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…

The Year That Was 2013

Leaving apart the fact that something could happen in the next couple of days (like the Darts World Title) that could have won one of these awards, I’m prepared to give out my first ever Annual Awards for my favourite things* of 2013.

Best Female Tennis Performance

While the Men’s Tennis scene has become more boring than watching tennis over the last few years, Women’s tennis has been a bit more of a mixed bag where rallies still take place and the winner of a major tournament isn’t decided prior to the tournament even beginning. In the last 8 years only 5 men have won the 32 Grand Slam tournaments played, while the women have had 8 different winners in just the last 3 years (12 tournaments). In January, Victoria Azarenka** became the first person not named Williams to defend the Australian Open crown since Jennifer Capriati early in the millennium. Overcame a toe injury and fought off the tag of being a One Slam Wonder, the world’s most famous Belarusian solidified herself as my favourite female Tennis player since Martina Hingis.

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Honourable Mention: Sam Stosur for not making it past the 3rd round in any major. Really sticking it to all those people who thought you were more than a one hit wonder…

Best Nickname – Team or Duo

The 2013 NBA Playoffs were expected to be a straightforward affair with the teams from the Western Conference making up the numbers til either the Spurs or Thunder played Miami for the title, and on the surface that is what happened. But when you get into the nitty gritty, a little team that weren’t expected to do much had a breakout star who lifted his team to a new level that has seen them touted as serious contenders for the 2014 title. The major reason for this is the emergence of possibly the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the gameThe Splash Brothers. Named after the infinitely better Bash Brothers – Portman and Reed of Team USA Hockey at the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games – Klay Thompson and Steph Curry set the NBA world alight with a universe of 3 pointers that destroyed the heavily favoured Nuggets and pushed the almost World Champion Spurs like no other team in the West could even come close to.

Honourable Mention: Zach Lowe’s admirable attempt to get people to call the New Orleans Pelican’s the Pellies. Stick with it Zach. The people will come around eventually.

Best New TV Show

This one isn’t even close. Orange Is The New Black is easily the best new show of this year for mine. One of the VERY few shows of the last 10 years to have three dimensional female characters that are actually interesting and don’t revolve their entire lives around what men think of them, what they can do to get a man, or what they should do with their lives now that their man has left them alone, and therefore an empty shell of a human. In short, it passes the Bechdel Test. Most shows don’t. Of course men are involved in their lives because they are humans after all, and this isn’t a feminist rant, but the show has developed female characters that aren’t simply there as window dressing, and they actually have something to say occasionally. It’s well made, well written, compelling television that doesn’t come along often enough in circumstances where men are the main protagonists and it’s refreshing to see women getting a go for a change.

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Honourable Mention: The Jeselnik Offensive. It’s Offensive, it’s Jeselnikian, and it is most definitely The.

Best Rivalry

The ongoing hatred between Sydney FC coach Frank Farina and the majority of Sydney’s fans has been a fascinating rivalry to watch. Portions of the fan base didn’t want him signed at all when he got the job in late 2012, but many could see the sense in a short term appointment. When his contract was extended in spite of Farina failing to meet the frankly low ‘minimum requirements’ of his stated job description (make the 2013 finals) many more fans were put further offside. After starting off with ‘results first’ football, Farina promised to bring style and goals to Allianz Stadium. After a full pre-season to get the improvements in place, Sydney lost 3 of their first 4 games scoring only 2 goals in the process and never looking in control of any games, as well as being comfortably taken care of in all pre-season fixtures against A-League opposition. This is where he seemed to lose most of the fans and the twitter hashtag #FarinaOut gained some momentum. Farina responded to this by lashing out at the fans and the relationship has been lost since then. Sydneys results have improved (a little) but the style of play promised*** has not eventuated and even the matches that Sydney have won have not been entirely convincing, against some of the worst teams in the league. After the battering the Sky Blues took on Boxing Day, at the hands of a team playing the style of football Farina promised, it appears that this rivalry may not last to the end of 2014 to defend its crown with Franks job looking less and less secure.

Honourable Mentions: First, Wanderers really want Sydney to have the biggest rivalry with them, but they’ve no chance with the way Sydney can turn on itself. Second, Ronda Rousey v Miesha Tate. These two hate each other and are going to try to beat the shit out of each other on 29/12 (Sydney time anyway). I can’t wait.

Best Album That I Bought

I don’t listen to A LOT of new music. I purchase even less of it. Most of the music I listen to is a long way from popular, I probably buy as many albums at gigs off local bands as I do on iTunes and I often find a band a get into their back catalogue, and may discover my favourite album from 2013 when I hear it in 2017. So this is most definitely not a definitive selection by any means as there are only so many albums that I bought that actually came out this year. Having said all of that, at the moment my favourite album of 2013 is The Dillinger Escape Plan – One Of Us Is The Killer. It continues on the bands slow trajectory of mixing their tech-math-core-whatever-you -want-to-call-it with pop rock sensibilities that accentuate the insanity of their heavy side. A well rounded album that I could listen to for days. Watch this video.

Honourable Mentions: First is …Like Clockwork by Queens Of The Stone Age. I didn’t like it at first, but it has grown on me and My God Is The Sun is great track. Second is the debut full length album by Iron Reagan called Worse Than Dead. Not a song over 2 minutes and all 19 tracks beat the shit out of you.

Dishonourable Mentions: Jay Z’s album as a whole wasn’t bad, but it needs to mentioned that F*ckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt is literally^ the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life.

Best Feel-Good Story

Surprisingly, given the horror year (or decade really) that Rugby League has had off the field, my favourite story of the year was seeing the USA Tomahawks defy all odds by getting out of their group at the Rugby League World Cup and take on the heavyweights of Rugby League in the Quarter Finals. The inevitable mauling that the Kangaroos gave them notwithstanding, the Tomahawks had a great tournament beating both The Cook Islands, as well as the traditionally strong Wales. Making the achievements even more spectacular is the fact that coach Terry Matterson only took over the team a month prior to the World Cup after Brian Smith quit as coach amid controversy over his methods and selections. Smith himself had only taken over from Matthew Elliott at the start of the year once Elliott stepped down after guiding the team through qualifications. Such a lack of continuity would derail a fully professional teams campaign let alone a squad made up at least partially of amateurs^^ and their achievement was the only interesting part of a mostly redundant World Cup. The tournament result, coupled with the pre-tournament win against number 4 ranked France has seen the USA move into the top 10 rankings ahead of the likes of Scotland, Italy and Tonga.

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Honourable Mention: The budding bromance between Ricky Stuart and Josh Papalii. After Papalii changed his mind on signing with Parramatta and stayed in the nations capital, Stuart was so desperate to coach him that he left the Eels behind to take the job at the Raiders.

WORST THING OF THE YEAR

The NRL continued their tradition of having hateable teams in the Grand Final. The leagues most hated teams in some order are Manly, Roosters, Bulldogs, Melbourne, and Brisbane. 11 of the last 12 Grand Finals have been contested between one or in some cases 2 of these teams, and they’ve won 8 of the last 10 competitions. 2005 was the last time there were two likeable teams in the Grand Final and as a Rugby League fan, I’m kind of getting sick of it. Not really anyone’s fault in particular, but it needs to stop soon or Grand Final Day will lose ALL of its fun. It’s already lost most of it.

BEST THING OF THE YEAR

The ending of what will surely go down as one of history’s greatest television programs^^^ has already been given plenty of accolades and is sure to get plenty more, but in my humble little opinion, while the final season had its flaws, the sum of the work this show put into making greatness culminated in as satisfying a way as any show has ever done. That’s right Dexter has always nailed the monster of the week and the season long arc in perfect balance and trololololol, lolol lolol. Of course I’m actually talking about Breaking Bad and the wonderful performance of Bryan Cranston in his career defining role as Walter White. We’ve been blessed in the last decade or so with the TV revolution and it may be a while until we see a show of this consistent quality hit our screens again. Soak it up while you can people.

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And that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog this year and that you will continue to do so into the future.

Please come back for more at regular intervals, and let me know your thoughts below!

 

 

 

*That is deliberately broad because I’m going to try and cover as much as possible here.

**I have no idea what it is about her, but she has something that I like.

***To be fair, every manager in the world says that they are going to make the team play an attractive brand of football.

^Yes, I do mean literally. Not the way that people over use that word these days.

^^They had 5 players from their domestic league in the squad, which considering the quality is actually quite good if you ask me.

^^^I have it third all time.