Henry’s impending demise shows players hold all the aces

There is one man who can relate to the backstabbing and bloodletting Neil Henry is currently experiencing at the Gold Coast – former Wests Tigers coach Jason Taylor.

In March, Taylor was given his marching orders by Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe and Chairwomen Marina Go after player unrest got too hot for the board to handle.

The club, to save their blushes, argued that the team was beginning to ‘drift’ under Taylor’s leadership.

All signs, though, were pointing to an upward surge in form. Just six-months earlier the Tigers had missed out on the finals by a single point, while James Tedesco, Aaron Woods, and Robbie Farah had all earned NSW Blues caps.

The club attempted to pass it off as a coaching issue, and in many ways it was. But those who know rugby league recognised that there were deeper issues at play and that the club was actually being held to ransom by the ‘big four’ – Tedesco, Woods, Moses and Brooks.

There were rumours circulating at the time that the ‘big four’ had grown unhappy with the coaching situation at the Tigers and so they threatened to hold off on re-signing until the club made changes.

To compound this issue, Robbie Farah had also been forced out of the club at the end of the 2016 season following a bitter feud with Taylor that began way back in 2014.

Taylor allegedly told Farah he was ‘selfish’ for not passing up the opportunity to play for Australia in favour of training with the Tigers.

Farah fired back, mocking Taylor’s brief and ill-fated representative career…or so the story goes.

Sound familiar?

At the Gold Coast, it is Jarryd Hayne who has grown disenchanted with his coach.

Quite clearly, the relationship between Henry and Hayne is untenable. Both want out if the other remains, even if the former will claim that rumours of disharmony within the camp are nothing more than a media beat-up.

In recent days the issues at the Titans have snowballed, with Elgey and Taylor reportedly issuing the club with a similar ultimatum to Hayne.

It makes you wonder just how much power the players have in this day and age.

The issues between Hayne and Henry stem back to when the former San Francisco 49er first signed with the Gold Coast in August last year.

Hayne, a Parramatta junior, sat in front of an expectant media and spoke only of his disappointment at missing out on an opportunity to return to his former club.

“It’s tough, because you know, there was a few clubs that had offered and straightaway. I always wanted to go back to Parra.”

It was in this moment that Henry realised he would have to tread carefully around Hayne.

You can take the boy out of Parramatta, but you can’t take Parramatta out of the boy, someone quipped.

And so it has proven.

Only months ago stories broke of Hayne and his sloppy training habits.

Former teammates spoke to Hayne’s attitude and laziness in the days following and confirmed the worst for Henry – his poor habits were inbuilt and were not going away anytime soon.

It was revealed soon after that Hayne had been punted from the Titans’ leadership group for turning up to pre-season training overweight.

His former coaches know this side of Hayne all too well.

In fact, during his time at Parramatta, Hayne went through no less than 7 coaches. None could ever fully harness his potential, and so all were told to hit the bricks by the Parramatta board within two years of signing.

Some will say this is the nature of the beast. Coaching is a results driven role and part of the job description is to get the best out of each and every player regardless of the size of their ego or the depth of their pockets.

But Hayne has killed more coaches than Mortein has killed flies. None have been able to tame the beast and get him to deliver on a game-by-game basis.

Henry has been unsuccessful in bucking this trend and now his cards are marked.

All signs point to the Titans supremo being sacked next week in much the same way as Taylor was by the Wests Tigers following his falling out with the big four back in round three.

These days it is the coach who must fall on their sword, not the player. They are the ones held accountable if the club goes down the toilet.

It makes sense for the Gold Coast to sack Henry given they have more to lose by ripping up Hayne’s contract. Not only is Henry one of the most poorly payed coaches in the competition, and will only need to be payed out $400,000 if his contract is terminated, but Elgey and Taylor will follow Hayne out the door if Henry is allowed to hang around.

That’s a risk the club can ill afford to make.

This is a sad state of affairs for the NRL more than anybody. Players have far too much say in what happens at the administrative level and have the power to force a coach out of the club whenever the mood strikes.

In Taylor’s case, it was the players who held a gun to the board’s head and forced them into making a decision. Now three of the infamous ‘big four’ are either at another club or on the move in 2018.

If there is a lesson to take away here, it is that sometimes problems at a football club run deeper than the coach. They are the lightning rods for blame when things go wrong but are rarely the source of a club’s internal issues.

The only coaches immune to this behaviour are seasoned veterans like Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy. They wouldn’t let the players walk all over them like Henry and those before him have.

Bennett is the kind of no nonsense coach a player like Jarryd Hayne needs.

Every other coach in the competition must watch their back. The track record of players pulling a fast one over their so called superior doesn’t make for pretty reading.

Long gone are the days when the coaches say was final. It is the players who now hold all the aces.

The NRL have got it wrong…again

It’s hard to believe the NRL match review committee could compound the issue regarding Sia Soliola’s hit on Billy Slater. But they’ve done exactly that by giving the Canberra prop just a five-match suspension as opposed to the six that certain parties were pushing for. If they were interested in taking a tough stance on careless tackles, be they intentional or not, Sia Soliola had to be given the maximum penalty available.

That means he shouldn’t be returning in round 26 against, you guessed it, the Melbourne Storm. He should’ve been banned for the rest of the season without pay and received a reprimand from the club and the NRL.

This was the NRL’s only option after the on-field referees, and those reviewing the decision from the bunker, decided to allow Sia Soliola to remain on the field despite clear-cut evidence he deserved to be sent off.

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Billy Slater was stretchered from the ground on Saturday. Image Source: Pacific – Epeak

Many have argued that the referees are either scared to make this decision because they fear being dropped over poor decisions, or are totally lost as to what does and doesn’t constitute a send-off.

Either way, the NRL had the opportunity to put the argument to bed on Tuesday night but squandered the opportunity much like they did at Canberra stadium on Saturday.

The issue for me, as the match review panel currently stands, is that players are being given lighter sentences when they plead guilty. This simply doesn’t make sense.

‘Sia, because you’ve accepted that you are in fact guilty, we have decided to reduce your charge by one week.’

We are not dealing with convicted murderers here; we are dealing with footballers. As a result, charges should not be downgraded because they have accepted that their actions were not befitting of the NRL’s rules and regulations. What message does that send to the rest of the competition – you can hit a player late and high but still get away with a lighter sentence because you’ve acknowledged that your actions were wrong?

It’s no wonder the NRL has an image problem.

This isn’t the first time they’ve botched a sentence this year. When Tim Simona was found to be fixing matches and committing heinous crimes, Todd Greenberg didn’t mark him down on the no fly list, leaving the door ajar for corruption to creep back into the game at some point in the future.

And what about their soft approach to salary cap breaches in the past.

By not taking a hardball stance on blatant thuggery at the judiciary earlier this week, the NRL have effectively condoned violence.

Slipping or not, hits like Soliola’s give rugby league a bad name.

If the NRL were to make strides forward in preventing a repeat of the shocking events of Saturday night, Tony Archer, or another NRL representative, needed to make clear the rules around send-offs, sin-bins and general misconduct.

It’s no good leaving it to ‘instinct’ as some sources have suggested. We need black and white rulings.

This means contact to the head of an opposition player is made a send-off offence – whether it was intentional or not. Players must be protected.

If the NRL are truly committed to making the game cleaner than it currently is, then its high time they stopped operating their judiciary hearings like a court of law and removed those outdated and non-functional grading terms like ‘careless, late and reckless’.

The more criteria the NRL use for determining the extent of a penalty, the more decisions they are going to get horribly wrong. And for a game already losing its place amongst the younger population due to acts like Soliola’s, it cannot afford for the NRL to continue going soft on brutal hits.

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.

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.

Sell-out Cronulla crowd shows why the NRL must reconsider playing more games at suburban venues

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Shark Park in all its glory. Photo – Sharks Membership

It’s one of the oldest debates in rugby league – should more games be taken to suburban venues in place of those played at soulless big event stadiums like ANZ Stadium and Allianz?

Take one glance at the sell-out crowd at Cronulla’s SCG Stadium on Saturday night and there’s a strong case for doing so.

But before the NRL jumps the gun and changes all Wests Tigers’ home games in 2017 from ANZ to Leichhardt, there are a few things that must be cleared up.

Firstly, the crowd on Saturday night may have been inflated somewhat due to the half-time dancing spectacular put on as a marketing ploy by Cronulla officials to sell extra tickets.

Secondly, the Sharks are fresh off a premiership victory, meaning more fans may be inclined to visit the ground rather than opting to watch the game on television.

Lastly, the Bulldogs were visiting Shark Park for the first time since 2011 and generally have a large following wherever they travel, particularly within NSW.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen excellent suburban crowds push the case for more games to be scheduled at grounds with less seating and a more intimate atmosphere.

The pay off, however, is that these particular grounds very rarely offer the same facilities as large scale venues with public transport access, video replay screens that can be seen by a patron sitting in row Z and a surplus of public amenities.

Brookvale Oval is one of the last suburban venues used on a regular basis in the NRL but even it is stuck in the 1990’s as far as facilities go.

So we must find a middle ground.

This means playing local derbies, such as Cronulla against the Dragons, exclusively at suburban venues while the box-office clashes that have no local appeal and where tickets are in higher demand remain at the game’s bigger venues.

Games such as the Easter Monday clash between Parramatta and Wests, which currently takes place at ANZ stadium due to its popularity, is one exception given the availability of Leichhardt Oval and the atmosphere that can be created by supporters packed onto the Wayne Pearce hill.

Some fans would miss out on tickets but rugby league is fast becoming a sport designed for television, so leaving a few fans dismayed by being unable to attend in person is a risk the NRL must take to prevent itself from being left red in the face over empty grandstands.

It’s not a matter of shifting all home matches to suburban venues but rather allocating a few more games, which would otherwise leave a venue like Allianz half empty, to grounds with a more intimate atmosphere.

Games like the Roosters against the Dogs, which would generally attract a crowd of 15,000 at Allianz or ANZ, could instead be taken to Bellmore where it would almost certainly sell-out and create a more attractive and engaging spectacle for both fans at the ground and those watching on at home.

But the NRL have been slow to move on this debate and it is easy to see why when you consider that they receive a greater slice of the pie at corporate venues through food and drink sales.

Moving the Easter Monday game away from ANZ and into Leichardt would also mean the NRL sells just 20,000 tickets as opposed 50,000 plus, and for a game that operates on the revenue it generates, this approach makes little business sense. Particularly given their current financial situation.

But it is something that must be done to save us the pain of watching a game at Allianz where the players can hear a pin drop when the game hits a lull.

Not all NRL teams have the luxury of playing at suburban venues anyway and most grounds around the country have undergone redevelopment to allow for increased seating due to a rise in attendance figures. So it would take only a few minor tweaks to the fixtures list on the NRL’s behalf to set the wheels in motion and give suburban venues more games.

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.

 

Cronulla Sharks v Brisbane Broncos Match Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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