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.

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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.

The Curious Case of the Dirty Reds

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On January 9th 1908 the second Sydney Rugby League team was created. Before the Tigers were formed at Balmain Town Hall, before the Rabbitohs gathered in Redfern, and before Paddington Town Hall announced that the Eastern Suburbs Region would participate in the newly formed competition, the Glebe District Rugby League Football Club was formed.

They would fall by the way side in less than 25 years, like so many other teams both before and after them, but none has quite the unique story that the Dirty Reds do.

Growing up, I didn’t have avenues such as Wikipedia, or even the internet, to allow me to research all of the topics I found interesting. The internet wasn’t a big thing until around the time I finished High School. Wikipedia didn’t exist until 3 years after I finished High School and it didn’t reach a total of 1 million articles until 8 years after I finished High School (there’s currently over 4 times that many articles on Wikipedia). Consequently, I am still catching up on all the things I would have wasted my youth learning about* and in researching my highly indulgent last article, I finally got a chance to look into the early days of the NSWRL.

My vague childhood memories of those early teams included Glebe, as well as Cumberland, Newcastle, Annandale and University. But in my mind they were all there in 1908, were all rubbish and in turn all left the comp within the first few years. That description is accurate for some of the clubs, but for Glebe I was well off the mark.

Cumberland won a single game in their history and left the competition after just one season. Newcastle, lasted a total of 20 matches over 2 seasons with a winning percentage of 45%. Annandale weren’t there from the very beginning (joining in 1910) but somehow managed to last for 11 seasons in spite of winning only 25 of their 153 matches, including 2 entirely winless seasons. University started in 1920 and astoundingly got through 18 seasons that included 12 wooden spoons. They had one small spot of success in 1926 when they finished as runners up, but followed it up by finishing in last place the following season. They have the record for most consecutive losses in NSWRL/NRL history with  42 and they in fact only won 2 games in their last 4 seasons in the competition**

Those are the other folded teams of the Pre-WWII era. You can probably understand why I had lumped them all in together as a bunch of awful teams that the competition was better off without.

Then there’s Glebe.

They obviously participated in the first season back in 1908, sitting in a three way tie for first position on the ladder heading in the final game of the season against next door neighbours Balmain. They lost that final match and finished the season in third. For some reason the finals format that season had them playing the first placed Rabbitohs in a knockout semi-final, whilst the second placed Roosters got to play 4th placed North Sydney. Glebe had beaten Eastern Suburbs (11-5) in their only encounter of the season – and it was the only game that the Roosters lost all year. Unfortunately the Dirty Reds were not good enough to beat South Sydney and missed out on a place in the first ever Grand Final, but if it weren’t for this scheduling quirk, they may have played at the Agricultural Showground at Moore Park on the last Saturday of August 1908.

The following 2 years saw Glebe drop off into 5th place on both occasions, but 1911 was a big year as they finished the regular season with the minor premiership after 11 wins and 3 losses as well as both the league’s best attack and defence. This was due in no small part to the emergence of the teenage sensation and one of the greatest players ever to play the game – Frank Burge.

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Burge made his Rugby League debut for Glebe that year as a 16 year old Second Rower. Think about that. A 16 year old second rower. He scored 7 tries that season, but what’s even more amazing is that he had switched codes at the start of the year from Rugby Union – where he started playing first grade two years earlier at age 14! Burge was named on the bench in the Rugby League Team of the Century in 2008 and he was quite simply a phenomenon.

Burge turned 17 about a month before Glebe took on Eastern Suburbs in the Grand Final that year and it took another great of the game – Dally Messenger – to deny Glebe their first ever Premiership win.

In 1912 Glebe were denied their chance for revenge. They finished the year in second place behind the Roosters however the rules were changed so that the team that finished the season on top of the ladder were declared the Premiers automatically and a final was only to be played if two teams finished on equal points. If this had been in place the season before, Glebe would have been the Premiers.

1913 saw Glebe slip to 4th place (which is still respectable, and downright outstanding compared to the other teams mentioned in this article) in the league, but managed to win the City Cup, a tournament played at seasons end, to give them their first real silverware.

1915 was the real emergence of Frank Burge as Glebe finished the season in second place again and the now 20 year old forward finished the season as the top try scorer with 20 tries – in just 14 games.

1916 saw Glebe finish 1 point off top spot with by far the league’s best attack as Frank Burge continued to grow into the statistical anomaly that defined his career, this season scoring 22 tries in the 14 games played.

1918 had Frank Burge breaking his own try-scoring record, this time with 24 tries in 14 matches, but Glebe were once again just off the pace in third spot.

In 1920 Frank Burge was the leading point scorer in the competition as he took on goal kicking duties as well as setting the still standing record for most tries in a game with 8. That’s right, 8. But they only managed to finish in 3rd spot – the same position they would finish for the shortened 1921 season. They had proven to be a good team, but not quite the best.

The 1922 season was the longest season yet at 16 matches and Glebe finished on equal points with the North Sydney Bears at the conclusion of the regular season, which under the aforementioned rules meant that they would be pitted against each other in a Grand Final match to determine the Premiership. North Sydney had won the Premiership the previous season and rode their momentum through to a thorough Grand Final victory over the Dirty Reds and Glebe were once again denied their maiden premiership.

In 1926, the finals series was brought back to life with the top four teams going through to the finals. Glebe finished in second place and took on the perennial easy beats University in the knockout semi-final. As fate would have it, University would win their first and only ever semi-final match comfortably against Glebe, who had now written their own narrative as always being the bridesmaid, but never the bride.

In their last 3 seasons in the competition (1927-29) Glebe would spend most of their time battling to avoid the wooden spoon, which they did manage to do. A small feat, yes, but it meant that they finished their existence without ever ending the season in last place.

To recap, they finished 22 regular seasons with the following placements –
1st – 1 time
2nd – 4 times
3rd – 5 times  (That’s already 10 times out of 22 attempts that they were in the top three)
4th – 3 times (Given that 11 of the seasons they played had 8 teams and 11 had 9 teams this gives them a total of 13 finishes in the top half of the table or about 60%)
5th – 4 times (One of these times they were stripped of 2 points which would have seen them finish 3rd)
6th – 2 times (The first of which didn’t happen until their 16th season)
7th – 1 time
8th – 2 times
9th – 0 times

That is a record that I think a lot of teams would take even if you weighted the positioning to adjust for the extra sides that are now in the competition. The Cowboys have been around for almost as long as Glebe existed now (this is their 18th season) and if you could give their supporters a choice between their current record (On the brink of just their 6th top half finish with 1 Grand Final loss and 3 wooden spoons) or give them Glebe’s results from their first 18 seasons (12 top half finishes with 2 Grand Final losses and no wooden spoons) I know which one they’d be choosing, and the Cowboys are considered a fairly successful team in terms of their on-field performance.

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So what happened?

Wikipedia mentions rumours of a conspiracy in voting that forced them out of the competition, with an alleged deal being done between Balmain and Souths to rid the competition of Glebe and consolidate their respective territories. However this doesn’t really make sense. Obviously I would expect that Balmain would absorb some of Glebe’s territory, but Sydney University would surely also gain territory as well as Newtown being between the South Sydney and Glebe boundaries meaning that an agreement with Souths would not make sense from the Rabbitohs perspective.

As you can imagine, first-hand accounts from that time are few and far between, so I did what any person would do in my search for Rugby League knowledge.

I asked David Middleton, who (of course) was a phenomenally useful wealth of information on the subject.

It all started back in the 1917 season when Glebe were docked 2 points for fielding a player who was not residentially qualified to be playing for them (Dan Davies). Back then, to play for any club, you had to be living within their boundaries. There were no salary caps and very little in the way of mercenary behaviour from players because signing for a new team would require moving your whole family to the other end of the city, which wasn’t as simple back then as it is now. Dan was a former Newcastle player from their earlier seasons and he moved to Sydney and was quickly brought in by Glebe. He had to live in the Glebe area for 28 days before he was eligible, however Davies was technically living in Annandale which is a bordering suburb of Glebe. But that was not enough. Much like the maligned Adam Banks*** in the Mighty Ducks series, the borders were the borders for a reason and he was playing for the wrong team. They may have even gotten away with it (at least for a while) if they didn’t rush him into the team immediately following his required 28 days of residence to make his debut against – you guessed it – Annandale. Glebe disagreed with the ruling of the NSWRL hierarchy to strip the 2 premiership points off them and it led to a player strike later in the season and completely derailed what was a promising season until then, as they won only 2 of their remaining 6 games after this. The ‘rebel’ players were initially threatened with life bans but were re-instated before the beginning of the 1918 season, except for Dan Davies who did receive a life ban from playing Rugby League in Australia.

It was the beginning of what would be an ongoing war between Glebe and the League – a war which could only ever be won by one party.

There were disputes over the use of Glebe’s home ground at Wentworth Park**** and the departure of their top administrator (CHJ Upton) in 1920 seems to have exacerbated the situation leaving communications between the club and the league at an all-time low.

Glebe felt that a strong bias had grown against their players when it came to judiciary matters and an attempt to stage a testimonial match for the great Frank Burge in 1923 was met by the NSWRL putting on counter attractions to deny the club of a strong revenue stream from the match.

But it wasn’t all one sided. Glebe was awfully mismanaged through the 1920’s. There is a letter from a Glebe supporter that is held in the JC Davis Sporting collection at the NSW State Library that attests to delegates living out of the district (contrary to NSWRL regulations), an absence of quality coaching and a lack of action by officials over matters important to the club.

In the wash up of all of this, Glebe were a targeted team who, once results went south, were no longer worth the trouble that they were causing the NSWRL.

It is believed that from about 1927 “Balmain’s rugby league delegates had been quietly working towards Glebe’s elimination so the Balmain club could acquire Glebe’s territory in their efforts to recapture their old glories” according to author Max Solling. Of course this work would require garnering some support from the other clubs to turf the Dirty Reds. What Balmain offered in return for the rival clubs’ support is not clear, but it is believed that the targeted teams were Newtown, Easts and Souths.

There were 25 votes on the NSWRL Boundaries Revision Committee which were comprised of 2 delegates from each of the 9 teams along with the 7 members of the league executive. It could be counted on that the 7 league executive members would be voting against keeping Glebe in the competition, meaning that along with Balmain, only two clubs needed to be convinced of the advantages of voting against Glebe’s continued involvement. Nobody knows how each club officially voted, but in the end Balmain got their way, with the vote finishing 13-12 against Glebe. So while the Tigers may have instigated the final nail it was a coffin that the Dirty Reds management seem to have built for themselves.

In the end, what could have been the story of a successful team on the field, ended up being the story of a club that couldn’t get its act together off it. It’s probably a timely reminder to clubs like the Sharks (and others) that getting their house in order should be the first priority, because as Glebe has shown us, no matter your record on the premiership table, you’re a long time dead.

 

 

 

 

*Instead I wasted my youth listening to Rage Against The Machine and NoFX albums, learning every line of dialogue from The Simpsons, trying to play guitar, and getting drunk – in some order. Probably that one.

**They got the wooden spoon in 8 of their last 9 seasons. But they were amateur students playing against the big boys. You can’t really blame them for being so abysmal all the time.

***Cake eater

****What I wouldn’t give for a nice 25,000 seat stadium at Wentworth Park today. If Glebe were still around I think this would be a possibility, and would also have to be a huge chance to be Sydney FC’s home ground as well.