Worrying patterns in McGregor’s coaching career shed light on form slump

Make no bones about it, the next three weeks are the biggest in Paul McGregor’s coaching career to date.

Having lost five of their last six games, the Dragons are in freefall.

For fans of the club, this has become an all too familiar sight in recent seasons and, once again, we find ourselves asking the same old question: why does this keep happening?

It can’t just be the players, for the team that took the field in 2015 – a year best remembered for the Dragons slide from first to eighth and subsequent exit in the first weekend of finals – looks vastly different to the one lining up against the Tigers this weekend.

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For arguments sake, there are only five players still remaining from that Preliminary Final against the Bulldogs.

The rest? They’ve moved on. And yet the Dragons find themselves in the very same predicament three years later.

The only constant through this whole debacle, with the exception of a few players, is coach Paul McGregor.

He was there in 2015. He was there for the disappointment of 2016. And he was there last year when the Dragons dropped out of finals contention after leading the competition in the 7th round.

There have been several coaches on the chopping block this year and McGregor, following his sides’ humiliating loss to Parramatta, has suddenly re-entered the fray.

Just two weeks ago we saw the Panthers sack coach Anthony Griffin despite the fact they were well and truly in the race for the premiership.

The form is there. A top eight finishing position means nothing these days. And a contract even less so.

This leaves McGregor in a precarious position.

Could he soon join Griffin and become the latest casualty of the coaching merry-go-round?

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The simple fact that he continues to produce the same result year in, year out with a different set of players speaks to his coaching methods.

The fact the Dragons had several players represent their state but are struggling to keep in touch with the top four is similarly concerning.

But perhaps McGregor’s biggest flaw, and the reason why his name is being mentioned in this conversation, is his reluctance to make changes when the chips are down and victories hard to come by.

This weekend he had a golden opportunity to introduce Zac Lomax and Jai Field – two talented youngsters who have been a part of the Dragons reserve grade outfit that currently sits in second position.

Anyone who has seen these two play know they are something special.

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While they mightn’t be first grade ready as yet, an injury to Widdop and the waning form of the outside backs provided the perfect opportunity to give them another shot.

But McGregor has opted in favour of Kurt Mann who has failed to provide attacking spark at five-eight when given the opportunity in the past.

The counter argument to giving Lomax and Field another first grade cap is that they haven’t played the entire season and so are unlikely to feature in the finals.

But when a previously high-flying team is beaten – nay smashed – by a side ranked ten spots below them, isn’t it worth trying something different?

What is the purpose of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Lomax and Field could be the Dragons answer to the Storm’s Jahrome Hughes, or the Raiders’ Nick Cotric.

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The history of Rugby League is littered with stories of youngsters being thrown into the deep end and going on to forge long and successful careers. Why can’t the Dragons become a part of this narrative?

Sure, there is the argument that this current crop of players put the Dragons in title contention, so there is every likelihood they could rediscover their mojo and, consequently, their ladder position.

But they are playing on empty tanks. They are mentally scarred. And they’ve forgotten how to find the try line.

A fresh set of eyes in attack could change things. Adding two or more players from a reserve grade outfit with plenty of form and no baggage could teach them how to win again.

McGregor took a punt by choosing not to rest players after Origin when other teams did.

Say what you will about Griffin, or whoever made the decision at Penrith to rest their Origin stars after the series had concluded – it might just be the gamble that sees them through to the top four.

McGregor let his battle-wearied stars play on and could pay a heavy price for it.

Crystal ball predictions for the NRL finals

From a viewing perspective, this NRL season has been one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. Sure, it has had its low points; who can forget, for example, the game between Melbourne and Cronulla way back at the start of the season when over 30 penalties were blown, or just last week when the refereeing mess that has hijacked the majority of the season descended into farce?

Yes, controversy has dominated the rugby league agenda. But in amongst the chaos there have been some incredible moments that football fans will remember long into the future.

If you’re Panthers fan, you will never forget the day your team came from 18 points down to defeat Manly at fortress Brookvale. If you wear the Red V with pride, you will no doubt remember the spectacular finish against Parramatta, and the war of attrition on holiday Monday against the Dogs.

Those who live south of the border will look back on 2018 as the year a drought was broken and hope that it is a sign of things to come.

And who can forget that tight finish between the Broncos and Cowboys back in round 2 when the Lang Park goal posts acted as an extra man in defence, stopping a rampaging Scott Bolton on the bell.

For every moment of frustration, for every time you’ve screamed at the telly and threatened to put your remote through the lounge room wall, there have been hundreds of feel-good moments to remind you why you love the game.

It is with this new found optimism that I look ahead to how I believe the rest of the season will pan out and who, in this season of endless surprises, will take out the Provan-Summons trophy in October.

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The Top 4

According to most punters, the Roosters and Storm are the only sure things as far as the top four is concerned. Which teams will join them is difficult to pick. Souths and the Dragons are the obvious choices given their current position, but both sides have gone through a form slump of sorts over the last few weeks.

Failure to secure victory against the Tigers and a near miss against the struggling Eels on Saturday night has seen the Bunnies fall out of favour with many neutral fans, while the Dragons seem to still be suffering from a post Origin hangover. As far as I’m concerned, the Dragons are a long way from where they need to be at this point in the season. They’re falling back into bad habits in both attack and defence and, to be brutally honest, don’t look like they can mix it with the Roosters or Storm.

As a Dragons fan this is difficult to type because we have gone through the agony of falling away late in the season so many times over the last few years. Thankfully, a top eight spot is all but secured, so we needn’t worry about missing the eight altogether. But if the Red V are to avoid repeating their elimination final exit in 2015, they must secure a top four placing.

With a relatively soft draw including 4 matches against bottom eight sides, they should get the job done. The Panthers, Sharks and Broncos are nipping at their heels though, so there will be no shortage of drama over the next few weeks.

The dream is still alive for Dragons fans but it will quickly fade if they can’t win the majority of their five remaining games.

As for the Bunnies, there was a lot to like about their finish to the game against the Eels. They have too many gun players in good form to miss out on a top four spot. If the engine room of Sam Burgess, Crichton, Cook and Walker fires – as it has done for most of the season – it is hard to see them getting knocked out of the top four. They do, however, have a significantly harder draw than the Dragons which includes clashes with Melbourne and the Roosters.

For this reason, I believe the only change to the current top four is the Dragons sneaking into third spot.

Minor Premiers

It is hardly a surprise picking the Storm to win the minor premiership given most rugby league fans out there are tipping the same thing. But I’ll go with the flow because I don’t see anyone knocking them off now that they’ve hit their straps.

The most impressive thing about the Storm is their depth. They have a number of players outside their first choice 17 that would get a starting spot in most sides. Just listen to some of the names they have as back-up: Brodie Croft, Riley Jacks, Cheyse Blair, Brandon Smith…

It is truly remarkable what the Storm have been able to do over the last decade and I see them returning to the Promised Land once again in 2018.

Who plays in the Grand Final?

The Storm have played exceptional football over the last month and will be unlucky to miss out on a spot in the Grand Final. Their challengers came in the form of the Cowboys last year and I’m tipping a team in the bottom 4 of the eight to make it to the big dance yet again in 2018.

As much as I’d like to say it will be the Warriors, they’ve been too inconsistent for my liking. Mind you, a number of sides have been either rocks or diamonds this year so it is far too early to put a line through the men from across the ditch.

They take on the Dragons this weekend in Wollongong in a clash that will act as a form guide for the finals.

With the Warriors likely to be out of the picture, I think it will be the Sharks that beat out the other top eight sides to set up a rematch of the 2016 Grand Final.

The reason I’ve gone this way is because of the strike power they have up front and the speed on the edges. My only concern is the halves. Matt Moylan has been brilliant at times – as he was against the Panthers a few weeks back – and off the pace at others. Townsend has also been up one week and down the next throughout the year.

Their experience in key positions is what I like most. The majority of their roster has also played finals football before, so will know what it takes to win big games.

The premiers

I’ve already tipped the Storm to win the minor premiership. If this happens, I don’t think anyone will be able to stop Smith, Slater and Munster in the finals. They are big game players and the latter two will be especially hungry to add another notch to their belt before their remarkable careers draw to a close.

Most at stake

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve gone with the Dragons. Fans of the club will know the heartbreak of starting a season with bright-eyed optimism only to have their hopes and dreams crushed following a late season slide. It happened in 2015, it happened last year, and – if the last few weeks are anything to go by – it’s happening again in 2018.

There is plenty of pressure on coach Paul McGregor as well. Now in his fifth year in charge of the club, he must take the Dragons to at least the semi-finals to earn a pass mark. Anything less must be deemed a failure. The number of players selected for Origin this year suggests that the Dragons premiership window is wide open. If they fail to capitalise on this opportunity the door will quickly shut as ageing players begin to wane and young players are blooded in first grade.

New 100-ball format highlights cricket’s unhealthy relationship with change

Cricket has been through numerous revolutionary changes. It all began way back in 1977 when Kerry Packer, then head of Channel Nine, started his own competition by the name of World Series Cricket. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his new take on a grand old game would shape its future. White balls, coloured clothing, cricket at night and heavy commercialism are all now common themes. What he and his associates started way back at the SCG during 1978 – some 20 years before my birth – has led to the cricket you and I watch with great interest today. Take the IPL for example. Without WSC it may have a very different complexion to what we have become accustomed. Some may say change was imminent and Packer was the man lucky enough to strike gold. But what he and Channel Nine did for the game is immeasurable. Without the WSC revolution, cricket may have gone several years before a broadcaster came up with the idea to place a camera at each end of the wicket. And what about the humble stump microphone? That too was the brainchild of Mr Packer’s WSC crew.

You might be wondering why I’m writing all this. No, it’s not because Channel Nine has lost the right to broadcast cricket in Australia (though it will be sad to see it go after 40 glorious summers). It’s because I’m intrigued by the backlash the ECB has received in response to its revolutionary plan to cut the length of its new franchise tournament to 100 balls.

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Kerry Packer – cricket’s original trendsetter.

When I first read the news on Twitter, I immediately thought the ECB had decided to limit a batsman’s innings to just 100 balls in the domestic 50-over tournament. The idea here being that the less balls a batsman has to face, the quicker he must score. Of course, this simply wouldn’t work; imagine a batsman getting to 100 balls only to be forced to retire on 99, or having to retire during a close run chase where 40 runs are required from 24 balls with just three wickets in hand. My mind immediately thought of these seemingly impossible circumstances because they are scarily tangible, such is the penchant for boards to tinker with cricket to the point of extinction. 50 over cricket is an easy target for change. It no longer offers the money-making potential of the newer, more popular format. Who knew T20 would be the target of revolution so early in its life?

There are many reasons the ECB may want to change what is already working – and working exceptionally well – around the world. The first answer is money. And why wouldn’t this be what immediately comes to mind? T20 cricket was designed for boards to make a financial windfall and is now played so that these same boards can prop up the less profitable formats. The second potential response is prestige. With the IPL making waves in India, and the BBL inspiring an entire generation of cricketers in Australia, the ECB may have finally had a gut full of other countries riding on its coattails. This is less likely, but still possible considering England lay claim to the creation of T20 cricket and would hate to see other countries profiting from what they started. The third and final answer is the fans. It is widely accepted that since cricket was put behind a pay-wall in England, its main audience has been middle-aged males. But this is not the ECB’s target audience – let’s get that straight. The future of the game relies on its popularity among younger audiences. Typically, these audiences have short attention spans, an affinity for entertainment, and enjoy the gimmicks of T20 cricket. And so the only way to appease the future custodians of cricket is to tailor it, mutilate it (whatever you want to call the dumbing down process) and ultimately shorten an already abbreviated format.

But we must consider what this means for the future of the game given its love of revolution. No other big sport the world over has gone through so many changes. Football still looks the same as it did when cricket was going through its first major shakeup. There have been some minor changes to the way it is presented to audiences on television, but the mechanics – the actual gameplay – remains largely untouched. The major American sports are the same. They have been adapted to suit a modern landscape that thrives on commercialism, yet there have been minimal changes to the actual rules of the game. Even golf, on a par with cricket for traditional customs, remains largely the same.

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The revolution will be televised.

Hundred-ball cricket is just the tip of the iceberg. History tells us there will be many changes to come. WSC brought cricket into the future and gave it a pulse. It too was criticized and maligned, but without it, cricket may not have lived far beyond the turn of the 21st century. The reason I say this is because, outside of the Ashes, test cricket has struggled to draw a crowd. Sure, it may not have been required to compete with T20 cricket for viewers. But the money generated by T20 at both a domestic and international level would not have been there to keep test cricket afloat.

Revolution is not necessarily a bad thing. But you have to question at what point the game will be bent completely out of proportion. The Hundred-ball format might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Penalty crackdown should be encouraged, on one condition

If the NRL wishes to cure the penalty disease currently plaguing the game, referees mustn’t be afraid to use the sin-bin.

I applaud Matt Cecchin for sending Cameron Smith off for ten minutes on Friday night following the tirade of verbal abuse levelled at him and his assistant by the Melbourne Storm.

It was also pleasing to see James Tamou sent for a sit down on Thursday when the Penrith penalty count was beginning to get out of hand.

If the referees wish to continue blowing regular penalties they must persist with using the sin bin as a deterrent. Hopefully this will send a message to players and coaches that any slight infringement will not be tolerated.

For too many years now players have been coached to slow down the play-the-ball or give away a penalty close to the line to avoid conceding four points. This has led to several unattractive games and an increase in teams electing to kick a penalty goal rather than attempt a try-scoring play.

The catch-22 situation here is that the crackdown on these negative tactics by the referees has in itself stymied the natural flow of the game.

Anyone watching Friday night’s clash between Melbourne and Cronulla, whether at the ground or in front of their television sets, would’ve been left frustrated by the constant blowing of penalties.

They detracted from the spectacle and caused the game to become disjointed and unwatchable. There was no flow, no rhythm, and if you’re a casual fan of rugby league, I don’t blame you for changing the channel.

The NRL will know that it faces an uphill battle competing with the AFL, which continues to expand its reach into the eastern states.

The players are also aware that they are all members of the entertainment industry and that their performances – which influence the quality of the product they produce each weekend – determines whether fans will invest time and energy in supporting it.

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The NRL is not just competing with rival codes, of which there are many at this time of year, they are competing with the entire entertainment industry.

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, there are now several choices where there was once few and the battle for attention has heightened.

More and more fans will be lost to these alternative forms of entertainment if the game continues down the path it is headed.

But that doesn’t mean the referees should stop blowing penalties to avoid momentum-restricting stoppages, because if they are there to be given, they have no other choice.

It is important, however, the referees continue to show discretion in their decision-making, as fans will be turned away by the kind of nitpicking that gifts teams field position and, ultimately, victory.

This is the cause of as much frustration as the stoppages created by penalties. No fan wants to watch a game that is heavily influenced by the referees.

And yet the crackdown on negative play should be encouraged. If allowed to continue, it will, quite ironically, lead to a more polished and free-flowing game.

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Defensive units will stay back the required ten meters and allow the playmakers to run. Teams will abandon the wrestle tactic. The ruck will improve. Games will speed up and fatigue will start to play a factor again.

The NRL will look less like Super Rugby, with penalty goals kicked at will, and more like the game ardent followers fell in love with.

But if the increase in penalties is not met with an appropriate punishment, such as a stint in the sin bin for a member of a team that commits several offences, the NRL is in for a mass exodus led by disgruntled fans.

Another option is implementing a 5-minute sin-bin for any player that deliberately gives away a penalty close to their own line. This way referees will be more inclined to send a player off and teams will cease employing tactics that are likely to incur a penalty.

The risk in this method concerns that well discussed Rugby League phenomenon – the grey area – because it relies on referee discretion.

But if it helps rub out what is a blight on the game, even while raising the ire of coaches, then the NRL must consider it.

My guess is the referees will buckle under the weight of public opinion and the current crackdown will cease.

But if it does continue, is it too much to ask for the NRL to be proactive in managing it?

Lessons for the ECB’s bold venture into uncharted territory

If you’re not a fan of switch hits, midgame firework displays, or any of the T20 fanfare, and would much rather tune into a test match with a copy of Wisden in hand and a cup of tea by your side, look away now. This is going to get ugly.

I’m not going to patronise you, for I too am a traditionalist. I’d much prefer to watch a patient test ton than a T20 slogathon. For me, there is less glory in the shortest form of the game; matches are quickly forgotten and the performances within them fade swiftly from memory.

But this is the direction cricket is headed. What was once seen to be revolutionary is now the norm. T20 has connected with a generation of cricket fans that must be entertained to remain invested. The ECB and counties that voted in favour of ‘revolutionising’ cricket in England are simply following a well-trodden path.

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What concerns me most about this new tournament is that it will run in conjunction with the ‘Blast’. Already there are 133 games of T20 cricket played during the summer. If the new franchise tournament is to follow a four-match home and away structure, this figure will balloon out to 165 – and that’s without considering the extra finals matches.

If these numbers don’t get your blood boiling as a cricket purist, nothing will. The truth is, in another 10 years, this will seem perfectly normal. The County Championship and One-Day Cup will have shrunk significantly by then. Just ask Adil Rashid and Alex Hales. Both have pulled up stumps on their respective red-ball careers in favour of the shorter formats. And fair do’s to them both. They have identified that going on the T20 circuit is the best way to earn a crust in an era of reduced test match scheduling and vast franchise riches.

With the emergence of a second T20 tournament, the prevalence of short form specialists like Hales and Rashid will increase year-on-year. Since the days of World Series Cricket, players have gone in search of rock star-sized paychecks. In many ways, the players of that era are responsible for normalizing the contract processes – such as IPL auctions – we now take for granted.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at what the new English franchise competition can learn from one of the biggest T20 tournaments in the short history of the format.

Why the BBL works

Believe it or not, the BBL hasn’t always been as successful as it is today. In its early years it struggled to draw crowds and attract a television audience. When free to air network, Channel 10, bought the rights for $100 million on a five-year deal in 2013, the competition suddenly gained traction. In 2016/17, the BBL averaged 1.03 million television viewers per match; there was a slight fall in viewership this year, with 947,000 tuning in each night. Compare these figures to the ‘Blast’, and you begin to see why the ECB had no choice but to implement a franchise competition – and why it was necessary for a FTA broadcaster to obtain the rights to show some games. T20 Finals Day in 2015, which saw Lancashire take out the crown, averaged an audience of 388,000 on Sky Sports. Attendance figures in the ‘Blast’ are also smashed every year by the BBL, which sees well over 1.5 million people pass through the stadium gates each season.

In addition to exposure on FTA television, the BBL can attribute some of its success to the popularity of its high profile overseas stars. As is the case in several sports around the world, the superstars of the game bring with them an extra element of excitement. Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan stunned the Adelaide Strikers faithful in the most recent season of the BBL. He, along with other big-name players like Dwayne Bravo, Tymal Mills, Shadab Khan, David Willey, Carlos Brathwaite and Kevin Pietersen, develop interest in the tournament; they are the BBL’s major selling point and are indirectly responsible for increases in grassroots participation.

While the ‘Blast’ also features a whole host of international players, they are spread across 18 counties, rather than 8 franchises, and are scarcely able to commit to the full two months of competition. But this is all common knowledge by now, and no doubt contributed to the ECB’s push for a franchise-based tournament. Nevertheless, in order for the new competition to flourish, international stars must take centre stage. In the BBL they are the face of marketing campaigns and television advertisements. Without them, many would see tournaments like the BBL as little more than a glorified version of the fatiguing one-day cup.

The ECB will have no trouble selling a franchise competition to the masses, especially if it is played during the school holidays. The BBL runs across the summer break in Australia, with all games played at family-friendly hours, and tickets sold at family-friendly prices. This is important, and has been a contributing factor to the tournament’s longevity. There are concerns, however, that expansion is counterproductive to T20 cricket. The tournament was extended to 40 matches plus finals in 2017/18 and was met with a subsequent drop in television ratings.

The T20 paradox

One of the problems with T20 cricket is that it quickly becomes repetitive. Most matches follow a similar storyline by virtue of their brevity. Seeing a ball sail into the grandstand every night at 6 o’clock can only remain enjoyable for so long. T20 doesn’t ebb and flow the way test matches do either. If a team limps to a first innings total there is no time to put things right.

There is a school of thought amongst Australia’s leading scribes that the BBL has reached its breaking point as a result. Any further changes to the way the product is sold and packaged will turn fans away. The ECB’s new competition must avoid trying to oversell itself the way Australia has in recent times. With two tournaments running in tandem, there is a good chance fans will suffer fatigue. How are the ECB going to deal with this? It’s an important question and will ultimately decide how long the tournament remains relevant.

In this day and age, cricket must move with the times. CA has done this exceptionally well; the BBL is still among the best-supported sporting ventures in the country. Can the ECB find a balance between its thirst for cash and the limits of T20 cricket the way Australia has? Or will it fall into the trap of pushing it beyond its limitations and be flogging a dead horse before five years are up?

NRL must bring hammer down on salary cap cheats

Australian sport has been shaken to its very core this week. Much of this is due to the despicable actions of our cricketers in South Africa. As has been reported heavily over the past few days, Australian captain Steve Smith will miss the fourth and final test match of the series after being found guilty of contrary conduct by the ICC.

What is most jarring about this story is that the plan to change the condition of the ball was concocted behind closed doors, and involved the most sacred members of the playing group: its leaders.

During his time as Prime Minister, John Howard quipped that he had the second most important job in Australia. In the last week, this has proven to be the case. The Australian captain, it seems, is expected to uphold the standards and ideals we hold dear as a nation – even more so than those running the country. Fail us in any way and the emotional firestorm that follows will hit you like a ton of bricks.

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The pitchforks have come out for Smith faster than they might have done had Turnbull committed the political equivalent of ball tampering. But is all the hoo-hah warranted? After all, this isn’t the first time a cricketer has used a foreign object to change the condition of the ball. And if you listen to the game’s leading voices, the prevalence of ball tampering across all levels of the sport is higher than first thought. Even South African skipper Faf du Plessis has had a crack at scuffing up the ball to make it reverse swing.

The reason the Australians are being placed under heavy scrutiny from the public is partly because they expect more of their national heroes, and partly because it was a premeditated act.

So why then are we not applying the same heat to those at the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, who also engaged in premeditated cheating? Is it because they aren’t held in as high regard as Smith and his brigade of Baggy Green crusaders? Do Howard’s words – that Australian captaincy is the pinnacle of national leadership and those bestowed with this honour are the bearers of an unblemished moral compass – actually hold true?

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two cases. Both were premeditated acts and both were committed with the intention of gaining an edge over their opposition. Both, quite stupidly I might add, were done under the watchful eye of each code’s respective governing bodies; one in front of the television cameras and the other under the constant surveillance of the integrity unit.

Where the cases begin to differ is on the severity of the punishments handed down and the outpouring of public disgust. Steve Smith has been given a one-match ban by the ICC but may never captain Australia again. Two Manly officials, Neil Bare and Joe Kelly, have received 12-month suspensions, yet the player managers, the players themselves, and the club at large, got off relatively scot-free.

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They are very different cases but at their core lies the same motivation. The Australian cricketers changed the condition of the ball to cheat their way to victory; Manly used undeclared TPA’s to lure players to the club with the aim of assembling a superior roster, therefore allowing them to win more games.

A statement NRL CEO Todd Greenberg made during yesterday’s press conference, where he detailed the findings of a nine-month-long salary cap investigation, sums up this point well: “Manly had a financial advantage in securing the services of players who may otherwise have gone to other clubs”.

Right, so why have competition points not been docked? Why have they only been fined $750,000, $250,000 of which will be suspended if the club makes appropriate governance changes, when the subjects of the two previous salary cap scandals had points stripped?

Sure, they’re currently cap compliant. That’s fine. But, as Greenberg himself acknowledges, other clubs “missed the opportunity to secure players because of Manly’s undisclosed deals”. Nothing can reverse this and a small fine isn’t going to provide any closure for opposition clubs. The Gold Coast certainly aren’t about to forgive them for missing out on signing Daly Cherry-Evans because they are playing with a reduced cap. The biggest backflip in NRL history occurred because Manly used third-party deals to cheat – that is the bottom line.

Clearly, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I feel like a broken record writing something like this in a rugby league article because it seems to happen every second week, no matter the topic. Two salary cap scandals in three seasons shows that the NRL needs to take a hard line on those cheating the system.

If Steve Smith – a man many were comparing to Bradman not three months ago – is at risk of losing his spot in the national team over something like ball tampering, a harsher punishment should be handed down to those NRL clubs who choose to dance with the salary cap devil.

Both are blatant acts of cheating. And both should be treated accordingly to prevent future cases.

South Africa v Australia – talking points from day one in Durban

Before rejoining the Australian team during the third test match of the recently completed Ashes series, Mitchell Marsh struggled with the responsibility of batting in the middle order. If Australia found themselves in a hole, as they did yesterday when Mitch’s brother Shaun fell with the score on 177, the middle order could hardly be relied upon to turn the innings around. Often it was Mitchell Marsh that was held responsible for sparking a collapse. A common gripe among the cricketing fraternity was his inability to dig in when the team required it and contribute with a score of note. His temperament was questioned, and his technique scrutinised, until his weaknesses were laid bare. Australia was, at the time, struggling to score enough first innings runs. Much of this was down to the failings of a fledgeling middle order. The pressure from fans to pursue another option at six soon took hold and Mitch Marsh found himself on the outer with the national team.

On the first day of the first test in this all-important tour, the hit and miss gung-ho merchant of old was nowhere to be seen. Marsh has come to realise there is a far more important quality than bludgeoning the ball to the boundary: patience. With patience comes the ability for a batsman to pick the right ball and minimise risk; a skill that will undoubtedly come in handy against Philander’s guile as the series progresses.

His innings of 32 will not win Australia a test match; he must convert it into triple figures if it is to have any impact. However, we must admire the way in which he kept out Philander, remained confident in his own technique after getting away with a close LBW shout off the bowling of Rabada, and formed a partnership with Paine to see Australia through to the close.

This morning’s first session will decide how many Australia get in their first innings. It will test how much Mitchell Marsh has grown. It will shine a spotlight on what this tour holds in store for Paine. More importantly, it will set the tone for the entire series.

What now for Bancroft?

There comes a time in the career of every opener where they must examine their own technique and identify the flaws. For Bancroft there are many. And the time for reflection is now. England quickly identified a weakness following the first Ashes test at Brisbane. That flaw was exploited during the four test matches that followed and, as is the case in test cricket, other nations have picked up on it.

South Africa went hard at the pads of Bancroft with the new ball as England did throughout the Ashes. The theory is his falling head, perhaps the by-product of his front foot movement, leaves him vulnerable on middle and leg. His bat comes down on a 45-degree angle, as if he is looking to hit the ball through mid-off as soon as it is straight enough, bringing in LBW and bowled as the main modes of dismissal.

Now it is up to Bancroft to address these technical deficiencies – no easy task given they are based in muscle memory – before the selectors swing their axe. You feel that, because Australia has opted not to bring another opening batsmen on tour, he will be given a few tests to find his feet. If not, Renshaw – who has returned to form with hundreds in Shield cricket against Victoria and South Australia – will be first in line to take his place.

Admiring Philander

There is a lot to be said about the great swing bowlers of the modern era. I wonder whether Philander will ever figure in this conversation. As it stands he has 188 test wickets at 21. Hardly the stuff of legends.

There is a lot of catching up to do to join the likes of Anderson, McGrath and others at the top of the wicket-takers tree. In many ways, though, Philander has a bigger role to play than many of those who have taken over 300 test wickets bowling at just over 130 kilometres.

When Kyle Abbott, another superb swing bowler in his own right, parted ways with South Africa to join Hampshire on a Kolpak deal, South Africa were left with a gaping hole in their bowling stocks that was also missing an injured Dale Steyn. At this point, Philander’s importance in the future of the South African side grew significantly. Not until the last year and a bit, though, has he truly come into his own. Last time South Africa toured Australia all the talk was about Rabada and his lightning-fast arm action; Philander barely rated a mention. That was until he visited Hobart, swing bowling paradise, and tore through the Australians. Since then he has been the main focus of every touring side.

Last night, when bowling to David Warner during the first session of play, he honed in on a length with military precision, consistently hitting the stickers of Warner’s blade. This wasn’t a pitch ideal for someone of Philander’s pace. Yet he made it work, eventually grabbing Warner’s wicket on the stroke of lunch. What was most impressive was not the delivery that found Warner’s edge – an eye-catching moment in its own right, mind you – but the set-up. This is one of Philander’s greatest qualities and why he will soon be given the credit he is due.