Jarrod Mullen; the Machine

Jarrod MullenSome say he has more pressure than any other player in the NRL. Newcastle Knights halfback Jarrod Mullen not only has to fill the shoes of Andrew Johns; but he carries the hopes of the Newcastle people – people torn by infighting and unrest at the Knights in 2007.

A natural talent, Mullen has developed quickly at the Knights and the timing of the Johns departure certainly hasn’t hindered this future star. He slipped into NSW Origin honours with ease in 2007 and he seems to handle pressure much better than those ahead of him. Even with additional heat put on him by coach Brian Smith during the selection period for Origin with claims of “Mullen’s not ready for Origin yet” and the on-going battle with injury last year – Mullen’s performances and his handling of pressure was impressive.

It seems that at the core of the Jarrod Mullen machine, is a consistent and driven work ethic. While gifted with all the silky skills required for big time NRL, Mullen isn’t one to cut corners. In a much similar way to Andrew and Matthew Johns, Mullen will get to training hours before the scheduled start time and begin his own drills and training and you guessed it – he is usually the last to leave when the team clocks off.

As NRL Rugby League is now a full time profession, you could understand the fact that players would be ready to head home after hours upon hours of gym, cross-training and skills work – they are living and breathing NRL 24/7 and most of the players would be eager to get some time away from their full time job.

Not Mullen.

Extra sessions, additional video homework and the reels of information garnered from guys like Joey Johns are part and parcel of the Mullen machine. It shows why Mullen is so valuable to the Knights not only in 2008 but as the rock to build their future on. New signings to the club for 2008 have been blown away by the work ethic of Mullen, new boys Ben Cross and Wes Naiqama have both claimed to be spurred on by the drive of Mullen.

Preparation and inspiration for this years season has come from months on the sidelines in late 2007; Mullen helplessly watching injured as his Knights teammates were belted week in week out. To compound the matter, the media spotlight on Newcastle and the ensuing drama involving Brian Smith and Kirk Reynoldson – only stood to further rip at the bond the Knights players had built together.

Mullen could be just the answer to the Knights woes. There is sure to be plenty of pressure heaped on the upcoming half as Newcastle look to him to spark things this year. As they have done for so many years, the Knights will look to the number 7 when the chips are down. Fortunately for Mullen, he seems to crave the pressure situations – already in his young career he has regularly taken the right option at critical times and certainly hasn’t shyed away when the game was on the line.

So as the Knights dig deep in their current pre-season, eager to bury the demons of 2007 – there’s no need to worry about Jarrod Mullen. The young half is seemingly able to put the pressure to one side and through his hard work, continues to rise to the top of the NRL ranks. All in a days work it seems, or should we say a days fun?

Party Culture the biggest Enemy for Cowboys

JT CowboysThey’ve fought back hard in the last few years to finally become a consistent and powerful team in the NRL; the North Queensland Cowboys used to be the easybeats but are now feared by all opponents as a team that can really turn on the points during an NRL match.

As the 2008 season rolls around, it’s not the away games or playing talent that is holding this North Queensland side back – it seems their real foe is a party culture atmosphere that club officials are struggling to stamp out.

The first hint of trouble was discovered early last year when Jonathan Thurston was involved in a late night brawl. Confirmed as a ‘one off’ incident where Thurston was coming to the aid of a female companion – it seemed to blow over quickly. Later in 2007, the likes of Steve Southern and David Faiumu were soon caught up in drunken incidents and surely the club must have started getting concerned at this stage.

Southern was involved in a late night altercation outside a pizza shop and was injured during the scuffle, resigning his 2007 season to the sideline as the Cowboys forward stocks were depleted badly towards season end. For Faiumu, an alleged drunken assault incident continued the poor run for the North Queensland squad.

Now it seems, just when the dust settles on 2007 – Dally M winner and club captain Jonathan Thurston has been hauled before a judge after a drunken incident during Australia Day celebrations recently. While it seems this latest incident was fairly minor, surely Peter Parr and his back office troops must be worried about the culture at the successful club?

While relatively minor, the fact that Thurston has been caught twice with his hand in the cookie jar now and as club captain, the young half needs to really be setting the standard for his squad to follow. A member of the infamous Bulldogs party crew that was always seemingly in trouble, it seems Thurston may not have forgotten his bad boy ways as he continues to hit headlines.

Much is expected of the Cowboys on the field in 2008, with classy pivot Travis Burns from Manly now signed to the club and a hopefully better run with injuries, many still have the North Queensland club pencilled in for Top 4 Honours.

However it may be time that club officials and the relaxed Graham Murray come down hard on rowdy players and stamp out this rot before it gets out of hand and starts costing them results on the field.

The end of an Era; Wayne Bennett to leave Broncos

Wayne Bennett BroncosHe has been an institution in Queensland, the father of not only the Brisbane Broncos but the whole of Queensland Rugby League. Possibly the most influential figure in Queensland Rugby League behind only Wally Lewis, Wayne Bennett will leave the Broncos at the end of 2008 as the club looks to take a fresh approach.

Holding the reigns at the Broncos since their inception in 1988 – Wayne Bennett love him or hate him, has been a highly successful coach. His record stands at 6 premierships; 1992, 1993, 1997 (Super League), 1998, 2000 and 2006. Very few coaches could boast such success, his approach to Rugby League has centred around a close bond with his immediate playing squad, a good eye for talent and an iron curtain around the whole operation – keeping things close to his chest and letting few into the inner-sanctum.

Loathed by many sections of the media, Wayne Bennett rarely gives interviews and when forced to talk to the press he general gives one word answers and will do his utmost to frustrate and distance anyone trying to question him. While the Broncos have stood strongly behind Wayne Bennett in the past, his old fashioned personality has probably hurt the club much more than helped it at times and the power brokers at the Broncos realise the highly successful club must move in a different direction to ensure future continued success.

It seems the unthinkable deal that Wayne Bennett was plotting with the Sydney Roosters was ultimately his undoing. Speculation was rife, that a Bennett confidant let the cat out of the bag too early – ultimately killing the super deal that would have seen Bennett relocate to Sydney and take over from Ricky Stuart at the Roosters in 2007. When the deal turned bad, the Broncos obviously lost a tonne of respect for Bennett and have been seeking out a future coach ever since.

It’s unknown who will take over from Wayne Bennett at the Broncos, but their obvious target as been Craig Bellamy. Bellamy has been a relevation since leaving the Broncos assistant coaching post and setting up shop with the Storm, grabbing his maiden Premiership during NRL 2007 and building a world beating Rugby League side.

It could also be a case of ‘Back to the Future’ for the Broncos, after Bennett fell out with his support staff in 2005 – the likes of Gary Belcher, Kevin Walters and Glen Lazarus were booted from the Broncos; but the talented former players could be a chance of returning in some capacity with the Bennett dynasty soon to be dismantled.

The only question now is how will the Broncos side perform in 2008? History has shown us that players tend to relax under a coach they know will be moving on the following year and things such as player recruitment and re-signing becomes a major problem until the future successor is named.

It will certainly be a different feeling seeing a Bennett-less Broncos and one that will take some adjusting. It certainly seems like the right move for both club and coach, such a long marriage was bound to see one or the other looking for greener pastures. A fresher and more dynamic approach from the Broncos could not only see them continue winning on the field, but could open up their supporter base to a whole new range of members – people who actually like to see or hear from their coach regularly to know what is happening with their team. 

2008 NRL Trial Game Schedule Updated

The pre-season is underaway for 2008, with Souths kicking off the carnival in the USA. Here is the schedule for remaining trial and pre-season games for NRL clubs in 2008.

Sat Feb 9th, 2008:

Broncos V Central Queensland Comets – Theodore, Central Queensland

Fri 15th Feb, 2008:

Knights v Warriors
North Harbour Stadium, Auckland NZ

Roosters v Combined Group 1-2
Coffs Harbour International Stadium, NSW

Sat 16th Feb, 2008:

Titans v Raiders
Briggs Road Sporting Complex, Ipswich QLD

Storm v Sea Eagles
Bluetongue Stadium, Central Coast, NSW

Cowboys v Broncos
Browne Park, Rockhampton QLD

Fri 22nd Feb, 2008:

Panthers v Eels
Lavington Oval, Albury NSW

Sat 23rd Feb, 2008:

Dragons v Bulldogs
WIN Stadium, Wollongong NSW

Raiders v Broncos
Wade Park, Orange NSW

Sharks v Rabbitohs
Bluetongue Stadium, Central Coast NSW

Cowboys v Titans
Barlow Park, Cairns, Nth Qld

Foundation Cup
Roosters v Tigers
Sydney Football Stadium, Moore Park NSW

Broncos v Wynnum-Manly
Kougari Oval, Brisbane

Fri 29th Feb, 2008:

Sea Eagles v Warriors
Quad Park, Kawana (Sunshine Coast) QLD

2008 World Club Challenge
Melbourne Storm v Leeds Rhinos
Elland Road, Leeds U.K.

Sat 1st Mar, 2008:

Cowboys v Raiders
Brothers RL Park, Mackay QLD

Knights v Sharks
Cessnock Sports Ground NSW

Charity Shield
Dragons v Rabbitohs
ANZ Stadium, Homebush NSW (previously known as Telstra Stadium)

Titans v Tigers
Skilled Stadium, Robina QLD

Redcliffe v Broncos
Dolphin Park, Redcliffe QLD

Roosters v Eels
Gosford NSW

Sun 2nd Mar, 2008:

Bulldogs v Panthers
ANZ Stadium, Homebush NSW (previously known as Telstra Stadium)

Ruben Wiki keen for NRL at 40

Ruben Wiki NZ WarriorsIt’s a bold statement and one that would see him achieve a rarity in the modern game of Rugby League. NZ Warriors forward and former Canberra stalwart Ruben Wiki has announced publically that he is keen to keep playing in the NRL until the ripe old age of 40. At 35 years of age, Wiki has confidently predicted 5 more years in the big time of NRL – something that hasn’t been seen since the days of the ageless John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson who reportedly fudged his birth certificate to squeeze out a few more years in the game he loved.

Seemingly getting a new lease on life after his move across the Tasman from Canberra to Auckland – the experienced Kiwi forward has a new passion for the game and continues to enjoy the training and demanding weekly requirements NRL now places on players. It’s astounding to think that Ruben Wiki has been around for so long; he was actually playing with the Green Machine in their heyday along side the likes of Mal Meninga, Ricky Stuart and Brad Clyde at Canberra.

In reality, Wiki has battled harder against injuries than any foes more recently and his skills are regularly being pushed by younger more agile opponents. The biggest driver says Wiki, is the fact that his young Warriors team achieved so much in 2007 and he feels that the ultimate success is yet to come as his squad matures even more under the impressive coaching of Ivan Cleary.

Another driver for the likeable Wiki is his partner in crime, Steve Price. The aging Price is also in the twilight of his career, yet continues to pull off some of the best form of his Rugby League life – week in week out, setting the bar higher for his teammates. It’s a healthy competitive spirit between the two forwards and together the two experienced big men hold the key for the Warriors in 2008 – if they can remain on the field and guiding the younger stars around the park, the Warriors just might go 2 games better and take the NRL Premiership out this year.

For Wiki, the only concern must be his aging body. While training hard and continuing to keep his fitness at optimum levels – it’s the strains, breaks and aches that remains the only hurdle for the NZ star. If the NZ Warriors are wise and utilize Ruben Wiki in lower rotations during matches, there is a chance the front rower could still be around in a few years time – either that, or the Kiwi’s can try and ask the NRL to pass a rule to allow zimmer frames on the field.

NRL must build on USA platform

The initiative shown by the NRL club South Sydney and international partner Leeds Rhinos – must be followed up by the NRL to capitalize on a lucrative market waiting to be tapped; as the positive signs could lead to massive rewards for the code in the decades ahead. Sports mad Jacksonville, Florida are reportedly totally interested in the new game they were introduced to and are pushing to make the Rugby League game an annual event in the USA.

While it’s understandable the likes of the NRL have been gun-shy to invest heavily into future expansion internationally after years of in-fighting and turmoil locally; the signs clearly show that with a warchest of funds and good celebrity backing the code does have a future on the other side of the world.

Russell Crowe’s profile alone is doing wonders for the game and more specifically his South Sydney club internationally and the NRL should be on the phone to Russell’s people to ride on the coat tails of the recent success. Amazingly around $40,000 in Souths merchandise was snapped up by eager locals in Jacksonville and the celebrity visitors around the game certainly whipped up the interest that was hoped.

The ultimate prize is eventually a team from the United States competing in the NRL, sure we are a long way off that yet – but that achievement could lead to huge international success for Rugby League the world over. It would mean rival codes such as the AFL and even Rugby Union could be blown out of the water in one single strike. The sponsorships, TV dollars and endorsements would go into orbit and the earning potential of clubs and players would surge.

Many will argue that the game still needs time to heal and expand locally; however if the games administrators don’t set some lofty goals for the future – then we may simply idle along at the same speed we have been in recent times. Let’s start thinking big! USA is the jewel in the sporting crown and it seems the sportsmad Americans would appreciate a game of hard hitting, fierce action that is packaged well for TV and easy adoption. 

Souths show depth against Rhinos

South Sydney LogoSouth Sydney have walked away with their heads high after only narrowly being beaten by the Leeds Rhinos in the Florida, USA historic clash. The final score favoured the Rhinos; scraping home 26-24 after originally leading 26-0 at halftime.

Souths assignment was slightly tougher than their UK counterparts – the Rabbitohs fielding virtually a second string NRL side and starting what was their first pre-season hitout. The Premiership winning Leeds Rhinos side had several trial games under their belt and fielded a side littered with UK Super League talent.

In the end, both coaches would have been happy with the experiment. As the Rhinos raced away to a safe lead, coach Brian McLennan rested several stars in the second term – probably playing a part in allowing the spirited Souths side to creep back into the game.

For the Bunnies, solid showings from Ben Rogers, Issac Luke and Eddie Paea will put them in good stead for jerseys come NRL time and the result certainly shows that South Sydney now have some serious depth in their growing squad. After plugging the gaps in 2007 with some stars, the knock-on effect is happening – juniors are coming through and the foundations laid by the new owners is certainly baring fruit.

The only unfortunate result was the poor weather in the USA, some rain and overcast conditions put a slight dampener on the event – in total approximately 12,000 spectators turned out including celebrities recruited by Crowe and his PR team. Pre-season entertainment included Orange County Choppers and their famous crew performing in front of the vocal crowd. Reports from the South Sydney club have suggested their entire merchandise stand sold out during the match and officials claim they have adding a swag of new supporters on the other side of the world.

 A worthy pre-season event that has not only helped the two sides taking part – but has given both clubs and both the NRL and Super League great exposure in the massive American market.

Leeds Rhinos 26 (Matt Diskin, Brent Webb, Rob Burrow, Keith Senior, Scott Donald tries; Kevin Sinfield 3 goals)

South Sydney Rabbitohs 24 (Ben Rogers, Issac Luke, Eddie Paea, George Ndaira tries; Issac Luke 2, Eddie Paea, George Ndaira goals)

Brian Smith faces last chance in 2008

Brian Smith at Newcastle KnightsFew coaches are discussed as much as current Newcastle boss Brian Smith. Unquestionably talented as an NRL mentor, the intense Smith has had his difficulties in managing his strong personality – in a much similar way to Warren Ryan and Chris Anderson who travelled a similar path before him.

When he outstayed his welcome at the Parramatta Eels, the coachless Newcastle Knights threw Smith a lifeline. Missing their frist two choices for headcoach, the Knights had to take Smith as the best available option at the time. There is no question; Smith can create a winning culture within a club. He has the ability to put the best training and conditioning systems in place, he’s able to create squads with quality and depth – and he undoubtedly always does his homework on opposition teams.

The problem for Smith and the Knights, is that his methods do take time and usually result in personality clashes and casualties along the way. Time is something the Knights or any NRL club for that matter don’t have these days; they need to be consistently competitive and challenging for the Top 8 sooner, rather than later. The trail of destruction Smith usually leaves is already evident in the corridors of Newcastle – Andrew Johns was an early retiree in 2007, Kirk Rynoldson was a highly publicised casualty and word on the street was Danny Buderus wanted witness protection somewhere else too. Not good signs for a usually tight knit club.

An insight into the Knights under Smith in 2007 came through former Newcastle Prop Paul Harragan; who as a Knights board member was forced to explain the situation on live television, when the Channel 9 Footy Show put the questions to him regarding life at the Newcastle Knights. With the public and even high profile corporate backers of the Knights calling for Brian Smith’s head – Harragan explained that even though Smith is contracted until the end of 2009, if results are poor in the first half of 2008 – then the Knights would move to axe Smith.

The experienced Smith is no stranger to the pressure and it seems in 2008 he will have plenty of it from Day 1, this could realistically be Brian Smith’s last throw of the dice at coaching within the NRL ranks. In the past, there has always been a plan B – but just like Chris Anderson and his last hurrah at the Roosters; there are times when coaches, no matter how talented - just lose their touch.

The players at the Knights are already seeing the intensity at training; Kurt Gidley has said publically it’s been the most intense, yet promising pre-season he has seen since starting with the Knights. Smith will need to squeeze every ounce from his limited squad and pray for few injuries – without Joey, the Knights simply don’t have the ‘wildcard’ to get out of jail in every game.

While there may be options in the UK Super League should Smith be dumped, it’s the elusive NRL premiership that keeps the experienced Smith coming back for more. One of the most talented coaches never to take the prize, if B.Smith can’t get his troops to fire by mid-season – he might never get another crack at winning the NRL, his trophy cabinet to sadly remain empty. 

Nepean Motor Group plugs Panthers hole

Penrith Panthers NRL LogoIt was an 11th hour rescue deal that couldn’t have come quick enough for the Penrith Panthers club. As negotiations broke down with previous sleeve sponsor Parkview, the Panthers were quickly back in business when existing minor sponsor Nepean Motor Group stepped up their support and took the sleeve sponsorship role for the 2008 NRL Season.

Offering a 2 year deal, the local Nepean Motor Group is hoping to capitalise on their new level of visibility in 2008 and grow their local Penrith business in-line with the success of the Panthers. Former Panthers hooker, Shannon Donato now business development manager for the Panthers helped broker the deal which has the Panthers scrambling to get their 2008 playing strips re-done before season kickoff.

Jersey manufacturer ISC is working overtime to get everything in place for the Panthers as they prepare to begin their range of trial games for 2008. The Panthers get their official NRL season underway against the Broncos in Queensland in Round 1 – in what should be a great grudge match, with Joel Clinton and Peter Wallace now in Brisbane colours and former Queenslander Petero Civoniceva now the great hope for the Panthers – so expect plenty of fireworks.

The Forgotten NRL Team: Canberra Raiders

It’s amost like Groundhog day every single year for the Canberra Raiders; limited playing talent and predictions they will collect the spoon before the NRL season starts. It’s easy to forget their previous glory days and just as easy to forget they were home to household names such as Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, Mal Meninga and a whole host of others.

 Some how the team they used to call the Green Machine became known as the Washing Machine, as they started getting beaten regularly and hung out to dry by opposition teams. Occasionally performing out of their skin, the Raiders through the likes of Simon Woolford, Ruben Wiki and Adam Mogg in recent times have had some impressive performances but it seems the Raiders supporters cannot expect any premierships in the short term future. In 2008, the same is expected of the Canberra Raiders – the odd good performance, followed by another season of just ‘competing’ with the big guns. While to their credit, they are rarely if ever ‘flogged’ – you simply can’t expect to continue to exist in today’s environment with consistently mediocre results.

Still producing some good young talent, the Raiders do possess some great players on their roster for 2008 – the likes of Todd Carney, Adrian Purtell and the hard working Alan Tounge – but on the back of dwindling crowd figures, rare off-season purchases and low confidence, it rarely seems as if the Raiders will become a consistent week to week powerhouse club.

In modern day NRL, the salary cap ensures that all teams will suffer a ‘rebuilding phase’ at some stage, but surely the Raiders cannot remain in this mode permanently?

Ok so it might not be the most enticing spot in Australia to reside, but Canberra has the unique advantage of a graveyard style home stadium. Opposition teams always fear the cold, unwelcoming track at Bruce Stadium and the road trip to Canberra should be seen as a huge plus for the men in Green. Also on their side, the fact that they can tap into a large supporter base – the capital of Australia and a hometown craving winnings, the ingredients are there for success if the club wants to take hold of them.

For the Raiders to truly become a force, it will take some creative back office plays to start really building for the future. Just like Souths have done, chase the corporate backing first and start improving current facilities to entice the top tier of players into your corner. It takes some smart planning to get the snowball effect happening, if players won’t jump on board then maybe the Raiders should look at signing a big name coach in the future; one that will attract the big name NRL stars like bees to a honeypot. That is no reflection on Neil Henry, the impressive up and coming coach has seemingly done a wonderful job with what he has had to work with.

Put simply, with every season that goes by the Canberra Raiders seem to slip more into the oblivion. It’s a shame that such a once powerful club is struggling as the likes of new teams such as the Titans spring up quickly and become a force in a matter of months. If the Raiders don’t start thinking big soon, the only horse left in the town might be a Brumby.