NRL need to set a precedent for gambling within the game

Todd Greenberg has done much in his time as NRL CEO to confirm that he is the right man for the job. But with just one statement in last week’s press conference to announce the fate of troubled West Tigers star Tim Simona, he immediately undid all his good work.

“Based on the evidence we’ve identified, it is very hard to imagine that Tim Simona will be registered with the NRL at any time in the future”.

Simona deserved a life-ban. His crimes are inexcusable and are in breach of more than just the NRL’s policies. He has broken the law, betrayed his team and should have been rubbed out of the game with not even the slightest chance of ever being allowed back; if for nothing else than preserving the game’s image.

But the wishy-washy nature of Greenberg’s statement, and the penalty, is hard to overlook.

The NRL haven’t taken a tough stance on any indiscretions other than salary cap breaches in recent times. Even the illicit drug policy has come into question by the players during the last week.

Back in 2002, the Bulldogs were fined $500,000 and docked premiership points when they were found to be cheating the cap.

Melbourne followed in 2010 for the same misdeed, but were also stripped of their premiership titles.

When it came time for Todd Greenberg to hand down his decision on Parramatta in July last year, he had a precedent, set by previous administrations, by which to follow.

As far as match fixing, or dealing with breaches in the games gambling code is concerned, the NRL is yet to establish a benchmark. It remains a grey area.

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Todd Greenberg needed to make an example of Simona to rid the game of gambling issues. Photo Source: Bein Sports

When news first broke that Tim Simona was placing bets on himself and opposition players to score tries against the West Tigers, the length of his ban in the eyes of the public was heavily dependent on an individuals moral compass.

What did and didn’t come under the banner of breaching the game’s ‘integrity’, and to what degree Simona’s actions could be seen as doing so when opposed to something like doping, was up for debate.

But that was before details of his contemptible charity scams and drug habit were brought to light, turning a tale of addiction into something more sinister.

At this point, the NRL had a golden opportunity to deter other players from even thinking of committing the same abhorrent crimes, by handing down a penalty that would force them to risk their careers if they wanted to follow in Simona’s footsteps. But in just one statement, Greenberg left the door open for future occurrences to take place.

A disappointing and undesirable result for the game’s image and culture, which is already under heavy scrutiny from the outsiders looking in.

Greenberg would have done well to express more than simply his personal feelings towards Simona’s actions. They were well considered, meaningful even, but didn’t fulfill their purpose.

Instead of using terms such as ‘hard to imagine’, which are open to interpretation by a future CEO who may wish to re-register Simona if he feels he has served his time, he needed to make an example of the former Tigers winger by banning him for life.

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Simona’s contract has been torn up by the NRL. Photo Source: Geelong Advertiser – 

If the NRL isn’t willing to play hardball then we shouldn’t expect gambling issues within the game to disappear automatically.

The same goes for the current protocols in place to deal with players who engage in recreational drug use. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.

We must even question the effectiveness of the education forums administered by the NRL. Clearly, if these issues are systemic, their messages are failing to sink in.

Simona knew the consequences of his actions but still chose to feed his addiction in the most heinous way imaginable, by selling jersey’s and keeping the proceeds, promised to charity, for himself.

He had been through the NRL’s programs, presumably a number of times, but failed to heed their warnings.

The Wests Tigers missed the eight by one point in 2016. An issue that went largely unaddressed while the case was under the microscope.

It should have been the wake up call that kicked the NRL into gear, but it was barely considered.

This very point demonstrates the kind of influence match-fixing and gambling violations can have on the premiership at large.

What must the fan, that forks out thousands of dollars to watch their side play each year, be thinking when the NRL fails to take a tough stance on players making a mockery of their allegiance.

Does he or she still believe in the integrity of a contest?

There will always be question marks over the result of a game until the NRL brings in stringent rules to rub out those who attempt to manipulate them.

Roosters down sorry Dogs in placid affair

Last night we witnessed two teams headed in very different directions on the competition ladder.

The Roosters – with their new look halves combination and experienced pack – are gearing up for a top four finish, while the Bulldogs are in damage control and struggling to maintain their foothold in the competitions predicted top eight.

The former have found form across the first two rounds of the 2017 premiership season and there are no prizes for guessing why this has come about.

Missing the finals in 2016, following years of sustained success, hit the playing group like a freight train and left many of their seasoned veterans scratching their heads, wondering whether 2017 was destined to finish in the same vein.

But that was before Keary, who is shaping as the best buy of the season after two match winning performances in his first two games for the club, joined Halfback Mitchell Pearce in an untested combination that has worked like clockwork since its unveiling.

Selecting the winner in the lead up to last week’s game against the Gold Coast was a lottery, but if the same fixture was to take place today, the punters would have no qualms in backing the boys from Bondi. In fact, they would start as overwhelming favourites.

While a great deal of the Roosters’ early success can be put down to the Keary and Pearce factor, the likes of Ferguson, Guerra and Aubusson have been just as monumental in the sides’ impressive performances.

Latrell Mitchell is perhaps the best emerging talent in the NRL and credit should be given where credit is due. He is an immensely skilled footballer and has Origin written all over him. The side would not be as proficient in attack without him.

We mustn’t underestimate the influence of Michael Gordon either, and what his experience and impressive CV brings to the table.

The recruitment managers at the Roosters deserve to be commended.

For the Bulldogs, the same cannot be said. They battled hard for eighty minutes on Thursday night to get within just four points of a challenging opposition, but the media scrutiny around the alleged rifts between players, board and coach are beginning to show.

And with every loss, this debate, and the attention that accompanies it, only intensifies.

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Latrell Mitchell, future star. Photo: stuff.co.nz

They scored 24 points in the game but this doesn’t paint an accurate picture of their attack.

Three came off the back of Roosters errors and another was scored by running an over used, predictable block-play through the middle of a tired Roosters ruck that, later in the season, would have been snuffed out in a heartbeat.

Summing up their attack in a nutshell is easy because there isn’t much to describe. If given one word, it could be labelled uncreative. And this comes down to a lack of involvement from their halves which is affecting the potency of their go-forward.

The Bulldogs spine is one of the best in the competition on paper but they haven’t shown their wares in a number of months. When they do, their football is scintillating and creates an exciting spectacle for fans watching on television or at the ground. But these occasions are becoming few and far between with every passing game.

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The Canterbury Bulldogs will need to lift if they are to get their season back on track. Photo: source unknown. 

Structures like those that the Bulldogs have employed for what feels like generations are effective in certain circumstances, but when opposed to modern off the cuff methods, are often made to look obsolete.

So it is no surprise than, given the magnitude of evidence stacked against them, that their season is already on the rocks.

Sacking Des Hasler would be like shooting the messenger. He’s not directly to blame for their woes but is easily scapegoated as the responsible party because this is the only link we seem to make when teams are playing poor football in this era.

A man who has coached his side to two deciders inside five years doesn’t deserve to go. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the players. They must lift.

Cronulla Sharks v Brisbane Broncos Match Preview

Cronulla will be without star winger, turned fullback, Valentine Holmes when they begin their title defence in the season opener tonight.

The Broncos will also be without retirees Parker and Reed, while the spotlight will be put on Halfback Ben Hunt in his first showing since it was announced he would be travelling to St George at the end of this year to join up with the Dragons on a 1.2 million dollar contract.

This game has all the makings of being one of the closest in the opening round. Both sides have notable omissions and will be playing with new structures as well as adjusting to different game plans now that some of the incumbents have parted ways. The Sharks halves are the key to a home victory tonight while the forward pack has a large role to play in nullifying the speed the Broncos enjoy playing with when they are at their try scoring best.

Brisbane’s athletic outside backs pose the biggest threat to the Sharks’ defence and will be looking to exploit their new look right edge which will feature Raiders recruit Edrick Lee. Cronulla have also lost three of their most competent attacking weapons in Barba, Ennis and Holmes and will therefore be asking Maloney and Townsend in the halves to take the line on more often, increase the ruck speed and test the Broncos defenders when they begin to show signs of fatigue. Second phase play was the cornerstone of Cronulla’s attack last year, so look for Gallen and Fafita to play up the middle of the ground where their offloads will be more effective.

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Wade Graham will be a vital part of the Sharks premiership defence. Photo: Sharks.com.au

Many have tipped the Broncos to miss the eight this year, and this comes as no surprise when you consider that they will need to negotiate a difficult draw in the lead up to Origin. Games like these away from home against an undermanned side are must win if they are to squeeze into what will be a tightly contested top eight.

Their inexperienced bench, when opposed to Cronulla’s, would be the biggest concern for coach Wayne Bennet going forward. Pangai Junior, Ese’ese and Arrow have limited first grade experience and will come up against bigger and better opposition benches when they play the clubs predicted to finish above them this year.

Bennett has had plenty of depth on his benches in the sides he’s coached over his career and has therefore been able to control the game. You need only think back to some of his premiership winning sides throughout the nineties, right through to his success with the Dragons in 2010, to see the players he had at his disposal and the impact they had on tightly contested games.

This is a new era for Bennet and one I’m not sure he is equipped to deal with now that his priorities lie elsewhere. There is a World Cup coming up at the end of this year and I’m sure that the RFL would want Bennet on deck at least two months prior to ensure England are in the best shape going in. This could have major ramifications for the Broncos at the pointy end of the season.

Expect the scoreline to be tight in the season’s opening fixture and few points to be scored. Both sides will look to grind the other into the ground by playing off the back of their forwards, preventing an open contest by limiting the time their play makers and outside backs have in possession. We may not see the attacking brand of football that payed dividends for Cronulla last year, and now that Ennis is no longer serving the side at hooker, Jayden Brailey will be required to service the big men close to the line, taking some of the sting out of their attack. Will he be able to catch out opposition defenders with his limited first grade experience? It’s a tough initiation for the young rake and it will take time before he gets a feel for the physicality and pace of first grade.

Without Parker though, the Broncos have some concerns of their own that require addressing.

We’re in for an exciting first game to kick off the 2017 premiership.

 

Ennis, Barba departures leave gaping hole in Sharks title defence

The Cronulla Sharks will need to overcome the weight of history if they are to become the first side since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992-93 to win back-to-back premierships.

The defending champions open their account on Thursday night in the first game of the 2017 NRL season against the last club to complete the two-peat, but will be without two influential members of their premiership winning spine.

A drama filled off-season has seen Ben Barba travel to France to join up with Rugby club Toulon, while Hooker Michael Ennis called time on his career following a successful two year stint with Cronulla. Both are huge losses for the Sharks attack, which was heralded as the driving force behind last year’s success.

Winger Valentine Holmes, who was a try-scoring star on the wing for Cronulla in 2016, will now be required to fill the void left by Barba at fullback, but is unlikely to start in this Thursday’s clash with the Broncos due to injury. This means that either Jack Bird or Gerard Beale, who played mainly as an impact player off the bench last year, may be forced to start in the number one role until his return, forcing major reshuffling to the outside backs, which has the potential to unsettle the side.

The Sharks look a completely different outfit to last year and the loss of experienced players in important positions are what casts a shadow over their ability to repeat the dose. Their pack still boasts rep stars and hardened warriors like Gallen, Fifita, Graham and Lewis who were vital in giving attacking field position to the play makers and outside backs, while the halves combination of Maloney and Townsend were key to setting up try scoring opportunities. But Ennis’s presence around the ruck, his goal-line defence and his ability to play eighty minutes will be sorely missed by Cronulla this year. As will Barba, and the crucial meters he provided on the kick return, which was perhaps his biggest asset outside of his penchant for steering his wingers into gaps in the defensive line.

You cannot understate he’s worth in a Rugby League outfit. Particularly when it came to sparking something out of nothing. A quality we saw on display when he crossed the line from the back of the scrum to open the scoring in last year’s grand final. He also did it on countless occasions for the Bulldogs during his Dally M winning year in 2012. The NRL will dearly miss his exhilarating turn of pace and the competition will no doubt be poorer for his departure.

The men form the Shire face an uphill battle throughout 2017, particularly during the first five rounds of the year where they will be adjusting to new structures and life without key players. A slow start is to be expected as the likes of Jayden Brailey, the exciting youngster who will start at hooker in round one, Valantine Holmes and Raiders recruit Edrick Lee adjust to their new roles.

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Michael Ennis will be a big loss for the Sharks in 2017. Photo: ABC.

Much of the Sharks’ game in both attack and defence revolved around Ennis to a degree last year and without him it’s difficult to see too many scoring chances being created around the ruck. But we mustn’t undervalue Cronulla’s bench, which remains almost identical to the one that lined up against Melbourne in last year’s decider. Their injection into the contest changed the game and breathed life into Cronulla’s attack on many occasions last year.

Beale provided a lethal injection of pace on the fringes, while the side’s elder statesmen – Heighington, Tagatese and Bakuya – possessed similar power and size to the players they replaced and were able to exploit tired defenders at crucial junctions in the game.

Bench depth often determines how deep a side is able to go in a premiership season, and if the Sharks’ substitutes are as potent as they were last year, the reigning champions may find themselves finishing in the top eight once again. But their ageing warriors are operating on tired legs while the men they are replacing are entering the twilight of their careers. Whether they are able to cope with the physicality of opposition packs for the full eighty minutes will determine if they are capable of mixing it with the best the competition has to offer.

Cronulla also have a swathe of fringe first grade players at their disposal, highlighting the depth they have waiting in the wings. Fa’amanu Brown and Kurt Capewell have shown promising signs in their limited opportunities so far and, given they have been named in the 22 man squad to take on the Broncos this week, will be first choice options to slot straight into the side should injury or retirement strike at an inopportune time. The future is bright on this front.

Maloney is another player that flies under the radar in some circles and stands out in others. He is one of the cursed few who seems to perform better when playing alongside familiar faces than in a representative arena, and has shown this through his three grand final appearances with three different clubs. A remarkable achievement few footballers can lay claim to.

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Maloney will be a key player in this year’s quest for another premiership. Photo: EON Sports Radio.

Expect another big year from the NSW and Cronulla Five-Eighth, who will be required to marshal the troops in the absence of Ennis. He will also have the added responsibility of taking the line on more often this year, as will Townsend, given they cannot rely on their hooker to run the football in the same way Ennis did. How Maloney performs this season, like any play maker at any club, will determine Cronulla’s fate.

The pressure he and the entire Shraks side are under to continue last years unprecedented rise may prove too much for this club to handle given their lack of success. But it is a team filled with champion players who have experienced football at the highest level, making it very difficult to write them off at this early stage.

The porch light was turned off last year, so what does this current crew of Cronulla players have left to achieve?

Mutual agreement of terms a must to save World Club Challenge from impending death

If there was ever a sign that the NRL no longer have any interest in sending its teams to the UK for the World Club Challenge, this is it. The revamped tournament which began two years ago, featuring three teams from each league in a ‘series’ style format, has been cut to just two this weekend and if recent trends are any indication, in just two years the traditional fixture may cease to exist.

The World Club Challenge has been through numerous iterations since its inception as an exhibition match between Eastern Suburbs and St. Helens back in 1976, damaging the tournament’s reputation as a traditional rivalry worthy of both the fans attention and the respective boards’ resources. The regular reshuffling of the tournament’s structure, as well as the questionable qualifying methods and sporadic scheduling have been just as, if not more damaging, to the competitions relevance and integrity than anything else.

The differences between what the RFL and NRL governing bodies wish to get out of the World Club Challenge are world’s apart and this is at the core of their very one sided tussle for keeping the ageing concept alive.

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The Broncos take on Wigan in the 2015 World Club Series – Photo: Wigan Warriors

The Super League bosses are visionary’s who wish to turn the competition into something it isn’t and never will be; their over-inflated sense of the tournament’s self worth is damaging when they come to asses its popularity, but are driven by optimism when they consider what the ‘Big Brother’ can do for Rugby League in the UK. So much so that plans are already being put in place to shift a regular season Super League fixture to Australia to broaden its reach, while negotiations around the NRL moving a game off-shore and into its rival market are also reportedly underway. What benefits this has for the NRL outside of boosted TV ratings on UK cable television, it is difficult to tell.

The NRL, on the other hand, are the churlish, cashed up stepsisters who get what they want, when they want, and aren’t bothered by a total boycotting of the World Club Challenge because they lose nothing in doing so and have already cracked open parts of the Australian market, and as such, can foresee no great financial or profile raising benefits. It’s simply a clogging up of an already cluttered pre-season schedule that is running the risk of injuring one of its major draw-cards. The Nines are a far easier way for the NRL to grow its image and expand its geographical reach, that is, if these are indeed their goals for participation in the World Club Challenge/ Series. It doesn’t require conversations with its English counterparts and can therefore run its own show, hassle free. The single weekend is another rather attractive quality for a board that has bigger fish to fry than organising a pre-season kick-about – even if its worth more than the sum of its parts now that it is established and ready for expansion.

At the moment, they are a couple of sparring partners fighting for two very different causes. The Super League – to grow their brand by reaching out to Rugby League heartlands in the shadow of the EPL, which will, in turn, lead to boosted revenue and an increased playing standard as international talent is lured to the country. The NRL – to give their clubs exposure to an international market. But they are the power brokers in the great chain of Rugby League being and can do as they please. As such, they may prefer to stage a game featuring two Australian sides in the UK from which similar outcomes to those gained though the World Club Challenge will be derived, less the time consuming negotiations and revenue sharing with the RFL.

These are far from the only reasons the World Club Challenge is beginning to dig its own grave, however. When one competition has refused for years to send out its best players and make a decent hash of the innovation, and in doing so, fails to reward the paying public for their interest by treating it like a glorified trial, they single-handedly erode both the fans and sponsors faith in the concept, while also removing the semblance of integrity that has managed to hang around after a long history of mismanagement and miscommunication between governing bodies that stems right back to the rather spontaneous clash in 1976, which occurred just before the concept went into hiding for eleven years. In this regard, the NRL and its representative clubs have stepped up their game in recent times, suggesting that perhaps they might wish to give this competition the attention and recognition it deserves after 41 long and ill-fated years.

Many would be surprised to know that the Super League are the leading title holders of the World Club challenge by 12 to 11; if you can excuse the 22-team tournament played in 1997. But when you scan through the results to relive some of the great Leeds Rhinos and Wigan Warriors victories, you are immediately reminded that the Australian teams were far from full strength outfits. Not necessarily through the mid 2000’s – the Brisbane Broncos took the field with a similar side to their premiership winning team of the previous year in their clash with St. Helens in 2007, as did Manly following their premiership triumph  – but most certainly since the formation of the new ‘Series’ format in 2015, even if the results have reflected poorly on the Super League. And yet, there are still claims that the gulf in standards between the NRL and Super League are responsible for the competitions flagging interest. How is that when, historically speaking, the Super League holds a slight advantage in the World Club Challenge stakes.

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The tussle for power continues – Photo: Getty Images

When NRL clubs have found themselves on the wrong end of a result, they generally blame jet-lag, the climate or the out-of-season fixtures. When they win, the opposition is not up to standard. It’s a merry-go-round of conflicting rhetoric more violent than the frequent changes that have accompanied the competition’s many different incarnations. There’s a stigma associated with the World Club Challenge/ Series and, as hard as it tries to shake it off through innovation and reinvention, it continues to hang around like a bad smell. But without a mutual understanding from all parties involved as to the importance of this competition in growing Rugby League at grassroots level and in general across the UK, the World Club Challenge will never become more than the eh ‘pre/ early -season filler’ it currently is. And that mutual understanding will never be achieved when one organisation reaps little to no benefits whatsoever from the concept in its current form. Compromises, made by the Super League, are therefore a necessity going forward if it hopes to ensure the competitions longevity. It must appease the golden goose in the interim in order for it to take a golden egg. And this will entail World Club Challenge games becoming more accessible and time friendly for the NRL’s biggest asset – fans across Australia.

Three years ago the Sydney Roosters played host to the Wigan Warriors in front of 37,000 fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. It was the first time the competition appeared to gain traction and the first time the fans bought into the contrived rivalry that has now become a tradition. If the two organisations wish to see this competition flourish into the successful, revenue and profile raising product it has always promised to become, but never amounted to, it must travel from country to country, stick to a specified structure and feature only the past years grand finalists in a one off game. Adding extra sides does nothing but detract from the Super League season already in play and undermine the importance of the fixtures that lie either side of it.

It’s a sound enough concept with solid foundations that has worked in other sports and, if treated correctly, can become a prestigious event that the grand finalists use as extra incentive in their quest for a premiership.

 

 

 

BLOG: Wholesale changes afoot for Dragons at season’s end

I like many other Red V fans sat frustrated for the better part of seventy-minutes on Sunday, as the Dragons turned out yet another performance bereft of attacking flair and defensive solidity. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar sight for this enigmatic side over the last few years. The result on Sunday was a predictable one. For only the first ten minutes of the game did the Dragons ever look like calling the bluff of the betting agencies. For the remainder of the contest, the Farah-less Tigers looked determined to end a tumultuous week off the field with a resounding victory on it. The young halves in Brooks and Moises were poised, level-headed and reverted to playing on instinct when sticking to structures failed them. They did what all good halves do. Challenge the line, link up with the big men, force repeat sets through effective last tackle kicks and suss out the defensive lapses of the Dragons. Most importantly, they manufactured tries through ad-lib football at stages when their attack appeared to have hit a rough spot. A refreshing, reassuring sight for Wests Tigers fans I’m sure. They looked a class above experienced campaigners Marshall and Widdop, who struggled to stamp any authority on the game. The performance was a minor improvement on the lackluster efforts of the last two weeks for the Red V. But it’s going to take radical improvements in both attack and defence if they are to get through a horror three week period against the competition heavyweights unscathed.

There’s no doubting that a clean out is imminent at the Dragons once the curtain is drawn on season 2016. The mediocre, steadily declining performances of recent seasons warrant this. Doust will be axed as growing fan unrest gains traction, while McGregor and his right-hand men will follow in the immediate aftermath. Since Bennet’s tyrannical reign came to an end in 2011, (I really should be more diplomatic given the Dragons won a premiership under his tutelage) the Dragons have finished 9th, 14th, 11th and 8th. Over these four seasons, their biggest achievements have been the sacking of a coach and the acquisition of a halfback who has failed to conjure up the flash in the pan success he showed a little under a decade ago. I admire the guile of Benji. His left-foot step was poetry in motion at the peak of his powers. He was, and still is, a commentators dream when he breaks the tackles of defenders two times his size to score a ninety-meter run away try. But for someone like myself who is so heavily invested in this club, I just don’t see him as an adequate fit for Widdop. That is, of course, if the six and seven is indeed the combination they wish to build their successes around in future. And it should be, given the Dragons habitual point scoring struggles – they sit just fourteen-points clear of the last placed Newcastle Knights in this regard. It would be unjustly myopic of me to suggest that the halves are the sole proprietors of the form slump, but then again, the stats tell an incriminating tale. Benji’s lateral running style leaves players around him flat-footed and confused when the ball is floated their way. The wrap-around play that he so often institutes is rarely executed with any degree of perfection and can be sniffed out and shut down instantly by defensive units. It’s a shame, because this ploy worked like clockwork for the West Tigers through several finals campaigns, albeit during the mid to late 2000’s.

On the other side of the equation is Gareth Widdop, who has been missing in action for the Dragons during several of the losses this season, not through injury or suspension, but through underperformance and limited involvement. His leadership has been equally non-existent, with calls now for his tenure to be prematurely relinquished just five months into its journey. In short, the Dragons attack is predictable, easily read by the opposition defence and prone to periods where it loses direction, either through frustration or lack of ideas. They require an inventive playmaker, someone who complements Widdop or Marshall – whomever they choose to carry on in the role, only one can remain – and can change the point scoring fortunes of the Dragons by playing what’s in front of them. We have, however, reached round 21, which indicates that the pool of free-agents is rapidly thinning. The Dragons have already lost out on the signature of Luke Keary that, up until the tricolours snuck under the radar to snavel him, they looked certain to secure. Its left many wondering what personnel changes, if any, will be made to upgrade the quality of the playing roster. All things being equal, and assuming they fail to lure Corey Norman, the Dragons will need to return to the negotiating table once more to increase the $300,000 contract extension offer to something more palatable for Marshall and his manager.

Mary McGregor said himself in the press conference following the game on Sunday that cohesion has gone missing at the Dragons this season because they’ve been without a regular spine. While this has had some bearing on the results, a clear inability to score points in attacking field position stems from more than a simple lack of cohesion. This appears to be McGregor’s superficial response in a futile attempt to divert attention away from his sides difficulties, and of course, the mounting pressure he faces in retaining his job as head honcho. Perhaps Geoff Toovey will give coaching another go despite the terms on which he and Manly parted ways if the Dragons and McGregor do fall out of love. His methods are tried and tested, while his bloody-mindedness and resolve would set the Dragons attack on the straight and narrow.

When the Dragons led the competition for a brief period last season, defence formed the crucial underpinning of their victories. In fact, it is what the Dragons claim to be the cornerstone of their game. It was difficult then to watch on Sunday as the Tigers strolled through untouched to score on two occasions. Even more painful was watching three defenders drop off a single player while others stood and watched in back play. There was nothing special about the pass from Halatau to Nofoluma, nothing that should have allowed the latter to breeze past the weary marker defenders and into a gaping hole with ease. But on this and many other occasions throughout the afternoon, the Dragons defence was sadly lacking, particularly up the middle of the field. So much so that the eighth immortal found it apt to lambaste their defensive incompetencies. Is this a confidence issue, or are they not trusting the man beside them? Perhaps we’re viewing the  results of more crude coaching methods?

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Feel free to chime in with your opinions below Dragons fans….

How the NRL is holding us to ransom over the National Youth Competition

For the past eight seasons, the NRL’s National Youth Competition (NYC) has been at the vanguard of junior player development. The new broadcast rights deal will, however, bring an end to the competition responsible for identifying and facilitating the games most promising under-20 talent.

The competition has long found censure in regards to its substandard quality. Scorelines are a case in point. Many concede that in a majority of cases the NYC leaves players ill-equipped and unprepared for the rigours of the big time in the NRL – particularly in regards to defensive structures and general toughness.

The concern is that these defensive inadequacies will filter into the first-grade arena and infect its superlative standard.

Game quality aside, the financial burden on both the NRL and its subsidiaries is arguably the greatest drawback of the NYC. Exorbitant running costs associated with interstate travel and accommodation, not to mention player and staff wages, are significant financial blows for NRL clubs to incur, particularly given that the competition offers little return on investment, monetarily speaking. Television and sponsorships are the only viable sources of income.

Finance and player development have become mutually exclusive in the NYC, effectuating a catch-22 situation for NRL clubs. In this case, without a short-term investment in the under-20s, the long-term gain of a talented youngster retained in the wings for first-grade is forfeited. This is a hefty fee to pay for an investment fraught with instability, particularly in an age of market volatility and third party agreements.

Keeping a player resolute to a club’s mantra in the face of a large pay rise is especially difficult for a club with little capital inflow. A 2015 report revealed that clubs such as the Newcastle Knights and Gold Coast Titans were ranked 12th and 13th respectively in terms of developing the greatest number of first-grade players from the NYC.

Unremunerative investments have unearthed further complications for the NYC. For a long period of time, an investment in the under-20s was nugatory and counterproductive for clubs like the Melbourne Storm. They yielded very few players directly from the NYC, as their under-20s side churned out players for the Cronulla Sharks and its NSW Cup affiliate across the opening six years of the competition. Instances of this nature have dramatically reduced over the past few seasons.

These ideologies aren’t empty platitudes, they are genuine concerns for a schismatic competition. One that appears boundless on paper, yet is frivolous and flawed in reality. One that, most importantly, is moving towards a foregone conclusion: the demise of the NRL’s most pragmatic junior rugby league pathway.

Pragmatic in the sense that imitating the NRL’s framework deals with reality, as well as the pitfalls and plateaus of being a professional rugby league player – training, travel, nutrition, media work and team camps. It just so happens that some of the perks associated with operating a competition of the NYC’s magnitude are simultaneously cracking open the nest egg of clubs which are struggling financially.

Despite the costs, we should still lend credence to a competition that has uncovered innumerable diamonds in the rough for the NRL. Throughout its eight years of operation to date, the NYC has provided us with a product that is fundamentally accessible – both for clubs and the public – and a means by which to assess the next crop of footballing maestros.

The NYC’s vastly populated alumni roll is a testament to this. In its inaugural season alone, the competition exposed some of the current day superstars – Trent Merrin, Ben Hunt, Ben Barba, Wade Graham and Gareth Widdop to name but a few. By removing the NYC, surely we are removing an essential bridge to first grade and compromising the health of the NRL over the succeeding decades.

Despite the copious number of threads validating the pros of the NYC, any and all approbation of this competition is rapidly eroding. With every season comes further calls for its neck by the rugby league fraternity, effectively blunting the cogency of any counter argument.

I for one wholeheartedly agree that this competition, while having served as an essential breeding ground for some time, is in need of a seismic overhaul in order to address both the financial and logistical concerns that are ubiquitous under the current system.

An ostensibly enhanced nine-week competition played across state lines in lieu of the Holden Cup looms as the most likely avenue for the NRL to take following the implementation of the next broadcast rights deal.

If the NRL was to sketch up a blueprint of objectives and requirements for an ideal NYC, they would be sure to appease any criteria pertaining to the enhancement of game quality. Without this, we are left with a competition that is ultimately sterile, commercially unattractive and unproductive in readying players with the physical and mental attributes that are required in the NRL.

That’s why a nine-week competition, while addressing the financial disquietudes, will repeat the failings of the NYC in terms of player development. It’s why any future competition must be played statewide – independent of the NRL clubs – thus acting as a feeder competition for the Queensland and NSW Cups.

This will allow young players, specifically forwards, to learn the ropes and complete their rugby league apprenticeships against seasoned pros. It’s why there must also be a steady progression and perspicuous understanding of the stepping stones between each of the SG Ball, Harold Matthew’s, under-20s and Queensland/NSW Cups.

A clear-cut pathway will ensure players – primarily those that are underdeveloped – avoid falling victim to the endemic flaws of the system, particularly during years when walking away from the game appears the most rational option. Not every player that graduates from the NYC is of the same pedigree as Nathan Cleary, Tom Trbojevic and Ashley Taylor, whose natural rugby league prowess and smarts have enabled them to make a seamless, untarnished transition directly from the NYC to the NRL.

Whatever you make of the current format and its logistical deficiencies, by no means should an under-20s competition be eradicated. The NRL has not yet succumbed to its steady disillusionment with the NYC, but it’s doing everything it can to hold us to ransom over it, while simultaneously heightening our intolerance of it.

These players are the future and the lifeline of the NRL. They must be treated accordingly, through the implementation of a sustainable rugby league breeding ground that is an untiring advocate of their development.

Originally posted at: www.theroar.com.au/2016/07/12/nrl-holding-us-ransom-nyc/