Category Archives: NRL Editorials

Editorials on the big issues in NRL Rugby League

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?

Is it do or die for your NRL team in 2008?

nrl-trophy.jpgIs your club under the pump to perform in 2008? While every NRL club feels the pressure to perform in this current day and age, there is a trio of clubs that finished outside the NRL Top 8 in 2007 that will be under more intensity than most as kick off for 2008 approaches.

The Penrith Panthers, Newcastle Knights and new boys the Gold Coast Titans are the NRL clubs facing the acid test this year as all three clubs back-up from varying reasons of disappointment last year.

For Penrith, the taste of victory they had in 2003 seems light years away. Fast forward to now, the mountain men have a new coach and plenty of new personnel trying to put it all together and have the added baggage of a wooden spoon for their troubles last year. The addition of new coach Matt Elliott promised so much, yet all the Panthers felt all year was internal turmoil. Favourite son Craig Gower leaves the fold in humble circumstances, talented players Joel Clinton and Peter Wallace were let go and the only notable aquisition was former Bronco Petero Civoniceva who will have to carry the hopes and dreams of the West as he tries to lead his troops into battle. Coach Elliott will potentially wear more accountability in 2008 as he made some big changes since his arrival and another year of failure will leave him in a sticky position.

Up at the Gold Coast Titans, with the first season under their belt it now gets serious and the new boys have to perform under much more pressure. The Titans started extremely well and went within a whisker of making the NRL finals in 2007, however poor games towards seasons end saw them finish on less points than strugglers the Sydney Roosters – who in most peoples eyes had a shocker season. The predicted problem with the Titans of poor depth ultimately rang true and unfortunately for the young club, they still haven’t added a lot of starch to their overall squad. They have quality players, but should injury hit again and it usually does – the Gold Coast boys will be hitting the Cavill Avenue strip early and missing the finals yet again. The opening of their new stadium at Robina will be a healthy boost and coach John Cartwright isn’t directly under pressure – however the club as a whole must set the standard for future years and make this one count.

Facing a tougher task than anyone this year is the Newcastle Knights. Belted and dragged through the NRL 2007, they were the whipping boys of the Rugby League. Reports constantly sprung out of Newcastle that Brian Smith while talented, was simply not the personality for the job and many players revolted – leaving morale on the floor and created constant week to week floggings on the football field. With Danny Buderus seeming unhappy, the major cog in the Knights machine is certainly not well oiled and this may put a tonne of pressure on the rest of the crew. Struggling for talent, the Knights and Brian Smith personally face a major test of character. When A.Johns retired, his move to assist in coaching at other NRL clubs and not the Knights was a prime example that Newcastle wasn’t a totally happy or comfortable base.

The blow torch fires up in around a months time; will your club perform?

Bulldogs still not a happy home

Andrew Ryan might leave Bulldogs in 2009It seems life at the Bulldogs is still far from perfect, as the NRL club battles to keep current players happy, the problems arising after losing Willie Mason earlier in the off-season and experiencing several discipline issues with other players soon after.

While publically the players appeared to back the Bulldogs management in their stance against Mason, it’s looking increasingly likely that it was a forced front that wasn’t a true representation of the players morale. Luke Patten was the player to front the media soon after the Mason exit and explain it was Mason not the Bulldogs at fault – however, prior to this public statement and the eventual sacking, it seemed the majority of the Bulldogs players were backing their mate Willie Mason.

Speculation was rife over the weekend that Bulldogs club captain Andrew Ryan has spoken privately of his desire to return to the Parramatta Eels to escape the low morale of the Bulldogs in their current form and to like with old mate Nathan Hindmarsh in their final NRL years. If this proves to be true, it’s obvious the current state of affairs at the Bulldogs might be driving Andrew Ryan away from his once happy home. The other factor however might be the fact that Brian Smith no longer reigns over the Eels, the coach that continued to use Ryan as a substitute during his Eels days – with Michael Hagan at the helm it makes the possibility of the move more realistic.

The loss of Ryan for 2009 would be a huge blow for the struggling Bulldogs, already losing plenty of experience in recent times with the likes of Steve Price, Jonathan Thurston, Braith Anasta, Brent Sherwin, Mark O’Meley and Willie Mason all moving on. Price has grown an extra leg at the Warriors, Thurston is pressing his claims continually to be the best player in the world and the hard working Anasta is enjoying a senior role at the Roosters.

It seems that the players leaving Belmore are feeling much more engergized at new clubs and the old guard, including coach Steve Folkes might be due for a spring clean.

The timing of speculation isn’t ideal for the Bulldogs with the 2008 kick-off under 6 weeks away. In previous years they have responded admirably to critisim, however more recently they have buckled under the constant pressure and expectations of the media and their own fans.

The 2008 squad features a range of new faces which will take some time to gel; with the potential loss of Andrew Ryan and a high probability that Reni Matuia won’t be at the Dogs forever – there is some seriously tough times ahead for the Sydney based club. Ever growing pressure in the NRL market and new clubs such as the Titans are making it much more competitive for clubs and keeping their players happy is of the utmost importance.

It seems this time that the Bulldogs underestimated the pull that Willie Mason had amongst the players. He may have been a badboy at times, but his larrikin personality and years of experience may have been something that held the player group and the club in general together.

Luke O’Donnell a Loaded Gun

O’Donnell and PartnerRecovering North Queensland Cowboy Luke O’Donnell has been open about his anger towards the Wests Tigers and in particular Liam Fulton. The upcoming match between the Tigers and the Cowboys is shaping to be one of the biggest early season matches.

Put simply, O’Donnell is one of the few remaining true hard heads in the game. While some NRL players can pull the bluff about their biff and others assert their authority through physical defence, with Luke O’Donnell there is no mucking around.

For those that can remember a running battle O’Donnell had with Danny Nutley in 2007 you’ll understand the fierce timebomb that ticks inside Luke O’Donnell. After a stoush with Nutley, O’Donnell hunting him down and really had Nutley running for cover – something that is rarely seen from a tough man like Nutley.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Luke O’Donnell used to play for Wests Tigers and actually went to the same school as Liam Fulton, albeit a few years ahead of him. There is absolutely no doubt fireworks will erupt when these teams meet, regardless of coaches instructions to O’Donnell – he will be like a hunter in the woods, chasing the man that killed his mother.

Maybe it might be convenient for Liam Fulton to get an injury before the Tigers meet the Cowboys in Round 2? There would be no shame in that, because many a man has feared O’Donnell and this time he really wants no prisoners.

Bring on the League I say. This will be nice entree to what should be an awesome main course in 2008.

Manly Sea Eagles; No sign of wounds from 07

Deep into pre-season training, the Manly Sea Eagles don’t seem to be showing any ill effects from their punishing 2007 Grand Final loss.

While many say “You need to lose one before you win one!” – There has been many NRL teams that have gone within a whisker of winning the Grand Final and then disappear into the cellar in the years to follow.

Regardless of the talent on display at Manly in 2007, the crushing Grand Final defeat must have been hard for the squad to have forgotten. The Eagles have also lost some quality players from their 2007 squad; the likes of Michael Monaghan; easily the Eagles best player last year and livewire pivot Travis Burns have now moved on – but balancing the scales is some impressive recruits; the likes of which weren’t burnt by the heavy NRL Grand Final loss the Eagles received.

Josh Perry, Heath L’Estrange and former NRL flyer David Vaealiki all come on board with the Eagles for this coming NRL season and the depth across the squad looks impressive for Manly.

Will Manly be a force in NRL 2008? Well, they will certainly be a Top 8 team – however the loss of Michael Monaghan will severely hurt Manly. The creative and passionate Monaghan was an attacking genius for the Eagles; he was able to graft wins out on occasions and could always spark their impressive backline.

The other problem hindering Manly is the lack of a true pivot. In the loss of Burns, Manly will have to continue to use Jamie Lyon in the halves and while Lyon possess skills and ability – his dynamics simply don’t suit pivot in the modern day NRL game.

Having said all that, Manly will remain a power in 2008 NRL – however, they won’t repeat the 2007 feat of making the Grand Final.