Fancy an early Rubdown? Let’s talk Burgess and 9’s

Welcome to the first Rubdown of 2014

Oooh I love the smell of linament and goanna oil in the morning! And don’t physiotherapists love the 9’s?

The inaugural Auckland Nines trophy has barely been hoisted and forgotten and the NRL news stream is running hot. If this is a pointer to the upcoming season, then we’re in for a wild ride. I can smell the dirt churned up by the boots and cut grass already.

In reality, the big issues confronting the NRL never really go away, but are simply postponed while the Aussie 1st XI mop up the final wickets of the cricket season.

Nor do the issues seem to change either! We still seem to talk about salary caps, marquee player allowances, the competition against rival codes for top talent, rules changes and more as if these topics had miraculously emerged in the last downpour. Repetition without resolution is what we do in rugby league, and while it’s an unstated tradition, it is still slightly disappointing to me.

I have faith that Mr Moneybags, David Smith, will continue to make the changes required advance the game (hint: talk to Trent Robinson a bit more), though I’m not particularly enamoured with the announced rules changes of a few weeks ago. I feel they miss the point entirely (for example, time wasting), while obvious rules changes have gone begging yet again. Many previous blogs have covered those, so let’s move onto the two major early-year issues that seem to throw up even more questions.

Mr Burgess

Will he won’t he? Finish the 2014 NRL season, that is …

Will Sam Burgess succeed as a dual international? Will he make us laugh as much as Wendell Sailor?

Will Sam Burgess succeed as a dual international? Will he make us laugh as much as Wendell Sailor?

I fail to see how adapting to the quality of a World Cup winning team (as the English rugby team hope to be) can be done within the narrow confines of a mere off-season. There are a different set of skills, technicalities and habits to ingrain in rugby over and above those in rugby league.

Running angles are different, the choice of whether to hold the ball and place, or push a pass also fall into this category, as do positional play and less notable skills such as body height and binding.

There is no doubt that Sam Burgess’ pedigree in rugby league is exceptional and proven, but at this point, as Stephen Larkham has quite forthrightly stated, he wouldn’t be in the Brumbies XV. And this is separate and distinct from the choice of position he actually plays. The talk has focused on no.12, though I have not seen the speed, footwork, agility and ball-play of another famous code-switcher (in Sonny Bill Williams) that suggests a natural and immediate conversion. This takes time, and until he has had significant match practice, I would envisage opposition coaches to be more than obliging in centring a game plan around isolating him and making him second guess in defence, in particular.

Further, the English coach has also failed to even guarantee his place in the Test side, with no short cut into the elite squad offered – and quite rightly too. And if he isn’t ready for the Six Nations, why would he expect to play in the important World Cup games? If he were to, would he actually be a liability?

The back row option, specifically blind-side flanker or no.8, would appear (to me) to be a better fit, with speed ruling out the open-side flanker position. Unfortunately there is no natural advantage there either given he will be matched for size and strength.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on this one …

Would SOO have made a difference?

Now here is an issue that the NRL needs to sort out. Would it have kept Sam Burgess in rugby league were he eligible to play State of Origin? This is an issue I’ve ruminated upon since Burgess expressed interest last year, and the Rabbitohs boss Russell Crowe says as much in the media today.

If the pinnacle of the game is off limits, then it can’t be too much of a mental leap to recognise the zenith of another sport would tempt him (abstracting from the money, which is an even sweeter lure).

Before anyone gets too excited about the idea of a foreigner playing Origin, it might help to rationally consider that the rules governing Origin selection have lost sight of what the word origin actually means. When a player such as Greg Inglis, born and bred in northern NSW, becomes eligible to play for Queensland (and accepts), then why can’t Sam Burgess (or other import) also be eligible? Come to think of it, the decision of allegiance would be far less controversial than the current one dividing NSW and Queensland players.

An arbitrary rule about what defines ‘senior’ NSW or Queensland representation should also be extended to Sam Burgess and others. It will happen, I have no doubt. Best get on with it.

Sanctity of contracts

I approach contract signings with indifference these days. A player signs for two years, or three or four … who really cares? We know that the minute a better offer comes along, the standard book of excuses will be rolled out, covering anything from compassionate grounds to the desire to be a dual international. The reality is almost always related more to money or to fallouts with coaches or players for one reason or another.

Once a player decides he wants to move, there really is little value for the team in keeping him. The club isn’t exactly going to get full freight for their money when a player disengages. I would prefer that players, in the first instance, do the honourable thing and honour the contract. Is that such an imposition? After all, the term of the contract would have been one of the initial bargaining points for the player before signing, and term and money go hand in hand, not to mention ‘job security’ in a fashion.

Contract Payouts

As a secondary issue, the NRL needs to be tougher on payouts relating to contract releases. The full (remaining) contract value should be paid out, plus some. Let’s call it an additional 50%. Not only has the club made its decisions regarding playing roster for a period of years, but they have also had to manage any salary cap considerations. Their plans (in this case, Souths) have now been severely disrupted. What we have here is a massive lost opportunity for the club to have moved in a different direction, with a different contract/salary cap hierarchy, and a different set of playing combinations.

Keeping NRL Stars in the Game

Four very big names are now (or about to be) playing rugby. Clearly the NRL needs to stem the flow of players to rival codes. I’m guessing that the return of Karmichael Hunt next year will draw a carnival of back-slapping and ticker-tape parades, along with the propagation of the idea that the problem has been solved, rugby league is the best game ever invented, and here’s the proof yada yad yada …

I beg to differ, not on the greatness of rugby league, but that the NRL is dragging its heels with respect to salary caps and marquee player allowances (and Origin eligibility as mentioned above). It is proving detrimental to the game, and almost confers upon it ‘breeding ground’ status for other codes. The blame for any further raids on the NRL will be quite fairly and squarely laid at the feet of NRL management until they act to combat it.

Over to you, David Smith. I have faith, but as I keep saying, the low hanging fruit needs to be picked. You can begin with an aggressive sliding scale of discounts for tenure. By this stage, Anthony Minichiello’s adjusted salary cap value would be pretty much zero, having played for the Roosters for 450 years and counting. But in general, I would favour the 4th year and beyond for any player’s contract value being given increasing discounts under the salary cap structure. This would also increase loyalty to the club, and by the club (we know it takes two!). I like it already!

The Auckland 9’s

How serious is it?

The Auckland 9’s was a resounding success and is now set to move into the stratosphere, apparently.

Or was it merely an event that a rugby league-starved fan base needed to bridge the gap until the NRL began? I guess as long as it made money it will be deemed a success.

Or am I just being a curmudgeon?

There’s no doubt the football was exciting and entertaining, and the nine-player format is structurally a far superior game than the touch footy version that is Rugby Sevens.

James Tamou ... looking suspiciously like Hashim Amla ...

James Tamou … looking suspiciously like Hashim Amla …

But here’s the thing: it was never going to be taken seriously as a competition. How do I know? Every coach under the sun said so from the outset! Not only that, they said they would leave their top talent at home, and the NRL was forced to hastily add a rule requiring at least some of the top players to participate – only some, mind you.

And we even had James Tamou from the event-winning Cowboys admitting they just ‘rocked up’ and played, not really knowing what to expect.

What to do with it?

Will it change the NRL in the same way One-Day Cricket and T20 transformed cricket? We know it allowed Eric Watson to throw an awesome party for CEOs, at the very least!

But until teams are at top strength, or near to it, will it continue to capture the public’s imagination? Or will fans tire of seeing teams full of unknown names, whatever their physical attributes. There is something to be said for going out to watch your favourite players and being emotionally invested. Does anyone think Roosters fans would be happy watching a 2nd string outfit for the WCC on Saturday night? Or what if an overweight taxi driver was subbed in to fight Daniel Geale tonight instead of Garth Wood? Get it? Get it?

Maybe the idea is simply to keep it at carnival-status, complete with past players as drawcards, but the calls to include Super league teams would indicate the opposite. A greater vision is going to be applied to the 9’s, and I think greater inclusion is a terrific idea. I would even consider inviting other teams who can demonstrate they might be competitive. This could mean anything from 2nd teams from any club participating (or their feeder clubs), to Super League teams all the way through to Super 15 franchises, should they wish to. That might be a stretch, particularly with respect to timing of the Super 15 season (and that they might get beaten up), but there is clearly a host of options to make this carnival a real festival.

The Auckland 9’s Curse and Injuries

Lay off the Cowboys for the NRL title immediately!

Having just prevailed in the equivalent of the pre-US Masters Par 3 tournament, I hereby declare the winners curse (where no winner has gone on to capture the Masters) to transfer seamlessly to the NRL. Sure there are significant differences between the two, but I’m calling it early!

A more immediate curse of the 9’s is the injury toll, and it will continue to be. Nobody can really be surprised at the list of knee and soft tissue injuries. The game is explosive, and the repeated heating and cooling of muscles during and between short matches is not exactly a match made in heaven, particularly at the end of the off season. Take it from someone who has had experience with these types of injuries, mmkay…

Granted, Todd Carney could rupture his hamstring walking from Carmen’s to the kebab shop across the road (ahh, memories), and Jarrod Mullen typically suffers a Grade 2 tear just ordering a ham sandwich, but the NRL infirmary is full to the gunwhales of those who won’t be playing for months, like South’s Luke Keary or the Knight’s Mullen, or those who won’t be 100% fit for Round 1. Carney and the Wolfman come to mind, amongst many others.

The injury list is far greater than we normally associate with trial matches, which do have repeated rests during a normal 80-minute match, but which is also not as explosive as 9’s. Aside from the odd serious injury, most are bumps, bruises and corks.

And this is the problem the 9’s faces – NRL superstars are paid a lot of money to win the NRL Premiership, and it’s a very long road to get there. They are not paid to play the 9’s in anywhere near the same amounts. The sums are pretty easy to compute, even for rugby league players!

So I disagree with the Cowboys’ Paul Green, who seems optimistic that more stars will play this format, despite the injury risk. The proof will be in the pudding. Until they are rewarded in kind via the salary cap broadening to accommodate it, I suggest many stars will be rested, or play a very minor role.

As an aside, apparently the Super 15 begins this weekend. You wouldn’t know it …

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Is the Dally M Award a Fair Reflection of Excellence?

Looking at the Dally M Award over the course of the NRL since 1998, it’s tempting to think there are only four positions on the field that are considered worthy: Fullback, Five Eighth, Half Back and Hooker. The rest are, well, making up the numbers. Is this fair? I would argue that the preoccupation with these positions detracts from the award itself, and that a better system would recognise contributions from players in other positions.

Of the 15 winners over this 16-year period (2003 was not awarded), Half Back has taken the lion’s share of the spoils with 8 wins (53%), Fullback has taken 3 awards (20%), while Five Eighth and Hooker have 2 victories each (or 13%). All other positions amount to a big, round donut.Dally M 2

These four positions are what the rugby league community now refers to with hushed reverence as the ‘spine’ of the team, a subset of the team that, together, touch the ball disproportionately more often than the rest of the team. The idea is that if you populate these positions, with talented, creative athletes who are tough, yet well poised, you are on the way to success. Implicitly, all you then need is a group of willing workhorses to make up the numbers and follow instructions, but who are really quite replaceable. Really?

Certainly, the Melbourne Storm is famous for their ‘Big 3’ in Slater, Cronk and Smith (closely followed by Gareth Widdup). 2013 Grand Finalists Manly would have been lost without Brett Stewart, Matt Ballin, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans. In fact, just about all other teams would be found wanting without their ‘team within a team’.  

Interestingly, 2013 Premiers, the Sydney Roosters, boasted the least heralded spine of all the contenders. They had (and still have) an aging, formerly brilliant, yet still uber-reliable Fullback, who did not sweep into the line in attack in the same fashion as his younger, modern contemporaries. They had a capable, but much-maligned Half Back who never seemed to take the game by the scruff of the neck as his potential suggested he might, yet was ferocious in defence. Their Five Eighth was a stand-out thoroughbred footballer and point-scorer who tossed a cut-out pass with the same aplomb as he tossed his, er … BBQ. And the Hooker was the single-most underrated player in the game – by most – until they were whacked in the head by his consistent brilliance.

Clearly, the spine matters – a lot – but it isn’t the be all and end all as the Premiers showed, and teams and fans are quite incorrect to equate their spine ‘one-for-one’ with success. Other positions matter, in other words, and in some teams more than others. The Clive Churchill Medallists almost prove this idea given the variation away from the spine. Since the Award’s inception in 1986, 39% of Medals have been won away from the spine, which I think is a far better reflection of the playing talent, but which still is well at odds with the Dally M, which sports a 12.5% success rate since 1980.

The dominance of the spine was a less (even non-) appreciated concept in the 1980s, which is more than likely an indication of how much the game has changed since the days of broken field and ad lib footy, and the famous ‘roving commission’ given to the smaller men in the game (which used to be wingers!). During the 1980s, the Dally M was won by Locks and Second-Rowers twice apiece, but which was also the last time they were even in contention. Dally M 1

The 1990s were more of a bridging period between the two eras, and heralded the emergence of a growing professionalism and on-field strategic direction, and the elevation of the spine as the more equal amongst equals, to butcher an idea from Animal Farm.

Increasingly less was left to chance, and each position was given a well-defined role, to the point of confining them to a particular side of the field, and even further restrictive enough as running in ‘channels’ within that area.  They had become the tools with which the spine worked their magic, rather than the source of the magic. Once again, the Storm comes to mind, where a phalanx of Storm ‘troopers’ emerged from a production line of super-athletes to do their masters’ bidding.

Because spine players are responsible for a team’s direction, for its kicking game and on-field leadership, it’s natural they will be more visible than, say, a Prop or Second-Rower, who are more responsible for the gruntwork of establishing field position, and solidifying the middle of the field with 40 or 50 tackles per match.

Centres and Wingers are not credited as consistently for scoring tries and making line breaks as Half Backs and Five Eighths are for passing the ball to them in the first place, or providing the kick that leads to a try. Optics seem to play a very large role in the voting process for this award.

This highlights a massive problem in the way the Medallist is chosen, and it cannot be a coincidence that the voting panel of former players is made up of former ‘spine’ players. I would prefer a selection of representatives of all positions to be present on the panel so that there is at least some sort of objectivity.

Dally M judges

It’s undeniable that the spine is an important part of a team. Putting team mates through gaps and executing pinpoint-accurate kicks are skills to be admired. But there is also a case to be made that this is their job description. Halves and Hookers will touch, hold, kick and pass more than other players, while the modern Full Back is a running machine – not solely as a kick-returner in the way Gary Belcher made famous, but as an integral part of the sweeping set plays so common in the modern game.

Each role within the spine has a specific set of functions, as do the other positions on the field. Merely executing that role, even if (or just because) it is highly visible, should not be the basis for snagging the two or three points from the judging panel each game. This leads to the sort of decisions that don’t even begin to recognise a player of the calibre of Sonny Bill Williams (as a notable example), but who the International Federation finds themselves moved to announce as their Player of the Year.   

My proposal is that the points would be more fairly awarded to a player for playing above their station, or job description. A Half Back merely kicking for a leaping winger that results in a try or two, or earning a repeat set or two from grubber kicks, are arguably ‘standard’ (though not to the judging committee as it stands). However, adding a couple of both line breaks and try assists would definitely fall within the realm of excelling over and beyond expectation.

A Lock making 30-odd tackles also seems relatively standard in the modern game, but adding offloads that result in tries plus other notable contributions in their ‘attacking game’ should really see them recognised more regularly.

This might be a little controversial, but I see each position as having a set value even before they run onto the field. What they then do over and above that is the metric by which Dally M points should be awarded, in my opinion. It is simply not right that non-spine players are so serially disregarded.