it gave people an enjoyable escape from the depressing realities of war. Since the beginning of the war, the NSWRL had regularly played matches against teams made up of servicemen, as well as exhibition games and donating monies from many of the largest drawing games to the war campaign.

Because of a large number of Rugby League players enlisting for war service, clubs had to start looking further afield than their own suburb to find top quality players so as to remain competitive.

From 1908 til 1959, clubs were not restricted by a salary cap as they are today. Instead, they had to abide by a very strict residential rule, which meant that players had to live in the area of the team they were to represent for one year, or if they were coming from the country, interstate or overseas, just 28 days.

For the 1917 season, Glebe officials travelled to Newcastle and were very impressed with a burly centre from Lambton by the name of Dan ‘Laddo’ Davies, who was playing for Newcastle Wests.

Davies agreed to join Glebe for the 1917 season and moved to Sydney early in 1917, so that he would have lived in the area long enough to be ready to play in Glebe’s first match of the year.

When Davies arrived in Sydney, he lived with a relative in the suburb neighbouring Glebe, Annandale, who also had a team in the NSWRL first grade competition. Glebe administrators were aware of Davies’ residence, but reassured him that players regularly play for teams outside the suburb they live in, which was very much not the case at all.

On May 12, the 1917 season began. Davies ran out for Glebe, ironically against Annandale. His participation in this match was the catalyst for a series of events between Glebe, the NSWRL and the entire Newcastle Rugby League that would have severe, far reaching ramifications that spanned several years.

Glebe beat Annandale 26-5 with Davies on debut. Annandale, aware that Davies was living in their area, lodged a complaint requesting the game be forfeited by Glebe for fielding an illegible player.

An official investigation began regarding the matter. Davies was asked to sign a declaration by Glebe officials stating that he had indeed been living in the Glebe area, however it was quickly found to be false.

The NSWRL stripped Glebe of its two competition points for the win against Annandale. Davies' dishonesty saw him being handed a life ban by the NSWRL.

Glebe believed they were being discriminated against and future events of that season would suggest such, but it was the demeanour of the club that caused things to get out of control. In their Round 12 hard fought victory against Newtown, three Glebe players were sent off. On the following Monday, two of the sent off players received excessive suspensions for the rest of the season for seemingly minor incidents which numerous previous occurrences actually avoided punishment.

Glebe grew more vocal in their opposition to the penalties handed down by the NSWRL and in turn, the NSWRL handed down even more severe punishments for indiscretions by the Glebe club and its players in an attempt to show that they were in control.

The next week, Glebe was to line up against neighbouring rivals Balmain. The two clubs had always held a strong and passionate rivalry, like most neighbouring clubs do. These games always drew good crowds and provided more often than not, close, hard fought and entertaining matches, which invariably meant that gate takings for these matches would always be among the highest of the year at club level. Balmain had won back to back premierships in 1915 and 1916, with Glebe finishing second and third respectively in both seasons. 1917 was proving to be again very similar. Balmain were clear competition leaders and Glebe were fourth when the two sides were set to meet each other for their second match in the 1917 season in Round 13, which was scheduled to be played at the SCG, ensuring both clubs would receive a generous sum from gate takings as it was deemed a neutral venue, thus both sides would receive an equal gate taking for the match.

Because of the reactions by Glebe over the Davies decision, and the excessive suspensions from the previous week, the NSWRL made a last minute decision to switch the game from the SCG, to the significantly smaller Birchgrove Oval. This meant that Glebe not only missed out on a share of a potentially larger gate taking, but they would receive no monies at all as the game would be played at Balmain’s home ground.

Glebe officials were outraged and the first grade players decided to boycott the match. Glebe had fully intended to forfeit the match as a protest against the NSWRL, however they instead fielded a second rate team made up of reserve graders and juniors. Balmain flogged Glebe 40-9, Glebe's worst defeat since 1910 when they were beaten 36-0 by Easts.

The NSWRL were angered by the Glebe players for boycotting the game, so they decided to review the issue over two weeks, to allow themselves time to calm after the incident so as to not make a rash decision. This ploy failed as they decided to suspend the 14 First Grade Glebe players for the rest of the 1917 season, as well as the entire 1918 season, including the Burge brothers Albert, Laidley and Frank.

During the long off season, the NSWRL overturned the suspensions of twelve of the suspended Glebe players amid much anger and heavy criticism from the media and the public. Frank and Alby Burge later had their suspensions cut back to May 1918, ensuring that they would be able to play in the first competition match of the 1918 season, which ironically again, was against Annandale.

Upon receiving his punishment, Dan Davies quietly and promptly returned home to Lambton to go back to work in the coal mines. Upon his arrival back home, just weeks after his sentence was handed down, his former club Newcastle Wests tried to have the penalty overturned so that he could play exclusively in Newcastle, however the NSWRL would not shift their stance. Soon after their appeal was rejected, Newcastle Wests threatened to boycott their match at Wickham Oval against Newcastle Norths, unless Norths allowed Davies to play for Wests. Norths agreed and the match went ahead.

However, the NSWRL soon learnt of Davies match in Newcastle and their action was swift and more excessive than any of their suspensions and bannings handed to Glebe during 1917. Every player and administrator from the Newcastle competition, except for Newcastle Easts were banned for life.

The suspended players and officials started their own rebel competition, which included all the prominent stars in the local competition, who were known as the ‘Bolsheviks’. Upon hearing the news of the rebel code, the NSWRL again imposed life bans on everyone associated with the rebel competition, but as it wasn’t administered by the NSWRL, the bans were duly ignored and the rebel competition continued.

Newcastle Easts remained loyal to the NSWRL and thus were left with the task of helping recreate a new competition which contained all players from the now rebel clubs who wanted to remain loyal to the NSWRL The loyalists were known as the ‘Lilywhites’. This competition consisted of mostly second string sides which saw the Lilywhites competition quickly become the lesser of the two.

For the 1918 and 1919 seasons, Newcastle had two competitions running simultaneously, but as the rebel competition was the more successful, the NSWRL eventually lifted all its life bans imposed on players and officials in the Newcastle competition and sanity was restored, allowing the competitions to be reunified again for the 1920 season.

Annandale eventually exited from the NSWRL at the end of the 1920 season.  Glebe followed suit in 1929, despite being one of the consistently best performing sides since the games inception in 1908. It is believed that when the board had to decide on Glebe’s existence, past indiscretions by the club factored heavily in the NSWRL decision to axe the club.

The residential rule was eventually scrapped in 1959 when the game was going through several changes, such as the introduction of poker machines, overseas players and future expansion plans.

Davies played for Newcastle Wests in the Bolshevik competition and was selected to represent Newcastle against the touring English side in 1920. He eventually retired in 1923 at the ripe old age of 28. He lived the rest of his life in Newcastle up until his death in 1967.

***************This article appeared in the Men of League magazine**********************