Landmark moment for British game a glimpse into the future

The NRL might not be too concerned by Super League’s venture to its stomping ground this weekend, nor the fans worried about the potential ramifications of this historic visit. But there is more than meets the eye about Hull FC’s clash with Wigan at Wollongong on Saturday evening.

At first glance this game seems nothing more than a gimmick, a chance to keep the struggling English game from treading water. And what better way to do this than to take it to the only place in the world where Rugby League has a large presence in the media and isn’t hidden behind the exploits of Manchester City, or continually confused with its sister code?

When Australian fans settle in to watch what will be, in effect, a bit of pre-season entertainment viewed in lieu of any local action, they will surely wonder why the NRL haven’t yet played a game in the UK for competition points.

The simple answer is this: the NRL wouldn’t gain the same amount of exposure, nor attract the same attention from potential commercial investors, as the Super League will by bringing a game down under.

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This might just be the smartest move the RFL have ever made and it comes on the back of their expansion into Canada with the Toronto Wolfpack, who have progressed to the second tier of the Championship and already have their sights set on a Super League birth in the years to come.

The NRL, meanwhile, appear completely closed off to the idea of expansion. When Super Rugby team the Western Force were axed from the competition at the end of last year, the NRL refused to put plans in place for a Perth based club.

It would seem they are content with their presence in the eastern states and would rather let the AFL have free reign in the west.

The Super League isn’t afraid of expansion and experimentation, though. And why would they be when the competition can only grow from where it currently stands behind the more popular and successful English sports that are shielding it from the limelight.

If those plans for expansion involve Australia, particularly the regions currently uninhabited by Rugby League, then the NRL should watch its back.

This weekend appears as much an experiment as it does a test drive. If the Super League can’t escape from the shadow of England’s sporting colossuses, and grow the game to the point where clubs can afford to offer higher profile players big money, increase the salary cap, or implement a proper reserves league, it will have no choice but to look to one of the only places it is assured to make waves.

If that means invading Australia – Rugby League’s stronghold – and taking on the might of the NRL while it sleeps, then so be it. What is there to lose? Money? Perhaps, but when a competition is as cash-strapped as the Super League and some of its clubs are said to be, it might as well go looking for ways to buck the trend – and taking the odd game to Australia or implanting a team seems as viable an option as any other to increase revenue to the levels seen in the NRL.

If clubs can travel to Toronto, why not Perth, or Adelaide? The NRL doesn’t start till mid March so there is a small window where the Super League – now broadcast weekly on Fox League – will have the full attention of Rugby League fans in Australia. More overseas fixtures would also boost the price of television rights and prompt further competition between local and international broadcasters.

This weekend’s Super League fixture might appear a harmless exhibition game aimed at helping fund a comparatively weak competition by the NRL’s standards, but it could secretly be a bid for expansion, a brief glimpse at how the English game can profit from bringing more fixtures to Australia in future.

Ashes Daily – To follow-on or not to follow-on: that is the question.

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England have been behind the eight ball since Joe Root won the toss and decided to bowl four days ago, but if England go on to win tomorrow the question on everybody’s lips will be ‘gee, I wonder if the result would be different had Smith enforced the follow-on’.

At face value Smith’s decision to bat again after dismissing the fragile English batting line-up makes sense.

The seamers had already bowled 76 overs and when you are carrying just three fast bowlers and a sole spinner through a five-match test series it is wise to give them a rest when the opportunity presents itself.

But consider the message enforcing the follow-on would’ve sent to England, who were bowled out for just 227 after seeing Australia pile on double that in a day and a half.

Had they been sent straight back in while the memories of the first innings carnage were fresh in the mind, England’s batsmen would’ve been low on confidence rather than buoyed by the possibility of a history-defying win for the ages stemming from impeccable swing and seam bowling.

No batsmen at any level enjoys batting after a failure in the first innings because the pressure is on to avoid back-to-back low scores.

Fall cheaply twice in a test match and all of a sudden your career hangs by a thread.

You begin to question facets of your game and technique that were once completed without question while rumours swirl in the press of a likely replacement for the next match.

Four of England’s top 5 failed to go past 20 in England’s first innings; three of those are finding their way in test cricket and, had they been put back in on the evening of day three and dismissed cheaply once again, it might have set the tone for the remainder of the series.

Where is our next run coming from? How can we score over 300 against these bowlers?

Our next game is at the WACA – we could get rolled for 100.

Australia’s bowlers would’ve looked more like the formidable West Indian attack of the nineties and the mind games that are so important in the Ashes would’ve set a cat amongst the pigeons in the English camp, potentially leading to further Overton-esque changes.

By electing to bat again, Smith has inadvertently given up Australia’s stranglehold on both the test match and the series.

All of a sudden the English don’t fear the Australian quicks, while the batsmen, who were previously infallible in their home conditions, are as human as the rest of us after all.

Cracks begin to form in the Australian batting ranks and before you know it the pressure is right back on them to avoid a loss to the old enemy on home soil.

If you need evidence of this, look no further than Peter Handscomb who could find himself out of the side if Australia goes down tomorrow.

Had Smith enforced the follow-on, Handscomb walks away with a score of 36 – assuming, of course, that Australia weren’t required to bat again – and is automatically retained for the third test at the WACA.

A loss under such circumstances, however, shines a spotlight on technical deficiencies that are swept under the rug when a side goes through a series unbeaten.

Smith’s decision has further ramifications that can’t necessarily be quantified. England have gained confidence in their ability to dismiss the Australians, and, if they complete the job tomorrow, their batting is capable of what can only be described as a statistical impossibility.

A stat was flashed up on Channel Nine’s telecast today. It detailed the highest run chases in test history at the Adelaide Oval.

The last side to chase down a score over 300 was way back in the early 1900’s when wickets were uncovered and every delivery sent down by the opposition quicks was a  potential landmine.

If a side can do it in these conditions, it can’t be difficult to replicate such a feat on an artificially concocted drop-in wicket.

Even if the visitors fail, they have been given a huge leg up by a decision that could well decide the path this series takes.

Ashes Daily – Where have we seen this before? Dogged England show fight to keep faint title hopes alive.

 

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Nothing but a memory now…An image from day two of the first 2017 Ashes test at the Gabba.

 

Today’s play showed exactly why the Ashes is seen as one of the most exciting sporting spectacles on the planet.

England’s batting crumbled as many predicted it would, before the Australians, electing not to enforce the follow-on, lost four of their own under the bright Adelaide lights.

Jimmy Anderson and Chris Woakes were the architects of England’s recovery. Both made the ball talk in a way it hasn’t so far this series to give their batsman a chance of saving the test match if – and it’s a big if – they manage to dismiss the Australians for under 150 tomorrow morning.

If the Aussie quicks are let loose on the fragile English batting lineup for any longer than 4 sessions you get the feeling that it will be good night Irene by midway through the final day.

Give the England batsmen a total of 320 though and it’s amazing what confidence from a dogged bowling effort can do.

Australia will need to produce the magic they did earlier today to dismiss proven performers like Root and Cook who have managed to get England out of the woods from a similar position several times in the past.

Both threw their wickets away this morning; Root pushing at a wide half-volley; Cook playing at a rather unthreatening delivery from Lyon with an open blade. Given another chance, it is unlikely they will fall in the same fashion.

Australia will, however, have the advantage of bowling under lights for two sessions before the end of this test match.

If the ball swings and seams like it did for Anderson, Broad and Woakes this evening, England’s junior brigade will have no hope of fending off Australia’s quicks to save the game.

Just as impressive as England’s evening session were the Australian seamers who it appears have finally hit their straps.

Despite winning comprehensively at the Gabba, you got the sense that the quicks were below their best.

Cummins was on the short side for most of the first innings while Hazlewood looked to be down on pace.

Starc produced moments of brilliance but has improved with every over as the series has progressed.

One cannot write an article without mentioning the legend that is Nathan Lyon. It was only a year ago that he was on the outer following a tough series against South Africa and when Australia arrived at the Gabba for the first test against Pakistan, it looked as if Lyon might be left out.

The selectors opted in favour of the spinner over a fourth seamer and, since earning a regular spot, finds himself atop the wicket-takers list for 2017.

Of the top five players on that list, four are spinners.

Lyon has gone past Sri Lankan maestro Rangana Herath and usurped South African seamer Kagiso Rabada.

Joining him at the top of the leaderboard is Ravi Ashwin, who also has 55 wickets. Lyon, however, has played 2 fewer games.

By the end of his career, Lyon will have surpassed many of the game’s greatest bowlers on the all-time leading wicket-takers list.

He is the glue that holds the Australian bowling attack together and has played a role in many of the wickets taken by the quicks down the other end.

They say you should judge an off-spinner on their ability to bowl their side to victory on the fifth day of a test match.

Many Australian spinners have had their day in the sun – Hauritz on the fifth day at the SCG in 2010 against Pakistan being one such example – but few have managed to do the heavy lifting on wearing wickets all over the world like Lyon does on a consistent basis.

If he continues the way he has so far this Ashes series, he might outlast the likes of Warner and Marsh who will step down when younger players with quicker reflexes hit the big time.

No off-spinner is currently putting their hand up for test selection in the Shield competition other than Agar, whom the selectors prefer to play deputy to Lyon on away tours to the sub-continent as he lacks the incumbent’s control.

Jon Holand and Steve O’Keefe are also on the radar but haven’t put their hands up when given the opportunity and are reaching the twilight of their respective careers.

Lyon, much like Warne, is a fan favourite and with this comes an enormous ego boost that helps a bowler’s confidence when stood at the top of their mark.

If Australia are to win this test match, Lyon must stand up once again and their batsmen must push the lead beyond 350. Any less and they are leaving the door open for an Australian like comeback at Adelaide in 2006.

It seems unlikely, but we musn’t forget that Root and Cook, not to mention Bairstow and Ali, have conquered uphill battles like this before.

You have to wonder what the English press would make of England’s bowling performance tonight if Stokes was in the side.

350? Pfft. We’ll do that inside two sessions. Remember Cape Town?

Tomorrow’s morning session will decide the test match.

Ashes Daily – England’s bowling attack requires fire and brimstone

 

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Day One of the first test at the Gabba.

 

The English bowlers were well below their best at the Gabba last week. Broad and Anderson struggled to find rhythm, while Ball and Woakes looked tame at times and downright predictable at others. It seems to me that there is a lot of sameness about the English attack. Where is the out and out quick that strikes fear into the hearts of the batsmen? History tells us that if you want to stay competitive in an Ashes series, you’re going to have to try some short stuff from time to time. It worked for Australia at the back end of the first innings and most of the second – particularly against the tailenders – but England don’t have the bowlers capable of replicating this tactic.

Anderson, Ball and Woakes are all in the team to pitch the ball up and make it swing, but this plan of attack is ineffective when the pitch isn’t offering the sideways movement of Trent Bridge or Lord’s. When playing on flat wickets, the likes of which England will encounter at the SCG and MCG, bowlers must bend their backs and intimidate rather than float it up and pray for seam movement. Broad is the man that posses the pace required to execute a leg-side trap, but Anderson – whose record in Australia is rather disappointing for a bowler of his calibre – Ball and Woakes are all working towards a common goal that in Australia, with a Kookaburra ball and flat drop-in wickets, can be a frivolous task.

England would do well to bring in a Mark Wood, who is currently on tour here in Australia with the Lions, or Liam Plunkett, who appears to have been pigeonholed in the shorter formats. I must admit I haven’t seen a lot of Overton and he could well be the man that adds some variety to an otherwise similar bowling attack. If so, the sooner they get him in the side the better. An attack featuring Ball and Wokes alongside Anderson and Broad is incapable of getting the job done at the WACA, where pace and bounce – and more importantly, who uses it best – often dictates the outcome of the game.

We all knew not having Stokes in the side would greatly weaken the English batting lineup, but it seems it has hurt the bowling unit just as much. Not only does he add the mungrel to get under the skin of the Australian batsmen, he adds variety to the pace attack that can trouble batsmen on flat wickets where swing bowling won’t cut the bacon during the second innings.

Adelaide and the pink ball will suit the English quicks because the wicket will play into their hands and allow them to gain reward from standing the seam up as they would in England. As soon as they move on to the WACA, they require a point of difference to avoid the embarrassment of the Gabba. That point of difference is someone who can successfully execute a 145 kph short ball directed at the batsman’s badge.

Ashes 2017 – First Test Review

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If England are to take one positive away from the first test at the Gabba, it is that they were in the contest for the best part of three days.

Many touring sides walk away from the ‘Gabbatoir’ with egos damaged, reputations tarnished and careers in tatters.

This was certainly the case in 2013/14 when England came to the Gabba and were blown away inside four days by Mitchell Johnson.

Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swan were left with psychological scars so deep they returned home, while the remainder of the English dressing room were left puzzled as to how they would go about thwarting the firebrand quick for the rest of the series.

They never recovered and went on to lose 5-0.

Years earlier Simon Jones, who had shown signs he could become a prolific wicket taker for England in the few overs he got to bowl before plugging his knee in the Gabba outfield during the first test of the 2002/03 series, was whisked off to hospital and took no further part in the tour.

England also had 350 runs put on them on that first day at the Gabba after Nasser Hussain decided he would make his bowlers toil on a wicket harder than the M1.

To no one’s surprise, England lost that series 4-1, with their only relief coming in the final test of the summer at the SCG.

The first test of this summer didn’t follow the conventional Gabba storylines.

Few England players have been left with deep psychological scars despite the fact they lost by a margin of 10 wickets and many key batsman failed to score runs – Alastair Cook being one of those.

Normally it is the quicks who leave batsmen fearing for their collective futures at the Gabba. But the first test of this Ashes summer belonged to Nathan Lyon, and you get the feeling most of the English left handers will be losing sleep over him rather than Starc and Hazlewood.

Malan and Stoneman were both dismissed in the second innings prodding at a ball that ripped and turned from the footmarks outside off stump.

They had no set plan to the off spinner and spent most of their time plonking their front foot down the line of off-stump, hoping the ball would go straight on to hit the middle of the bat.

Kevin Pietersen made mention in the aftermath of the first test that the English batsmen must go after Lyon or risk being bogged down and eventually lose their wicket without progressing the score.

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Hazlewood to Malan on Day one at the Gabba.

You sense that Lyon was able to contain the English batsmen during the first test because, to put it simply, they were scared to leave their crease.

With the ball spinning and bouncing, the risk of being stumped became far greater and so they reverted to playing with soft hands and a vertical bat.

Taking one method of dismissal out of the equation betters your chance of survival, right?

Wrong.

Nathan Lyon is the kind of bowler that will immediately find a second gear if he gets a sniff.

With many of the English batsmen new to the test arena, Lyon was able to play on their vulnerabilities and improve his chances of taking a wicket by removing the only way he is ever put off his length – the dancing feet of an opposition batsman.

When a batsmen is rooted to the crease, as the likes of Bell and Prior were back in 2013, Lyon fires.

He can build up pressure around the bat and let the rough do the talking while the batsmen push and prod in the hope of survival.

If a batsmen goes after him, as many touring sides have done in the past, he begins to drop the ball short and run scoring becomes far easier.

The sooner the English batsmen realise this, the better chance they are of scoring over 400 in Adelaide and beyond without Stokes.

Of course, there is still the quicks to contend with, but they will be far less threatening if Lyon isn’t building up pressure down the other end.

For the better part of the first innings at the Gabba, Australia’s bowlers were far too short. This could easily be blamed on the slowness of the Gabba wicket, for if it had played normally – as it did in the second innings – the shorter length may well have been effective.

But the Australian quicks, Cummins in particular, were too short too often and went looking for a mode of dismissal that was nigh on impossible during much of the first innings.

Only when the wicket quickened up did the back-of-a-length tactic pay dividends.

For the reminder of the summer, the WACA aside, the wickets will be flat, slow and might even seam from time to time.

The benefit of touring Australia is that you play on drop in wickets that are devoid of life and flatter than a pancake after a day and a half.

If England can win in Adelaide, there’s a chance they can win the series. Lose and there is no coming back with a game at the WACA to come.

Tests at the Gabba and WACA are so often seen as the games that make or break a series because the wickets at both venues play into Australia’s hands.

But Adelaide is now seen as the tie-breaker because the games at the MCG and SCG could go either way.

If England lose in Adelaide, the series is all but sewn up for Australia.

If this scenario transpires, all hell could break lose in England’s camp and we could witness a repeat of the carnage and turmoil of their last trip down under.

Australia have the upper hand but Adelaide will tell us a lot about the direction this Ashes series is headed.

 

RLWC scheduling disaster – where it has all gone wrong

If you build it, they will come. This might well be the case inside Papua New Guinea’s recently refurbished National Football Stadium, which has been bursting at the seams for the two group games played there so far, but it couldn’t be further from the truth here in Australia.

Low crowds and empty grandstands are a common theme in NRL land, where attendances have been in free fall for the past 5 years, but it seems to have crept into Rugby League’s showpiece event.

Here in Australia, we saw it coming from a mile away. If crowds aren’t turning up to see two highly supported local rivals go toe-to-toe at ANZ Stadium or Allianz on a balmy Sunday afternoon in prime time, why would they show up to watch Lebanon play England, or Italy play the U.S.A?

Ticket sales are of course indicative of the tournament’s advertising methods, which have been flimsy to say the least, while ticket prices aren’t exactly tempting punters to part with their hard earned.

But to blame poor attendance rates on the tournament’s questionable promotion alone is to miss the bigger picture.

Only four games have been played at one of Australia’s big rectangular ‘stadiums’ so far, while Western Sydney has been neglected altogether.

Two of those fixtures included Australia, and even then the stadiums still appeared to be only half full.

If the host nation can’t draw a crowd, how can you expect anyone to be interested in attending a game in the sweltering Townsville heat on a Saturday evening at 9:00pm?

Australia’s premier Rugby League venue, Suncorp Stadium, will be used for just two games in this edition of the World Cup. It will host a semi-final on the 24th of November and the big dance a week later.

This seems like a missed opportunity on multiple fronts; foremost that Queensland, one of Australia’s League heartlands, is effectively starved of live action until the tournament has just three games left to run.

During a different month, in a different city, this might not pose an issue. But while the semi-final is being played out between two of the competition heavyweights, the second day of the first Ashes test will have concluded just a few kilometers down the road at the Gabba.

The logic behind taking games to rural hubs like Cairns and Rugby League mad cities like Townsville makes sense, but when they feature noncompetitive games between minnow nations where the scorelines blow out after a few sets of six, you can hardly expect them to pique the interest of locals.

Why is it that the major venues – AAMI Park, Suncorp, GIO and the SFS – receive all the games involving Australia at some point across the tournament? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pack Barlow Park to the rafters on a Friday evening while the minnow nations battle it out on Saturday at the major venues to whet the appetite of the fans in places like Queensland and Perth, where the tournament has no presence until the final few weeks?

By starving fans living in and around the big stadiums in Melbourne, Brisbane and Western Sydney, the RLWC organisers are cutting off their noses despite their face.

Crowds are going to be naturally low for games involving minnow nations, and it is hard to find an excuse for the poor crowd that saw England play Lebanon at the SFS on Saturday night other than to say that this has long been the case in the NRL as well. But by moving some games that matter to the heartlands, and the remainder to the major stadiums, fans in all regions are being exposed to the action.

The state of Rugby League outside the nations with a national competition, or a presence in those individual leagues, has seen the gulf in standard increase dramatically, as evidenced by Fiji’s 66 point demolition of Wales.

Finding a way to pack out any stadiums under these circumstances is going to take some progressive thinking, so why not move them to the big cities where developing some interest in the tournament is better than letting it fly under the radar?

England did a fine job of making games between the minnows appealing four years ago; Australia must do the same.

Field of Dreams: World Cup offers big opportunities for minnow nations

If you’ve blinked at some point over the last few weeks, you might have missed the news that the Rugby League World Cup begins later this week. That’s right, Australia take on England in Melbourne on Friday night to kick off their title defence, but does the Australian public care?

The seasons have changed, the days are getting longer, and the Grand Final has come and gone. This can mean only one thing – rugby league season is done and dusted for the year. Until 2018 arrives, any and all talk about football will be put on the back burner and attention will turn to our summer obsessions: cricket, soccer, the beach and our backyard barbie.

It is no secret that international rugby league has been struggling for some time; its reputation has been damaged by the ‘defectors’ who have made a mockery of what international sport should be about – pride and passion in the jumper, its history, and all it represents.

Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, even the likes of James Graham and little-known players like USA captain Mark Offerdahl, know what it means to represent their country; they cherish the moment at every opportunity and place it up there with the Origin victories and Grand Final triumphs of bygone eras.

 

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The USA playing Australia at the last world cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

Could you imagine Steve Smith suddenly deciding he’s had enough of the Baggy Green and would rather play across the ditch? What about if Roger Federer, one of the greatest sportsmen of the modern era, chose to jump ship and join up with arch-rival Raffa and the Spaniards. What would world tennis look like? How would the pundits react?

The falling out from any of the above scenarios would be far greater than what we have experienced in rugby league land over the last few months. The reasons for this are simple: international rugby league and the World Cup has long been the dog’s chew toy; the ultimate bartering tool for the respective boards; and a tournament that became a laughing stock so long ago we’ve barely questioned how farcical it has become today.

So when Andrew Fifita dropped the green and gold of Australia for the red and white of Tonga, we rejoiced through lack of caring when we should have been waving our fists in anger at the leniency of the rules that have sent the international game careering towards an early grave.

Then again, rugby league has always been about the battler that isn’t given a chance but somehow prevails against all odds. A working-class game deserves the kind of story that inspires the next generation and empowers an entire nation that rides the highs and lows of their team. Players like Fifita and Taumalolo can provide this for the minnows.

 

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Jason Taumalolo will play for Tonga during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. Image source: Zimbio.

 

When the PNG Hunters players shed a few tears after lifting the Queensland Cup in September, Australian rugby league fans suddenly grew an appreciation for the international game.

It has been bashed up and thrown to the dogs so many times over the last decade that we’ve forgotten why we still bother to give it the time of day. Australia may dominate every tournament and, in doing so, chip away at the relevance and popularity of the World Cup, but little-known rugby league stalwarts like Mark Offerdahl of the USA are just pleased to put their nation on the rugby league map.

There are plenty of other sporting contests capable of stealing our attention here in Australia during the summer months, not least the Ashes, so the Rugby League World Cup may perish from our memories quicker than it arrived. But for nations like PNG, who have hostage rights for the first time in the tournament’s history and have poured more than $1 million into refurbishing its facilities, it might as well be the FIFA Football World Cup.

Lebanon will play in their first World Cup in 17 years when they take on France at Canberra Stadium on Sunday. To put this into some context, the last game they played at a world tournament came during the year of the Sydney Olympics. On that occasion, they were knocked out during the group stage, and finding their way back into the international fold has been a long and treacherous one filled with many setbacks.

Brad Fittler has already told his players that unless they learn the national anthem, they won’t take the field. Perhaps this was a dig at the players who have been gifted a position in the side through their participation in the NRL; perhaps it was out of respect for the players who have juggled a full-time job and training at some point during their careers to earn a belated international berth.

 

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Lebanon will be coached by former NSW and Roosters great, Brad Fittler. Image source: APRLC

 

We here in Australia may take the rugby league World Cup for granted, but we should seldom discount what it means to the players who aren’t thrust into the limelight for months at a time and paid by the truckload.

Australia should take out this World Cup in a canter; their class and experience is unrivalled competition wide. However, the side that holds the trophy aloft in Brisbane on December 3 will be far from the cup’s only victor.

When PNG took out the Queensland Cup, someone quipped that the country be given a public holiday. If this is the kind of reaction a local competition can garner, just imagine what a World Cup can do for the spirits of the nation and the growth of rugby league. One day, PNG might well be taking on the might of England or Australia in a World Cup final. If this is ever to happen, we must find a way to boost interest in this World Cup and any future editions. That is our duty as a host nation and one of rugby league’s forefathers.