Category Archives: NRL Editorials

Editorials on the big issues in NRL Rugby League

NRL edging out Rugby Union

Centenary of Rugby LeagueThey have been warring codes since the beginning of time. Rugby League and Rugby Union, the breakway game that is League has been long remember as the little brother. Union boasting widespread international support and an enviable Super 14 Tournament that throws up the best from several continents against each other regularly.

Had it not been for the Super League / ARL war in the mid 1990’s – it’s quite possible that will its growing strength and nationwide expansion that League couldn’t have really buried Rugby Union for the most part.

Up until now, Union has enjoyed good widespread growth and even the poaching of big name players from League as they build their arsenal. However it seems the tide is well and truly swinging back the other way. Recently reappointed head of Rugby Union, John O’Neill only last week flagged trouble with the ARU coffers in dire need of topping up – as previously lucrative corporate sponsorships continue to dry up.

While Union has good high level support for their international tournament, the same can’t be said for their club Rugby offering in Australia. Crowds that number less than a few hundred and non-existent corporate sponsorships make for dire viewing. They like to think Rugby Union is a running game, but whenever I have watched it – I tend to find any excuse to get away from the stop start, penalty fest I usually see before my eyes. It’s impossible for this local competition to even compete against the professionalism of NRL on a weekly basis.

The Union crowd however have been able to dodge the shambles that is club Rugby in recent years on the back of Super 14 success. However, even this charade is starting to cave in – at least in Australia. Poor results for several of the State teams and consistently poor Wallabies results are seeing the crowds and the big backers in the corporate world pull away – leaving massive holes.

While the chips are down in Union town, Rugby League needs to strike while the iron is hot. The NRL must work overtime in what is their Centenary year to really jump ahead in the on-going code war. Strong promotions and smart partnerships where possible to ensure larger and consistent crowds are a must and most importantly individual club memberships must be increased in a similar vain to what South Sydney are trying to do.

Relationships with strategic corporate partners need to be established now as the game becomes more attractive and profitable through growing TV and screening rights deals.
The NRL fan day today at ANZ Stadium is another step in the right direction, ensuring grass roots production of League talent and the early establishment of a connection between young fans and future supported clubs.

So as those Super League / ARL war wounds are finally starting to heal, the game of Rugby League has the chance to really get ahead of it’s no. 1 rival Rugby Union. The NRL needs to grab this opportunity with both hands, because while they might play Union in heaven – there will never be any doubt that Rugby League is “The Greatest Game of All”

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Robina Stadium key to NRL’s Future

Skilled Stadium Robina, Gold CoastIt’s a magnificent stadium, the perfect dimensions for the ultimate viewing of Rugby League. Robina Stadium; the new home of the Gold Coast Titans is not only a huge boost for the young club – but it’s location close to the popular Gold Coast tourist mecca but right on the border of the quickly growing outer suburban areas of the coast means it will have the ultimate chance of creating a huge local following, but also becoming a popular ‘tourist’ ground with the hope visitors and travellers to the Gold Coast will take up seats for big matches.

Obviously a massive asset to the Gold Coast Titans, the blueprint for Robina is a massive test case for the expansion of the NRL. Should the new ground succeed in bringing in consistently big crowds and somehow tap into the tourist market that exists on the Gold Coast – the NRL will have the draw card it craves to totally tie up the Queensland market and allow for future expansion of the Rugby League game.

While there is a strong rivalry from AFL in Queensland, success from the Gold Coast all the way north to Townsville would ultimately edge out AFL and give NRL the box seat, allowing for a move into new territory nationally or possibly internationally (expanding NZ).

Robina or Skilled Stadium as it’s called is a complete suburban village in iteself. With a 7 day a week precinct operating around the massive stadium, the village surrounding the ground is in the order of 200,000 square metres alone. With the planning in place for the development for over a decade, all the ingredients look right for a super successful development for all parties involved. Shops, eateries and on-going entertainment – it looks to be a vibrant hub in and around the Stadium.

Obviously the Titans results on the park will play a big part in deciding the speed of success for the Skilled Stadium development, should everything fall into place – where will the NRL look next? Perth or perhaps the second New Zealand team – Wellington?

With the east coast looking strong, the NRL has the luxury of continued success for the Melbourne Storm – building more foundations in the AFL heartland of Victoria. Perth is a natural next choice, a booming economy with good population growth – perhaps the Reds are ready for a revival? Junior and ametuer Rugby League outfits remain and there is good interest in the Western state.

The other viable alternative is a second New Zealand Rugby League side. Many argue the hostile Rugby Union territory of NZ might a tough nut to expand, but a successful team in a major centre such as Wellington or Christchurch would bring a much more territorial following from the Kiwis. Inter-state rivalry and more coverage could be a good asset to start toppling the Union strangle-hold.

Regardless, the future for the NRL and Rugby League looks bright. While expansion shouldn’t happen too quickly, continual growth and repairs of old wounds are happening slowly but surely. With a team back on the shores of the Gold Coast and NRL even venturing back into the USA with the Bunnies trial – its certainly a case of ‘Back to the Future’ for Rugby League. Who knows, in the current vein of growth we could eventually see a true national game.

Former Warrior on Rape Charges

tea-ropati.jpgFormer Auckland Warriors five eighth Tea Ropati is currently up on rape charges in New Zealand as his case was heard with a heavy media interest in Auckland today. Ropati’s name was previously supressed since the allegations arose after a late night incident in 2006.

Ropati was joined in court with his three brothers, one of his brothers John acted as junior defence council during the hearing. It’s alleged Ropati took advantage of a seriously drunk woman who was reportedly high on cocaine and heavily intoxicated.

Facing a total of 6 charges, 1 of rape and 5 of unlawful sexual connection; the woman’s allegations are supported by video footage shot of the two while in a back room of a nightclub. As the female drops into a virtually sleep-like state – Ropati is alleged to have taken advatage of her; with the female unable to block his actions. From there, Ropati is alleged to have escorted her to a car and driven her to a nearby secluded spot where soon after the woman awoke and realised the gravity of the situation.

Ropati’s League career spanned a decade; with time at the Newcastle Knights, St Helens and the Auckland Warriors. A talented player with high profile in New Zealand; Tea Ropati will attempt to clear his name as the hearing continues tomorrow.

Will Jonathan Thurston mature in 2008?

Jonathan ThurstonHe has already been crowned the new king of Rugby League. Jonathan Thurston is commonly rated above the likes of the talented Darren Lockyer and quickly became ‘the best player in the world’ when Andrew Johns retired from NRL Rugby League.

There is no doubting that Jonathan Thurston is an NRL footballer with the highest skill level and quality about his game. Often able to create attacking raids from nothing, his fleet of foot and impressive short and long passing game always has the Cowboys on the front foot and regularly tearing teams apart.

JT also has a top kicking game in his bag of tricks, gaining massive meters for the North Queensland side and bagging plenty of 40/20’s which prove so valuable in todays game.

Seemingly improving each year Jonathan Thurston has been the crux of the Cowboys high riding results over the past few years, oh how the Bulldogs would be ruing the day they let JT go – proving to be a massive mistake for the now struggling Belmore club.

If there is one fault with JT’s game, it’s his tendancy to ‘blow up’ or have the occasional brain snap, which is often directed at referees and even his fellow players at times. The smarter, more experienced players know the way to beat Thurston is to unsettle his game and talk a little trash to get under his skin.

During 2007, this worked quite regularly. While Thurston was still a superpower in many games, too often he was wasting his breath debating referees or getting himself sinbinned over silly tactics.

It would be hard for any coach to put a harness on someone like Thurston, nor would they want to – but if someone doesn’t give Thurston the good oil and get him to tone things down, he risks becoming a burdon on his Cowboys team and possibly hurting his chances of future rep jerseys.

It might seem a steep call to hold JT back from rep duties, but when you consider the likes of his competitiors – you have Scott Prince and a host of others waiting for their chance.

Passion itself is one of Jonathan Thurstons biggest assets, but too much of a good thing can be the worst thing in the world and if JT doesn’t put the brakes on the bad stuff in 2008 he could find his mob sliding out of contention along with his reputation.

Craig’s Wing and a Prayer at Souths in 2008

craig-wing-souths.jpgThe resilient and proud South Sydney club finally came out of the wilderness in 2007, making the finals and proving a true contender on the NRL field for the first time in decades.

In recent times, South Sydney were the cash cow for big name players wanting an easy ride. The likes of Adam McDougall, Bryan Fletcher, and Chris Walker probably didn’t treat the club with the loyalty and passion it deserved. On the flip side, you had up and coming Souths players such as Craig Wing and Nathan Merritt walking away from the club during it’s darkest hours. To their credit, Wing and Merritt are now both back on deck at the Bunnies – Merritt proving his value many a time and looking the superstar in sometimes a beaten team.

For Wing, 2008 is unquestionably a big year. Craig Wing is nearing the end of his career and while his time at the Roosters has been fruitful, the talent Wing boasts surely deserves more accolades and representative jerseys should he find a position he could call his own.

Over the past 5 years Craig Wing has probably played every position except that of a front rower and while versatility is a handy asset for any NRL club – the onus on the player grows and really reduces his ability to improve and grow within a certain spot.

Not only will Craig Wing want to prove himself as a true and consistent rep player in his chosen halfback position, but he needs to excel not only to exit his Rugby League career on a high – but repay the faith of his former club and assist them to the lofty goals they have set under the new regime of Crowe, Holmes A Court and Jason Taylor.

The new infrastructure South Sydney boast will be the perfect vehicle for Wing to flex his on field muscle and take on a senior role within the growing club. With the likes of Roy Asotasi, Nathan Merritt and Issac Luke surrounding him – the crux of a premiership winning team is certainly there.

Will there be added pressure on Wing? Sure, as a former golden boy of South Sydney and a highly experienced campaigner both internally and externally many will expect big things from Craig Wing.

The burning question remains, is Craig Wing looking for the pension card that Souths have too often handed out to high profile players or is he looking to finish his career with the respect and admiration that many know is possible?