Rugby League Mailbag

So we are now 10 articles into my blatant attempts at becoming Australia’s Sports Guy. I figured it was time to rip off one of Bill Simmons’ long running traditions and do a “Mailbag” column.

As I don’t have an attached email for people to write to, these have come from various sources. Email, Facebook, message boards, text and the comments section of the blog. So if you want a starring role in my next mailbag column, be sure to give me your thoughts via the comments section at the end of each article. So without further ado, these are actual comments/questions from actual readers.

I’ll break these down into categories in terms of what article (if any) they were in relation/response to


He Played How Many Games for NSW?

Q: David Barnhill 9 games, and was Tim Brasher worthy of 21 call ups for 3 tries? Domino

A: David Barnhill was mentioned on more than one occasion, but I just don’t see it. Maybe I just had a higher opinion of him than others. I always saw David Barnhill as a good solid tireless second rower. The type of player that got the dirty work done without any fuss or fanfare. Every successful team needs them.
Barnhill played in 4 consecutive Grand Finals from 1990-1993 (admittedly, only with one win) and then again in 1996 (another loss) But 5 grand finals from a 10 season NRL career is an amazing return.
If he was a Queenslander, I think he probably would have played about 15 Origins. Which is one of the primary reasons he didn’t get a nomination here.

Tim Brasher however is an interesting one.

He was one of those players that no matter how he was going at club level, was in the mix for Origin selection. I remember his time as an origin player fondly, and he always seemed to step up for the big occasion, and while he doesn’t have the try scoring statistics to back it up, the game was played a different way back then. Hell, Gary Jack is a Blues legend and he only has 1 try to show for his 17 matches.

He was good, but was he 21 caps good? I mean that puts him behind only 5 players in the number of Origin matches played for NSW. Is he really our 6th best player? It certainly warrants consideration. Good call there Dom. 1 all.

Q: Could you form a serious post as to why all evidence suggests that Geoff Toovey is a complete and utter psychopath?? Todd

A: Great question Todd. And I can. And I can do it as a photo essay. (note none of these photos are mine)










Q: You need an article on why Terry Hill is a shitc*nt. Caddy
Q: Terry Hill dribbled on my shoulder once. It was Rank. He is a total shitc*nt. Josie

A: Both good points, and neither of them questions. Considering this was in response to a 2 part article that culminated in my “Terry Hill is a shitc*nt” feelings I think I’ve made my position clear.

It’s All Relative

Q: Michael Blake. Domino

A: Holy Shit! How do I have no memory of Michael Blake? When I was young, and before my body shape dictated that I was a forward and not a half, Phil Blake was my idol and the player I most wanted to be like. I was gutted when he left Souths in 1991 and have always considered him up there as one of the most under-rated players in the history of the game.
So, how on earth do I have no memory of Michael!?
He played for Souths in 87 and 88 (when I was only 6 and 7 respectively, but that was when I first started following the Bunnies like a mad man!) and he is a massive candidate for getting by on his brother’s name when you look at the movements in his career alone. He also started at Manly and when the Rabbitohs picked up Phil, Michael was picked up and taken along for the ride in what I can only assume was a package deal to get their main man to switch sides!

If I didn’t know better, I’d think that I suffered some massive trauma around the end of the 1989 season that forced my brain to wipe part of my memory.

Michael Blake. A glaring omission. It’s 2-1 to Dom here.


Q: Quick question, would you pay me Ben Ikin’s media career from a Wayne Bennett son-in-law perspective? I’m still scratching my head as to how he is on my TV, he’s marginally less creepy a salesman than Tom Waterhouse. Jon

A: Ben Ikin is up there as one of the worst sports commentators in the country as far as I’m concerned. I am absolutely certain that the only reason he was hired at Nine and then Fox Sports, was to give those networks an in to talk to the notoriously media shy supercoach Wayne Bennett. That obviously wasn’t enough to keep him employed at Nine as they celebrated his resignation and happily got rid of his charisma vacuum of a personality which was not fit for broadcast in any medium.

On this subject, I have to assume that it is only a matter of time before the same treatment is given to Darren Lockyer. He can surely only rest on his resume for a certain amount of time before even the gushing fanboys at channel Nine can see that Darren Lockyer is second only to Gary Larson as the last person that should have a career in the media. Not just his voice, but his complete lack of humor or ability to speak outside of a cliché.

But at least he DOES have that career to fall back on and explain his appointment. Ben Ikin’s astonishing 17 Origins is the strongest proof of all that QLD’s ‘pick and stick’ philosophy is flawed.

Good luck Fox Sports. Good luck.

Q: Here’s one on a different tangent – Shannon McDonnell. Got a hefty contract from the Tigers purely on the back of his old man being the ‘recruitment’ manager . Laloa Milford

A: Firstly, who knew Laloa Milford stayed a Tigers fan after leaving the club? I certainly didn’t. How do I know that Milford is a Tigers fan? Because only a Tigers fan would even remember Shannon McDonnell such was the anonymity of his career.

Warren McDonnell was appointed the recruitment manager at the Wests Tigers part of the way through the 2005 season and was tasked with (obviously) recruiting the players for the side going forward. Now I’m not going to lay the blame for the Tigers horrendous run from 2006 onwards on McDonnell, but to take a premiership winning side and not have them make the finals for the following 4 years is a bit alarming for everyone involved in the football department.

Giving your son a contract extension as one of your first orders of business probably isn’t ideal either.

McDonnell is still in charge of recruitment at the Tigers too, and in all honesty, in the past 8 years I can think of two big name and in demand players that he’s managed to sign. Gareth Ellis and Adam Blair. 1 good signing every 4 years does not a good recruitment manager make… And one of those hasn’t worked out so well.

I think I just found a new scapegoat for the Tigers

(edit – since I wrote this, the Benji Marshall thing happened. The Tigers fans may have found the scapegoat before I could tell them!)


Q: Here’s Brian Smith describing James McManus – ”So what NSW has in the ranks with Jimmy McManus is an experienced, in-form [NRL leading try-scorer], specialist winger who knows his own game deeply. Having never been the standout junior player, James worked hard to be excellent under pressure at what he was already good at. He will go hard at what is required of him and stay in his areas of expertise. These are the most solid of foundations, which gives him the best possible chance to produce competency in all areas under extreme pressure. I can’t wait to see him get on with his business again on the game’s biggest stage. A richly deserved opportunity for one of the most professional players in our sport.”

Couldn’t you just change the name to Nathan Merritt and it is the exact description you would give when he was selected for game two…? Anonymous

Yeah ok, I wrote that to myself, because how dumb can Brian Smith be to be against Merritt but for McManus and give that reasoning.

Oh wait, he’s Brian Smith.

Never mind, moving on…

Q: I’ve often wondered what the state of professional rugby league would be like if the Brisbane premiership (now the Qld Cup) was the dominant competition in Australia rather than the Sydney premiership such that the NRL was largely constituted by Brisbane suburban teams. Would guys like you and me be Toowoomba Clydesdales or Wynnum-Manly fans? What would the Sydney team be called, etc? It can keep a man up at night, you know! Richard

Cha ching! I just found the topic of my next article. See you all again once I’ve written it!


On Nathan Merritt; or The Shortcomings of the Selection Process for the Position of Winger for the NSW Rugby League State of Origin Team


So just a short disclaimer here. This is the transcript of an email that I wrote to a friend of mine on 17/5/2013.

Before the NSW side was selected for the first game of this years Origin and before Brad Walter wrote this article in the SMH.

It was in response to a discussion about how unlucky Nathan Merritt has been to never be picked for State of Origin, and how that compares to Matt Orford never being picked.

I’ll get to the Matt Orford issue (or non-issue) in my next post, but for now, here’s Nathan Merritt’s side of the coin…

Ok, so my issue isn’t as much with Merritt not being picked, it’s with the NSW selectors inability to pick a player that’s proven himself over a career and their absolute faith in flash in the pan players, or players that just happen to be playing on a winning team, or even players with a nice story or gimmick! In short it’s about who has been picked ahead of him.

So Merritt has clearly been a great individual player for a long time, but that doesn’t mean he should have been picked early in his career or that you can even foresee that he is going to be that type of player. So I’ll go into this in a conservative way.

In 2006 South Sydney had an awful season and finished last, but amazingly Merritt still led the league in tries.

So I think it’s fair to say that by this point he needs to at the very least be on your radar. But realistically, at this point of his career he has scored 42 tries in 66 matches. He should probably more than just ‘on your radar’ – he should be front and centre in discussions – but by no means a walk up starter.

So leading into the 2007 season, his name should be on a short list of candidates to play for NSW on the wing.

You should be watching him closely.

So, it’s the start of the ’07 season and he begins the year with 7 tries in the 9 matches leading up to Origin selection.

His name may have been brought up, it may not.

For game one we go with Matt King and Jarryd Hayne on the wings.

Can’t fault the Hayne selection. He was still a winger at the time and has proven to be a quality player (but he was 19 and it was his first Origin game, showing that the selectors are more interested in the flashy young player than the more proven player)

Matt King was a staple of the national side by that point, but hadn’t played on the wing at club level in 2 and a half years (and didn’t even finish the series on the wing himself)

We stick with them for game 2.

We lose both games.

With the series dead, they give Hasem El Masri a run on the wing (another in the mould of Merritt who deserved it earlier in my opinion) and move King to the centres. Of course, we win.

Someone must have told Nathan that he missed selection because El Masri could kick, because he starts kicking goals for Souths after Origin finishes.

Souths make the finals for the first time in too many years and Merritt has a good year, but not amazing for his standards.

In 2008, he shows his versatility by playing at both fullback and wing for the Bunnies, but we have an awful start to the season losing our first 7 games. This is reflected in Merritt only scoring 4 tries in this period.

So we go into the Origin selection and fair enough, he hasn’t had his best year ever.

But Matt King has gone, so there’s an opening on the wing.

And we go with…Anthony Quinn. (really?) a guy who by that point of his career had scored 55 tries in 130 games. An amazing ratio of one try every 2.3 games.

Remember that Merritt is having a slow year and scoring at a better rate than this. But Quinn plays for Melbourne and has scored 5 tries in his last 5 games before the teams were picked. Of course they’ll go with him.

So fair play to him, he scores 2 tries on debut and we win the match, but before Origin 2, Hayne gets injured.

Yet again, the chance is there for a Merritt call up. This has to be it. The number one winger in the state is Anthony Quinn for god’s sake, surely this is Nathan’s time!

And we go with…..drumroll please…… Steve Turner.


That guy.

And what a shock he plays for Melbourne.

I don’t think you need reminding of how that went.

We lose 30 – 0.

Game 3 and Hayne is back, so not too many complaints.

Souths are having a nightmare season, Merritt is suffering because of it, and yet another Origin snub probably contributes to a bit of a lull for him as he even goes 10 straight games without a try.

But then something happens and a fire seems to be lit underneath the great man.

In the last 7 rounds of the season he scores 9 tries.

He rides that momentum into the start of the following season and not only does he score 7 tries in the first 9 games of the season, he kicks a magical winning field goal from the sideline to beat the Tigers at the SCG in front of a big crowd to keep the Bunnies in 6th (no small feat considering we finished 14th the year before)

And all of this just a week before the Origin teams are picked.

He’s shown he can handle the big occasion (I know it’s not THAT big of an occasion, but it’s a rare chance to play on any sort of ‘big’ stage for a Souths player at that point). He’s got over 120 first grade games under his belt. He’s scored 16 tries in his last 16 games. Souths are doing well enough.

It comes to selection night and on one wing we have Jarryd Hayne. Perfectly good choice. And on the other wing we have James McManus.

You have GOT to be kidding me.

He’s 24, he’s only at the beginning of his third season in the top grade and he plays for the Knights who have struggled for the last couple of seasons but are in the top eight at this point of the season.

Basically the opposite of what you would expect from a NSW selection.

He must have been a real star in these first few seasons of his though, right?

What’s that? 22 tries in 60 matches?

Well, obviously most of those must have come during a competition blitzing opening 11 rounds to the 2009 season then.

Oh, one try in his last 6 matches.

So, what’s the story here? How did he get selected?

Right, he’s from Scotland and there were multiple media stories about him being the first Scottish person to possibly be picked for Origin. I can see how that would get someone over the line.


Well thankfully that was a disaster and he lasted one game and mercifully got injured.

So Nathan Merritt did the right thing and went about his business, scoring 2 more tries in the 3 matches until the next selection day.

He’s on 9 tries for the year in 12 matches but he’s being let down by his team mates and the Rabbitohs have dropped to 10th on the ladder, but on the weekend of the next Origin selection, he scores in a valiant 6 point loss to NSW coach Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne Storm. Maybe that can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back to get him in this side.

Little did poor Nathan realise, there was a whole new criteria for being selected in this game. And Merritt couldn’t fulfil it. He didn’t have a beard.

The Wolfman Williams is our new saviour on the wing.

Person 1: Have you heard about this guy?

Person 2: I hear he’s actually part wolf!

P1: Well that would be awesome, but no

P2: Damn, well I’m sure he’s been on fire this year though. Scoring tries left right and centre!

P1: Well, 4 tries in 8 matches. So not AMAZING, but pretty good

P2: That’s cool though, I mean I know he’s got plenty of experience in the NRL so that will help

P1: Actually, I’ll have to correct you there too, he’s only played 28 first grade games

P2: Oh, I must have heard that wrong as well then. So how come someone of his age has played so few games?

P1: Well he’s only 23 actually

P2: Really?! But sometimes there are things that are hard to measure. I mean, you know, he plays on the wing for one of the best teams in the league

P1: Who Manly? They’re in 9th and haven’t even finished a single round in the top 8 this year!

P2: Oh my god! Does he even have a beard!?


So of course he scores a try on debut and gets given a second match.

And he’s so awful in that second match that any time someone mentions his name in representative circles again they are laughed at.

Who would have thought that a young inexperienced players could be so prone to inconsistency, particularly in big games?

Oh wait, every person that has ever watched any sport at any point of their lives. Ever.

As always, Nathan Merritt goes about his business and is such a good player now that South Sydney’s inability to have a winning season doesn’t even come into calculations for his individual achievements.

Souths finish 10th. Merritt still scores 19 tries in 23 games.

As we head into the 2010 series The Blues have had 4 straight series defeats and surely it’s time for a new strategy. A new idea. A new SOMETHING!

As is almost boring now, Nathan starts the 2010 season with 9 tries in 9 games.

But as you may have worked out, it simply doesn’t matter.

The NSW selectors have decided that they need a proven try scorer on the wing this series.

So of course Nathan Merritt is not given a look in.

They decide to go with Brett Morris for that spot. He’s proven over the course of one and one third seasons that he can really score tries (with a genuinely impressive run of 36 tries in his last 34 matches) and that’s always better than someone who has proven over the course of 4 and one third seasons that he can really score tries (73 tries in 102 games)

Now I’ll give you that in the long run, Brett Morris has probably proven to be the better player of the two**, but it still shows that if they have a choice between what’s hot right now and what is proven over the length of a career, they’ll go with hot right now.

Which is why we chop and change our team ALL THE TIME!

Either way, due to injury, Hayne is moved to Fullback and a wing spot, yet again, opens up.

They’ve clearly shown that this year they are going for try scoring wingers and it went SO close to working in game one, so now surely having Morris on one wing with the amazing try scoring abilities of the great Nathan Merritt on the other will be enough to stretch the QLD defence to breaking point!

So the only logical choice was to go with Joel Monaghan, a guy who plays his best football in the centres, was only 3 games back from an extended injury lay off, hadn’t scored a try in any of those games and has a propensity for doing things with dogs that can’t be sent from this email address.

We get slaughtered. Another series gone.

So the selectors come to their senses for game three (because it’s a dead rubber so nobody cares, though we still lose anyway) and get rid of Monaghan.

Who gets his spot?

The worldwide icon of Rugby League, Michael Gordon. Career record: 41 Tries, 81 games. But he kicks goals. If only Nathan Merritt had been a goal kicker.


2011 rolls around and we have a new coach. Maybe this is the year. The great man gets picked to play for City in the City v Country game. Which is a serious Origin selection match you know! Because that’s what we need. One match in a country town in front of nobody to decide if someone is up to the rigours of Origin football. Not a career’s worth of work.

It’s a showdown between the proven performer and the hot right now. Merritt vs a young upstart from Fiji named Akuila Uate. He’s an explosive player. Kick returns at full pace, really headline grabbing stuff that the media eats up. He’s an explosive player. He’s not necessarily a good one. But explosive for sure. Disregard that he is an absolute liability in defence. Not helped by the fact that he’s only played about 50 first grade games so can’t read the game all that well. Particularly at the speed Origin is played at. He gets a points victory over Merritt in the City v Country match and gets the Origin spot. In fact he gets the Origin spot for the next 5 Origin games. He’s so good that he scores 2 tries in 5 games. And we lose 3 of them (including both the games he scores in)

By this point I don’t need to tell you what Merritt has done in this period to warrant selection. He’s like clockwork. It’s always the same.

Leading up to selection for the last Origin game (when Uate was finally dropped) Meritt had scored 15 tries in his last 11 matches.

But we went back to Morris and Hayne. A decision that I can’t say was a bad one, because they are both fine players, proven at that level and ultimately we played very well with the two of them on the wings. But when he’s the guy that’s hot right now, of course that’s not what they want. That one is just plain bad luck.

So ultimately, we are headed into Origin selection this year and he’s scored 10 tries in 9 matches. He’s in the top 10 try scorers in the whole league – OF ALL TIME!!!!! – and yet I know from history that there are about 10 ways not to pick him.

You see it’s not the travesty of not picking Nathan Merritt to play Origin football that upsets me it’s the list of players picked ahead of him. It’s a veritable who’s who of ‘really’s’ and Nathan Merritt is anything but a ‘really’

** That’s just a judgement call. The stats tell me that over their careers, Merritt has a try scoring record better than Morris (Merrit scores in 73% of games, Morris in 67%). And considering that’s kind of both of their games in a nutshell, I think it’s a fair comparison.