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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 7.23.39 pm.png

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 7.26.26 pm.png

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.

Australia v South Africa – Third Test Preview – Trials And Tribulations

As is so often the case in the midst of a crisis, the Australian selectors have hit the panic button and opted to take the quickest route out of the ostensible deep dark hole they find themselves in. The changes they’ve made in the wake of the debacles reflect a selection panel short on ideas and pragmatism, but not on audacity. It exemplifies their burning desire to disentangle themselves from the rut Australian cricket has found itself in these past months. Perhaps, and I say this tentatively, it is an interim selector looking to make a bold statement in the knowledge that he cannot be shot down. At the very least, the mind boggling and unwarranted culling of five incumbents shows that Australian cricket is backed into a corner with nowhere else to turn. But is this really the case?

There can be no questioning the significance of the third test match in Adelaide; despite its status as a dead rubber. South Africa will be seeking to replicate similar feats to those achieved by the great West Indian touring sides of the 1980’s. They have the chance to white-wash Australia on home soil; an opportunity not to be passed up. On the other side of the ledger, Australia will be trying all they can to recapture the form they held on home soil last year, while also attempting to manufacture a winning culture among the newest owners of the Baggy Green – in just one game. This is typical of the selection panel’s mindset of late. There is great value placed on immediate results, which is compromising the time afforded to a debutant to find their feet in an increasingly cut throat environment. The patience and faith the selectors once had in a player struggling to find his niche at test level was rewarded when he eventually cracked the code. Today, the side is result driven and looking for a one hit wonder who, it is hoped, will steady the ship and immediately curtail the influx of negative conjecture. They didn’t find that in Callum Ferguson, and they certainly couldn’t pin their hopes on Joe Mennie to fulfill this duty. So, it appears they too can now be added to the growing list of players in the one-test graveyard. But this trigger happy approach and lack of consideration for circumstance is where Australia’s problems originate. And they certainly haven’t done themselves any favours in anointing Trevor Hohns as a front to contrive a fresh start. Australian cricket is a shambles at the moment. It requires a long-term solution and for selectors, players and administration alike to be held liable for their missteps. Change was inevitable. But the magnitude of the changes and the swiftness with which they were made, along with the constant reshuffling of the line up, will not allow the side to settle on a winning formula.

Matthew Renshaw’s selection is perhaps the boldest of them all. He’s played a total of 12 matches at first-class level for an average in the forties, but is purportedly cut from the same cloth as Matthew Hayden; at least as far as technique is concerned. He’s an enormous gamble- particularly given he didn’t play the opening two games of the Sheffield Shield season – but one selectors are confident has the ability to cope with Rabada, Philander and Abbott. What’s most concerning, though, is his lack of exposure to world-class swing bowling. It appears the selection committee have shifted their thinking with the long sought after change in chairman. They prefer the exuberance and untapped talents of youth over the trialed and tested techniques of the ageing Shield population. But this is more a case of selectors taking the path less traveled. Experience hasn’t payed off lately, and a shift to picking youngsters, while no doubt a last resort, was most likely a forced decision rather than one made voluntarily. Either way, there can be only one outcome, and given the selectors track record in this area, Renshaw must make a good first impression or risk being shunned from the side for a good chunk of his career. He faces a tough initiation. Players tend to be placed under greater scrutiny when the team is under performing and has its back to the wall.

Matthew+Renshaw Update.jpg
Matt Renshaw on duty in the Sheffield Shield

A less surprising selection, but an equally confusing one, was that of Matthew Wade. Personally, Peter Nevill has shown his glove-work to be far superior to Wade’s at both international and state level. But it wasn’t his keeping prowess that saw him axed from the side, it was his lack of runs, which is the most despicable disregard for the art of wicket-keeping since T20 cricket revolutionised the traditional technique. If you look at Nevill’s previous ten innings in isolation, you’ll also notice that he was required to bat during a period following top order failures and was therefore handed a mandate to score a flurry of late order runs. What this selection ploy indicates is that the Australian team currently desire a keeper who bats, rather than one whose role is to keep wickets as a first priority – as was the case in the Rod Marsh and Ian Healy days. This has stemmed from Australia’s trouble at the top, and will no doubt change when the top order is settled and back scoring plenty of runs. But in the meantime, selectors must decide which is more valuable. Late order runs, or a keeper with a penchant for saving them and taking every opportunity that presents itself. Given Wade’s notoriously hard hand’s and crude one -day methods, it’s difficult to see the latter being achieved.

More frustrating, though, are the Chinese whispers which suggest that Wade’s ‘mongrel’ was a factor in his selection over Nevill. If this is the case, and I dearly hope it’s not, the selection panel have lost all dignity and credibility in my books. Sledging is an age old tactic designed to put off batsman by troubling their mental fortitude. But how adept one has become at using it should not be considered grounds for selection. I’ve got a feeling this is nothing more than a cheap joke, but the fact we are bringing up such delusional lines of thinking indicates they needed an extra factor to make Wade’s selection appear incontestable. Most of all, it shows that Australia’s selectors really are struggling to establish what makes a test player.

I do hope the selectors are yet to put a nail in the Voges coffin. His Shield stats alone across the previous five seasons earns him a spot almost automatically, while the records of those that are about to usurp him (Maddinson 37.65, Peter Handscomb 40.56), as well as those that are on CA’s radar (Patterson 42.01), pale in comparison. Voges is a victim of a struggling side, there’s no doubt. When the chips are down, as they were in Sri Lanka and now against South Africa, he averages just 14.8; most probably because the bowlers weren’t blunted by Warner and Smith on these occasions. While when the going is good, as it was against the West Indies and New Zealand at home and away, he averages a monumental 162.28. Figures which make him indispensable. A run of ten innings in which he greatly underachieved means we’ve probably seen the back of Voges, though. It’s a shame that from a guy who promised so much at state level, and for a brief period on the international scene, we’ve received so little.

I won’t touch on the Day/Night element of this third test, mainly because I think the game will play out in a similar fashion to last year. The wicket will have some grass left on it, Rabada and Starc – the bowling king pins – will have a field day and the test will be over inside just three days. The result will be different when we reach Brisbane for the third edition of the day/ night phenomenon (in Australia), but we haven’t yet, and we’ve got a tough task ahead of us to avoid humiliation for a third straight game.