2014

It is that time of year again. The time that brings presents, food, and articles titled “The Year That Was…” This is one of those articles (sans title). It is time to acknowledge the awesome things for the year 2014 that just so happened to be my favourite (or least favourite)*

Best Female Anything

Jennifer Lawrence. I know, I know. You’ve already read so much about her, and really if any year was her year, wouldn’t it be 2013? Of course it was. But I have news for you, she has just gone back to back after a brilliant 2014 too. Sure she was only nominated for an Oscar this year, and only won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe.** But she also became the highest grossing female action hero of all time. She also broke the internet for real (as opposed to the forced and unsuccessful rubbish of that Kardashian shoot) when the fappening happened. She looked better in her selfies than some other (previously mentioned) celebrities did in their highly stylized advertorials/photo shoots, which caused people the world over to lose their minds. But the way she responded to that is what really gets her this award. She has long been a fantastic role model and these leaked photos do not change that at all. Can you imagine any other person being able to pull that off? I can’t. Here’s to J-Law going for a three-peat and having a fantastic 2015 too.

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Honourable Mentions: I am just using this as an apology to Victoria Azarenka. Clearly the pressure of being the 2013 winner of this column’s Best Female Tennis Performance was too much for her to bear! She had her worst year since 2010! Hope to see you on the comeback trail in 2015!

Worst Job Security

It has been a while since coaching in the NRL was considered a safe job, but it seems to be getting even worse for anyone crazy enough to back themselves at this level. Of the 16 coaches that walked into off season training with their clubs a the end of last year, only 9 of them will still be at the helm for Round 1 in 2015. Only 6 of those coaches were in their job at the start of 2013. In fact Craig Bellamy at Melbourne is the only person to have coached his team since at least 2011. Where it has gotten even worse is that once upon a time, for a coach to be fired, a team would want to have another coach lined up to take the job. A coach with strong credentials, a proven track record if possible, maybe even a ‘name’ that could be sold to the fans. Now it doesn’t even seem to be a consideration. The Assistant coach is given the job on an interim basis and the club just shrugs and says “We’ll see what this bloke can do”. In many cases that same interim coach can fail to generate any real results and be handed a multi-year contract!*** There are so many NRL clubs that just do not look to be a chance of winning a title in the next 3 years. Too many clubs have no plan. So when that no-plan brings them no success, the axe keeps falling on the coach.

Honourable Mention: Leeds United Manager. Talk about clubs with no plan. Neil Redfearn is their 5th manager of 2014. FIFTH! Additionally, he is their 9th manager since 2012. Ridiculous.

Best New TV Show

I, like many others, was extremely skeptical when I read that they were making a Fargo TV series. I, like many others, thought that it was a mistake to try and re-create anything about the quirky Coen Brothers film. I, like many others, thought that even if the script was good and it was well made, calling it Fargo put too much pressure on the show. I am happy to report that I, like many others, was completely wrong. Noah Hawley’s rendition of 2006 Minnesota shares a similar tone, a sociopathic murderer and mountains of snow with the original Fargo, and that is where the comparisons should end. Where Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective turned out to be all style and show with no substance, Hawley didn’t have to fool us into thinking the Emporer was wearing new clothes. The direction of the series was superb. The characters that inhabited this world were both eccentric and startlingly grounded. The story itself was compelling, realistic (given the premise) and was actually able to tie up loose ends. For all of the plaudits that McConaughey got for his performance on TD, the acting in Fargo was second to nothing on the small screen this year. Billy Bob Thornton came back from the acting dead in a performance that felt so natural, I would almost guess that the role was written for him. Martin Freeman has come a long way since The Office and even the smaller acting roles (Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg, the always fantastic Stephen Root) were top notch. But the biggest plaudits should be reserved for the powerhouse performance delivered by Allison Tolman. It was the breakout TV performance of the year, and it wasn’t even close. Time will tell if this was just the perfect role or not but I will be WILDLY disappointed not to see her career deservedly flourish from here.

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Honourable Mentions: Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey may not have technically been a “new” TV show being that it was a remake of an old series, but it was outstanding television. Visually stunning, compelling, and educational and the world could do with more of it. Also, Silicon Valley and Broad City were both powerhouse new comedies for this year in completely different ways, and I loved both of them. It is so rare for comedies to hit their stride right from the beginning, but both of these managed to and anything that gets Kumail Nanjiani and Hannibal Buress on TV will always make me happy.

Best Rivalry

Aussie Basketball Potential v Boomer Reality wins this one. Ever since Shane Heal stood up to Charles Barkley in a 1996 friendly, Australia has fancied itself on the world stage of basketball. There have been many lean years since that 96 team played off for a Bronze medal in Atlanta, but as the years go by and more and more players begin to get meaningful minutes in the NBA and College basketball systems, the hopes of the nation rise again. We’ve never had a full starting line-up of NBA players but as the last NBA season wound down, we were as close as we had ever been with a starting line-up that could boast 4 NBA players. Of course as we moved closer to the Basketball World Cup, the same thing happened that always happens. Our star Centre and defensive lynchpin, Andrew Bogut pulled out. Then our star scorer and freshly crowned NBA champion, Patty Mills pulled out. Then we tanked a game to avoid playing the US until the Semi Finals, and lost to Turkey anyway. Boomer Reality beats down The Potential and continues its winning streak. But as ever, there is hope for the future. The 2016 Olympics hold an opportunity for the greatest ever assembled Boomers team to really have a run at a medal. A starting five of Bogut, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles, Mills and Matthew Delavadova has solid NBA experience. Fellow NBA player Dante Exum will have developed into the type of player that could lead a second unit off the bench. A bench which could contain Chicago Bulls PF Cameron Bairstow, Zaragosa guard Chris Goulding as well as two of the top NBA Prospects over the next couple of years in Ben Simmons and Thon Maker (who are currently only 18 and 17 respectively) if they are even good enough to make the squad (something that wouldn’t even be up for question just a few years ago). It is the Boomers’ time. At least until reality kicks in anyway.

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Honourable Mention: You can take your pick between;

Wanderers vs attractive football – The run to win the Asian Champions League made Greece in 2004 look like Spain in 2010.

Wanderers players vs owners – for it to all come to a head right before the World Club Challenge was embarrassing for all.

Wanderers vs Al Spitty – Rivalries, both at home and continentally, are what makes football clubs. The Wanderers are now on their way to moving from a franchise to a club. Good for them.

Best Music that I actually paid for this year

This comes with the usual disclaimer that I almost never get to hear music the year that it comes out, and that my musical taste is far from ordinary etc etc. But for 2014 nothing really blew me away.

This has been the hardest section for me to write. I didn’t have high hopes for Opeth’s Pale Communion or Cynic’s Kindly Bent To Free Us, but both of them turned out far more interesting and fun than I expected, though still not as good as previous releases. I was heavily anticipating the new Bloodbath album, but the vocals from newcomer Nick Holmes have left the album falling a bit flat. I enjoyed Citadel by Ne Obliviscaris, but have not actually purchased it, so it is ineligible for this award. So when I look through my purchases for this year, the album that stands out the most for this year is not a musical album, but a comedy album. Hannibal Buress released his Live From Chicago album before he recently got some odd fame through his Bill Cosby rape jokes instigating some proper investigation into the decades of allegations against one of America’s most beloved comedians.  There is nothing particularly controversial on the album, but it is an interesting and hilarious look at Hannibal’s world. From gods real problems and unrequited love to just how weird it is to be a comedian, Hannibal’s unique delivery thankfully doesn’t wear thin and keeps the laughs coming for a solid hour. I really hope that this Cosby stuff doesn’t end up hurting the man that is probably our next great stand-up comedian^

Honourable Mentions: See above

Feel Good Story

The 2014 Football World Cup set records for goals scored and the whole group stage of the tournament was absolutely riveting. Spain getting demolished in their opening match and never recovering? Fantastic. Italy and England BOTH not getting out of the same group? Magnificent. Cristiano Ronaldo sulking his way to another early exit? Outstanding. Costa Rica being a Penalty save away from making the final four? Superb. Germany absolutely humiliating the host nation in the semifinal after Brazil had so many calls go their way earlier in the tournament? Delicious. But those few minutes that the Socceroos led the white hot Netherlands in a World Cup match? Absolutely glorious. We may not have got a point in the tournament, but we’ll always have that Timmy Cahill goal and that feeling inside of us that we were better than Pim Verbeek or Holger Osiek allowed us to be. That felt good.

Honourable Mention: The recent Martin Place tragedy seems to have brought out the best in more people than a misanthrope such as myself expected. The #illridewithyou campaign was good, but what was great is that it appears as though it wasn’t really needed!

WORST THING OF THE YEAR

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that is run by very successful and intelligent businessmen (basically the 32 owners). So, how they could allow Roger Goodall, as commissioner of the league, to just be SO FAR off on the issues that have come through his office this year is really beyond me. The issue of domestic violence in the NFL may not be any higher than it is in society, but the handling of the Ray Rice situation (among others) was simply baffling. The brutal video that came out and FORCED the NFL to change the punishment was an embarrassment to the league. It is difficult to tell what is worse – that they almost certainly knew about the video and hoped it would go away, or that they didn’t take the issue seriously enough to track down that video.

BEST THING OF THE YEAR

In one of the great turn-arounds of the 21st century, the NRL Grand Final went from last year’s worst thing of the year to this year’s best. Is this wildly biased because I have waited my entire life for South Sydney to win the competition? Sure. Is this a list of MY favourite things of 2014? Definitely. The Bunnies are the most successful team in the history of the competition. So successful in fact that they have kept that mantle in spite of going 43 years between Grand Final wins. But besides all of that, the NRL Grand Final was a winner this year because for the first time in a few years, a likeable team won the competition. Credit should also go to the Bulldogs fans who, in spite of their poor reputation, were exemplary on the night and a credit to their club. I sat right behind them and didn’t hear or see a single negative thing from them all night. Gracious in defeat and friendly all day.  Penrith weren’t able to knock over the Bulldogs to give us our first Grand Final since 2005 where BOTH teams were likeable, but the Rabbitohs ensured the right result was had, and the streets of Redfern became the party of the year.

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Let me know what your favourite things of 2014 were. What did I miss?

*As with last year that is deliberately broad

**Sounds like a pretty bad year so far! *rolleyes emoji*

***Which, as you may have guessed, does not provide the job security that it implies

^As we entered this new Millenium, Chris Rock was the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World in Stand-Up comedy. I simply will not enter into any debate that he wasn’t. To be the Heavyweight Champion of the World in stand up, you have to be both the biggest and the best. Being good isn’t good enough. You also have to be big. But being big isn’t big enough. You also have to be good. Examples here are numerous. People like Dave Attell, Colin Quinn, Patrice O’Neal or Jim Norton are some of the funniest people to ever have lived, but without that next level of success in terms of being big, they can’t be the Heavyweight Title holders. But by the same token, Jeff Dunham may sell as many tickets as anyone on the planet, but when the comedy is lazy, safe, lowest-common-denominator stuff, then that also doesn’t get you the belt. With that in mind, by my reckoning, since 2000 the belt has gone at various times and for various amounts of time to the following people – Dave Chappelle, Dane Cook, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Russell Peters, Kevin Hart, Louis CK and Bill Burr. I think Hannibal has the talent to reach this level in the next few years.

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When the Grand Final was King

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I complained last year that we have only had one Grand Final in the last 12 years with two likable teams involved* and while all five of the “hateable” teams made the finals, last weekend’s results saw four of them lose and two of them eliminated as a result (a massive win for Rugby League) so it seems we may actually be in with a chance of having a good Grand Final again.

Having popular teams in the finals is an issue for the league, and not for the obvious reasons of ratings etc. In my opinion it is one of the main contributors to the perception that has crept in over the last decade that Origin is the pinnacle of the game. By the time the Grand Final rolls around, nobody cares who wins. Not because their team is out, but because the teams that ARE there are so often detestable.

Growing up however, the Grand Final was everything. Winning the competition was the pinnacle of the game and that was unquestioned. My team had won the competition more than any other and it had been a while between drinks but we were surely due again any time soon.

So with this thought in mind, I want to celebrate the greatest Grand Final that the competition has ever seen; the 1989 decider between Balmain and Canberra. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the game that is the undisputed best Grand Final ever**, and it is worth celebrating the wonderful match that it was. But before we do that, there is another story to be told in the lead up that is close to my heart.

It had been 18 years since South Sydney, the league’s most successful team, had won their last Grand Final and by the mid-point of the 89 season, they were riding on what would end up being a 12 match winning streak and were leading the competition. This was going to be their year. By the end of the regular season they were 5 points clear on top of the table and near certainties to break the drought. After a first up loss in round one of the season, they had lost only 2 matches in their next 21 with both of those losses coming against quality opposition in fellow finalists, Penrith and Cronulla. They had the best defence in the league, as the only team averaging less than 10 points conceded per match, and as the old saying goes, attack wins matches, defence wins premierships.

The finals format back then was such that only the top 5 teams made it and there was a major reward for the Minor Premiership winners. In the first week of the finals 4th played 5th with the loser being eliminated and 2nd played 3rd with the loser playing the winner of the other match and the winner playing the Minor Premiers. In the Minor Premiers’ first match, they can win and go straight through to the grand final or lose and still get a second shot. So for the Minor Premiers to win the competition, they only had to win 2 matches.

Not only that, but If you finished in either 4th or 5th, you needed to win 4 consecutive sudden death matches to win the Grand Final. The difference between 1st and 4th was enormous. Especially compared to now, where they play each other and the loser gets a second chance while the winner (even if it is the 4th placed team) assumes all of the benefits that the Minor Premiers would have gotten. Just like the upstart Panthers have done this season.

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But I digress. The Rabbitohs got to sit back and watch week one of the finals as the streaking Raiders*** demolished a tired Sharks outfit who had to win a mid-week playoff with Brisbane (after finishing in equal fifth) just to get to the finals. In the other match, Souths got the result they wanted. The only team that they hadn’t beaten at all that year – The Panthers – had been beaten by the third placed Tigers. They were the biggest threat to ending the drought and the Tigers had done Souths a favour and taken them out of the equation.

So of course this set up a clash between Balmain and South Sydney for a direct line to the Grand Final. In their only meeting of the season, the Rabbitohs had prevailed 10-8 in a tight contest and that game was played at Leichhardt, where the Tigers  only lost twice all season. This is significant, because Balmain’s home form is what carried them to their 3rd place finish. Their away form left a lot to be desired. They only won 5 of their 11 matches outside of Leichhardt Oval and the fact that this game would be played at the SFS was a significant factor to tip the scales even further in South Sydney’s favour^.

The one thing that the Tigers did have on their side was finals experience. They had made the Grand Final the season before only to be belted out of it when Terry Lamb took on Ellery Hanley early in the match. So it was with this battle hardened mentality that they used experience to outpoint the Minor Premiers in a 20-10 victory that gave them a chance to make up for the previous season.

In the other match, the Panthers had been bounced out of the finals in straight sets as the young and talented Green Machine began to gather momentum for another tilt at the title with a 27-18 win. The Raiders had made the Grand Final in 1987 but lost to Manly, who were the dominant side that season and on the day. Since then, the emergence of two future superstars had begun with halfback Ricky Stuart and (at the time) centre Laurie Daley – both in their first full season in the top grade – beginning to take centre stage along with the already established stars like Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher and Brad Clyde in Canberra.

So the Final match to see who would join the Tigers in the big one at the end of the season was set up between the surging Raiders and the beaten Bunnies. With four rounds to go, the Raiders weren’t even in the top 5, and from their final position of fourth they had a chance to go to the Grand Final with one more win over the competition’s best team. But this wasn’t going to be easy.

The Raiders had been comfortably beaten on the two occasions that they had faced the Rabbitohs during the season, and in spite of having the best attack in the competition (averaging 21 points per game) they had only managed 14 total points in the two full games, including being held try-less by the Bunnies for the only occasion in their whole season.

When my Dad told me that he had gotten us tickets to the game, I was immensely excited. It was the biggest game the club had played in since I was born (granted, I was only 8) and I couldn’t wait for that Sunday afternoon to come.

We had great seats. On about the 20 metre line, and to my father’s delight, we were directly behind the Raiders Cheergirls. To his further delight, the ladies got quite a workout that day.^^ The Canberra attack found its way through the Bunnies’ famously strong defence to the point that it completely ruined South Sydney to its core^^^. The final score line of 32-16 doesn’t tell the full story. Canberra were dominant from start to finish. The three tries that the Rabbitohs scored were all by forwards as the backline was completely shut down. The game was over with 20 minutes to go. With 10 minutes to go Dad asked if we could leave early to beat the traffic. I was a depressed 8 year old and agreed. As we left the stadium another cheer went up. I knew it was the Raiders who had scored and my shoulders slumped a little more. “What is wrong with you?” he asked me. Bewildered I looked back up at him and all I could say was “Souths lost!” His reply of “Was there a game on?” went over my head at first. Then I remembered the cheerleaders that he had spent the whole day enjoying.

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So the Grand Finalists were decided. The 3rd placed Tigers and the 4th placed Raiders. Never before in the history of the league had neither the first or second placed team made the Grand Final. On top of this, Canberra had never won the competition before and Balmain hadn’t won in 20 years. Due to this there was genuine excitement about the Grand Final – regardless of who was going to win.

There used to be a saying about Rugby League Grand Finals that ‘you have to lose one to win one’ meaning that you simply can’t win a Grand Final on your first go. You need to have the experience of Grand Final day, and Grand Final week for that matter, under your belt before you can win a title. Losing that first grand final not only prepares you and the club for what is needed to win, but the crushing feeling at the end of the match which regularly sees grown men crying gives you extra motivation. The Tigers had been there the previous year and the Raiders the year before that. They were both ready, and both (kind of) unexpected to be there just a few weeks earlier.

Canberra were on a roll with an outrageously exciting backline, while the Tigers had an absolutely world class forward pack. It wasn’t so much a clash of styles, as a test of which was more important. The media and bookies thought that the Tigers forward pack would be enough to stop the young Raiders backline.

As the game unfolded, the Raiders took the upper hand and looked the most likely, though their inexperience began to show as they struggled to turn that into points. This was all the invitation that the Tigers needed. Against the run of play, the Tigers scored an intercept try through their rugby convert winger Brent Todd. They then pushed further ahead with a wonderful try to deserving Test Second Rower Paul Sironen. At half time Balmain led 12-2 and the bookies looked to have been right to not trust the inexperience of the flashy Canberra side against hard headed power in Balmain and the coaching of old head Warren Ryan.

This part was important too. Tim Sheens was coming off a 4 year stint as the head coach of the Panthers, that saw them make the finals just once – admittedly for the first time in their history, but one finals in 4 season is not a successful stint by many measures. His first season in Canberra saw him inherit a team that had made the Grand Final the previous season, take them to a 3rd place finish and to be bundled out of the finals with two consecutive losses. Even with a few weeks to go in the season, the Raiders had not been guaranteed a finals place and it was only this outstanding run of form that saw them reach the Grand Final. A lot of people were not convinced of Sheens’ credentials as a top level coach. Many still aren’t.

On the other hand Warren Ryan was coaching in his 5th grand final of the previous 6 years and his 6th Grand Final of his career. Balmain was the third club he had coached at and the third club he had taken to a Grand Final. He was considered a bit of a modern coaching marvel at the time. Even if you were impressed by Sheens as a coach, there was simply no way that you could rate him higher than Ryan.

Canberra had played well, they just didn’t seem able to translate that into points. Some calm half time words from Sheens appeared to have worked. They came out for the second half as a more composed side and got themselves on the board through the evergreen Chicka Ferguson finding Gary Belcher in some space to score their first try and narrow the gap. But the Tigers were not going to go quietly into the night and they stepped up their efforts. Speedster Mick Neil went agonizingly close to scoring, being stopped short by a lunging ankle tap from Mal Meninga, and when Wayne Pearce dropped the ball cold with an open try line in front of him, the man they called The Wok decided that the footballing gods had made up their minds and were simply not going to let them score again. So he had to defend the slim lead that his Tigers had built.

In what has now become the most controversial coaching decision in a Grand Final since the white boots in 1975, Warren Ryan decided to pull his test forwards, Steve Roach and Paul Sironen, from the field. He sent on fresh legs to simply tackle their way to the win. Elias was charged with getting the field goal needed to put the match beyond doubt, and after he had his first attempt charged down, he took his second shot. It never looked solid, but seemed as though it might just have the legs to get there. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it hit the cross bar and came back out. Regardless, the defensive tactic almost worked. With just 90 seconds to go, the Tigers were still in the lead. Then the ball was given to the transcendent Ferguson. In the biggest play of his career, Chicka got the ball on the left side from Daley with Tigers defenders pouring across the field to cover. With a succession of left foot steps in side, Ferguson not only scored, but scored close to the posts, to enable a simple conversion for Meninga to level the scores and send the game to extra time.

This is where the decision to replace Roach and Sironen really backfired. Under the interchange rules back then, they were not allowed to come back onto the field for extra time, now that the team needed the attacking impetus that those two were so famous for.

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The momentum that Canberra finished regulation time with was always going to transfer into extra time, and when Garry Jack knocked on two minutes into extra time, the game was as good as over. From the ensuing scrum, Canberra Five Eighth Chris O’Sullivan kicked the field goal to put the Raiders ahead for the first time in the match. The sides battled back and forth and with just a few minutes remaining, Raiders replacement Steve Jackson showed a feat of strength fitting of Lou Ferrigno. He got the ball 15 metres out from the try line, beat two defenders and then carried three further defenders for almost ten metres as he willed himself over the line to put the match beyond doubt and deliver the first ever title to the nation’s capital.

No write up could really explain the greatness of the match and the buzz that came all the way through to the televisions that day. If there is any justice in the world, Foxtel will be showing replays of this game in the week leading up to the Grand Final and I urge you all to watch it if you get the chance.

The Raiders went on to win the Grand Final again in 1990, lose it in 1991 and then win it again in 1994, all under the eye of Tim Sheens, with that same core of players. Sheens parlayed that into an unsuccessful stint as the Head Coach of the North Queensland Cowboys, and then another title in 2005 with his nemesis from that fateful day, the Tigers, and is now the coach of the Australian national team.

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Warren Ryan on the other hand did not go on to much further success. The following season the Tigers scraped into the finals in a playoff and went no further and Ryan moved on to Wests where he again scraped into the finals for a couple of seasons, then guided them to a couple of 13th place finishes. He then left coaching for a few short seasons before coming back and leading the Knights to a couple of semi-final series losses#. He never coached in a Grand Final again and eventually moved into a commentary role for radio which he was recently fired from in a storm of controversy over allegedly racist remarks. His career essentially took a slow downhill slide after this match, and I can’t help but wonder what might have been had he not made those changes late in the game.

So as we mark 25 years since the greatest grand final, let’s all hold our breath and hope for another one this year. At the very least, let’s hope we don’t all hate both of the teams that make it.

*The one is obviously the 2005 Grand Final. The only Grand Final I have actually attended in my life.

** You want proof? It is the only pre Super League Grand Final to have its own Wikipedia link as I write this. If that’s not proof, then there probably isn’t any. So there isn’t any.

***They won their last 5 games of the season to finish in 4th spot. Their last loss? Souths.

^Funnily though, Souths’ form at home wasn’t THAT great, with all of their (admittedly few) losses for the season coming at the SFS.

^^Dad is a Newtown fan, and while he does follow Souths now as a default, at the time, he wasn’t particularly bothered by who won or lost

^^^Seriously. This is no exaggeration. Souths finished last the following season, and didn’t even make the finals again until 2007 – a full 18 years later – while picking up 4 wooden spoons along the way!

#This may have been a little more impressive had the Knights not won the competition the very season after he left and 2 seasons prior to his arrival. As it stands, he may have been holding them back.

2014 MIP

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All 12 of my regular readers may remember that last year I ranked the NRL’s top 25 Most Important Players in deciding where the Premiership ended up in 2013. It is a tradition that I am going to continue this year, so before I get into it, I want to run over the ground rules again.

I’m looking for the Most Important Player (MIP) in the league in terms of deciding where the Premiership for 2014 ends up.

This of course means that a players value is heavily weighted towards how well his team is doing and how much of a chance they have of actually taking home the title.

So, a player like Jake Friend might not be the player that Jarryd Hayne is, but given that the Roosters will be fighting for the Minor Premiership this weekend and the Eels will be extremely lucky to sneak into the Top Eight. Friend would be the more IMPORTANT player.

I’m officially using the following criteria to judge –

  1. How much involvement does he have in his team’s fortunes? Meaning, is he influential within the team? Does all of the attacking play go through him? Does he score a lot of tries? Does he do the hard work in the forwards? Is he the teams tackling machine? (Involvement Value)
  2. How replaceable is he? If he was to cop a 5 week suspension, or injure his hamstring this weekend, just how much trouble is his team in? How much of a drop in quality is his replacement? (Injury Value)
  3. How likely is his team to win the premiership with him in good form? How likely are they to win the premiership if he is in poor to average form? (Title Value)

So with just a little adieu in the form of an honourable mention list – Alex Johnston, Jarryd Hayne, James Graham and Sisa Waqa – here are my 25 Most Important Players in deciding the 2014 NRL title

25. Jake Friend – Last Year – N/A

The running example in my explanation from the last 2 seasons has cracked into the top 25 this year with his strongest season to date. His injury and possibility of missing the final round match against the Rabbitohs has the potential to take the wind out of the sails of a team that is coming home faster than any other at this time of the year. His Injury Value is important here as the Roosters simply don’t have a replacement for him that is ready to take this role

24. Josh Reynolds – Last Year – N/A

The man that they call Grub* might be the only thing that can stop the Bulldogs’ rapid slide down the NRL ladder. With only 2 wins from their last 7 games, the team that was on top of the ladder half way through the season finds themselves clinging to a top 8 spot with no “points differential” to fall back on.  If Reynolds can come back into the side and bring back some of the grit that saw the Bulldogs winning the close games earlier this year, they are a chance of making it to October, but if not, they are without a hope

23. Josh Mansour – Last Year – N/A

How Josh Mansour was not picked on the wing for NSW in game three of this year’s State of Origin is absolutely beyond my comprehension. Mansour has had a fantastic year. His 14 tries in 19 matches as well as his total metres run leads the Panthers – a team that doesn’t REALLY have a stand out star. This young team may find themselves a year or two away, but you can bet that if they make a run, Mansour’s form will play a significant part in getting them there. He has strong Title Value for a winger

22. Dylan Walker – Last Year – N/A

After a solid debut season last year, this teenager (yes he is still just a teenager) has begun to come into his own. The added responsibility of being moved to the number 6 jersey earlier in the season has seen Walker become more willing to try and take a game by the scruff of a neck and create plays on his own. Sometimes he does this to his own detriment as the play goes nowhere, but the reason he is so important is that if Inglis is having a quiet game (which happens occasionally) Walker is the only other real unpredictable spark in the allegedly predictable South Sydney attack

21. Anthony Watmough – Last Year – 13th

The leader of the Manly pack has lost a little bit of impact this year as he appears to have fallen out with the club and looks to get his future settled, but it is never more evident how much the Eagles need him than when he is gone. Against an inferior Penrith side** the Manly pack was pushed out of the way and it almost cost them the game. Watmough’s toughness and workrate combined with his skill were sorely missed and he can’t come back soon enough to help Manly try and secure another match in October 

20. George Burgess – Last Year – 18th

While not as dynamic as last season, George has taken on a different role as simply a wrecking ball runner that tries to set up the Rabbitohs’ attack on the right foot. He isn’t used to set up tries or to be a devastating and hard hitting defender, though he gets through more than his share of tackling, but of the four games that George has missed this season three of them were losses for the Bunnies 

19. James Segeyaro – Last Year – N/A

With a bullet, James Segeyaro has come from absolutely nowhere to be one of the most influential players on the Panthers side as they try to finish in the top 4 (or top 8 at all for that matter) for just the second time in 10 years. He is their attacking spark with a strong Involvement and Injury value as evident in the Panthers’ disappointing performance again Melbourne 2 weekends ago which Segeyaro had to sit out.

18. Michael Jennings – Last Year – 9th

Jennings has struggled to have the same impact this year as he did in 2013 – which was always going to be a tough ask. He has missed some games through Origin and Injury, but he has still managed to score 11 tires in his 17 games. Should be well rested for what is looking to be a well-timed finals run for the tri colours. Interesting stat, the last Roosters game that Jennings played that resulted in a loss was in Round 10

17. Jonathan Thurston – Last Year – 24th

Since the REAL season began 7 weeks ago the Cowboys have the EXACT same record as South Sydney (including points differential) which would put them in Second position on that hypothetical ladder*** with their only loss coming by a single point. This is almost exclusively down to Thurston’s ability to control a game single handedly. His dismantling of the red hot Rabbitohs 2 weeks ago was a sight to behold. They have beaten the Bunnies both times this season and I am certain that if Souths finish with the minor premiership they will be especially keen to avoid North Queensland. If the Cowboys can avoid another refereeing disaster, they could be a big chance of winning it all

16. Steve Matai – Last Year – N/A

I can’t remember the last time I watched a Manly game where Matai didn’t get his close up by clutching at an apparent injury. There’s no doubt he is a showman, but his impact for the Eagles when he is available to play is palpable. In spite of all the apparently minor injuries, he has only missed 1 game this season and his 12 tries put him second on the Manly roster. He is a hard hitter who takes care of one of Manly’s edges – the danger area that most teams focus their attack

15. Adam Reynolds/John Sutton/Luke Keary – Last Year – 6th/11th/N/A

The South Sydney halves, in some combination, are likely to have a significant impact on whether or not the title ends up in Redfern this year, but they kind of tend to cancel each other out in terms of their Injury Value. With Sutton at 6 and Reynolds at 7, the Bunnies have played a large portion of the season in the top half of the competition. When Sutton went down for a few weeks, Keary went to the number 6 and led Souths to Premiership favouritism. This weekend we get to see Keary at halfback with Sutton back at five eighth and if the 20 minutes that they played together in these positions are anything to go by, this may be their best combination yet

14. Jamie Lyon – Last Year – 8th

As the Manly halves have come into their own this season, the Eagles captain has taken a more subdued role in running the side. That was until last weekend. Needing two tries to win the game with only a few minutes remaining, Lyon took it upon himself to drag his teammates over the line and keep the Minor Premiership within their grasp by scoring one and miraculously making the second one possible. Has the big game experience and skill to come through in the big games when he is needed, and last Sunday showed that he still has it.

13. Anthony Minichiello – Last Year – N/A

A true Indian Summer for The Count in his final season in the NRL. His 14 try output has not been matched since 2005 – a time when he was playing for Australia. He hasn’t missed a game all season and his steadying influence on a team that has struggled with second year syndrome at times is invaluable as they head into another Finals Series.

12. Brett Stewart – Last Year – N/A

He may not have scored as many tries as he would have liked this season, but the use of Brett Stewart as a decoy  and a facilitator has increased and allowed other players in the backline to cross the line far more often. Additionally, the fact remains that he has sheer ability when it comes to scoring tries and if he turns it on, Manly will be even harder to defend. He has a high Injury Value as the Eagles just don’t have a replacement that is ready to fill the same role Stewart does.

11. Billy Slater – Last Year – 5th

It seems strange to say that someone has had a bit of a quiet year when they have scored 12 tries in 20 games, but for Billy Slater that is a quiet year. However, he has started to come into form at the right time, with 3 tries in his last 2 matches. But overall, as an attacking weapon, he has fallen off a little. This is likely due to the Melbourne attack beginning to get a little stale and teams finally catching on to their tricks, but either way, his impact has been lessened this season so he misses out on a top 10 spot by the slimmest of margins

10. James Maloney – Last Year – 12th

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Although they find themselves playing tonight with a chance of taking home the Minor Premiership again, this year’s Roosters team has not been as strong as last year. The slow start to the season saw Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney both lose their Origin spots. Since then, the Roosters have turned their season around. Mitchell Pearce’s game has shown no signs of life, and certainly no signs of the form he had last season, but Maloney has been flying high. He is equal third in the league for Try Assists and second in the league for Line Break Assists. If The Roosters are to defend their title, Maloney is an integral part of getting them there

9. Isaac Luke – Last Year – 14th

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In spite of having a fairly capable replacement in the South Sydney team, Luke is still one of the most irreplaceable players in the team or the league. It is no coincidence that as the Bunnies meandered through the middle of the season it was with Luke on the sidelines. Few players in the league have the toughness of the Rabbitohs hooker, let alone the ball skills and eye for a lazy marker that set him apart from most in his position. The ability of the rest of the forward pack to get over the advantage line is only so useful to Souths because of Luke’s ability to take advantage of it like few others. His availability for tonight’s clash with Easts – and managements will to fight for him – could be the deciding factor in the minor premiership

8. Cameron Smith – Last Year – 4th

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The only Hooker in the game that is better than Luke right now, and the man who has been the lynchpin in everything his team has done for several years has dropped 4 spots from last season. This is partly down to the Storm amazingly not even being guaranteed a finals spot heading into the final round^ and the fact that his Involvement Value has decreased a little this season. If we’re being honest, it is also due to the fact that he hasn’t quite been the dominant force that he once was. He looks tired. And who can blame him? He has played 20+ Regular season games for every one of the last 12 seasons, plus an average of 2 finals matches per season while also playing 33 games for Queensland and 38 for Australia. The guy needs a break if he is going to take Melbourne back to the top

7. Cooper Cronk – Last Year – 7th

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But one player that hasn’t moved at all is the consistent halfback in the most structured team in the league. Cronk suits Melbourne’s style and Melbourne’s style suits Cronk. Another player that was looking tired earlier in the season, managed to get injured and buy himself a bit of a rest. This will be the first time in 10 seasons that Cronk plays less than 20 regular season matches, and his form is all the better for it. In spite of missing matches, he is second in the league for Try Assists, fourth in Line Break Assists and all of the teams kicking goes through him. His Involvement Value has sky rocketed as he takes a bigger hand in running the team on the park and it is because of these reasons that he maintains his spot in spite of Melbourne’s struggles

6. Jamie Soward – Last Year – N/A

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If you had told me this time last season that Soward would be in the top 25 I would have laughed you out of the pub. For him to be one spot out of the top 5 is unbelievable, and especially so considering I give the Panthers almost no chance of winning the competition this season. Penrith have shown themselves to be pretenders since the real season began with their 3-4 win-loss record, and while they still might finish with a top 4 spot, they probably don’t deserve to. I wrote in an article earlier this year that they may make the leap this year, but they look to be a bit short of becoming an elite team at this point. Having said all of that, if the Panthers manage to go on a run over the next month to put themselves in contention, Soward will be the centre of it all. He has the highest Involvement Value in the competition easily. There isn’t a thing that the Panthers do that doesn’t go through him and their success this season relies almost solely on his shoulders

5. Greg Inglis – Last Year – 1st

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A fall from last year’s number one spot but still within the top 5. The question is why? To answer that question you have to go back to the form he had last season as he became the most dominant player in the game, capable of single handedly taking over a game and was consistently a threat to any opposition, while being the best last line of defence in the league. It was always going to be tough to maintain. But even still, his form this year has been inconsistent. He has only scored in 6 of his 20 matches thus far, he has drifted out of more games than he has drifted into and his normally rock solid goal line defence has slipped a bit. The real question is how is he still in the top 5? That answer is easy. Even the average bad Inglis game comes with a line break or two and an offload that leads to a 50 metre run. Then when he is on, he is the single most devastating player in the competition. He single handedly beat Brisbane – a top 8 team – three weeks ago, and it wasn’t just a win, he destroyed them. He is one of only about 5 players that is good enough to win a grand final by himself, and not all of those players are in this top 5. He still has a role to play this season. It might be by winning a title by turning up for the finals, or watching Souths bow out again because he didn’t, but either way, his contribution will be significant.

4. Sonny Bill Williams – Last Year – 2nd

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Another player that was rated highly in 2013 – and probably ended up being the difference in last season’s title – only to see a slight drop in his impact this year, albeit only a 2 spot drop. He has spent a bit of time on the sidelines this season, with a couple of injuries, but for a player with the unbridled talent of SBW, that just means he is well rested and ready to have a shot at the finals. In spite of missing 6 matches, he is still third in the league for offloads. He is a devastating runner of the ball and hits as hard as anyone, but I am left to wonder if winning the competition last season has taken a little bit of the hunger away. Tonight’s game against the Rabbitohs will tell the real story as he goes up against his running nemesis from the South Sydney forward pack. If SBW can win two titles in his two years back in the code, he will have to move into a different conversation of greatness when looking back on his time with the game.

3. Kieran Foran – Last Year – 16th

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It feels like he has been around forever, but Foran is only in his 5th full season of NRL football. The reason it feels like that is because he plays the game like a wily old veteran. He isn’t the percentage player that Cronk is, but he also isn’t the wild card of a Chris Sandow either. He knows when to take his risks and he knows when to take the smart option. He can occasionally get lost in a game and let it overtake him, but most of the time he knows how to get the right result. It is this clever and steady hand, along with the Eagles’ rise to the top that have seen Foran rocket up the charts from last season. If he keeps making the right decisions, the Eagles will be in a good position to take the title.

2. Daly Cherry-Evans – Last Year – 23rd

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The figurative captain of the ship (though obviously not the actual team captain) at Brookvale has had his best season in his relatively short career this year. He is in the top 10 in the league for both Try assists and strangely enough, offloads! When Manly are in trouble he is the man who they throw the ball to, to get them out of it. If that means a field goal, he can do it, if it means a precision kick for a corner he can do it, if it means taking on the line or finding the perfect pass, he can that too. He can occasionally get caught out trying too much and it falls apart (as it did in the Souths game at the SCG). But outside of that he has steered Manly into pole position for the Minor Premiership. His injury and involvement value are both high and his form is likely to be the deciding factor in whether or not Manly are able to win another title this year

1. Sam Burgess – Last Year – 21st

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In what may prove to be his last ever season in Rugby League (though I am skeptical), Burgess has hit the peak of his powers and won the coveted Most Important Player award. He leads the league in hit ups, is second in offloads and 11th in tackles. Also, he has scored 10 tries – the same number as team mates Greg Inglis and Dylan Walker. I have been his biggest critic at times in his career but as the season as really ramped up, he has been brilliant. In an important match last week he did something that no other forward in the game is really capable of doing. He put the entire team on his back and beat a top 8 side by himself. It is a role normally reserved for the flashy backs of the game, but Burgess showed how far he has come in the last 12 months by pulling the struggling Bunnies out of a hole that most players couldn’t. He has more motivation than anyone else to succeed this year and his form in the finals will directly translate to how well Souths do. His Title Value is the highest of anyone on the list. If Burgess is breaking the advantage line it allows Luke to take advantage of the quick play the ball and get the ball to whatever halves combination the Bunnies end up using to bring the likes of Inglis and Walker into play. But it all depends on Big Sam. No pressure buddy.

 

 

 

 

*Though he isn’t even the grubbiest player in his own team by a long shot. Hi, Michael Ennis.

**That is no great slight on Penrith, I’ll save my great Penrith slights for later. But Manly are on top of the table and deservedly so in spite of some hiccups of late.

***All three of the Cowboys, Bunnies and Roosters have 6 wins and a loss but the Roosters’ Points Differential is just 8 better than the other two

^Something that hasn’t happened since 2005 if you take out the salary cap affected season

The Office Hot Raiders

I have to preface this by saying that I started writing this article before James Tedesco signed with the Raiders and it is just an awesome coincidence that he is an example that I have used in here but was by no means the instigator for me to write this.

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So what am I talking about?

To explain it properly I have to go back almost 15 years to a time when I was still a teenager and first started working in an office.

Having only worked in bars and doing manual labour prior to this, it was quite a culture shock to start in an office environment and begin to see all of the little nuances that I have since discovered to exist in almost every office (Ricky Gervais has done a pretty good job of illustrating what I mean, so I won’t go into too much detail). The Friday afternoon drinks that start the following week’s office rumors. The sometimes staggering obesity. The institutional misogyny of high powered male bosses* and the general ‘slut shaming’ that it provokes on the office floor. But there was something else that took me a little while longer to understand.

I was about 6 months in when I realised that I had become infatuated with a girl in the office. My only interactions with her were in the kitchen or the elevator and no longer than 10 seconds at a time, but she seemed smart and funny (though I really had very little to go on there) and therefore the only other impression I could be left with was how she looked physically. In short, she was hot. She managed to keep a smile on my face most days that I had to work my shitty job and that is no mean feat. I didn’t really have the courage to do anything about it, and the more I waited the more attractive she got to me.

Then it happened.

I was out with some friends on a weekend at a place that she happened to be at, and at first I didn’t even recognise her. She actually said hello to me before I figured out who it was. This wasn’t because she looked drastically different to how she did in the office. In fact she looked pretty much the same. The problem was that out of the office environment, no longer surrounded by the misery, dullness and aforementioned obesity, she no longer stood out. It was a Saturday night and all of the other girls around were done up and looking their best. Trying to hide anything that they (mistakenly) think a prospective mate might see as a flaw. Sometimes they are just trying to look as good as they can to feel good about themselves for once. It really must suck to be a woman, and I definitely don’t envy them at all. The point is, in this environment, my office crush blended into a sea of pretty good looking girls. It was the first time that I discovered the phrase “Office Hot”**

A similar phenomenon happens in the NRL (and other sports too, I’m sure), but as far as I know it doesn’t have a name. So Office Hot it is.

From about 1990 to the time they were dismissed from the competition, South Sydney were The Office. They never finished above 9th. Supporting them was a nightmare. To make it worse, the Bunnies faithful kept getting glimmers of hope, and having them taken away. You see, on an outrageously average South Sydney team, a Craig Field could look like the next Craig Coleman. He was even named Craig! He was a young up and coming halfback, that with the right direction could go all the way. So teams would begin to circle, and eventually Manly were able to nab Field with the promise of finals football and big money. Of course once out of the ghetto and into the penthouse, all of his flaws began to show and he was shown to not be the talented half that he appeared to be at Redfern. Darrell Trindall was a standout for Souths and his fans could never understand why he wasn’t recognised – until they actually watched games not involving the Rabbitohs of course. In the late 90’s Craig Wing was far and away the best player on the Bunnies roster and while he continued to have a good career, he was never the best player on a team again after he moved on.

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There have been players like this at all sorts of clubs. Players that were given an opportunity at the next level – City/Country, State of Origin, whatever their next level was – and have failed, but for mine, since the turn of the century, the NRL’s biggest Office Hot breeding ground has been the Raiders.

For me their ‘patient zero’ is the halves pairing of Mark McLinden and Andrew McFadden. They came along not long after the demise of the Daley and Stuart partnership that brought a lot of success to Canberra, NSW and even the Kangaroos. They were young players who would show flashes of brilliance, and on a struggling Raiders team, were often praised as having the potential to do the same as the men they replaced. Of course the furthest that either of them got was a single Country Origin jersey for McLinden in 2001.

Next cab off the rank was Brett Finch. Had all of the same traits as the Maccas before him and all of the “potential” talk was there for him – so much so that the defending premiers Roosters brought him in to try and defend their title. It’s a feat he never achieved. Still, the powerbrokers in NSW saw fit to give him a couple of attempts at igniting an origin career, and in spite of kicking the winning field goal in one appearance, he never reached the heights that the early praise anticipated.

It is well known that the Raiders have struggled for the best part of 15 years to attract big name and quality players to the nation’s capital, or even to keep the good young players that come through. This is surely one of the contributing factors to the reputation I am giving them here. The players in Canberra actually DO get picked up by other teams, or occasionally given a representative jersey when the cries of the Canberra faithful and media become too loud, and actually have the opportunity to be exposed. Players like Craig Coleman may have ended up being exposed, but due to the era he played in, he never got a representative jersey, and he was a club legend at Souths who were able to hold on to him.

But when you start to look at a list of Canberra players over this period, you can see what I mean

Ryan O’Hara – Boom front rower that was expected to make an impact on the representative scene. Played one Origin match and was way out of his depth. His entire career never recovered from it.

Joel Monaghan – Unstoppable try scoring machine at the Raiders, who in spite of some David Bradbury representative honours, didn’t really make an impact on the game until he went to the dogs.***

Phil Graham – Speedy winger who was an integral part of the limited success the Raiders had and his career peak was when he got a Country Origin jersey in 2007, which says enough on its own, but he ended up at the Roosters and did nothing.

Terry Campese – Another player that was supposedly “full of potential” (which at Canberra I have come to realise just means ‘has some skill, prone to errors, wildly inconsistent’) and somehow managed to fail upwards. Was selected for the Kangaroos and had no impact, which gained him a NSW Country selection, where he again had no impact. This of course led to a NSW selection where he… you guessed it, had no impact.

Michael Weyman – Looked to be the great white hope when he emerged at Canberra and while he managed to pick up a premiership in his move to the Dragons, he never did anything to live up to the expectations that were placed upon him from his time in Canberra

Tom Learoyd-Lahrs – His work in a lime green jumper got him a call up to both NSW and Australia back in 2009-2010 and such was his non-existence and subsequent fall from grace, that I was genuinely surprised to see that he is still playing first grade

Josh Dugan – Undoubtedly talented, and almost certainly never going to be the star he was made out to be

Blake Ferguson – See above

Need I go on?^

In all honesty, it’s baffling how a player like Anthony Milford still manages to draw all the plaudits that he does. Has nobody been paying attention? I mean, it isn’t impossible for him to go on and become a star, but the truth is, the odds are firmly against him.

The Raiders have led the way in this department for a long time, but they are not the only ones. The Tigers have their own recent history with a string of players who were talked up for almost a decade since their Premiership in 2005 and mostly peaked in the City v Country arena.

From the Liam Fulton, Bryce Gibbs and Chris Heighington era to the unfulfilled potential of Chris Lawrence and Keith Galloway, they are in danger of looking to take the title all together if people don’t calm down on the largely unwarranted hype on players like Brooks, Sironen and particularly Tedesco, who has all the hallmarks of a Raiders player if ever I saw one^^

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Souths still have their own examples in the likes of John Sutton who while setting the record for the most games played for the Cardinal and Myrtle, never took the next representative step that he should have.

There are players all over the league that fit this description and the Eels have an amazing history with halfbacks that deserves a mention, but the question is, even with the mounting challenge of the Tigers, is it even possible for the Raiders to escape this cycle?

The system in place in Canberra seems to feed into this. They buy or breed young players with potential, give them plenty of first grade experience at a young age (where they get to show the Canberra definition of ‘potential’ that I previously mentioned) in the hopes of teaching them to become quality players by the age of 23 and getting almost a decade of play out of them. They supplement these players by bringing in some experienced heads on a higher salary (which they can afford due to having so many young players on smaller pay) to show the kids the way.

It is a solid model, so much so that the Panthers have taken it on board with their recently implemented strategy. But the most important part of the strategy is the part that the Raiders can’t seem to complete. They can’t keep the players that are good enough to produce for them once they get a bit of exposure unless they pay way more than the player is actually worth. This goes for the older players they bring in too. The higher pay packet brings unrealistic expectations for the young players and tends to lull the older players into complacency. It is a problem that Penrith shouldn’t have, but the Raiders probably can’t escape without winning a title or two and attracting players that way. But with this system in place, it doesn’t seem a realistic proposition.

But what other options do they have? This seems like it might be the only way for them to find limited success (which is exactly what they have had for the last 15 years) therefore leaving them stuck in a perpetual loop. At a club like Canberra, this may be all you can realistically hope for!

So spare a thought for the Raiders paying a frankly stupid amount of money for James Tedesco^^^ – He may be their Pam Beasley/Dawn Tinsley. The hottest girl in the office might be all that they want.

 

 

 

*Parts of this article are going to seem like misogyny, but I have confirmed with female friends that they feel the same way. You’ll understand when I get there.

**Urban Dictionary definition – Someone who is defined as hot, but only because of the lack of options enforced by your place of work. Being stuck in work tends to add 2 or 3 points in the “out of ten” rating system. ‘Cheryl is looking office hot today. If she was in the street I probably wouldn’t look twice tho’ – See, totally misogynist. That doesn’t change that it is a real thing though.

*** Eh? Get it?

^I have left plenty out because I could probably name about 20 and don’t have the time, but honourable mention to Todd Carney, who I couldn’t in good faith put on this list because he did have one streak that won him plenty of the games highest accolades, but has really never looked close to that player before or since

^^Again, I just want to re-iterate, that I wrote this BEFORE he signed with them. Sometimes things just work out too well.

^^^Obviously, this part was written AFTER the signing

 

Mr Referee or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Accept The Result

So, I got along to the pub on Saturday to watch the Dragons v Warriors match. A hardly convincing opener against the Tigers but with the amount of points we managed to pile on in the first round, there was cause for cautious optimism compared to how we fared last year.

It was a bit of a see-saw in the first half and as the match progressed I began to notice that, there was a guy sat on a nearby couch who had something to complain about in the way the match was being officiated on virtually every set of six: Warriors allegedly throwing forward passes, Warriors players being inside the 10, Warriors hands on the ball in the tackle, Dragons play-the-ball being slowed down. And every observation this guy made was coupled with an epithet directed towards Jared Maxwell. And we’re not talking simple remarks  like “You’ve got to be kidding ref!” that we’re all guilty of yelling at the screen when we think our team’s copped a bad call, but remarks like “F*ck off, Maxwell!”; “Bullsh*t, Maxwell! You f*ckin’ cheat!”; “You stupid Sh*re prick, Maxwell!” (how did he even know Jared Maxwell was from the Sh*re?). Based on the way the guy was carrying on, you’d almost think Maxwell had channeled Steve Randell and molested the guy’s children or something!

I know certain NRL referees have copped some serious stick over the years (I have to admit I always had it in for Steve Clark), but Jared Maxwell just struck me as a pretty neither-here-nor-there referee in the NRL.

A few days later, still puzzled and confused at this guy’s vendetta towards Jared Maxwell, I decided it was worth looking at results of matches where Jared Maxwell has officiated the Dragons:

·         Jared Maxwell has officiated 27 matches involving the Dragons since he became an NRL referee in 2006 until the present 2014

·         The Dragons have won 16 of those matches and lost 11, giving them a win-loss percentage of 59.26%.

·         In the same 2006-2014 period, the Dragons overall record as been 110 wins, 1 draw and 95 losses, giving them a win-loss percentage of 53.64%.

·         What can we extrapolate from all this? The Dragons are statistically more likely to win a match when Jared Maxwell officiates them than when he’s not!

I wonder what old mate down at the pub might have to say in relation to that? Numbers don’t lie.

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That is an email I got recently from my buddy Richard.

It’s an odd story, but aside from the Maxwell specifics, I bet it reminds you of someone you know, if not yourself.

It used to be me.

For a large portion of my life, most of the sporting teams I supported were fairly ordinary. For my teams to win, we needed almost everything to go our way, including the referee’s decisions. So I would scrutinise every call that went against us, make hypotheticals for what would have happened if those decisions hadn’t gone against us and rationalise why we had lost and why we would have won if the referees hadn’t been so blind. I hated all sports officials.

By the time I was 12 I knew the names of most of the referees in the (now) NRL. By 15 I would look at the team line ups in the Big League as much to see who was playing as to see who would be refereeing the game. At one point I was worried that if Souths got Bill Harrigan one more time I may have lost my right to go to matches anymore*

It transferred to other sports too. The names Mark Shield and Matthew Breeze still fire me up after a few beers from all of their arrogant incompetence in the A-League. Joey Crawford is widely accepted as possibly the most error prone official that the NBA has ever had, and I hate to see him refereeing a match. The referral system in cricket has shown just how much is missed by the umpires on the ground. The list really is endless. (But for the purposes of this discussion, I’m just going to focus on the NRL.)

Then one day – completely out of the blue – I had the sudden realization that it didn’t matter. The referee wasn’t biased, he was just awful. They all are.

The seemingly obvious theory is – The problem with being a sports fan is that a lot of the time all you want to see is when your team is slighted by the referee, but never when your team gets an advantage from the referee – Your passion for your team makes you blind to it. It is similar to the way a gambler remembers how much they have won in a particular night, but never how much they have spent to get there.

The best way to test this theory? What was the last time that you watched a game where your team wasn’t playing and thought the referee was biased against one of the teams, rather than all the bad calls evening out over the course of the match? And the time before that? And before that? If you are being honest and you can actually remember three occasions, I’m (a) impressed and (b) certain you have gone back at least three seasons. So really/statistically, what are the chances that your team is robbed by these clowns every week?

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Towards the end of the match between the Tigers and South Sydney the other week my Dad called me to complain about the referee’s bad calls – A missed knock on that the Video Referee didn’t overrule that would have stopped a Wests try. Bunnies players having the ball raked out and the referee calling it a knock on, at least one of which led to a try. A dodgy knock on call against Reynolds that denied the Rabbitohs a try. Not sending a Tigers player off for deliberately and openly attempting to knee a Souths player in the head while tackling him.**

The list was endless. I have no doubt that every point he made was valid. But I’m also certain that he didn’t see or didn’t want to see the poor calls that went against the Tigers. The refereeing was terrible, but that wasn’t his complaint. His complaint was that the refereeing was against Souths. In all honesty, I thought the Tigers did benefit from the refereeing a little more than Souths did, but the point is that the Bunnies weren’t good enough to win the match, regardless. They were awful. One of their worst performances in the last 2 years. They didn’t deserve to win. If South Sydney had performed better they would have won in spite of the refereeing.

In my referee hating days, I used to wonder why the coach didn’t come out and complain about the blatant refereeing errors that I had seen, and I now realise that the reason is because all it does is give the players an excuse for losing. The aim is to be good enough that the refereeing decisions aren’t enough to stop you from taking the match.

Now, this does not excuse the outrageously poor standard of refereeing that is in the NRL currently. Between two referees on the field, two touch judges and a video referee with adequate technology to review decisions, they get at least one decision blatantly wrong in every match. EVERY MATCH! Sometimes I wonder if I even know the rules any more while I am watching these games. Then I realise that is a very real possibility. The fault for that lies directly at the feet of the NRL themselves.

For some reason, every off season the NRL seems to find the need to change at least 5 or 6 rules for the next season. Some of them are big rule changes, some of them are small. But in a game where there are already an inordinate amount of rules to officiate on, changing them every single off season gives the poor referees*** no hope! Last year there were 8 major rule changes in the off season and I have no idea how many minor ones. If the NRL wants to arrest the continuing slide of refereeing standards, they need to put a moratorium on rule changes for at least a year. Unless there is a dangerous issue in the game, there should be no rule reviews at the end of this season and at the most they should only happen every 2 years.

To make matters worse, most of the rule changes that are brought in each year are a reaction to the tactics employed by teams the season before. The people that instigate these changes? The NRL coaches. Instead of having to out think the opposing coach, they can now go into the offseason with a plan to change the rules to stifle the ladder leaders. Then the changes that are made create new tactics that in turn generate more rule changes. I guarantee that if the rules were reviewed and changed only every 3 or 4 seasons we would see coaches find tactical ways to counter act their opposition’s strengths, and half of the rule changes that are made would be unnecessary. For the sake of both the fans and the officials, we need to stop with the changes.

But I digress.

Since having my epiphany about the referees I have found watching sport immensely more enjoyable. Mostly because half of the teams I support are still pretty awful, and taking the referee out of the equation makes it so much easier for me to accept a loss. Most of the time, my team simply didn’t deserve to win. I am able to analyse the team’s performance in a much clearer way. I can see the weaknesses in game plans and players^ and can accurately assess if the team is improving week to week.

I implore everyone else to try and do the same when watching your teams this year. When you lose, look at what the team could have done better, not what could have gone right for them. Stop complaining about the referees. They are terrible, but they are not against you. After all, when was the last time you felt like you had an intelligent conversation with someone about sport where they tried to convince you a referee was against them?

 

 

 

 

 

*Something that eventually happened to a friend of mine

** With all the furore over head contact I’m amazed that this one has gotten almost no attention. Noel Kelly would have been proud and that guy got sent off twice in one game!

***My 21 year old self is rolling in his grave at me using that term

^Possibly South Sydney’s greatest weakness right now is having 3 Burgess brothers as walk up starters in the team, and nobody is willing to admit it, but that is a point for another time.

7 Questions from 2 Rounds of the NRL

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Every year we see tipsters spend the first couple of rounds of a new season trying to figure out just how good, or bad each team actually is.

Sometimes we have teams providing false hope while others have slow starts, but we all know where they will be in September.

 This year the NRL has tried to schedule some blockbuster opening season clashes, pitting the dominant 4 teams from last season against each other in round one, and then again in round 2 for Souths and Manly. What this fixture scheduling has also meant, is that there are a lot of pretty ordinary teams playing each other in the first 2 rounds, leaving us with so many unanswered questions after 2 weeks of matches.

1. Are the Broncos finally going to take advantage?

For almost their entire existence the Broncos have had a severe advantage over most of their opponents*, but because it has been mostly of their own making it hasn’t been too big of an issue. They’ve earned that position, so it’s theirs to lose. However over the last few years, they have been given a severe advantage by the people at Channel Nine who run the NRL scheduling. Over the past few seasons, the Broncos have been handed an inordinate number of Friday Night matches. Far more than any other team in the league. Getting a consistent 7 day turn around between matches, puts them at a significant on field advantage as well as giving them the ability to gain even more in sponsorship dollars due to the extra guaranteed television exposure.

But lately they haven’t been able to take advantage of it, with only one Top 4 finish so far this decade. This year’s team though, looks to be a little less of the old fashioned, free flowing, fancy Broncos, and a much tougher team that is willing to get down in the dirt and fight for their points – a quality needed to be a top team in this competition.
With only matches against last year’s disappointments, the Bulldogs, and last year’s unlucky playoff side the Cowboys, it may seem early to jump to conclusions. But the fact that both of the Broncos’ opponents so far managed to win their other match this season shows that they aren’t pushovers. They should be there or thereabouts come September.

2.  Is Gareth Widdop really the second coming of Jesus or are Dragons fans just getting a little excited?

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To have a St George Illawarra fan tell it to you, you would assume that Widdop had single handedly won the first two games of the season against last year’s grand finalists, scoring every point, and has proven himself as the next immortal. In reality the Dragons played a poor Tigers team and a worse Warriors team, Widdop did well with the boot in general play and when kicking for goal (something the Dragons have needed admittedly), but is yet to score one of their 12 tries, and while he has shown the confidence to drive the team around the park, the Dragons haven’t been tested for more than a total of about 45 minutes combined in their 2 first matches. For the record, in those 45 minutes that they were tested, they were outscored 30-12. Regardless, they look a better side this year than last. Though that is no great achievement.

3. What is the answer for the South Sydney halves?

I have to admit, I’m not sure what the thinking is in Redfern when it comes to the halves combination. After falling one match short for the last 2 seasons, Souths had a dilemma on their hands. With boom young pivot Luke Keary coming through and demanding first grade football with his outstanding form, the Bunnies had to find a way to fit him into the side with both John Sutton and Adam Reynolds. The move that was decided was for Sutton – a mammoth for a number 6 – to move into lock where he could use his ball skills and his size, hopefully to good effect. The upside of the move was not only that it would give Keary his deserved starting spot in the side, but would also allow Reynolds (only just starting his third year in first grade remember) to build up a combination with him that could take Souths into the future. The downside would be that after having the best season of his career, Sutton would be moved to a new position, in an already loaded forward pack. I personally wasn’t sold that having a total of 4 years NRL experience (come finals time) between the number 6 and 7 was really the move to take the Bunnies that one extra step to a Grand Final, and possibly a title, but I at least understood the thinking behind it. Then during the Auckland Nine’s disaster struck and Keary went down with a long term injury that could potentially see him out for the whole season. Where most saw the aforementioned disaster, I saw opportunity. One more season for Sutton in the backs before a transition to the forwards for next season, where the depth of the South Sydney pack would surely be tested anyway with the loss of Sam Burgess. I genuinely thought that Keary’s injury gave the Rabbitohs a much better shot at the title. For some reason, Maguire has zigged when I would have zagged. He has stuck with the plan of keeping Sutton in the 13 jersey while moving Dylan Walker from the centre’s to the less familiar spot in the halves**. It all the disadvantages of the original plan with none of the advantages. But there’s a reason that Madge gets paid the big bucks and it is because he makes the big decisions. Only time will tell who was right. Me or him***.

4. Has Ricky Stuart made an difference in Canberra or Parramatta?

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Another year, another team for Ricky Stuart to try and turn around. After 2 games this year, both the team that Stuart left and the one that he has joined don’t look to have gotten any better or worse. The Eels started with a bang aganst a Warriors team that people were overestimating. Just like last year. Then they came crashing back to earth as they played a team with a bit of quality. Just like last year. On the other hand the Raiders look like they have a heap of young talent, and on their day could either beat the best teams, or lose to the worst ones. Just like the last 10 or so years. As I said at the start of the column, it is hard to get much from just the first two rounds, particularly given the chosen fixtures, but neither side seems to have any noticeable difference from last year^

5.  Are the Warriors that bad?

Yes they are. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone. I feel sorry for Warriors fans. Every year for a couple of months around June/July they become the team that they are capable of being. The rest of the time they are who they are. REALLY inconsistent. Poor decision making. Awful defensively. No ability to complete sets. Warriors. Last year in June and July the New Zealand side won 6 of their 7 matches and looked a real threat for the title given the opposition they were beating. Outside of those two months, their collective record was 5 wins and 12 losses. In 2012 it happened from May to mid-July where they won a less impressive 5 of 8 games. Outside of that? 3 wins and 13 losses. The year before the run was simply timed later in the season and the momentum saw them make a Grand Final that they were never any real threat of winning. As I said when they did fairly well in the Auckland Nines (at their home ground, playing a style of football that suits every one of their strengths, but still didn’t manage to make the final) I don’t expect the Warriors to be in finals contention come August. The question is, how does the media get pulled in by it year after year. People were surprised that they have looked terrible in their opening few matches, with a Coach that has proven his limitations, a squad that lacks hard workers but overflows with risk takers and a schedule that sees them travel internationally every second week. If the Warriors are to EVER be considered a real threat they need to change a lot.

6. Are Penrith ready to make a ‘leap’ this year?

Every few years a new team jumps to the upper echelon of teams in the competition (while another often drops out). Last year the top teams were clear cut. Storm, Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs and Roosters. That was the upper echelon. The Roosters made the leap last year, replacing the Bulldogs. Souths made the leap the year before. Melbourne and Manly have been up there for a long time. With very few exceptions, you have to be one of those upper echelon teams to win the competition^^. The Panthers have spent the last couple of seasons trying to build a team that can be in the upper echelon. Through giving extended playing opportunities to good local juniors and trying to specifically have the right experienced players around them they saw their long term plan begin to bear fruit with an unexpectedly respectable season last year. This year they look to have (so far) at least put their hand up to be a top 8 side. On paper they are only at one win and one loss, but the win came against Newcastle, who were one game away from the Grand Final last year, and the loss was by a single point, away, against perennial powerhouses Melbourne. But that isn’t the biggest indicator that they may be ready for the leap. It is the fact that they came out after that loss and said that it was no longer good enough to accept that they performed well but didn’t get the points. That attitude could see them ready to join the competitions elite a little earlier than anybody expected.

7. Will the Tigers’ kids get them to finals or the spoon?

I was vocal amongst friends last year about my opinion that the Tigers needed to move Benji to the bench or to another team in order to give their young halves more time to find their feet in first grade in a season that was already a write off. The Panthers model above was the precise reasoning behind it. It seemed that the Tigers felt the same way and let Benji go to collect some splinters in New Zealand. Curiously they have replaced him with an older player in Braith Anasta (at least while they shuffle the lineup for injury cover) and I don’t think it’s the worst idea ever. As is sometimes seen, throwing all of your inexperienced players out to gain experience and watching them lose every week can actually create bad habits for the players and they don’t get the development needed. AN experienced head like Anasta to help steady the ship in match situations could do more for the development of the players than letting them figure it out themselves. Either way, the Tigers’ season will hinge on the performance of the youngsters, and as is often the case with kids (and has been in just 2 rounds so far) it is either rocks or diamonds. If the Tigers get enough diamonds out of them (and can begin to avoid the multiple catastrophic injuries that have become commonplace around Leichhardt and Campbelltown) they may be in contention to jag a 7th or 8th spot. Too many rocks and I fear they may not be able to overcome the inevitable Warriors surge and end up with the spoon. This one is still up in the air at this point, but I wish them well. The diamonds are great to watch

 

 

 

*Having all of Brisbane to themselves, high membership numbers, money etc.

** He has played in the halves at other levels of the game, but the truth is, that is not the same, and he seems a stop gap half at best, but a good quality centre.

***Spoiler alert, it’ll be him.

^Interestingly, the same thing has happened with NSW. They went from almost winning before Stuart coached them, to almost winning while he coached them, to almost winning after he left.

^^Tigers in 2005 are a team to defy the odds. They did finish 4th that season, but it was on the back of a long winning streak that saw them still only just grab a top 4 spot. They finished the season on fire but were not a ‘top echelon team’ that year.

10 Things I Liked or Didn’t Like at the Auckland Nines

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1. Considering the emergence of golden point as a more common end to games these days, I would have thought that maybe a half dozen people in the league might actually be able to kick a field goal. The total tally for the weekend was 76 conversions made from a staggering 164 attempts for a paltry 46%. There was even one attempt from directly in front that managed to hit both posts and miss.* If that many players can’t kick a field goal with as much time as they want and nobody running at them, I fear we may have a few draws this NRL season.

2. The Tigers can rest easy if they had any fear of the Australian Rugby Union looking to steal Robbie Farah away to play in the Sevens at the next Olympics. As arguably the most decorated player to be sent over for the tournament, Robbie had a shocker. Wests had a fairly poor tournament, and their only win came in a game where the opposition had a player sin binned, and Farah himself was sin binned in the late in the match. Known as a creative player, he led his team to a 0 scoreline in their final match to be one of only 2 teams to finish a pool match without scoring a point. In future it might be best to leave him at home to get some rest. Could help him AND the team.

3. The Eels continued the proud tradition of improvement after Ricky Stuart leaves a club. Having led them to the Wooden Spoon last season, Stuart moved on the Raiders. The Eels of course came out and finished day one as one of only 3 undefeated teams. When Stuart left The Roosters at the end of 2006 they were in second last. His replacement got them to within 1 point of the top 8 the next season. After he left the Sharks with the second worst record in the league in 2010 they were broke and almost folded as a club at one point. The next season only saw a marginal improvement given the financial dire straits that the club was in, but the following season (while still very poor) they were in the top 8. Heads up Eels fans, you should manage to avoid the spoon this season.

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4. I understand the idea of teams wearing some ‘one off’ jerseys for this tournament. I’m sure they sold enough of them at the ground to make it worthwhile, and I’m sure they will sell more at Peter Wynn’s Score and the like to come out ahead. But for the sake of peoples sanity in future, can we get someone that has any clue what they are doing to design them? Or someone that has ever watched Rugby League? Or even someone that has at least been told what the teams’ colours are? Some of these designs were god awful as it was, but we had The Bulldogs looking like the Eels and the Eels looking like the Bulldogs. In case you didn’t know, they have been fierce rivals for over 30 years. The Warriors who wear Black and Grey looked like the Titans who wear a bright Light Blue. The Cowboys, whose colours are Navy and Yellow, looked to like the Tigers whose colours are Orange and Black. It was an absolute mess. By all means, try some new designs, but at least get the colours right.

5. Every year in the first few rounds, as people start to notice that there have been plenty of dropped balls and some general sloppy play because of it, someone asks if there is a problem with the balls being used. Then the argument that the players are just rusty comes up and the football eventually improves and everyone forgets about it again until next season. Well this weekend has already disproven both of those theories. For a game that is meant to be wild and carefree, I saw multiple matches on the weekend where both teams had completion stats around the 80% mark. Passes were being thrown like it was touch football yet the dropped balls weren’t around. Could it be that playing day time football actually increases the level of play?? With the television networks completely running the game now, we will never know. Sigh.

6. Maybe it was heavily advertised as such in Auckland and therefore I missed it, but the Kiwi’s don’t half mind a bit of a dress up do they? There were more costumes than a weekend at the Darts. From the groups dressed to a particular theme to the sole psychopaths in bizarre face paint, I welcome the carnival atmosphere for its own entertainment value between matches

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7. The bonus point concept for a try scored under the posts was an interesting one and early on day one I proclaimed that I was really hoping to see someone risk scoring a try at all just to try and get it in to the bonus zone for that extra point. That moment came in the Quarter Final between the hometown Warriors and the Rabbitohs. Holding a 10-4 lead, Shaun Johnson broke through the line and headed for home but made an extra effort to ensure he got the ball under the posts, diving across while being tackled. He managed to be awarded the bonus point try. Subsequent replays showed that he actually fell short on his initial grounding, but I was just happy to get my wish and see someone make that extra effort and take the risk.** Conversely in the last couple of minutes of that same game, Souths were trailing 17-4 when they got over the line with about 100 seconds to go and simply put the ball down about 2 metres to the left of the posts instead of going for the bonus point. The Bunnies converted the try and scored again from the kick off, but once again grounded the ball just a couple of metres to the left of the uprights. They converted that one too and lost the match by one point, 17-16. If the players had just a little bit of foresight and scored even one of those tries a little further over they may have gone to extra time. Had they thought to do it for both of them, they would have pulled off the comeback of the tournament. A little intelligence goes a long way. Credit to Shaun Johnson for having it.

8. Scheduling nerd alert. One of the basic tenets of making any tournaments draw is the cross over. Unless a tournament is a straight knockout, there always needs to be a crossover. Be it something as simple as the semi-finals of the NRL where the crossover means that the two ‘Top Four’ teams that play in week one can’t meet again unless they get to the Grand Final, because if the loser of that first game, wins their next one and survives through to week three, they CROSS OVER and play the winner of the other ‘Top Four’ game. Or if it is the biggest sporting tournament in the world, the Football World Cup, where it is impossible for two teams that get out of their group together to play each other again unless they both make the final. The crossover is essential in making both a fair and interesting draw. Of course the organisers of the draw for the Nine’s didn’t seem to have heard of the crossover as we watched the Warriors and Cowboys come out of their group, win their quarter finals and then have to face off against each other again in the semi-finals. It is a really amateur way of doing the draw and needs to be addressed for next year.

9. Defence wins titles. They say it in all sports. I wouldn’t have thought it would apply to this form of Rugby League given its nature, but North Queensland showed us that wasn’t the case. Having pushed the Warriors to the limit in their pool game with an all-out attack, a change of plan for the semis saw them hold the tournament’s top scorers to nil in a shock turn of events that saw them go on to win the inaugural title. That they got to do it by keeping their perennial older brother Broncos to just one try was a bonus. It was nice to see a different and likeable team winning a trophy in Rugby League. Long may it continue.

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10. The biggest thing we learnt from the Nines is that they are not going to be an indicator for anything come the business end of the NRL season. I’ll be impressed if more than one of the Cowboys, Broncos, Warriors or Sharks finish in the top 4 this year. Likewise I will be surprised to see more than one of Melbourne, Manly or the Roosters miss the top 8 as they did on the weekend. It is going to be a long year with a very different feel to this weekend just gone, but it was nice to see the boys running around again. Has me excited for the new season already.

 

 

 

 

 

*That was in the Rabbitohs first match. If that had been converted The Bunnies would have avoided a Quarter Final match up with the favourites – The Warriors. Instead they would have taken on the eventual champions- The Cowboys.

**Another issue entirely is just how much home town refereeing the Warriors got in most of their games. It was obviously important that they didn’t bomb out early, and apparently the referees knew this too…