Send-off farce final straw in sorry tale of refereeing blunders

It’s official – the send off is dead. If ever there was a time for it to come back into play again after six years in hibernation, it was Saturday when Sia Soliola’s sickening hit on Billy Slater left us all seeing stars.

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Referees Boss Tony Archer – Image Source: The Roar

In the Super League, the referee’s red card would have been pulled out sooner than Soliola was able to regain his feet. Yet here in the NRL, the referees have gone soft on late hits and general misconduct, while a soft slap on the cheek will get you sent for a ten minute stint on the sidelines.

Referees boss Tony Archer announced on Sunday that the officials made an error in failing to remove Soliola from the field – further evidence that the referees are lost as to what constitutes a send-off and what doesn’t.

Perhaps this stems from the fact that the backlash from both the media and general rugby league public would be so great in the event a player was sent off when they shouldn’t have been.

Whatever the case, a line in the sand was there to be drawn on Saturday night but the opportunity was sadly missed. Anything less now simply cannot be deemed a sin-binnable offence because the referees will be accused of allowing inconsistency to creep into the game.

It could be argued the precedent was set by Tony Archer just a day later. But actions speak louder than words and the fact of the matter is Soliola was allowed to remain on the field. Fans will cry poor as soon as one of their players is sat down over a similar incident because they can offer clear evidence that it has gone unpunished previously.

Tony Archer must come out and set the record straight through introducing black and white rulings around what constitutes a send-off so he is spared future embarrassment.

If he doesn’t then we can safely assume high shots and blatant thuggery like Sia Soliola’s swinging arm or Papalii’s head-high shoulder charge on Dugan will go without punishment on the field.

Something must be done if for no other reason than to ensure a fair contest is had between the side that loses an injured player and is therefore at a disadvantage for the remainder of the eighty-minutes, but also to avoid an injury that could end a players’ career and leave fans wondering why something wasn’t done to protect them earlier.

Archer must also address the clear inconsistencies plaguing the NRL’s million dollar Bunker.

When Daniel Tupou’s try was allowed despite clear evidence of a knock on from Latrell Mitchell in the lead up play on Friday night against the Knights, the Bunker lost all credibility (if it hadn’t already) in the eyes of those supporters whose sides have been robbed of two premiership points by the failings of what was designed to be an infallible system.

If this was the one and only time an error had been made, we wouldn’t be complaining. But it happens on a week to week basis.

Why have they also stopped intervening when the on-field referee blows a penalty that wasn’t there despite having done so previously?

The Bunker was designed to bring more consistency to the game yet we are witnessing an increase in poor decisions and a sudden reduction in the overruling of incorrect penalties.

Then there are the stories that suggest the Bunker are missing out on crucial camera angles because the operators are too busy filming the empty ANZ Stadium seats, and the odd fan who rolls up to the game.

I come back to this question quite often, but what happens if any of these errors occur in the Grand Final?

Ricky Stuart spoke about accountability after the Raiders clash on Saturday, which was a little bizarre given he was very lucky to avoid playing with 12 men, but there was some truth to his fiery rant.

Instead of Tony Archer releasing a media statement full of clichés that has been perfectly scripted to hit the right chords with the clubs, why doesn’t he promote post-season reform or outline the areas the referees are failing in and come up with the appropriate policies to address these issues?

It’s all well and good admitting that an error was made but until this is met with action nothing will change.

The number of refereeing blunders made next year must decrease or Archer should be given his marching orders. If more than half of those made originate in the Bunker, it too must be removed because clearly it is failing to uphold the standards expected by the public and clubs, but also what it was designed for.

The time has come. Enough is enough. Get it right now or be shown the door.

More than money – the dark underbelly of Australian Cricket’s pay dispute.

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Image Source: Cricket Country.

We have been told by those in the know that at some point over the next few days the pay dispute engulfing Australian cricket is set to be rectified. This is fantastic news on a number of fronts but the damage, it seems, has already been done. Not to those who are the poster boys of the Players’ Association – who have been unemployed for the better part of a month – but to those on the fringes of breaking into the Australian cricket team.

When news first broke that a settlement between the Players’ Association and CA had not been reached by the June 30 deadline, my mind immediately thought of the upcoming test tour of Bangladesh. Last time Australia were due to travel to the region, back in 2015, they pulled out due to security risks. This made sense because many other teams were doing the same and using the very same tired old excuses. All they had to do was go along with it and they got off touring scot-free.

This time around, however, the ‘security risk’ excuse doesn’t hold up thanks largely to England, and others, who have toured the region without consequence over the last year. So for CA to announce that their cricketers would not be touring again in 2017 due to the dangers posed by the countries citizens simply wouldn’t make an iota of sense. ‘England can do it but not you?’ – ‘Why?’

So Cricket Australia, looking for an out, decided that if the pay dispute was to extend beyond the tour of Bangladesh in August, it wouldn’t have to, let alone be able to, send its players to a faraway land where the chance of losing to a perceived second-rate team before the Ashes is high and the generation of revenue is the poorest of all the test series’ held across the globe.

Part of this conspiracy theory was the idea that the players had already signed an agreement with CA long before the deadline, and were keeping it under wraps until the day of the first test in Bangladesh rolled around.

Why my mind immediately thought of this as a plausible reason for the pay dispute that continues to ravage Australian cricket with every passing day goes to show just how money orientated I believe CA are. It made sense. Sign an under the table deal with the players long before the deadline but keep it hidden from the public until such a time as the tour of Bangladesh can be abandoned. That way the national team can avoid any undue scrutiny before the Ashes, the side will not undergo any reshuffling, and CA aren’t required to splash the cash on a tour that is unattractive to television broadcasters and hence will not fetch top dollar.

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Smith and Warner walking off the Gabba – Image Source: Perth Now.

Every angle you look at this pay dispute, you can tie it back to money. The players want more because they feel they are the ones that have grown the popularity of cricket and are therefore entitled to a greater slice of the pie that CA are currently keeping for themselves. They argue that without the product, the store cannot operate, let alone make a profit. So what would they sell to keep themselves afloat? A sponsor-less BBL featuring club cricketers?

From this stance it seems the players have all the bargaining power in this dispute. Think about it – if the players are still unemployed come a fortnight out from the first Ashes test in Brisbane, CA would lose sponsors, be forced to remunerate the fans the full price of their tickets, face an unwinnable court case with the ECB who will claim that both they and their players have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars (imagine that, a united front – players and administrators standing together for a common cause), and face the television broadcasters both here and abroad that will have also lost millions of dollars. Then there are the travelling supporters that would also be out of pocket. Court cases would pop up left, right and centre and CA would soon go bankrupt. So no, they will not let it get to this stage. Which makes you think, is this all just one big conspiracy?

For a sceptic like me it certainly appears this way. But there is more to this dispute than money. Players’ reputations, their futures in the game, are at stake. And I’m not talking about your Steve Smith’s and David Warner’s, I’m talking about your state cricketers who are next in line to crack the glass ceiling and make their debuts in the Baggy Green.

Most of them are still being payed to this point due to the fact the contracts they have with their individual states were signed long before the dispute began. But they are the ones that are going to suffer the most if it continues to drag out beyond the end of this month. In fact, as I said in the opening paragraph, they have suffered enough already.

Australia A were set to tour South Africa last month but due to the pay dispute, players followed through on their threats and opted against travelling in the interest of their quest for increased salaries. You might argue that, given it was the players choice to call the tour off, they have dug their own graves and now must lie in them if they fail to score runs over the coming season and miss out on ever playing for Australia, or make another A team. This A tour might have been a breakthrough series for some members of the squad. The kind of series that suddenly puts you on the selector’s radar. Whatever the case, the bottom line is you chose not to tour and must suffer the consequences.

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James Sutherland Addressing the media. Image source: Cricket Country.

There are a few reasons why this shouldn’t be how we look at it. Firstly, like workers from the local milk factory on strike, you stand as one. Every member of the factory must fight for the same cause or its messages will be far less potent. Say Bill, Eric and 10 others decide not to stand arm in arm with their fellow colleagues on the main road outside the factory while the other 50 workers are waving pickets and hoisting flags, and opt instead to continue operating the cap sealing machine because they are trying to pay off their respective mortgages. What is the employer likely to do? If it was financially viable, they would either sack those outside picketing on the spot and replace them with fresh workers, or give them an ultimatum – return to work now on the same income or face unemployment. For some workers, just like those state cricketers looking to crack international cricket, they cannot afford to spend their days browsing the want ads. Therefore, standing as one becomes their only option.

So I pose the same question as I did before: can you really blame the players for pulling out of a tour when their peers are pressurising them into doing so?

Imagine you’re a young cricketer who has been selected for Australia A after just a few seasons of first class cricket. This is your opportunity to shine. An opportunity to show the selectors that when Warner and Smith are too old or losing form a few years down the track, you are the man for the job. But the senior players of the A squad are discussing the dispute and that, no matter what happens, we must stand together or miss out on a pay rise that we are more than entitled to. Of course, you’re going to conform. Stray from the group and there is the risk you will be offside with the future captain of Australia, maybe even your future opening partner. As a young player you have no choice.

But opting to accept the views of the group in the interest of remaining loyal to your fellow players is just as damaging to your reputation as not going on that tour at all. The selectors won’t see you. It might be the one and only opportunity you had to make an impression. Injury might strike a season later, slowing down the speed you once possessed with the ball in hand or ruining your timing with the bat.

How can a player possibly push their case if they aren’t playing any cricket under the very structures that have been created to identify cricketers of the future? The members of the Australian A squad are, after all, the heirs to the Baggy Green throne.

This is why the pay dispute is cutting scars deeper than first thought. We can all form conspiracies around why money is the driver of both parties, but this would be to miss the point completely.

The dispute is damaging more than just the players’ hip pockets – it is damaging careers.

What missing the top eight would mean for the Dragons

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McInnes and Widdop all smiles during the Dragons Round one clash with Penrith. Image source: The Leader.

Seeing the Dragons drop down the ladder is an all too familiar sight for fans of the club.

In 2015, the Dragons were sitting in first position heading into the Origin period. But things quickly turned sour and they ended up finishing the regular season in eighth.

It is a worrying trend that this new Dragons outfit – who were seemingly destined for the finals just a few rounds ago – are following despite having changed a significant amount over the same two year period.

The Dragons lost to the Bulldogs in a heartbreaking elimination final that year and if their season continues the way it is currently then they might just fold once again when the first round of finals comes around.

That is if they make it at all.

Their road to the finals looks an easy one from a distance, but for a side as inconsistent as the Dragons it is difficult to judge.

They have the third placed Sea Eagles this Sunday before taking on the Knights, who gave them a right old scare not that long ago, in round 21.

Two rounds later they take on the Gold Coast who not only handed them their backsides last time around but are playing each round like their lives depend on it, so tight is the cluster of teams vying for a top eight spot.

Their only relief will come against the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs who are both competing for the competition’s ‘most boring and predictable team award’ at this year’s Dally M Medal night.

Much like the Bulldogs though, the Dragons are struggling to score points. It is a monkey they have been unable to remove from their collective backs for the past few seasons.

Last year Widdop and Marshall were blamed for their lack of creativity and this theory seemed to hold true when the Dragons went on a point scoring rampage early in 2017 under a reformed halves pairing.

But the last five or so rounds have seen the Dragons slip back into some bad habits. And there can be no better example of this than on Friday night when the fast-finishing Raiders sunk Dragon heart’s in golden point.

Or on the Gold Coast in round 17, where they could only muster 10 points against a side that was well and truly out of the top eight at the time.

Friday night’s game was there for the taking but like the Dragons of old they reverted to relying on defence too early and let the Raiders dictate terms to them.

When they defeated the Cowboys 28-22 way back in round seven they were relentless.

Even in a losing effort against the Storm they managed to pile on 22 points against what you could argue is the competition’s best defence.

But the well has since run dry and there are worrying signs that the Dragons will rely on their old mantra of ‘defence wins football games’ through fear of losing – much like they did at Canberra Stadium last Friday.

If so, their points differential will go south quicker than the share price of a bankrupt mining corporation and they’ll be lucky to win more than two of their last six games, all but ruling them out of the hunt for a spot in the top eight.

More evidence of the Dragons change in attitude came on Friday night when they began running sideways rather than straight up the middle of the field.

Last season, opposition sides were able to shut down their attack quickly because the defensive line would shuffle across the field and wait for the Dragons to run out of space on the edges.

They look far more dangerous when they give the ball to the likes of De Belin, Packer, Frizell and Vaughan who punch holes in the middle of the ruck and allow the halves, as well as Cameron McInnes, time and space to run the football or steal crucial meters out of dummy-half.

Take the effort against the Tigers earlier this season for example. The Dragons were able to put 28 points on the scoreboard because the forwards gave the halves room to manoeuvre.

Nightingale crossed three times that afternoon thanks to the brilliance of Gareth Widdop who threw three rocket passes off the back of some well-timed block plays.

Without the go-forward of the meter-eaters up front, however, the halves wouldn’t have been given the opportunity.

And that was the Dragons biggest problem last year – the halves overplaying their hands and attempting to create try-scoring opportunities when they hadn’t strapped on the blue overalls and earned the right to do so.

Against Canberra there were signs the Dragons had dismissed this mindset from their thoughts – particularly when the forwards got the ball within meters of the line off the back of a 65 meter drop out – and others where fans were left wondering what exactly has been achieved over the past eight months.

All these questions will be answered over the coming weeks as well as others such as: ‘did the Dragons move too early on re-signing Mary McGregor?’ and ‘will Ben Hunt provide something that McCrone currently is not?’

Which leads me to my next point – why has McCrone, at times, been shunned by McGregor in favour of Kurt Mann in the halves when the former is quite obviously the more competent halfback and the latter a natural born centre?

It beggars belief McGregor is still toying with the halves combination at such a crucial point in the season.

He made this ill-fated move against the Titans and paid full price; there was no attacking creativity until McCrone was brought off the bench and injected into the action in the second half.

If McGregor continues to make these errors in judgement then the Dragons will continue to play like a nothing burger football side that are woeful on their worst days and commendable but nothing more on their best.

3 wins from their last ten games against opposition sides ranging from gettable to hopelessly out of touch is a testament to this.

The final straw will be if they lose to Newcastle in round 21 or the incredibly tame and structured South Sydney in round 22.

A loss to Manly this weekend is forgivable but losses beyond this clash will show the Dragons have come nowhere through two years of constant tinkering and remodelling.

The question then will be: where to next?

NSW must adjust their attitude if they are to change their Origin fortunes

There is a sense of what could have been about this Origin series for New South Wales.

After game one they were heavy favourites having outplayed a Queensland side that was on the verge of being forced to make the largest number of personnel changes since the start of their dynasty.

The first half of game two told a similar story – NSW was dominant, Queensland slow, wasteful and sloppy.

But from that point forward, the professionalism of the Queensland side, their desire to win, and ability to play through adversity on and off the field shone through to deliver one of the finest series victories in recent memory.

Unlike previous years, they had to overcome injuries to three members of the old firm, speculation that rifts between coach Walters and the selection panel were beginning to form, and claw their way back from one-nil down in the series following a humiliating defeat at the cauldron in game one.

Then there were the subplots – Slater left out of game one and the in-form DCE snubbed in favour of Ben Hunt, who had been playing reserve grade for Ipswich just weeks earlier following speculation that he was on the outer with coach Bennett and the Brisbane Broncos.

And what about the NSW fans lapping up the selections of Glasby, the forward nobody had heard of, and Coen Hess, the boy who was ‘too soft’ and unprepared for Origin.

Easy victory they said.

The series was there for the taking, and NSW, for the millionth time, squandered the opportunity. That is why the efforts of Queensland’s players should not be underappreciated. For so many reasons, this will go down as the finest series victory in their 12 years of dominance.

Knowing this, heads must roll in NSW camp.

Mitchell Pearce has been given more opportunities than an incompetent law intern who has cost his firm millions of dollars in reparation and must now be told his time is up.

So often he has been the fall guy for NSW’s failures even when their forwards are really to blame for a poor performance.

But his record is abysmal for a player who has more Origin caps than legends like Peter Sterling and Ricky Stuart.

Good player or not, he hasn’t shown he is capable at Origin level and if NSW gives him one last opportunity next year it will be to the detriment of the side who, like a derelict apartment building, are in desperate need of an overhaul.

The difficulty for NSW selectors will be deciding who to replace him with.

There are plenty of talented young halfbacks waiting in the wings but talent doesn’t make an Origin player.

If NSW haven’t learnt this lesson after watching Pearce play 18 Origin matches with a lowly win percentage of 28, then they should prepare themselves for another 5 years of disappointment.

Club form is often a deceiving barometer of a player’s ability.

If we work on this principle, many of those young NSW halves tearing up the NRL will not make the grade.

The NSW selectors must also decide what to do with the likes of Woods, Graham, Hayne and even Peats who have shown glimpses across their respective careers but have failed to deliver in the same consistent fashion as their Queensland counterparts.

The same question must be asked: who replaces them.

Farah was dropped by Laurie and his advisors earlier this year and is little hope of ever returning, meaning the selectors must dip their toe in the pond of youth and draft in a McInnes, otherwise they will be stuck with a player like Peter Wallace who is prone to injury and, much like Farah, is past his best.

In the forwards, the Blues are blessed with talent, but in true NSW fashion, are at sixes-and-sevens when deciding who to pick and what combination to run with.

Vaughan was the form prop around the time the first Origin sides were picked but was omitted when it looked like he was a certain starter.

The same goes for the likes of Tom Trebojevic and Dylan Walker who have shown they are in the kind of form that warrants Origin selection, yet were left out in favour of players like the overhyped and now overrated Jarryd Hayne and Blake Ferguson, who has run in off his wing more than NSW has lost games in the last 12 years.

A bit of reshuffling would’ve seen them squeeze into the side quite easily, even if it meant Trbojevic had to play on a wing and Walker at left centre.

Queensland did it with Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster in game three and it worked to good effect.

But do NSW have the brains or even the courage to make what might seem like bold positional and personnel changes?

Probably not, but sticking to what hasn’t worked for eleven of the past twelve years is the definition of insanity and will result in more heartbreak for NSW fans.

Each and every loss across twelve unsatisfying years hasn’t been met with the appropriate changes.

Mind boggling decision after mind boggling decision has rendered NSW’s past three Origin campaigns hopeless and shown why they are one of the most laughable outfits in Australian sport.

If they don’t give a handful of players their marching orders next season then they will completely lose touch with what it takes to win Origin.

This includes the coach, as likeable as he is. Some have said calls for his head are ludicrous given he has had just five cracks at the job, but Origin is result driven and Laurie hasn’t been able to shape the players at his disposal into a unit that can challenge the might of Queensland’s legends.

Maybe that says more about the selectors than it does Laurie himself but he cannot dodge the blame any longer. It’s time someone else is given the opportunity.

Whether that is someone with the passion of an Andrew Johns or a Brad Filter, or the wisdom of a Gus Gould, is unimportant. What NSW require is someone with football smarts and a will to change the players’ attitude.

Because on Wednesday night it was attitude that once again won it for a Queensland side that knows they have it in them to beat whatever NSW throw at them.

Their comeback in Origin two, where they came from ten points behind to send the series to a decider, was possible because they have done it all before.

When NSW play from behind they look a defeated bunch who have given in to the inevitability of a loss.

James Maloney can claim NSW’s best football is capable of defeating Queensland’s but when have they shown this is the case outside of this year’s first game?

Change that attitude and the make-up of the side and maybe NSW might witness a change in fortunes.

Manly allegations set to reignite conversation around salary cap

If allegations of salary cap breaches at Manly, or any other club currently being probed, are substantiated in the future, they might just become the dumbest club in the history of the game.

In every case of systematic salary cap rorting over the last decade – whether it be Parramatta last year, Melbourne in 2010, or the Bulldogs in 2002 – front office stupidity has been to blame for the loss of competition points, premierships and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the administrators at Lottoland will be front and centre once again if the alleged $300,000 third-party offer made to an unnamed Manly player in a car park is proven by the NRL’s integrity unit.

The most boneheaded move in NRL administrative history came last year when it was revealed that Parramatta had been offering its players third-party payments since 2013.

The infamous five, who were shown the door shortly after Todd Greenberg handed down his findings in May 2016, breached the cap year after year despite knowing full well that the integrity unit were tracking their every move like a stalker and had the ability to search e-mails, confidential documents and phone conversations at will.

Yet still, they continued their deception.

The most staggering statement to come out of Todd Greenberg’s announcement of Parramatta’s breach last year was this – “As we sit here today, our preliminary findings suggest that the club is again over the salary cap for 2016.”

Really? How moronic can you get?

Was the NRL’s sanction in May of 2015, where Parramatta were fined half a million dollars and handed a suspended four-point penalty if they didn’t get their house in order by the start of the new season, not enough of a deterrent for Steve Sharp and company to reconsider their approach to governance?

‘The NRL are onto us but, hey, look, what are the chances we’ll get busted again?’

That’s the mindset of a gambler who doesn’t know when to walk away and will risk it all in the knowledge that they might one day hit the jackpot.

No such luck for Parramatta, who left the casino with an empty wallet and facing the reality of having to rebuild a broken club.

What followed was the outcome of the administrator’s sheer stupidity and downright contempt for the rules of operation under the banner of the NRL – points stripped, millions of dollars lost, and the need to move club favourite Nathan Peats on to what has turned out to be greener pastures.

The fans, who can do nothing in these situations but sit back and wait for the chaos to blow over, are the ones who are punished despite being completely innocent in the whole state of affairs.

Just ask those Melbourne fans who had to watch their side play for peanuts back in 2010. Not to mention the pain they went through when the NRL took back two premierships.

Could you ever forgive the administrators who were responsible for deliberately manipulating the books to gain an advantage, particularly given Melbourne have played just as well without having to exceed the cap?

Surely not – many Parramatta fans haven’t.

That is why if the integrity unit find that there is some truth to claims that one of Manly’s players has received paper bag payments, the administrators should be hung out to dry and made an example of.

Of course, it is all alleged at this stage and there are strong rumours that other clubs are following suit.

But giving players third-party payments after what has happened previously is inexcusable and an insult to the paying supporter, who is the most severely impacted in these situations, closely followed by innocent members of the playing group.

Administrators must learn their lesson; in an age where a dedicated integrity unit with a mandate to search and seize documents is in operation, tampering with the books like a tax fraud will land you in hot water.

If they haven’t learnt that yet, then they simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the administrative tree.

Sure, it is the salary cap making third party, under the table deals a more attractive option for club administrators. But to change the current system would be to give rich clubs like Brisbane and the Roosters a significant advantage, and lead to a lopsided and uncompetitive competition that will ultimately lose an already dwindling viewership.

The Australian Government wouldn’t reform its tax laws because instances of evasion have increased in the last decade. So why should the NRL be forced to change the way the competition is run just because cases of systematic salary cap breaches are continuing unabated?

Put simply, they mustn’t give in.

Many will argue that, with the salary cap increasing to around $9 – $10 million next year under the new television rights deal, clubs will have more space to keep their high-profile players on the list without having to tempt fate by breaching the cap.

In truth, and we’ve seen cases of this already, player salaries will increase accordingly as clubs look to outlay more money on their stars to keep them on-side.

The AFL haven’t been required to deal with any major salary cap breaches because, up until this year, the cap has been manipulated to suit the financial needs and situational circumstances of certain clubs.

Brisbane, for example, were given a retention allowance which happened to coincide with their premiership three-peat in the early 2000’s.

New club GWS were also given a greater cap allowance due to their list size and the need to keep them afloat and competitive in their early years.

All this has done is given a group of clubs a significant advantage over the remainder of the competition.

So it is no surprise then that Hawthorn was able to win three flags across three years, while clubs like North Melbourne and Melbourne have been forced to linger at the bottom of the competition ladder for several seasons.

This system is not an out for the NRL, and they certainly shouldn’t be tempted into adopting it simply because the integrity unit are stubbing their toes on salary cap scandal after salary cap scandal.

Contempt for the integrity of the game and corrupt administrative decision making born of a desire to gain the edge, despite the inherent risks demonstrated through past indiscretions, are the key issues.

What we have currently is a system that clubs hate, but is leading to a more balanced competition where most teams are a chance of winning the premiership.

Stick with it.

Finest Origin series of modern era poised for thrilling finale

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JT kicking from the sideline to send the series to a decider. Photo: ABC

Queensland’s victory in Origin two will go down as one of the finest in recent memory. After the first game of the series, all the talk was centred around why the Blues were on the verge of a series victory, and how a dynasty, built around the likes of Fifita, Tedesco and Peats, was beginning to take shape. Journalists, media personalities and former players were trotting out that old line that we’ve become accustomed to hearing over the past few years – Queensland are too old, too slow. NSW, apparently, showed enough in game one to suggest that, just like that, in barely the time it takes to blink, the dominance they’ve had over the Blues for 10 of the past 11 years was over. Finished. So much so that mass changes to the Australian squad, which is currently dominated by Queensland players, were on the horizon. There truly is nothing like a bit of mid series propaganda to light the fuse.

What made the victory even sweeter was not just the fact that Queensland had been completely written off like a bashed up Toyota Land Cruiser circa 1994 after the opening game of the series, but that Thurston – Queensland’s ageless warrior – took to the field at below 100% fitness, played with a dead arm, and still managed to emerge the better of the two halfbacks, if not by a great margin. His kicking game was, by his own standards, below par, as were large chunks of his game. But still, he managed to get the job done in the only way he knows how; through determination and a burning desire to win at all costs. That is the JT way.

Much like he did against the Broncos in the Grand Final 18 months ago, Thurston produced a clutch play under the most pressurised circumstances imaginable, on the greatest stage of all. On that occasion it was a field goal in golden point. Last Wednesday it was a conversion from the sideline to put Queensland two points ahead and seal a series levelling victory that would see his swansong come in a game with something on the line. You couldn’t have scripted it any better, other than to remove the part where scans of his injured shoulder reveal he is no chance of taking the field in the decider.

Queensland’s junior brigade of Hess, Wallace, Holmes and Glasby gave fans’ heart palpitations at times – missing tackles and coughing up the ball in the Blues’ red zone – but were solid if not reliable. Glasby was the least impressive of the four debutants, letting in two tries through defence better suited to the rough-and-tumble of park footy, and will be lucky to retain his spot for the decider. But Queensland rarely mess with a winning formula. He will return in Origin three bigger and better for the experience, but needs to lift in the decider if he wishes to put his name permanently on a Maroons jersey and stave off bids from those stepping on his heels at club level.

Gavin Cooper, on his return to the side, played a game that, on another day, would have earned him far more attention and the lion’s share of the plaudits. Josh Jackson was, quite bizarrely, named man of the match, but it was Cooper who stood out like a lollipop man on a main road for the Maroons alongside Napa and McGuire, making 47 tackles and running for 108 metres.

Many more players deserve to be praised; Slater and Gagai quite obviously the stand-outs. But it was a collective effort from the Queensland side that allowed them to claw back some ascendency and reduce the ten point deficit.

Queensland’s first half was one of the most undisciplined and error-ridden in recent history. Too often they were hauled into touch by the NSW outside backs running a short side play that showed they had little understanding of the slippery under-foot conditions. To compound this issue, they were also sloppy with the ball, losing it when an attacking opportunity was beginning to form. At this stage it looked as if they had reverted back to the Queensland side of old that was wiped out by Johns and Fittler et al. in the days preceding the hand grenade thrown by Brian Fletcher, so frustrating was the way they squandered possession and blew try-scoring opportunities.

But NSW, like clockwork, threw away what looked like a forgone conclusion at half-time in a twenty-minute period from hell. The referees have been blamed. In fact, it appears they are the sole reason for the Blues’ loss if expletive laden social media rants are anything to go by. But that should not excuse the woeful second half performances of Pearce, NSW’s no. 1 scapegoat, and Hayne in particular, who would’ve put the home side in an impregnable position had he thrown a pass to an unmarked Morris just minutes before the interval.

There were refereeing blunders that had a bearing on the contest, namely the forward pass to Thurston out of dummy-half and the block on Jarryd Hayne, but it was the selfishness of a few privileged players coupled with a flawed game-plan that did the damage. Not the whistle-blowers.

It remains to be seen whether NSW are capable of replicating their first-up performance in the decider. It’s true, Queensland are at their most vulnerable right now and the future looks as if it belongs to NSW. When Thurston, Smith and Cronk part ways with the Maroons – perhaps as early as two weeks from now – Queensland will be required to unearth players with the skill and game awareness of Maloney and Pearce, who have been there and done it all before. Those currently on Queensland’s radar – Milford, Norman and Munster – are relatively fresh on the scene and are yet to taste premiership success. Maloney and Pearce have lifted a trophy together at the Roosters. They know each other’s games like the back of their hand. Queensland simply cannot match this experience.

If we’re using past performances as an indicator however, NSW will do what they always seem content with doing after a loss; make excuses, play the blame game, and twiddle their thumbs a la Homer J. Simpson at the nuclear plant while they wait for Laurie and his advisors to give them the answers. If this is the approach they take into a game that will mean more to the Queenslanders than their eighth series victory in a row, than they might as well not bother showing up. This is the departure of a future immortal we are talking about. And yes, I’m referring to Cronk.

52 – 6 was the result the last time NSW visited Suncorp Stadium for a decider. It also came at a time when NSW pundits were predicting the beginning of a Blues dynasty. Two years on and the same old mistakes are being made – complacency, arrogance and underestimating a team and its superstars that have embarrassed the Blues on 11 of the past 12 occasions.

Queensland, on the other hand, are seemingly revitalised after a horror show of a first game that was met with the usual ‘Queensland hypocrite’ rhetoric from certain outlets. Spare me the ‘dad’s army’ nonsense. This is a side capable of winning their third series in a row. Injuries to Boyd and Thurston, who will both be missing come Origin three, will hurt their chances. But if Queensland play with the same desire and shut down Fifita, Trbojevic, and Tedesco, than there is no reason why they can’t send off one of the modern day greats, possibly more, in style.

The critics who claimed Queensland’s time was up, and jumped on the Blues’ dynasty bandwagon no sooner than the eighty minutes was up at Suncorp Stadium in the opening game, have just witnessed what it takes to bounce back in Origin. When NSW departed from the style of play that served them so well in the first game, Queensland sniffed blood and pulled off a comeback victory typical of their never say die attitude. That’s the difference between the two sides at the moment. While NSW were busy organising how they would hoist the shield, Queensland were plotting and scheming ways to shut down Fifita. Had NSW had their wits about them, they would have been doing the same for Slater and Thurston. Instead, they were gripped by the hand of complacency, perhaps expecting to win. Which goes a long way to explaining why they went missing and never returned shortly after Gagai crossed in the 55th minute.

This is Origin. The game isn’t finished until eighty minutes have passed and the ball is as far as humanly possible from those capable of pulling off the kind of superhuman efforts that define the unpredictability of Origin.

The only question that now remains is whether NSW stand by Jarryd Hayne, or whether they opt in favour of 2016 villain Dylan Walker, who has been in scintillating form for Manly; the youngest of the Trbojevic brothers, Tom Turbo; or start Jack Bird, whose lack of in this discussion is bewildering, in the number four jumper. Hayne’s form at club level, the Tigers game aside, has been far from eye-catching, but then again, you’re compelled to take a punt on him because he is a supreme athlete and his past performances leave you feeling as though you’ve left out one of the modern day greats when he goes unselected.

Laurie has some tough decisions to make. Decisions that will likely decide whether, after five years of service, he’s used up all the get out of jail free cards at his disposal. Because if NSW are incapable of defeating a weakened Queensland side missing a future immortal, then changes will be made across the board. And, as we know, in this day and age, the blame is so often apportioned to the coach.

Close simply won’t cut it.

Bangladesh-bound – analysis of Australia’s 13-man squad

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Australia made a few surprising changes to their squad for Bangladesh. Photo: IBTimes India

Australia have named their test squad to tour Bangladesh at the end of August, with a number of familiar faces rejoining the side.

The biggest news to come out of the announcement was that Steve O’Keefe, Australia’s 19 wicket hero in last February’s tour of India, has been dropped from the squad following comments he made about a female cricketer at NSW’s end of season awards night.

This is without doubt the right call. Although, Trevor Hohn’s statement tends to suggest that O’Keefe was dropped on form, not for his alleged ‘booze fueled’ antics that have seen him receive a ban from this year’s Matador Cup; a competition he may not have featured in anyway.

“Whilst Steve O’Keefe bowled well in Pune, he did not maintain this level in the remaining matches of the series and we believe the timing is right for Ashton to enter the set-up and test his all-rounder ability,”

In fact, at no point in Cricket Australia’s article on the announcement of the 13-man squad are his actions mentioned. Disappointing given the progress of women’s cricket in this country. Surely we must at least acknowledge it to show that a precedent has been set and that such irreverence will not be tolerated.

Starc has also been left out of the squad, and while his omission is cited as being the result of an injury, it is hard to think that this is indeed the case given his participation in the Champions Trophy recently.

“…despite playing in Australia’s failed Champions Trophy campaign, the left-armer’s injury has not fully healed and he has subsequently been ordered rest with an Ashes campaign on the horizon.”

I understand him being rested for the Ashes, but to use an injury as just cause after participating in a world tournament that concluded no more than a week ago is unfair to paying supporters and Bangladesh Cricket, who are trying to cement their spot in the test playing ranks and earn more regular fixtures against the world’s leading side’s. Still, though, they are treated like second rate citizens.

It seems to be yet another example of CA refusing to send their best team to play in a test series that is perceived as meaningless and where television rights are purchased at bottom dollar, even though they will look the fools if Bangladesh embarrass Australia just like they did England at the back-end of last year.

Starc’s omission has, however, opened the door for Pattinson to return to the side. Young all-rounder Hilton Cartwright, whose selection before last summer’s Sydney test caused quite a stir, has also been included in the squad, meaning Australia will travel with a total of two all-rounders following the announcement of Agar’s selection as cover for O’Keefe.

Unsurprisingly, there was no room for Shaun Marsh who, it appears, has used up all his credit with the Australian selectors; Khawaja has instead been reinstated after missing the tour to India in February.

This is a big tour for the elegant left-handed batsmen who has fallen out of favor with selectors in recent times on tours to the sub-continent.

Since Graeme Swann got the better of him in the 2013 Ashes series, and following his torrid tour of Sri Lanka this time last year, Khawaja’s susceptibility to the turning ball has seen him miss a significant amount of cricket in Asian conditions.

This tour might finally settle the score and decide what role he plays in future tours to the sub-continent. My tip is that his class will outshine the guile of Shakib and the immense talent of Mahedi Hasan.

The rest of the team is as expected. All that is left to be finalised now is the MOU. Hopefully we receive some clarity on this matter in the not to distant future.