Matt Head crosses fingers at Dragons

Matthew Head returns to St George Illawarra Dragons NRL 2009Such is the wrap on Matt Head – some in League circles say the livewire no.7 could have been a consistent NSW representative had he not been plagued by injury. Next year will mark another chapter in the Head career; returning to St George Illawarra after several years away from his junior club and crossing fingers he doesn’t have to face another major breakdown.

Putting the minds of Dragons’ fans at ease, who have all watched and held their breath as Head struggled with constant knee problems during his early years at the club, but still only young at 26 – Head feels he is in good shape and the return home could be just the medicine for his body and mind.

Head hit the training grounds in Wollongong this week before new coach Wayne Bennett comes on board next week.

It’s been a tough few years for Head, who left St George Illawarra to mix it in the UK Super League with the Hull side during the midd of the 2007 NRL season – after struggling to beat 2 knee reconstructions. The Wollongong local then copped shoulder trouble during his time in the UK and upon return to Australian, joined the Wests Tigers hoping for a fresh start – but injury also finished that comeback attempt.

Head has shown more than enough at the Dragons and Tigers – to confirm, when fully fit – he is up there with the very best.

Believed to be now on a heavily incentive based Dragons contract, Head will need to remain fit and be playing regularly to pickup any decent pay cheques from the club.

“I’ve had my fair share of bad luck, but I’m trying to put that all behind me,” Head shrugged.

“The coaching staff are working hard with us with the knee in the gym and occasionally I’ll have a session off just to make sure the knee is right to go for the next session.

“It’s one of those things that we’re going to manage, but in saying that, when it comes season time it’s time to rip in and have a dig.”

When St George Illawarra signed Jamie Soward in 2007, Head like many others in the NRL world felt that door had closed for good at his junior club.

At the time, former Dragons coach Nathan Brown declared “if (Head) didn’t have the bad injury run that he had, I’ve got no doubt he’d be the NSW halfback now”.

And so St George Illawarra are relying on the faith that Head will realise his potential.

A mentor for Head early on in his career, Dragons recruitment manager Craig Young yesterday denied the club took a gamble signing the playmaker.

“If we considered it a gamble we don’t sign him,” he said.

“It’s too critical in the salary cap to do anything we thought would be a risk.

“We’re very confident in his ability, we think he provides a great option for us in the halves.”

Ricky Stuart apologizes over RLWC outburst

Ricky Stuart Rugby League World Cup 2008 OutburstUnder fire Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart has called his own comments “offensive” and issued a complete apology to the World Cup officials he attacked verbally after Australia were beaten in the RLWC final.

Issuing a statement through agent John Fordham, Stuart is reported to have sent inidivudal apologies on Thursday to World Cup final referee Ashley Klein and British referees official Stuart Cummings after Stuarts emotional outburst in a Brisbane hotel on Sunday.

Calling his manner “inappropriate and offensive”, Stuart said emotion totally got the better of him after the upset loss to New Zealand at Suncorp Stadium last Saturday night.

“Still on my mind were the disappointed faces of my players who had worked so hard during the tournament,” said Stuart in the statement.

Regardless of these latest developments, Ricky Stuart remains under investigation by the Rugby League International Federation investigation for the allegations that he called Klein a “f…ing cheat” and “the c… who cost us the World Cup” when he crossed pathes with the referee the following morning.

Stuart said through Fordham “it’s something for which I now deeply regret”.

“It’s a hard thing for me to admit, but I was certainly not in control of my emotions at the time and acted irresponsibly and irrationally,” wrote Stuart in his apology, adding “but that’s not an excuse for my behaviour”.

The statement said Stuart was trying to contact Klein and Cummings to personally convey his apology.

Stuart will return to Sydney from leave early next week to respond to alleged breaches of the 2008 Rugby League World Cup’s Code of Conduct.

The matter is being independently investigated for the RLIF by Robert Weber SC.

Lockyer man of match decision explained

Darren Lockyer Kangaroos Man of the MatchAfter fans were left scratching their head at the decision to choose Darren Lockyer for the man of the match award; it’s been revealed today that a 4-person judging team actually wanted to change their choice.

A panel consisting of Bob McCarthy (Australia), Brian Noble (England), Darrell Williams (New Zealand) and James Pickering (Fiji) were instructed to lodge their vote with 10 minutes remaining in the World Cup Final. The Australia still in the fight and Darren Lockyer having a top-shelf game, the panel came up with the Broncos pivot as the choice.

But after the Kiwi’s stunned the World with their historic victory in the final minutes, it has surfaced today that the panel wanted to change their initial decision with 3 minutes to go in the final.

But the voting panel were informed their initial vote was final and could not be changed – robbing a New Zealand player of receiving the coveted award.

Kiwi standouts Adam Blair, Nathan Cayless, Sam Rapira, Jeremy Smith, Lance Hohaia and Nathan Fien were all in the hunt for the man of the match gong, with Lockyer and Anthony Laffranchi leading the Australian choices.

Each voter chose secretly and independently,  with pivot Lockyer coming out the majority winner with 10 minutes to go.

Williams would not go into detail about the apparent about face in the final minutes; with suggestions the voting panel tried unsuccessfully to have the choice changed.

With minutes to go in the game, the match was still in the balance but with 3 minutes left, panel members had a strong idea the Kiwis would come home and felt they were in a better position to vote.

Williams, a former New Zealand rep, admitted the final decision had to be reached after 70 minutes.

“We were caught out – we probably needed that final 10 minutes,” Williams told the media afterwards.

“It was difficult. In hindsight, perhaps one of the Kiwis should have got it. We didn’t vote as a group – we all voted independently.”

Hybrid must happen: League v Union

Australian League Union Rugby Hybrid GameIt’s been talked about forever, but it’s a concept that really needs to happen. The following would no doubt be enormous, it has the potential to make State of Origin or even Super 14 look like suburban fixtures.

Talk is abound that a ‘hybrid game’ is being discussed, a new set of rules allowing League players to square off against the best from Union. Kangaroos vs Wallabies, the ultimate showdown. It would have League folk and Rah Rah faithful packing out stadiums and pubs everywhere – the ultimate event on the Australian sporting calendar.

Just imagine, Jonathan Thurston v Matt Giteau. Greg Inglis v Stirling Mortlock.

There would be magic clashes of individuals all over the park, it’s a dream of sporting fans across Australia for seemingly years.

With talk again opening up – that dream could become a reality; a potential cross-code showdown could be on the horizon. While the ARU today said nothing has been discussed or tabled; the fact that the hybrid concept is again on the table is a positive sign.

Naturally both Union and League bosses would fear such a concept unless they got a decent portion of control and a pocket full of pennies from the event. Any promoter that has the majority stake in the event, could potentially become untouchable overnight. If it was successful, the concept could dwarf both codes and threaten a whole new world for Australian Rugby Football. This would not doubt be the reason bosses from both the League and Union would be scared to commit.

The promotion has always had the fans crying out for it …  but without any official nod from either the Australian Rugby Union or Australian Rugby League – there is still some way to go before we have an answer to the ultimate pub hypothetical.

News Ltd reports today reveal promoter Phil Franks is the man behind the push, having tabled his proposal to both governing bodies for their backing.

The proposal would see the Kangaroos and Wallabies play a hybrid version of the codes at ANZ Stadium, most likely in front of a sell-out crowd and for an anticipated $15 million return.

While Franks is yet to formally speak to ARU chief executive John O’Neill or ARL counterpart Geoff Carr – but plans to personally approach the pair this week.

“I didn’t want to speak to them until they got a taste of the enormity and benefit of it,” Franks told News Ltd last night.

“John O’Neill is the sort of man that can make this happen because he is a business genius.”

Instead of playing the match under the rules structure of one code – Franks is pushing for the development of a hybrid set of rules which would see the teams on an even playing field – possibly 12-a-side.

Two men who have been flagged as members of a rule-change committee are former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer and Rugby League Immortal Bob Fulton.

Dwyer admits his excited by the concept.

“There’s a lot of reasons for playing it,” Dwyer told News Ltd.

“One of the important reasons is, if we are in the entertainment industry and those people that we are trying to attract want to see it – and it does seem like the people we’re trying to attract do want to see it – then isn’t that what we’re here for?”

Fulton was equally supportive.

“It will be an absolutely outstanding promotion and, just being a football fan, I’d love to see it,” Fulton told News Ltd.

“And I’m sure there’s plenty of other people that, as long as the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted in relation to getting it together, would love to see it also.

“The players from both codes would also love to be involved in a game of this stature.”

Boardroom politics could very easily signal the end of discussions – but with both codes in need of funding, this could just be the money-spinning promotion they were after.

Emotions all round: Stewart and Bennett

Wayne Bennett Kiwi Rugby League CoachAll the talk today is about Ricky Stuart getting himself into water for allegedly berating Rugby League World Cup officials after the Australians shock loss; but there was just as much emotion pumping from the usually poker faced Wayne Bennett as the Kiwis took the ultimate prize. The timeless Bennett unable to resist the fist pumps and high fives on Saturday night as his consultant role helped take the Kiwis to the top of the Rugby League world.

The experienced Bennett is often criticised for being devoid of emotion and not ‘promoting’ the game in press conferences and other media events. The former Broncos coach who some say only experienced such extensive coaching success after having so many juniors at his disposal in Brisbane, proved his haters wrong again – taking on the tough gig of moulding the inexperienced New Zealand side, but coming out the other side and ultimately slapping his former employers in the face as he helped plot the downfall of the Kangaroos.

New Zealand should write Bennett a blank cheque and ensure the experienced campaigner remains on-board as a consultant to the national Rugby League side, unlike the mistake the Kiwis made in their Union ranks by choosing Graham Henry over Robbie Deans; surely they won’t mess this one up.

While Bennett and the Kiwi squad would still be sucking back their cigars, the aftermath of the emotional boilover continues to engulf Roos coach Ricky Stuart as he fights accusations of an alleged verbal spray aimed at World Cup match officials including referee Ashley Klein.

The Australian coach wouldn’t be drawn today on any of the allegations or discuss his future as head coach when approached by reporters at a charity golf event in Canberra for CanTeen. Such is the irony and theatre of Rugby League; only 48 hours ago – Australian media outlets reported that Ricky Stuart had been offered the national coaching role for life.

But his Kangaroos and Cronulla pupil Paul Gallen provided the clearest evidence of an alleged conspiracy theory in the Australian camp by referring to “a stitch-up” in an interview on Channel 9.

Stuart is believed to be furious at several calls during the game that cost the Roos big-time and made accusations that an Australian loss suited the organisers and the future of the World Cup, which, up until the final, had been written off as a one-horse race after the Kangaroos’ crushing defeats of the Kiwis, England, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

Stuart made the bizarre claims of a conspiracy to a startled Carr immediately after the final at Suncorp Stadium, while the victorious Kiwis were still celebrating exuberantly.

It seems to be a long bow to draw; while Stuart may be feeling hard done by – when you think back to the game, it could have been far worse. Despite the Slater error and even the Monaghan penalty try – had Benji Marshall grounded the early grubber and several other opportunities fall their way, the Kiwis could have been even further ahead. While a massive upset in terms of the game, praise should be heaped on the under-dog Kiwi side – a mammoth effort to beat the Kangaroos; who many considered to be one of the best green and gold sides of the modern era.

Kiwis upset Roos to become World Champions

New Zealand Rugby League World Cup ChampionsAustralia’s best asset for most of the Rugby League World Cup; it was Billy Slater who quickly became the villan as the Storm fullback launched a miracle pass into enemy hands to gift the Kiwis a crucial try as the New Zealanders romped home to a massive upset win tonight.

Throw in a controversial penalty try, and you had a match that was excitement all the way – New Zealand beating the favourites 34-20 in a match many felt was virtually over before it began.

Australia were unbackable favourites before the kick-off, but the pumped up Kiwis pulled off the biggest upset in World Cup history – it was the first lost match since 2006 for the Green and Golds, now losing their title as the best outfit in world Rugby League.

Some simple errors and brain explosions costs the Aussies dearly, and a controversial video referee call by Steve Ganson to award the visitors a penalty try with ten minutes remaining was probably the right call as Lance Hohaia was taken out by a wrong footed Joel Monaghan.

“The game was back was in a bad state this time last year and some tough decisions had to be made,” Stephen Kearney said of his elevation to the coaching position after Gary Kemp’s sacking.

“I’m very pleased for the game back home, it’s something on the back of what the Warriors achieved this year, I think it’s been a real boost for our game.”

Ganson correctl ruled Australian flanker Joel Monaghan interfered with a flying Lance Hohaia as he followed a Benji Marshall kick through, but some believed that there was an element of doubt over the try because Aussie fullback Billy Slater had equal opportunity to get to the ball in a challenge to Hohaia.

But it wasn’t to be the night for mercial Billy Slater, while named player of the Cup, his risky play cost the Aussies big time – Slater about to rounded up into touch, deciding to throw the ball back in field, but it was snapped up by a waiting Kiwi – the New Zealanders cruising in to score untouched.

The blunder allowing a Benji Marshall touchdown and giving the Kiwis a 22-16 lead with less that 20 minutes on the clock.

Kangaroos boss Ricky Stuart refused to be critical of the fullback Slater.

“I love Billy Slater as a bloke and as a footy player and I would never ever be critical of Billy,” Stuart said.

“He’s in the work space at that time and he knows what to do – some of them don’t come off, some of them do.

“We didn’t play our best game, and (there was a chance) that was always going to happen.

“You only have to have one off night and you can be got against the English and New Zealand, they can get you and that was proven tonight.”

The Australians had looked ominous in the preliminary rounds, not dropping a game and cruising to wins of New Zealand and England.

New Zealand were lucky not to be leading by more, an early miss to pivot Marshall off a crafty Nathan Fein grubber presented them with an ideal chance to get an early score.

Lockyer was a standout for the Kangaroos, getting a double and narrowly missing a touchdown of a Cam Smith grubber, in a try that would have helped the Australians in a big way.

New flanker David ‘Wolfman’ Williams looked at home, scoring a run away try to give the home side a 10-0. But soon after, an Australian attempted strip went wrong and the Kiwis pounced – playing the whistle and running in a for a handy try before half time.

Lockyer’s try right on the half time bell was a sublime effort, the Australians pulling out all stops to rally a hot try before the hooter. Moving through several sets of hands, it was halfback Thurston who started the motion, but it was finished nicely by a close range Watmough offload to Lockyer giving the Aussies a 16-12 lead at half-time – ultimately against the run of play, the Aussies were somehow just ahead of the fired up Kiwis.

But under the guidance of the respected Wayne Bennet, the Kiwis flew out of the blocks after the break to become the first side other than Australia to win a World Cup since Great Britain’s win in 1972.

Warrior Crockett cleared of rape charge

Michael Crockett NZ WarriorsNZ Warrior Michael Crockett has had his rape charges dismissed by a Sydney court – with the judge saying that suggestions and evidence provided by the female implicated varied so vastly from that of her own sister, there was no choice but to dismiss the case.

Crockett, 25, fronted a committal hearing on Friday at Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court on three sex charges.

This latest dismissal comes hot on the heels of the Broncos trio case, another situation where it seems there was very limited evidence as the players involved were recently cleared. Many sections of the public believe that NRL players are being unfairly targeted for their profile and are seen as a ‘gold mine’ by predatory female fans looking to ‘cash in’.

Even with this dismissal, the female in question remains anonymous and her character remains intact – while that of the cleared NRL player remains tarnished somewhat moving forward.

The talented former Tigers winger was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman whom he met at a nightclub during after-game celebrations in August 2007.

However, Deputy Chief Magistrate Helen Syme has ruled the alleged victim’s evidence, and that of her sister, was so inconsistent that a jury would not be satisfied she was telling the truth.

“In my view, there are a number of inconsistencies in the complainant’s evidence that may wield difficulties for the prosecution case,” she said.

“I’m therefore of the view that a jury, properly instructed in relation to the evidence in this matter would not convict the accused of the charges brought and for those reasons, I propose to discharge him.”

Crockett sighed and mouthed “thank you” to his lawyer.

He refused to comment as he left the court.

Steve Price ruled out of RLWC final

Steve Price Australia Kangaroos Rugby LeagueThe Kangaroos remained upbeat yesterday despite losing prop Steve Price after a training injury forced him from the paddock.

Price, who said this latest setback has painful similarities to when he missed the 2004 grand final due to injury at the Bulldogs, strained his his left calf muscle during standard training routines in the Kangraoos final run.

Such was the snap of the muscle that Price initially thought prankster Allan Langer, a member of the Kangaroos coaching staff, had thrown a golf ball at him.

“That’s what it felt like and Alfie was standing behind me so I thought he had done it,” Price laughed. “But it turned out he didn’t. It’s just one of those things. Its more than likely an ‘age’ injury. The most disappointing thing is that my mum was coming down to Brisbane for the jersey presentation tonight and [wife] Jo is coming over tomorrow. ”

Price will join brother-in-law Brent Tate on the sidelines after the in form Kangaroos flanker was ruled out earlier this week with a hip-flexor tear that he picked up last week against Fiji.

“I reckon some of the Warriors boys in the New Zealand team must have voodoo dolls of us they’ve been sticking pins in,” he said. “It’s disappointing but someone else gets a chance and the entire squad has been in good form so whoever it is they won’t let anyone down.”

Kangaroos coach Ricky Stuart is believed to be bringing in Manly big man Brent Kite to start the match, with teammate Josh Perry apparently coming into the 17-man squad.

With the Rugby League World Cup only hours away, the mind games have started – with Roos coach Ricky Stuart not speaking to any media, and Kiwi captain Nathan Cayless saying the Kangaroos deserve all the accolades they get, classing them as one of the best teams Australia has produced and scoffed at suggestions thunder storms in Brisbane tonight would favour his side.

Despite expected poor conditions, tournament officials yesterday insisted the final would kick off as scheduled at 7pm (8pm Sydney time) after inspecting the surface at Suncorp Stadium and reviewing backup options should there be more bad weather leading up to the final. With the playing surface having received more than 400mm of rain since last Sunday and a section of the roof having been damaged, the Kangaroos were forced to move their training session but New Zealand were given access to the venue later in the day.

Before then, Cayless and Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney fronted the media in a Brisbane park where much of the talk was about the lack of talk from Stuart, who has not spoken in the week leading up to three of Australia’s five World Cup matches.

“I feel we have an obligation to the game,” Kearney said. “It’s a World Cup final. We feel we’re trying to do the best we can for the game. It’s packed out and it’s going to be a wonderful occasion.”

With the Kangaroos having racked up 180 points to 16 in their four matches leading up to tonight’s final, including a crushing 30-6 win over New Zealand, there are few outside the Kiwis camp who think they can win. However, the Australians are wary as the Kiwis have improved as the tournament has progressed – although Cayless concedes they needed to.

“After the first game we vowed to each other that we wanted to give ourselves another opportunity. We felt like we didn’t play to our ability in the first game and we’ve given ourselves a chance now through a lot of hard work and that sort of stuff and it’s just up to us now to do it out on the field tomorrow night,” he said.

“We need all 17 players to play to the best of their ability for us to get a victory tomorrow night, we’re under no illusions about what sort of a task it is going to be for us.”

Bird doesn’t want to fly away

Greg Bird Cronulla Sharks Alledged Assault GlassingThe Greg Bird saga took a new twist late yesterday, with the Australian rep now saying he won’t simply walk away to the Super League at this stage. The suspended pivot has now told his management he “won’t walk away” from his $350,000 a year deal at the Sharks – but if the Cronulla club wanted to give him a payout, he will walk away.

With his court case adjourned to April 27, 2009 – it leaves Bird and the Sharks in limbo. Both parties wanting to resolve the situation quickly, but at this stage – nothing will happen quickly as Bird indicates he is prepared to ‘stand his ground’.

After initially hinting he would pack up and head for England, with several UK Super League clubs showing interest – Bird now seems keen to tough things out.

Bird’s manager, former Sonny Bill Williams agent Gavin Orr, confirmed his client (Bird) had now had sufficient time to reflect on the court decision. He is now does not want to simply tear up his 4-year deal with the Sharks.

“He is prepared to dig in,” Orr said last night. “He was very upset after the court case. In the cold light of day, he says he is not prepared to just walk away from a four-year deal when nothing has been proven yet.”

Sharks chief executive Tony Zappia wouldn’t predict how the Sharks board would move on Bird, saying he wanted to distance himself from the process because he is a witness in the case. Zappia said Bird had spoken about the alleged incident with him while Milligan was in hospital after being allegedly hit with a glass.

Zappia also said there had been no resolution over a dispute between the club and a female employee, who has levelled assault allegations against the CEO. Mediation between the two parties took place, and Zappia said a resolution was expected on Monday.

There has been talk that Bird and Orr were orchestrating a campaign against Zappia – a suggestion Orr flatly rejected. It is understood Zappia asked Orr as much during a meeting hours after Bird’s court appearance on Thursday. “I was told about it two months after anything was supposed to have occurred,” Orr said. “It has not come from me.”

Cronulla Sharks face more allegations

Tony Zappia Faces Allegations at SharksIt seems the Cronulla Sharks can’t take a trick at present, with club boss Tony Zappia – the man that could be ripping up the under-fire Greg Bird’s contract – has himself been accused of assaulting a female employee at the Sharks.

Zappia is not commenting on the allegations, but NRL chief executive David Gallop confirmed he knew about the latest situation involving the Cronulla Sharks.

“We are aware that an allegation has been made against him [Zappia],” Gallop said. “At this stage, we are waiting for a report from the club about it.”

Tony Zappia is a new high ranking official at the Sharks, coming on board recently after a long stint with the Parramatta Eels club.

It is believed the incident involving Zappia allegedly occurred in September, while he and a Sharks employee were skylarking at a home game. No official complaint has been made to NSW police regarding the situation and charges have not been laid, but the matter was, according to club sources, due to appear before the Industrial Relations Commission this morning. Something that the Sharks simply did not need given their currently circumstances.

The employee, who is at present on paid leave from the club, is believed to have evidence of her bruised face after the incident. All this happening as the club’s biggest name player defends claims of an assault against his girlfriend.

Bird, 24, was intense as he left court yesterday morning, sarcastically telling reporters he “had a ball” while on holidays in the USA and then fired up at a journo saying “don’t touch me” when he was brushed on the shoulder.

His charge of maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm was downgraded to reckless wounding, but he also faces three other charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm and two charges of lying to police.

Zappia would not be drawn on Bird’s fate but its widely believed the Sharks will make a call on Birds future prior to April.

The Sharks board is expected to convene shortly to decide on a course of action, but Bird’s manager, Gavin Orr, hinted last night his client was ready to relocate overseas despite insisting throughout the ordeal he wanted to remain in Australia.

“Greg is very disappointed with what has happened today because it means his future is still on hold for another five months,” Orr said. “He might now have to work out whether he can stay here or play abroad.”

The NRL has maintained it would not allow Bird to play at another NRL club if the assault allegations were proven. Asked if Bird gaining a release from the Sharks instead of being sacked might allow him to stay in the NRL, Gallop replied: “Potentially, yes. But one of the things we would look at was the attitude of the club that has terminated him and what led them to terminate him. At this stage, a lot of issues have to be resolved between Greg and the club, and he also has the police matters to sort out as well.”