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.