Burnt out by RLPA’s tired old lines
As yet another player welfare furore erupts between the RLPA and the NRL over the 2016 schedule and the prevalence of five-day turnarounds – after the players’ bleating effectively delivered another crushing blow to international football – we thought we’d take a look back at what the uncomplaining players of yesteryear had to contend with.
In 1986, Terry Lamb played 24 games for Canterbury, one game for City Firsts, two Origins for NSW, two mid-season Tests for Australia and all 20 games on the end-of-year Kangaroo Tour – 49 competitive matches in total. Four years later, Mal Meninga made 24 appearances for Canberra, played two Origins for Queensland and two mid-season Tests for Australia, and chalked up 11 games on the Kangaroo Tour for a total of 39 matches. These tallies don’t take into account the midweek and pre-season competitions clubs staged in those days, or the fact that most players combined their footy with fulltime jobs and put their bodies on the line every week for much less coin.
Lamb eventually retired from representative football – an option still available to all ‘burnt out’ NRL stars, most of whom are unwilling to give up the lure of big Origin dollars; they are, however, happy for the less lucrative Test arena to take a backseat.
While hovering around that aspect of the debate, it was tremendous to see Kiwis and Warriors superstar Shaun Johnson once again go against the grain and hose down the burnout talk, as well as questioning why international football is getting continually shafted while Origin remains untouched.
Ungrateful Roberts takes advantage of Titans’ incompetence
It’s easy to lay the blame completely at the feet of the Gold Coast Titans in the James Roberts saga. Former Titans football manager Scott Clark forged Roberts’ signature on the paperwork of a contract, rendering it void. Roberts, well within his rights, is taking his undeniable talents elsewhere. Pretty cut and dried.
The 23-year-old claimed Dally M Centre of the Year honours after a breakout 2015 campaign, scoring a club record-equalling 16 tries and emerging as one of the premier backline strike weapons in the game. But less than two years ago, he was on the scrapheap, punted by Souths and then Penrith following a string of off-field problems. Gold Coast threw Roberts a lifeline and it paid off handsomely for both parties…but now the young flyer has used a balls-up by the Titans as an opening to turn his back on them.
Roberts will land with a club that has a chance of winning a premiership – reportedly one of the Broncos, Sharks, Dragons, Eels and, somewhat ironically, Rabbitohs – with a significantly increased pay-packet. The Titans, after nurturing the wayward tyro and helping resurrect his career, are left with nothing but a giant hole in their roster and the competition’s least threatening backline.
Greg Bird has slammed media reports that suggested he criticised Roberts’ decision to walk, but the Titans’ only remaining recognised representative-quality player should be feeling let down. When comparing it to Kieran Foran’s decision to honour his Parramatta deal after the club did its best to sabotage it, Roberts has come out of this fiasco looking rather opportunistic.
I just wanna say I’m not hitting out at Jimmy for his decision, its a joke that its been twisted this way for negative hype.
— Greg Bird (@Birdman_013) December 8, 2015
Panthers pick up a trump in Hiku
Manly has gambled on cutting Peta Hiku loose to bring the flashier Dylan Walker into the fold, but Penrith has emerged as potentially the biggest winner of the extraordinary centre merry-go-round of recent weeks after snapping up the ultra-versatile Kiwi on a three-year deal. A quality winger with 22 tries in 34 games for Manly on the flank, the 23-year-old has excelled at Test level at fullback, centre and five-eighth, while his intermittent performances at fullback and in the centres for the Sea Eagles have been first-rate.
At this stage, the Warriors junior shapes as the long-term centre replacement for the troubled Jamal Idris – a tremendous swap from the Panthers’ point of view – but a huge chunk of his value comes from his ability to plug key gaps, which will come in handy if the club endures anything like the injury crises of 2014-15.
Grass is Green-er for Maroons
Queensland has reportedly done away with a winning formula by offering the head coach role, vacated by Mal Meninga, to North Queensland’s premiership-winning mentor Paul Green. Kevin Walters was the favourite by a long margin – particularly after Michael Hagan ruled himself out of the race – until the Cowboys coach came from left-field. Green’s ability is not in question, but the move away from employing NRL-burdened coaches has proved beneficial for both states. Meninga led the Maroons through an unprecedented period of success, while the Blues pegged their oppressors back after putting Ricky Stuart and then Laurie Daley at the helm.
The last coach to combine NRL and Origin duties was Melbourne mastermind Craig Bellamy, who coached NSW for three years from 2008-10 – each series loss more convincing than the last. A coach with dual Origin-NRL responsibilities has not defeated a non-NRL coach in the Origin arena since Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett’s Maroons notched a famous 2-1 series win over Wayne Pearce’s Blues in 2001 – and Bennett had the advantage of having 11 of his Broncos players in the squad.
And given the difficulty defending premiers have endured over the past two decades, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys hierarchy being too thrilled about the Origin workload being piled on the affable Green, who is still relatively inexperienced as a full-time NRL coach.
Sharks veterans’ bid to play on may be unwelcome
Cronulla stalwarts and respected internationals Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis – both off-contract at the end of 2016 – have both expressed their desire to plug on for another season in recent days. Lewis, who has only been in the Shire since 2013, has conceded he may need to find another club if he is to continue in the NRL beyond next year. But the Sharks may be put in an awkward position by the 34-year-old Gallen, who rates with Steve Rogers and Andrew Ettingshausen as the club’s greatest-ever player.
Cronulla’s priority is securing boom off-contract utility Jack Bird and reborn hooker Michael Ennis, while the club may look to upgrade and extend the likes of Wade Graham, Valentine Holmes and Sosaia Feki, who are all currently signed until the end of 2017. The inspirational skipper still provides outstanding value and leadership, but the raw facts are that Gallen has played no more than 16 games in each of the last four seasons. There was plenty of conjecture before the Sharks and Gallen eventually agreed to a one-year extension for 2016 – and the club’s hierarchy would probably prefer the high-priced legend to sail off into the sunset at the end of next season.
One potential solution – if Gallen does want to go around again – would be attempting to offload Ben Barba, the fallen superstar who is on a rumoured $800,000-a-season for another two years but appears to be surplus to requirements in the Sharks’ burgeoning squad.
Garish jerseys add to Nines’ appeal
All 16 clubs unveiled their strips for next year’s NRL Auckland Nines – some low-key, some creative, some appealing and some ugly af. They’ve caused quite the social media stir, but all of them, in their own way, add to the spirit and carnival atmosphere of the tournament. While it sucks if your club has a vomit-inducing jumper for the first weekend in February, fans should embrace all the extra colour and questionable marketing decisions that the Nines bring to the start of our season.
— Stuff.co.nz Sport (@NZStuffSport) December 8, 2015
For the record, here’s Commentary Box Sports’ staff’s unqualified critique on the crop of 2016 Nines clobber…
BEST: 1. Knights, 2. Warriors, 3. Eels, 3. Cowboys, 4. Roosters, 5. Sea Eagles
WORST: 1. Titans, 2. Dragons, 3. Storm, 4. Bulldogs, 5. Sharks
England: The Kiwis may have been missing a clutch of key players – most notably in the halves – but England’s wins in the first and third encounters were little short of resounding. Continuity and a handful of genuine world-class performers has seen the long-suffering Poms build on a promising, luckless 2014 Four Nations campaign – a tournament they will head into full of confidence at the end of next year on home soil.
Kodi Nikorima: He may not have been able to inspire a Kiwis series win, but the Brisbane utility was superb in the second and third Tests after being pitched into the halfback role. Super skilful and a genuine game-breaker, Nikorima’s performances suggest he will provide excellent halves back-up for Broncos guns Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt. Like Hunt, Nikorima may ultimately be gunning for a full-time starting role as a playmaker after serving an apprenticeship as the Broncos’ dummy-half interchange.
Tohu Harris: Sometimes lost amongst the Kiwis’ star-studded pack, the Melbourne backrower’s displays in England were magnificent. Harris was the vanquished New Zealanders’ best forward – particularly in the second Test, when his robust running, second-phase play, tireless defence and outstanding clean-up work were vital to the series-saving triumph. His first trip to England in the black-and-white jumper – after controversially having his 2013 World Cup spot taken away by Sonny Bill Williams’ last-minute back-flip on his decision not to tour – took Harris’ tally to 10 Tests, and the 23-year-old Hawke’s Bay product shapes as an automatic selection for many years to come.
Gold Coast Titans: In the wake of their multiple pre-season controversies and then Daly Cherry-Evans’ gut-wrenching contract back-flip, the Titans’ loss of their best strike weapon, James Roberts, thanks to gross mismanagement is almost comical. The club has recruited incredibly modestly for 2016 (Nathan Friend, David Shillington, Tyrone Roberts, Zeb Taia, Ashley Taylor), and while the Titans are reportedly in the hunt for unwanted Bulldog Tim Lafai, they shape as a last resort for any potential suitors – particularly if they stick solid to the line that they are not prepared to pay overs for any players.
Joe Burgess: The 21-year-old Wigan star has the inside running for a wing berth at the Sydney Roosters in 2016, with Blake Ferguson the likely fullback replacement for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Kenny-Dowall set for a return to the centres. But Burgess was dropped by England coach Steve McNamara – who also happens to be the Roosters’ assistant coach – for the decider against New Zealand after two unimpressive displays in the opening two Tests. His replacement, debutant Jermaine McGillvary, was outstanding as England clinched the series. Not exactly a great lead-in for Burgess with fellow boom youngsters Brendan Elliott, Latrell Mitchell and Jonny Tuivasa-Sheck breathing down his neck.
EARLY FORECAST: STATE OF ORIGIN 1, 2016 LINE-UPS
1 Billy Slater
2 Valentine Holmes
3 Will Chambers
4 Greg Inglis
5 Darius Boyd
6 Johnathan Thurston
7 Cooper Cronk
8 Matt Scott
9 Cameron Smith (c)
10 Nate Myles
11 Aidan Guerra
12 Sam Thaiday
13 Corey Parker
14 Michael Morgan
15 Josh McGuire
16 Dylan Napa
17 Matt Gillett
The Maroons side – for the series opener at least – will pick itself, but we’ve gone for Cronulla sensation Valentine Holmes to oust incumbent Dane Gagai for a wing spot, and young bucks Josh McGuire and Dylan Napa to bump Josh Papalii and veteran Jacob Lillyman off the bench. Ben Hunt, Anthony Milford, Cameron Munster, Justin O’Neill, Corey Oates, Jake Friend, Jake Granville, Chris Grehvsmuhl and Korbin Sims will all be in the mix if injuries strike.
NEW SOUTH WALES
1 Blake Ferguson
2 Josh Mansour
3 Michael Jennings
4 Josh Dugan
5 Brett Morris
6 Blake Austin
7 James Maloney
8 Aaron Woods
9 Damien Cook
10 James Tamou
11 Boyd Cordner
12 Wade Graham
13 Josh Jackson
14 David Klemmer
15 Bryce Cartwright
16 Tyrone Peachey
17 Tyson Frizell
There’s a few bolters in here – and it’s exactly what the Blues need. Farah’s limited role with the Tigers could open the door for someone like Damien Cook or Mitch Rein, while the Origin careers of stalwarts Mitchell Pearce, Paul Gallen Beau Scott, Ryan Hoffman, Trent Merrin and Josh Morris are on tenterhooks. Will Hopoate and Trent Hodkinson must surely be gone unless they can produce a major form reversal at their new clubs. James Maloney may wear the No.7 for the Sharks in 2016, which could be the precursor for a Blues recall. Matt Moylan, James Roberts, Adam Reynolds, Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Dylan Walker will all be knocking on the door.