Saturday, October 14, 2017

Bennett, England poised with perfect World Cup pilgrimage

Where in the world is Wayne Bennett?

England coach for the past two years in a testing and dubious work environment given the mother country’s hesitation around a non-nationalistic coach, Bennett now seems to have fallen off the face of the planet just a couple of weeks out from the start of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.

England coach: Wayne Bennett. 

Indeed, so have his side, apart from the late unveiling of their squad over the internet.

Virtually zero promotional gigs, barely any media attention on them and all the focus firmly dispensed to the Pacific nations.  

A coach’s dream. Flying under the radar, as they say.

And wouldn’t he be loving it.

The prolific 67-year-old man-manager has undoubtedly seen it all in his near five-decade association with rugby league and he has drawn on all of his lessons to give England the ultimate preparation for the historic tournament.

After taking over from popular coach, Steve McNamara, as an almost loathed choice by many English fans, Bennett embarked on perhaps the toughest coaching assignment of his career.

Immediately, he demanded the Rugby Football League shorten the Super League season this year, pencilled in both pre-season and mid-year training camps, and ensured the side were able to play an additional game by becoming involved in the Pacific Tests in Australia.

Such is Bennett’s influence in the game, he managed to convince Broncos’ suits to take part in the World Club Series back in February, providing him with crucial time in England to work on his plans for the national side.

After a disappointing campaign in the 2016 Four Nations tournament, where the Poms won only one match - against Scotland, the additional time assessing players and making arrangements with staff in England was well needed.

For all of England’s growth in the last decade amongst their national side through players shifting to the NRL and the increasing professional development of the Super League competition, the key things they have lacked is the ability to overcome their own mistakes at crucial parts of games and the experience to close-out matches.

They’ve always had the ability, the competitiveness and have never been short of emotional determination or pride.

It’s why Bennett is the perfect coach for them. 

He will keep it simple, keep them focussed and give them the confidence they need.

Bennett addressing England players during his first camp in 2016.

He is a simple coach, with simple ideals. One of them mainly being about effort.

It’s why the overlooking of George Burgess for the side, speaks volumes.

Arguably one of the top-three best forwards in the game when South Sydney won the NRL title in 2014, Burgess’ form has drizzled down to a shadow of his former self. Put simply, when he plays it looks like he just isn’t having a crack.

Bennett knows it and he won’t have it in his squad. His omission would have sent a clear-as-daylight message to the England squad – mediocracy won’t be accepted here.

Their 30-10 win over Samoa in the mid-year Pacific Test was by no means an inspiring win for England’s World Cup journey under Bennett, but it was a real improvement on where they have come from and could prove to be a crucial experience.

While all the emphasis of the tournament thus far has been on the defection of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to Tonga - from their respective nations of New Zealand and Australia - any talk of England’s preparations have seldom appeared in the Australian-based media.

Remember this? We all know who the real man coaching was.

A quick assessment on social media after the England squad was announced showed murmurings of discontent about both the list of players and Bennett’s ability to successfully guide the side through to the end. While it is unclear whether that discussion amongst the fans translated into the English media, it showed the first signs of the team’s chances being written-off before the tournament has even begun.

Again, such discourse would leave Bennett salivating about how to get the best out of his side through the five-week competition.

How many times has the coach been written-off in the past, only to later prove his detractors, haters and naysayers, blind wrong?

Even this season at the Brisbane Broncos it was suggested the mastercoach had finally lost his touch to engage with the younger generation of player.

Does anybody play the media better than Wayne?

Yet, despite not having a consistent line-up for the majority of the year, Bennett managed to lead Brisbane to a preliminary final, going out just one game short of the grand finale, to what has been said to be one of the best sides in modern rugby league history.

Bennett initially had all the ruthless rugby league media breathing down his neck when he first took on the England job. Now, whether by default or design, he has virtually no-one looking at him or his side.

Perfectly-positioned, written-off before it’s even begun, flying under-the-radar and with no-hope given of tournament honours, Coach Bennett has played everything right into his team’s hands.

It might look like his promiscuous approach to the England job has been a learn-on-the-run and do-the-best-we-can style, but Bennett has played his cards better than ever.

That wry smile.

If there’s a team to look out for at the World Cup, it’s the missing-in-action England.

There’s something intriguing about their preparation.

And there’s the man with that all-too-familiar wry smile at the helm; the one that usually appears after he has proved all of his doubters wrong. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stage set for RLWC 2017 to help brew growth

Make no mistake, the clandestine decisions of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to defect from their countries of origin to play for their countries of heritage is a landmark moment for international rugby league. 

Have you got a ticket yet?

Both players will forego significant sums of money to play for the minnow rugby league nation of Tonga. Their decisions have the ability to influence future players to make decisions about their representative careers not just solely based on money.  

Many will scoff at the influence now, citing both players’ dissatisfactions with their national team set-ups as the reason for their preference to play for Tonga, but their transition has awoken interest in a tournament that has traditionally only ever been perceived as a battle between Australia, New Zealand and England.  

At the 2008 World Cup – also played in Australia – Jarryd Hayne played for Fiji at a time when the game had not made significant inroads with the island nation. You could argue that Hayne’s representation with Fiji during that tournament helped propel interest in the smaller nations and highlight the opportunities of growing the game throughout the pacific. 

Over the last 10-15 years, the amount of Polynesian players in rugby league has increased dramatically. This has helped not only New Zealand in becoming stronger through players who often move to the country at young age, but has seen a sharp development in the likes of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. 

While the battles between Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea during the NRL midseason seemed more of a gimmick when first introduced, their capacity to attract genuine interest from a broader variety of rugby league fan is beginning to take hold. 

It is likely that in a few years, these matches will find an equal place amongst the historical state of origin matches, filling in the gaps of stand-alone weekends. The opportunity to incorporate Northern Hemisphere teams in a full-scale midyear break in domestic rugby league competitions is something that could be explored.

The inclusion of the PNG Hunters in the Queensland Cup has helped boost the depth and overall strength of Papua New Guinea and can only be seen to positively improve the country’s footprint in international rugby league. 

It is also with great optimism that the introduction of the Toronto Wolfpack into the Northern Hemisphere game - via the third tier of the Rugby Football League in England - that hope of a revival of the sport can take hold in that part of the world. 

One of the success stories from the 2013 Rugby League World Cup - The U.S.A Tomahawk.

The administration involved in making their existence possible should be applauded for their bold risk to accept a cross-continent possibility. If the Wolfpack and perhaps another team in Canada or America can be introduced to the Rugby Football League and attract a new wave of interest to the game both in North America and Europe, international rugby league is only going to benefit. 

Furthermore, the Rugby League International Federation has made one of the best and first long-term, forward-thinking decisions about the future of the game seen in quite some time.

 In 2025, the Rugby League World Cup will be played in North America. 

What this does, is give the international game and the entire sport of rugby league something to work towards. If improvements can be made in the payments of players to all nations in the tournament, not just the big three of Australia, England and New Zealand, than the potential to grow the game in both domestic and international competitions is wide open. 

North America is perhaps rugby league’s most underutilised source of talent identification, player development and game exposure, given the size of the population and love of sport in both the U.S.A and Canada. 

It will require a commitment from all forms of administration in the game, but with the RLIF now having full-time employees and the game beginning to make even the smallest footprint in the area, it gives hope of strong, long-term growth. 

Detractors can shoot it down all they like, but unless people make decisions like Fifita and Tamaulolo to do something out of the norm and against the tide of money, the game will continue to exist in its insular form. 

Would Semi Radradra have ever have turned out for Australia if there was the same $20,000 on the table to play for Fiji? 

With so many NRL players turning out for some of the smaller nations at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, interest in the tournament will perhaps be at its highest ever. 

The 2013 tournament in the United Kingdom saw huge interest from the English fans in the matches of the smaller nations. Played at some of the old-style packed-in grounds to what appeared like full-houses and on the back of Andrew Voss’ talented commentary, these matches were exciting and appealing to many fans back here in Australia. 

One of the 2013 matches in England between Samoa and Fiji.

With matches being played right across Australia, New Zealand and in PNG, the 2017 tournament has the potential to garner the same, if not more interest than the 2013 edition. 

To Fifita, Tamaulolo, Hayne, Moses, Papalii, Segeyaro, Vaughan, Farah, Tedesco and anyone else turning out for a minnow nation, thank you. 

For you are contributing to the long-term growth of rugby league. 

People might not see it on the surface, but these decisions are helping a wider development of the greatest game of all.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Jets zero in on A-League finals after flush preseason

With a new coach, new CEO, new roster and new style of play, could the Newcastle Jets be ready to end a finals hiatus that has hampered their course for the past seven seasons? 

LOOKING BEYOND: The Jets' squad during 2017/18 preseason training. Photo: Newcastle Jets

Already in their 2017 pre-season campaign they have knocked off Melbourne City, Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix.

In 10 trial games over the last three months, the Jets have lost just once in a closed-doors match against their arch-rivals Central Coast Mariners. 

While most of those games have been against inferior opposition, the results are runs on the board; good form.

A cautious assessment of their turnaround over the offseason heeds at suggesting the stars are aligning for the Hunter franchise, but its clear things have changed at the Jets and it’s fair to say their fans should be excited about the season ahead. 

WINNING RUN: Newcastle's results so far this preseason.

After a tumultuous few years following the ownership of Nathan Tinkler, in which the club transitioned from being run by the FFA to eventually being sold to the Chinese Ledman Group, the Jets appear to be a more settled club heading into season 12 of the A-League. 

But it hasn’t come easy.

The wooden-spoon they collected in April was followed by the sacking of then head coach Mark Jones after less than a year in the job. 

His tenure followed the 15-month spell under what the fans were led to believe was a rising coach in Scott Miller, who was touted as one of the best up-and-coming managers in Australian football. 

Miller’s sacking was dealt with by former Central Coast Mariners’ kingpin Lawrie McKinna after just a few weeks into his new Jets’ CEO role. 

Even for the charismatic football veteran, it was some entrance; by all means, one which had the loyalest of fans stirring in dismay at what their team had become. 

The direction of the club was further questioned once the wooden-spoon was in hand and another coach – Jones – was shown the door.

But proving old allegiances never die, the wily Scotsman went out and secured the services of countryman and two-time A-League Championship winner Ernie Merrick.  

While Merrick had been on a sabbatical after resigning from the troubled Wellington Phenoix midway through last season and was perhaps considered a risk by some fans, there is no doubting the man’s ability to coach with a career spanning 268 games in-charge and a near four-decade association with the elite levels of football. 

Some astute signings during the mid-year break allowed Merrick to turn-up on day one of preseason with firm optimism about what lay ahead. Recognising the problems that had a plagued Newcastle’s last couple of seasons would be important, but a fresh outlook on what was to come would be essential.

He wasn’t part of the past, so there was little point thinking about it. 

Roy O’Donovan was signed from the Mariners almost immediately after last season finished, Nikolai Topor-Stanley was picked up for a return to the club after four years at the Wanderers and a short stint in Dubai, Daniel Georgievski shifted from Melbourne Victory, and Dimitri Pertratos came from Brisbane Roar to join his brother Kosta – who signed in the January transfer window. 

Whether Merrick was looking for it or not, he’s clearly gained a lot of experience in that crop of signatures. Combined with captain Nigel Boogaard, Jason Hoffman and Wayne Brown, the Jets shouldn’t be short for a leadership group. 

The club’s evolving group of players in Andrew Nabbout, Nick Cowburn and Steven Ugarkovic will benefit from both the strong emphasis of experience in the squad and Merrick’s time spent at the Victorian Institute of Sport before becoming a full-time A-League coach. 

NEW LEADER: Merrick handing out instructions at training. Photo: Newcastle Jets

No doubt Merrick’s focus will be on developing those he has while adding the spice and knowledge of those on the recruited list. 

And the pool of players new to the club was iced with the recruitment of 30-year-old Venezuelan international, Ronald Vergas, just three weeks before the start of the season. 

Ronny, as they call him. 

The final piece of the puzzle according to Merrick. A player who can create goals and score just as many. An out-and-out creative dynamo. 

Signed to play No. 10, the linkage between former Fulham midfielder Wayne Brown, Vargas and striker Roy O’Donovan will be vital to the Jets success. 

Indeed, it provides a tantalising prospect of the partnerships that could invoke an exciting style of play under the play-to-win desire of Ernie Merrick.

In the 2016/17 season, the Jets notched just five wins from 27 matches in the A-League. 

A woeful record, really. 

Surprisingly, when they did win; they scored goals. Not once did they win scoring just one goal.
But when they lost, they lost big. Only once in their 15 defeats was it just a single goal they had scored against them. 

The fix? You ask.

With O’Donovan and Vargas ready to add the goals, and Topor-Stanley ready to sure up the defence with Boogaard, there is no reason why the Jets shouldn’t be aiming for the finals if they can remain injury-free.

POLARISING FIGURE: Former Mariners' striker Roy O'Donovan will be in the spotlight this season. Photo: Newcastle Jets

The turnover in players at the club, a fresh outlook, and a successful, confidence-boosting preseason have them locked and loaded for an effective campaign. 

A minimum of 12 wins – just over double what they achieved last season and one more than third-placed Melbourne City in 2016/17 – should be the target. 

It’s bold, but so it should be. 

For a club that has not made the post-season for what’s becoming close to a decade, they must play without fear or in awe of anyone. 

With three home games inside the first five rounds, including an opening-round derby away to the Mariners, by early November it should be clear which way the Jets’ season is headed.   

Perhaps they could have even amassed the perfect start. 

Is four of those targeted 12 wins too audacious? 


Friday, September 29, 2017

Cowboys can do what history shows '09 Eels should have

EIGHT years after crestfallen Parramatta lost a grand final to the formidable Melbourne Storm, North Queensland have an opportunity to claim the legitimate title that only cheating could rob the Eels of.

The parallels between the Eels of 2009 and the Cowboys of 2017 are both near and far.

The Cowboys have burned their former Allianz stadium curse, winning twice at the venue in the 2017 NRL Finals. 

Both snuck into the finals in eighth position, but only one had a strong run home with a string of victories.

Both, were at one stage in the season listed as $151 to win the title.

Both have a group of players playing without fear or favour of their opposition, but only one was missing their two co-captains for most of the season.

One most definitely had an individual performance that single-handedly propelled them in the grand final, but both have a broad collection of no-nonsense players who have lifted to their potential.

Think Jeff Robson, Joel Reddy and Ben Smith for the Eels, and think Shaun Fensom, Scott Bolton and John Asiata for the Cowboys.

And with destructive capacity, both sides have a forward who can lift and inspire their team with game-changing runs. You’ll know of Jason Taumalolo, but will you have remembered the impact of Fui Fui Moi Moi.

Crucially, Taumalolo now knows he can have an impact similar to Moi Moi's.

Eight years is a long time though, so how has the constant in this equation – The Storm – changed?

Same coach, same captain, same halfback, same fullback. 

That’s some consistency in a first-grade football side given their commercial influences of the modern game.

On paper, the Storm side this time around is considerably weaker than in 2009. And it should be, given the ’09 side was close to a million dollars over the salary cap.

But it’s a side still with attacking potency and muscle in defence, albeit with a different crop of men.

The main difference, is the age of Melbourne’s big three. Do they possess eight more years of experience? Or do they have they eight more years of slowing down?

Cameron Smith’s second Dally M this week, Billy Slater’s fullback-of-the-year award and incredible comeback from two season-ending injuries this season, along with Cooper Cronk’s ability to guide Queensland to another Origin series’ victory probably suggest the former.

But it was there in Smith’s performance in game one of Origin, in the match against the Eels in the first week of the NRL Finals, and again in the win over Brisbane last week. The mistakes, slow starts, un-Melbourne like decisions in their play.

The Storm are most certainly beatable and the Cowboys must believe it. That’s how they should view the Storm’s big three; older, slower, weaker.

Melbourne no longer have a career-best Ryan Hoffman or arguably one of the game's best-ever centres in Greg Inglis.

But of the men who adorn the rest of the positions on the park is perhaps where the game will be won. Grand finals are a different ball-game. Nerves can get the better of the sharpest and calmest player.

Until last weekend, I didn’t even know who Melbourne’s centre Curtis Scott was. Perhaps na├»ve, but equally, who the hell is North Queensland’s John Asiata?  

Melbourne have 11 players backing up from their 2016 grandfinal loss to Cronulla. Quite a number looking to exact revenge and make up for the lost chance.

But just as similarly, North Queensland have 12 players in their line-up who played in their 2015 grand final win over Brisbane.

You have to wonder what the betting lines would be like if Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott were playing on Sunday. Surely, near-on-par.

But that’s the thing, without those two, there is absolutely no pressure on the Cowboys. They’re meant to be on holidays by now. Who cares how far they go? No one expected them to come this far.

Meant to be kicking back grabbing a sun tan, rather than a premiership winner's medal.

The pressure is on the Melbourne Storm, really. They lost in 2016 and have been the best all season as proven by their minor premiership.

Craig Bellamy will look to limit the impact of Taumalolo and Morgan, while Paul Green will hope to shut down the influence of Smith and Cronk.

The key players who can seriously influence this result are Melbourne’s wingers, Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr, and the Cowboys’ forwards Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and off the bench – Cohen Hess.

Can the outside-flyers find the space to put points on the board for the Storm? Likewise, can the cutting runs of the Cowboys hole-runners nab the two or three defining tries usually seen on grand final day?

SECRET WEAPON: Cohen Hess has scored on 10 different occasions this season; in three of those he got a double.

Parramatta lost on the day in 2009, but history showed they were playing against an un-even spread of talent.

This time, for the Cowboys – and the Storm – the ledges are squared.

They might be missing the world’s best player, but at least North Queensland can know they’re not facing an unconquerable side.  

But they don’t fear anyone, anyway, right? They’re meant to be on holidays.

Prediction: Cowboys to have two titles to their name by Monday to go with their new stadium being built next season that Johnathan Thurston called for after winning their first in 2015.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fresh-faced Kangaroos' World Cup backline

On Tuesday night at the Rugby League Players’ Association awards Jarryd Hayne declared he would be forgoing the opportunity to be selected in the Australian squad for the Rugby League World Cup and electing to represent his heritage of Fiji. 

The consummate fullback who first played with Fiji at the 2008 World Cup held in Australia, before then representing Australia at the 2013 tournament held in England and Wales, said the time has come to let the new kids on the block step forth. 

The Australian Kangaroos  Image: RLWC2017

“It’s pretty obvious with the amount of talent and the amount of depth they’ve got,” Hayne told News Sydney.

“I’m pushing 29 now, so I’m a bit older. 

"These young guys definitely deserve their spot.”

While Hayne has chosen to go back to the future in a typically enigmatic decision, he has raised a debatable point about just who Mal Meninga will choose to select in his Kangaroos’ squad for the 15th edition of the historic tournament. 

In particular, who he will blood in some of the prized positions across the Australian backline. 

Meninga, a coach known for his loyalty to his incumbent players, has indicated in the past that he views the green and gold jersey as one that should be filled by the best player available, regardless of their age.

 Will Meninga stay loyal to Josh Dugan? Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong 

Given the strength built from the Queensland dynasty which Mal oversaw and the combinations built at the Melbourne Storm, you can assume Billy Slater will likely fill the fullback position with Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk to play hooker, and halfback, respectively. 

Indeed, you could likely say Dane Gagai and Will Chambers are almost certain starters.

But with Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston unavailable for the tournament through injury, many questions remain about the rest of the backs. 

On the advice of Jarryd Hayne, here’s a remarkably skilful crop of youngsters who could fill some of the vacant spots in the back five positions come October in a proposed alternative line-up.

Fullback: Tom Trbojevic

Trbojevic’s rise into first grade has been well-beyond the expectations of any 20-year-old in the game. After debuting on the wing in 2015 at just age 18, the Manly junior has filled the void left by Brett Stewart and given us a ‘fresh prince of Brookvale’ with his sensational style of play. 

The dynamic and silky ball runner has never looked out of place on an NRL field and provides a tremendous work ethic from the back for his club side. Yet to play any representative football, Trobjevic has racked up 55 appearances for Manly over the last three years and looks more than ready to make the jump.

An equally as prolific try-scorer as the first prince of Brookie – Brett Stewart – Trobjevic already has 30 tries to his name and would provide incredibly back-up for Slater throughout the six-week competition. 

Wing: Valentine Holmes

Holmes was given the opportunity to play State of Origin football this year by Kevin Walters and he didn’t disappoint, scoring on debut and finishing the series with a hat-trick in the deciding fixture.

Earlier in the year Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga again handed him a national jersey following his successful Four Nation’s tour last season and the Cronulla Sharks' premiership win.

The fact that he represented Australia before he had played Origin given it’s such a rare occurrence in today’s game is enough for Holmes’ not-so-hot club form to be overlooked. Having already played in the national side and now sure to become a permanent presence in the Maroons squad, Holmes is a must for this alternative line-up at the ripe age of just 22. 

Centre: James Roberts 

One of the game’s most lethal attacking weapons, James Roberts' national career should begin at the RLWC in 2017. How he hasn’t played any rep football outside of the indigenous game and a sole City-Origin appearance in 2015 is bemusing. 

While critics will lament his defensive deficiencies, the 24-year-old Brisbane centre is a line-crosser Meninga can no longer ignore. Should the Brisbane Broncos go deep into the NRL Finals, it will likely mean Roberts has plastered his name across the try-scorers’ list.

And while in the past Roberts may have crossed the line off the field, there is no man who could command his trust more than Meninga.

With 17 tries for the Broncos in 2017 from 24 starts, and 58 in a 101-game career so far, Roberts has earned his place. 

Centre: Latrell Mitchell 

Having almost instantly been compared to one of the best centres to ever play the game in Greg Inglis when he came onto the scene in 2016, Latrell Mitchell was probably always going to have a dip in his form after such a scintillating debut season. 

But the mid-year shift back to reserve grade and trip up the F3 to play with the Wyong Roos didn’t dent the 20-year-old desire. In fact, it probably made him even hungrier, as the naturally-gifted Taree-product has score as many tries in his second season as he did his first – 14. He has even done it in two less games this time round.

As the youngest player in the backline of youth, Mitchell will need plenty of support should he enter the Kangaroos’ set-up but he will certainly not look out of place. He dusts off the defenders of any team that comes his way and shifts past the men many years his senior like they’re static pieces of training equipment.


Wing: Corey Oates

While the form of Dane Gagai in the Origin arena makes him impossible to ignore for selection, these back five have been selected on the premise of youth and at 26, Gagai has just slipped out of consideration. But in his place comes the Broncos’ teetering tower of destruction. 

A rangy winger polar opposite to the icons who previously adorned the edges for Brisbane, Oates has lit-up Suncorp Stadium since 2013, scoring 59 tries in 95 NRL games. If that resume doesn’t scream that his potency to make opposition teams pay, I’m not sure we’re selecting teams the correct way. Even in his four games for Queensland, Oates has nabbed two tries. Impressive, given the traditionally low-scoring affairs.

One element Oates brings different to his fellow players, and one that will be well-needed against potential oppositions, is his height. At six-foot, four inches tall, the 22-year-old will be able to match it with the likes of some of his counterparts, including the athletic Fijian Suliasi Vunivalu.  

The potentially raw and new Kangaroos' line-up.