Why Michael Maguire is on borrowed time at South Sydney

After yet another humiliating loss on Friday night, Michael Maguire’s days at South Sydney are numbered.

Or at least they should be, given the way many clubs within the NRL have chosen to deal with coaches when they hit hard times and wins become more difficult to find than oversized pumpkins in a supermarket around Halloween.

Take Jason Taylor for example, the man dumped by the Wests Tigers at the beginning of this year following a run of losses and two years without finals football. He has since been replaced by Ivan Cleary but the way with which he was forced out of the club and to the back of the unemployment line was unjust and based on flimsy reasoning.

The Wests Tigers finished 15th in 2015 and 9th a year later, missing out on the finals by a point. But after just three rounds of the new season, he was thrown out quicker than a misbehaving partygoer at a night club after back-to-back losses including a 40 point thumping at the hands of the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital.

Club officials are quick to lay blame on the coach when their side’s on-field performances are not up to scratch, and this was certainly the case at the Wests Tigers earlier this year.

The writing was on the wall for Taylor long before his sacking when Robbie Farah, the clubs’ favourite son, was dropped to reserve grade despite appearing for NSW in Origin just weeks earlier.

Then, when he was eventually pushed out and forced to find another club at the end of the 2016 season, after making a late plea to remain a one club player in the Tigers’ heartbreaking defeat to Canberra at Leichardt in round 26, Taylor’s days were suddenly numbered.

The Tigers poor early season form was all the convincing the club needed to put the final nail in JT’s coffin. A day later he was clearing his desk and drafting a resume.

True, if a club has made a habit of missing finals the coach needs to go because they are clearly incapable of getting the most out of their players or coming up with match-winning game plans. But the Wests Tigers, like many other NRL clubs, seem to feel that if things aren’t going well on the field, it is the fault of the coach, even if the players at their disposal aren’t capable of matching it with the rest of the competition.

This from a club that kept a coach on its books for close to a decade after winning just one premiership and qualifying for the finals on three occasions thereafter.

So how does this relate to Maguire?

Put simply, he may end up the victim of another unjust sacking by an NRL club that believes its coach is the reason for a drop in performance. Not poor management, as in the case of the Tigers, or a lack of player depth which, again, is not the sole responsibility of the coach or something they may have any input in at all.

Since winning the premiership in 2014, Souths have finished 7th, where they made it as far as the qualifying finals, and 12th in a disappointing 2016 season. Once again this year, it looks as if they are destined to finish in the bottom eight. Maybe even the bottom four.

So how will a famous club with a thirst for premiership success like South Sydney respond to this kind of failure? If they are anything like the other proud Sydney clubs and are following the trend of making the coach the fall guy for circumstances beyond his control, he’ll be sacked using the age old excuse that they are “rebuilding the club” or “restructuring the way we go about business”.

But these excuses don’t hold up anymore. Only nine months ago Paul McGregor was on the outer at St George Illawarra along with Peter Doust who were, apparently, both to blame for the Dragons’ underwhelming performances.

Making Doust the scapegoat is understandable, he is in an authority position and is responsible for making decisions that directly influence on-field performance. But blaming McGregor, a man who had been in control of the club for just two full seasons, was hard to stomach.

Already this year, with the same two men at the head of the table, the Dragons have climbed the ladder and are sitting pretty in third position with seven wins and four losses. Yet McGregor and Doust could’ve been handing in their applications to rival organisations in the lead up to Christmas last year.

Then there’s the case of Geoff Toovey who, after four seasons in charge, was sacked in sensational circumstances with the return of advisor and Manly legend Bob Fulton. This despite missing the finals on just one occassion and qualifying for a Grand Final in 2013.

Des Hasler was also within a hair’s breadth of parting ways with Canterbury earlier this year. His record speaks for itself but after the Bulldogs got their season off to a slow start he was being held accountable for his players’ poor form.

So yes, Maguire has plenty to be concerned about. Like Toovey, he has experienced great success during his time as head coach but has suddenly fallen on hard times. The Rabbitohs are struggling to compete with the best teams in the comp and are a shadow of the side that won the Grand Final in 2014; sitting in 15th position and moving in a southerly direction.

Unlike Taylor, and McGregor to an extent, he is operating under a more sturdy board with few weak links and a good track record.

Yet, in much the same fashion as the former Wests Tigers coach, he is leading a team full of fallen champions, fading stars, and young footballers who are fresh to first grade and struggling to establish a foothold.

Maguire has been a fine coach for a long time but will soon fall victim to the modern age mindset that changing the coach will help reverse a sides’ fortunes while the players get off scot-free even though they are the ones participating in the game.

Why must we continue to force the coach to own the teams’ performance after just a few years in charge? Yes, he is responsible for improving and optimising the quality of the players he has at his disposal, but, contrary to popular opinion, he takes no part in the game and is not capable of throwing a pass to his winger or completing a set of six, even if his job, by very definition, is to give that player the best chance to succeed in doing so.

Give coaches a chance to build a legacy. If at this stage the side is still struggling, then consider making personnel changes at the top.

Forcing change because a club is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with failure and the thought of missing finals will rarely result in improved performance. Surely clubs have learned this lesson by now.

Club members will only renew their membership if the team is experiencing success. Sponsors too are drawn to clubs with a rich history of premiership glory. We live in a result driven world so it is understandable that clubs will go searching for answers when things go awry.

But we are asking too much of coaches and laying blame on the blameless when it should be attributed elsewhere – to the players who are a protected spices in the 21st century.

Bennett’s gamble pays off, Eels’ 2016 salary cap rort comes back to haunt them

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When it was announced in December last year that Benji Marshall would be joining the Broncos on a one-year deal, many fans were left dumbfounded, wondering how exactly Bennett planned on fitting him into a seasoned outfit. The halves where already filled with two up-and-coming Origin hopeful’s – one who is about to realise this dream – and a talented youngster with a limited amount of first-grade experience but plenty of potential. In the centers there was no lack of talent either. Roberts had already tied down his spot alongside Kahu, while Moga was being touted as the long-term replacement for the position once held by Justin Hodges.

But as we enter the first round of bye’s, Bennett’s gamble, it appears, is about to pay off. Marshall has been named in the halves alongside Ben Hunt, who is returning from an injury he sustained well over a month ago. This was surprising at first given the exceptional job Nikorima did in Hunt’s absence, but, like we’ve seen so many times before during his tenure with the Broncos and on the representative stage, Bennett has opted in favour of experience and class over form and youthful exuberance.

Bringing Marshall to the club after a torrid year with St. George Illawarra was a particularly risky gamble for Bennett to make. His signature cost the club a miserly $100,000 dollars, and for a player of Marshall’s ilk, this would have seemed like a bargain given the Dragons had tabled an offer of $300,000 not eight months earlier. But with there being no shortage of talent on the Broncos roster, it looked as if that money would have been better spent topping up a players salary, or even purchasing Marshall as part of the coaching staff. Because that is what it seemed he was brought to the club for – to advise players and up-skill the young halves in much the same way as Kevin Walters did during his time with the side in their last visit to a Grand Final in 2015. As it stands though, this might just be the best hundred grand Bennett has ever spent. And here’s why.

Around Origin time, the Broncos’ record is nothing short of woeful. In all honesty, they are probably the most vulnerable team across the bye rounds because so many players are away in Queensland Origin camp. This weekend against the Warriors, they will be without Oates, Milford, Boyd, Gillett, McGuire and Thaiday. That’s a fair chunk of both their spine and their all conquering forward pack, who have played an instrumental role in their go forward this season, that will be missing against a side largely unaffected by Origin.

And so Bennett, wary of the woes they experience around this time of year, took out an insurance policy, ensuring that if their season got off to a rocky start, they could still be competitive across the Origin period. This is why Bennett is one of the finest coaches of our era. He is a forward-thinker, a visionary and a man manager. Say what you will about his behavior off the field, he is one of the most powerful figures within our game and his radical moves have delivered numerous premierships for the clubs he has overseen. So it is no surprise that he took the Marshall gamble, even if, at the time, it looked like a waste of money and a thoughtless move.

Still, we’re yet to see if Marshall is worth the coin. There is a reason the Dragons chose not to renew his contract, and that is because they probably felt he was no longer up to first grade standard and was struggling to produce point scoring plays; a halfback’s prerogative. Already this year we have seen an upturn in the Dragons’ form and while this may have nothing to do with Marshall whatsoever, you have to wonder what their attack would look like had he been re-signed when they tabled the offer he scoffed at not so long ago.

What will he bring to the Broncos this Saturday and how will he perform in combination with the sprightly Ben Hunt? Bennett has put $100,000 on red and is letting it ride. Will he emerge victorious?

Peats’ good form rubs salt into Eels’ wounds

The Paramatta salary cap saga of 2016 is behind us and the rugby league community have moved on, but the scars still cut deep. Their struggles on the field so far this year are a sign that they are continuing to suffer the effects of last year’s events and everything at the club is not as rosy as it seems.

Nothing, though, would hurt more than watching Peats, the man they dumped like a hitchhiker on the side of the Mount Lindesay Highway without so much as a goodbye, run around for the Gold Coast in career best form. I wrote last year in this column that if the rugby league gods existed, they would ensure that Parramatta be given their just deserts. This week, Peats was named in the number nine jumper for NSW and never has an Origin selection made you feel more at peace with the world. Justice has been served.

Better still, the perennial strugglers Gold Coast, who are still in the hands of the NRL, have purchased a player that is not only worth more now than he was when he arrived, but are building a world-class spine, and a more than handy pack, capable of delivering a premiership within five years. This might sound like another Gus Gould rip-off, but when you look down their team list and see names like Peats, Hayne, Roberts, Elgey, and Taylor, it’s hard to think otherwise. Of course, a lot depends on how Gold Coast treat these players and whether or not they can keep them on the books given their rising prices and the limitations of the salary cap.

Then you look down Parramatta’s list and the future doesn’t seem quite so bright. There’s still names like Norman, Gutherson, Moses, French, Brown and Pritchard, who has been a more than able replacement for Peats, to get the heart fluttering. But with the Semi-trailer jetting off for French rugby at season’s end, Paramatta look a bits-and-pieces team destined to remain in the bottom eight for the foreseeable future. And much of this can be tied back to the former board members who allowed the salary cap drama to spiral out of control even when the integrity unit had exposed their attempt to cover up the rort. Was this an enormous blunder or sheer stupidity?

Whatever the case, Parramatta are now paying for their costly mistakes (or ineptitude) on the field. Not only would they still be in possession of Peats if they didn’t have to offload $600,000 worth of talent mid last year, they wouldn’t be rebuilding their player roster and starting from scratch like they have been since the five board members were given their marching orders. The situation may not be as dire at the Eels as it is at the Tigers, and their position on the ladder is a testament to this, but the ones that plunged the club into peril have effectively turned a team bound for finals into a team that are rocks one week and diamonds the next. At the moment they are getting away with poor performances against bottom eight sides because they are among the pick of a bad bunch. Against the competitions front-runners, however, they are struggling to compete. Just like they showed two weeks ago at Allianz against the Roosters.

If Parramatta are searching for inspiration, they should look no further than the Bulldogs who in 2002 were caught cheating the cap and two years later won a premiership. Or indeed the Storm who did the same two years after being found to have breached the cap themselves. If this trend continues, Parramatta will be champions in October next year. The way they’re going though, a top eight finish would be a significant achievement.

The Queensland Origin bombshells set to turn the series on its head

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Kevin Walters announced his Queensland team today with one glaring omission. Photo: Adelaidenow.com.au

Kevin Walters approached today’s Origin team announcement with a hint of trepidation. Perhaps this was him coming to the sudden realisation that, for the first time in a long time, he would be without two of the finest players ever to pull on a Maroons jumper – Jonathan Thurston and Greg Inglis. But Walters is rarely phased by these kinds of adversities. He is a jovial character by nature; strong willed and a person everyone seems to get along with. The only possible explanation for his noticeable change in disposition was the fact that he, and the other Maroon’s selectors, had left Slater out of their side. A decision that would have no doubt eaten him up inside.

Slater has battled injury after debilitating injury for the past two seasons. His return earlier this year was one of the most heart-warming stories of the opening rounds. But his omission from the opening game of the Origin series paints a troubling picture for the star halfbacks’ future. With Boyd in the form of his life, reveling under the reign of Wayne Bennett, it’s hard to see him breaking back into the side unless, after game two, Queensland are two-nil down and want to avoid the humiliation of a whitewash by bringing back experienced heads with club form under their belts.

At some stage, Queensland needed to part with their champion players. For Slater, 2017 appears to be that time. It’s disappointing because had he not missed the amount of football he has over the last few years, he would have played an influential role in Queensland’s series win last year. Good form that would have seen him picked without a second thought by the selectors until he called time on his own Origin career. And of all the Queensland greats that have passed through, few deserve to end on their own terms more than Billy The Kid. There is still time though, and it is far too early to be writing off a player of his caliber. But if Boyd fires at the back, and the Oates/ Gagai wing combination lives up to its potential, than it is almost impossible to fit Slater back into the side.

Slater’s omission was far from the only tough decision Walters had to make on a seismic day for Queensland rugby league. Rather unexpectedly, Milford has been named in the number six jumper, while Thurston, who remains under an injury cloud that looks likely to keep him off the paddock for a number of weeks yet, was named as the 18th man.

Now I’ve heard across the last few hours that the Queensland selectors had to give Milford a starting spot for fear of missing out on his services altogether due to the comments made by Bennet around not releasing him had he been named on the bench. At first, I found this laughable, my thoughts were: this is Origin, if a player is selected, they will play. No one wields that much power over the selectors. But then, like many others, I thought about who we were dealing with. This is Bennett, a man who gets what he wants and never gives in. At press conferences he gets away with taunting journalists because he is Wayne Bennett. He can do what he wants with the England side, even if this is met with intense media scrutiny, because he is Wayne Bennett. And if he wants to sit a player out of Origin because he feels he is getting the rough end of the stick, than chances are he will.

There are few coaches in the NRL who wield this amount of power over whole organisations. But that is the aura Bennett possesses and the confidence he brings to the table. So yes, I agree to an extent with those who believe that Milford has been named in the starting side because, had he been where Thurston is now, Bennett may not have released him. This poses a whole host of ethical questions, such as: “how could a coach stop one of his best players from reaching the pinnacle of a rugby league player’s career?”. But that just about answers the very question it is posing. Milford is the Broncos best player and to loose him over the Origin period is to, potentially, drop a few games. Whether this is right or wrong doesn’t worry Bennett. Rugby league is business. Sponsors, investors and TV broadcasters, no to mention fans, are expecting you to perform and win games. And the only way this is possible is by putting your very best team on the paddock. So Bennett’s logic makes sense, even if it sounds a little convoluted and self concerned in its delivery.

The naming of Gagai, while surprising in a sense, was completely understandable on the selectors part. While he has played the odd pearler for Newcastle, he hasn’t been anywhere near his best for the majority of the season thus far. But because the Queensland selectors often adopt a pick and stick loyalty policy, and Gagai has been in and around the Queensland setup during the Maroons’ most successful year’s, you can understand why they have opted in his favour.

Personally, I think Gagai is part of an exclusive group of players that rise for the big occasion. We’ve seen in the past that when you stick him in an Origin jumper, he plays like a man possessed. Most Queensland fans, and those from NSW for that matter, will remember the drubbing the Maroons handed the Blues in Game three of 2015. It was the decider and, if memory serves me correctly, the Blues had outplayed Queensland at ANZ Stadium – where they lost by a field goal – and in the game they took to the MCG. You’d expect then that NSW would come out all guns blazing and blow Queensland off the park in the third and final game, but, as it happened, Queensland were the one’s inflicting the damage. 52 – 6 was the scoreline in the end and Gagai, who opened the scoring for Queensland in the fifteenth minute with a try, played the best representative game of his career. Forget the All Star game’s he’s played in and the Origins up to that point, he was fantastic on the biggest stage of them all. A sign that, when the mood strikes, he is unstoppable and as good as any of the wingers and centers currently running around in the NRL.

The final bombshell, if you can call it that, was the unveiling of Napa at prop. Again, this was fairly predictable given the injury to Matt Scott and the form Napa has shown at club level not just this year, but across the last few seasons. It will, however, be interesting to see how Napa copes with the physicality of an Origin contest. He bullies and bruises opposition players at club level; running over them like a freight train careering down the side of a mountain. But Origin is a huge step up in class and Matt Scott has been extremely dependable, if somewhat underutalised, in the number eight jumper previously, so Napa has big shoes to fill. The interesting thing to track here is how many minutes the Roosters front rower gets, and how Kevvy uses him. In the past, Scott was used mainly as an impact player, given twenty to twenty-five minutes at the start of the game and twenty to finish off when the ruck speed has slowed and the opposition forwards are starting to tire. It looks as if Napa will adopt the same role.

Other than that, Queensland were, more or less, named just as we all expected:

  • Morgan retains his place on the bench following strong club form;
  • the starting second-rowers have been reshuffled with the retirement of Corey Parker;
  • Nate Myles, despite sustaining an injury against the Titans in round 11, retains the number ten jumper;
  • Will Chambers slots into the centres in the absence of Greg Inglis;
  • and Boyd, Cronk and Smith make up the remainder of the spine.

While NSW aren’t down on troops, they too have problems they need to rectify and questions that won’t be answered until kick off in Origin one, such as the Peats/ Farrah fiasco; what to do with Mitchell Pearce; how Tedesco will perform after an indifferent few rounds for the struggling Tigers; and whether they’ve made the right move in blooding two new players.

All signs that we’re in for one of the most closely fought Origin series in some time.

Surrey title would be a fitting reward for Sangakkara’s loyalty

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Sangakkara circa 2015 (Surrey’s last title in division two) – Image: SportsKeeda

In an age where most retired cricketers are pursuing the riches of T20 franchise cricket, there is something special about watching Sri Lankan maestro Kumar Sangakkara weave his magic in county cricket. His twin tons against Middlesex this week were, like every Sangakkara innings, constructed with poise and as pleasing on the eye as they were frustrating for the opposition. Most other cricketers of his age have joined the globetrotting elite. A group of cricketers who were once at the top of their tree internationally, but are now chasing multi-million dollar contracts by offering their services to the numerous franchise sides around the world. While Sangakkara has thrown his hat in the ring and played in as many of these lucrative tournaments as the next man, his artistry is suited more to the intricacies of four day cricket. An indication that, perhaps, he will be around the county scene for a few years to come.

It was fitting that, on the day of the IPL final, a tournament Sangakara could well still be participating in, he raised his bat to acknowledge a small gathering of MCC members at a ground as far from Hyderabad as you can possibly get. There was nothing overly flashy about his celebrations beyond a customary waving of the willow and subtle nod of the head; a sight we have become accustomed to witnessing yet are still gracious to receive. Though there probably should have been given that his century in the second innings was his 6th in a season that is only two months old.

The astonishing thing about these innings in particular is that they came against a quality bowling attack featuring the hero of last years title race, Toby Roland-Jones, and Steven Finn; who is still pushing to reclaim his spot in the English side after a number of failed attempts previously. Sangakara, like the consummate professional he is, punished anything over-pitched; sweated on anything short; and didn’t let the calamity of a run-out temper his spirits. There was a lesson in his innings, as there always seems to be when he surpasses another milestone – if you remain patient and play to your strengths, the only way the bowler is a chance of dismissing you is if they deliver an unplayable delivery. All the rest will take care of itself.

Amazingly, Sangakkara, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age. Not long ago now we were marvelling at his brilliance during the 2015 World Cup, where he scored 4 consecutive hundreds and helped Sri Lanka qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament. Now he is retired and the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. He is free to cash in on his talents, like many of the players he played with and against during his time on the international scene have done, but instead insists that he continues playing for the love of the game, not the extra coin. And what a choice it has proven to be both for Sangakkara and Surrey.

This season he has played a crucial role in Surrey’s rise to the top of the championship table, scoring hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire in much the same fashion as the two he scored at Lord’s. Now they will be relying on him to take them all the way to a championship crown (again), just like overseas players in the IPL and BBL are relied upon to deliver their side a trophy and the accompanying prize money. Mitchell Johnson did it last night for Mumbai by taking three scalps, including the prized wicket of his fellow countryman Steve Smith, who was, at the time of his dismissal, steering the Supergiant towards victory. Kumar Sangakara is doing the very same thing now for Surrey. Though, there will no doubt be greater reward in winning a division one title, Surrey’s first since 2002, than there is in hoisting the IPL trophy after a few sleepless weeks of wall-to-wall cricket played on pitches manufactured to produce high scoring contests. Which would you rather? One is steeped in prestige and history and the other is guaranteed to make you a millionaire overnight. These days cricketers opt for the latter, and it is hard to blame them given the lack of money circulating around some of the lowly ranked nations like the West Indies and Pakistan. But for players like Sangakkara, the dream is quite evidently to win a division one title and mark yet another achievement off the cricketing bucket list; one that is shrinking with every game he plays.

Surrey have the list to fulfill this fairy tale. Stoneman, the classy left-hander who plays every innings without fear, and Borthwick, who has changed himself in to a dependable top order batsman since making a rather inauspicious appearance at international level as a fresh-faced leg-spinner, are both sorely missed at Durham and there can be no greater compliment than this. They, alongside Curran brothers Sam and Tom, as well as ageless warrior Gareth Batty – who picked up valuable experience in Bangladesh and India last winter at the ripe old age of 39 – are the kind of players that can make or break a season. They offer plenty of potential, but, at times, fail to deliver. If they can all hit their straps at once, they will convert more draws into wins and, with Sangakkara steering the ship, this is a far less arduous task than it appears. That is the value of an experienced player. He mightn’t be getting payed a quarter of what Stokes received for his services in the IPL, yet he boasts one of the finest test and first class records the world over. On top of this, he has rubbed shoulders with history’s greatest cricketers and been coached by some of them too. These experiences and his expertise cannot be measured by any sum of money, because if they were, Sangakkara would be unaffordable. Yet, a player with half his experience, talent and knowledge nets an IPL contract worth in-excess of a million pounds. This is one of cricket’s great injustices.

Day four poses a difficult task for Surrey, who have taken just a 96 run lead with 6 wickets in hand. But one man still stands in the way of a Middlesex rout. His name, like we’ve seen so often sprawled across the Lord’s scoreboard for Sri Lanka, is Kumar Sangakkara, and he remains unbeaten on 116. Can he score his first double century of the season?

Question marks surrounding Farrah’s selection are the kind of distractions NSW must shake

The question that divided the rugby league public leading into State of Origin last year was whether or not Robbie Farah, playing off the bench for the Tigers at the time, was worthy of the NSW number nine jumper.

The very same question has resurfaced again this year as we make the final descent towards Suncorp Stadium and origin one. So far though, Farah has done well to weather the storm.

Against his old club on Friday night, Farah, starting for the first time in five rounds despite being listed on the bench, played like a man still thirsty for rep football and determined to prove doubters wrong.

He was instrumental in the Rabbitohs win, making 37 tackles and setting up a try.

So good was his form, Maguire brought Cook into the action sometime around the 60th minute by benching Tom Burgess, who seemed to drop anything thrown his way.

But Farah, much like last year, must stave off bids on the NSW number nine jumper by in-form hookers Nathan Peats and Cameron McInnes; both of whom have been in scintillating form for their clubs sides.

Had Nathan Peats not been tossed out with the garbage by Parramatta last year, it’s likely he would have secured a rep jumper, forcing Farah out of the side. Now with another year of first-grade under his belt, he is primed for selection. Outstanding performers tend to stand out in a struggling team and Peats, at the Titans, is one such example.

The argument for Cameron McInnes is just as strong. Last week he pulled on his very first rep jumper; helping the City side to an upset victory over Country in the concepts last hurrah. The game was a farce, and the teams patchwork, but it still showcased some of the finest rugby league talent in NSW and that can only bode well for players who performed to an exceptional standard.

Once again we have a situation where Daley must choose between loyalty and form.

On Friday night, Farah ticked both boxes. But having started off the bench for much of the season, the latter has been difficult to track. The remaining few rounds in the lead up to the bye will be paramount in Farah’s case for origin selection.

As for the other two candidates, there is little more they can do. Farah is as volatile as an Indian meal, some will go down smoothly while others will send you running for the toilet every five minutes. You just have to pick him and hope he doesn’t make your stomach churn two hours later.

Defence is of crucial importance in Origin and Farah has both McInnes and Peats well and truly covered in this department.

The experience factor must weigh into the equation also.

Then there’s the argument that while Farah has been at the helm, NSW have won just one series in eight attempts. A dismal statistic and one which in a number of sports around the world would earn him a permanent spot on the no-fly list.

But Orgin is a different beast. Experience counts for more than form. That is why if Jonathan Thurston is fit come Origin one, he will slot straight into the halves for Queensland despite having spent just one game on the paddock in two months.

This is why Queensland have been so dominant. They don’t bother with off field politics or involve themselves in speculation that has the potential to cause infighting and divisions.

If the Maroons dynasty is remembered for anything, it will be their harmonious team culture, the loyalty displayed by their fearless leaders Mal Meninga and Kevin Walters, and the confidence with which they played each game, which was no doubt instilled through the backing of coaches and selectors.

NSW fans can claim they are too old, too slow and sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by camouflaged hunters. But until they change their mindset and begin adopting a winning attitude, they should expect a continuation of the heartache that has accompanied them for ten of the past eleven years.

Questions like whether or not Farah is the right man for the job is symptomatic of a team which has made a habit of loosing and is an indication that frustration and impatience is beginning to set in.

Who talks about contentious selections in the Queensland Origin team when they are released each year? No one, because fans are supportive of the panel who have been the architects of Queensland’s success; their record proceeds them.

Their formula is simple: remaining loyal to players removes egos and unnecessary distractions.

If Jarryd Hayne is selected for Origin one, pending fitness, this will only serve as further evidence of NSW trying to force wins and select a team of champions, rather than building a champion team. Another false step.

Follow Queensland’s blueprint. That’s how you win Origin.

The links between television and the games’ growth cannot be understated

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The Kerry Packer legacy lives on today. Photo: Daily Telegraph

Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colorful, high octance and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay tv subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant runchase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.

The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.

So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.

Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reaches a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.

Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was payed 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.

It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.

Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorship’s and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England, or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalized supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?

While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.

When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signaling the end to a short lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.

The counter argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in theater would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.

When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they payed just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The T20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?

Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of T20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.

Rugby League must escape ‘dark-ages’ mindset and endorse the international game

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The problem for international Rugby League is simple. Unlike many other sports around world, the national competitions, that is the games played between club sides in leagues like the NRL and Super League, are far bigger in scale than any of the yearly international tournaments (of which there are few) and one-off games played across a single weekend of festivities.

The NRL and RFL will tell you the international game is not broken, and hence doesn’t require fixing: a way of ensuring revenue remains unshared. But they are the custodians of the game on a worldwide scale. The ones responsible for ensuring that the health and well-being of proud League nations like PNG, Samoa and Tonga don’t suddenly suffer from tanking interest. Australia, New Zealand and England, though, will rarely play against the ‘minnow’ nations (and I use this term loosely) outside of a World Cup. So when England take the field on Saturday night at Campletown Stadium, they are breaking down a wall of Rugby League supremacy that has stood unmoved since the Super League war.

The demise of international Rugby League lies squarely on the shoulders of the NRL and Super League administrators, who both hold more power than the game’s specialist international governing body, and as such, decide when and where international tournaments are played. Forget about a universal voice, this is Rugby League oppression at its finest. The major players in Australia, NZ and England are the bearers of power and financial superiority, and so the wheels cannot be set in motion by the other associates, let alone the RLIF, until they have signed off on it, because without them, a tournament like the world cup would cease to exist. The governing bodies are well aware of this, and so exercising their dominance by putting on an international Rugby League showcase once a year becomes their best option for giving it a brief and necessary taste of the limelight, without going overboard.

Rugby League is not the only game that appears to be shrinking rather than expanding, however. Cricket, for example, has long been ruled by three superpowers of the international game – Australia, India and England – who have placed their own self interests before the well-being of the sport at large in regions struggling to keep their head above water. Unlike cricket though, international Rugby League seems to be losing (if it hasn’t already lost) its aura among fans in the hot spots, who see the rep round as an unnecessary detour in a long and, at times, misdirected season. This has come about through an over-saturation of club football and an under-appreciation for the importance of Rugby League played at international level.

Like I said in the opening remarks of this column, Rugby League is one of the few sports across the world that has a larger presence at national level than it does at a representative one; primarily in the areas which have national competitions. The AFL, of course, is one exception, because it too seems content with the following it has gained in Victoria and does not feel the need to break free of its own little bubble. But they have both missed the bus. Cricket, Soccer, Union, Hockey, and a large majority of every non-American-centric sport has realised that their respective national competitions are but a drop in the pond. Each conduct international tournaments in their own way, using their own structures (some of which are a little too exclusive), and others do not give the sport the coverage it deserves in nations that mightn’t have the same opportunities as far as funding and infrastructure are concerned. But they are making an effort to ensure the international game remains the highest level any player can aspire to represent. Rugby League must follow this blueprint.

This means establishing routine tournaments at the conclusion of the world’s major leagues, even if this solution still prioritises club football. The benefit here is that both the NRL and Super League conclude at almost the same time, opening the door for an international schedule to be put into effect around the late October/ November period. This would of course take a huge commitment from the respective governing bodies, who must at some stage ensure their players are given a rest in between seasons. They must also be satisfied that the games would rate well on television and receive adequate fan attendance figures, otherwise the concept could quickly go down the drain. Most importantly, though, some fixtures should be taken to areas such as Port Moresby in PNG or – now that the the City/ Country concept is coming to an end – to Mudgee, Lismore or Wagga Wagga where the bush Rugby League community can be re-engaged.

The Northern Hemisphere mustn’t be neglected either. England is the birthplace of Rugby League and interest in the Four Nations tournament last year shows that it is a country falling in love with the game all over again. The Catalans Dragons involvement in the Super League cannot be overlooked. They have gained a substantial backing since their debut season in 2006 and their charming venue in Perpignan, which creates a uniquely intimate atmosphere under the setting sun, is readymade, if ever so slightly small, for international hostage rights.

The final step, and this goes without saying, is ensuring more than 20 international teams, from Fiji, right down to the lowly ranked Cook Islands and a few of the affiliates, are in some way included. If this means setting up a division system, than so be it. It could hurt teams ranked 10 and below in the current RLIF rankings, who are next to no chance of defeating sides with a greater player pool and financial stability, but at least they would be given an incentive to boost participation rates and seek financial backing from their local governments, who will not act without reassurance that this sport will bring them some kind of economic return.

The intrigue of a promotion and relegation system cannot be denied either. It works so well in the Super League, giving sides in the championship hope of returning or debuting in the top league and obtaining the perks that go along with it, so why shouldn’t it at least be trialed at international level. It would, at the very least, see international Rugby League take on board greater context, while the competition between teams ranked between 5-10, and those hoping to crack the top division – which will bring with it an instant raise in match payments – would immediately lead to a more exciting spectacle.

The remaining issue with all of the above changes is still whether the powerhouses are willing to take a leap of faith and a financial hit, or whether they will continue to assert their dominance over the RLIF and uphold what seems to be a suppression of the international game. These are exciting yet confusing times for a sport still emotionally invested in club football.

The green and gold of Australia, black and white of New Zealand, and everything that goes along with it should be the greatest privilege a player receives and a prize they cherish no matter how long their representative career may last. But still there is an underlying presumption that the international game is far less important; on its last legs and struggling for meaning (even if this view is rarely, if ever, adopted by the players of our great sport). And until this ideology changes on behalf of the boards, international Rugby League will struggle to break the shackles that are holding it back.

Regions in PNG, Tonga and Fiji, to name but three, have contributed a great deal to the NRL over the years and deserve to reap the rewards of being a vital cog in the wheel of the world’s strongest club competition. Each week we marvel at the exploits of Suliasi Vunivalu, the speed and power of Marika Koroibete and, not long ago now, the spellbinding pace of Noa Nadruku. To showcase and commemorate their sheer talent, international rugby league must expand. Waiting is no longer an option.