NRL Round 1 Report Card

Apologies in advance! Real life got in the way a bit this weekend, so I’ll just have to blurt this all out before Round 2 is underway.

Round 1 of the 2014 NRL season was a long time coming, and when it finally arrived it showcased once again the remarkable speed, strength and agility of the modern-day footballer. The size of players and physicality of the game continues to amaze me.

However, it demonstrated just as evidently that rugby league as a code still has a lot of work to do to engage those directly and indirectly involved in the game.

A number of issues/points of interest emerged from the round.

Scheduling, Broadcasting and Crowds

Who, exactly, negotiated the broadcast deal? Was there any discussion at all of what was best for the game? Did the NRL retain any power over its own product all? The new administration are quite content to reap the rewards of the billion dollar 5-year arrangement, but they might like to distance themselves from the fine print.

It’s safe to say that Round 1 was a poor one for NRL management. If I were to be brutally honest, it was a bit of a disaster. It would be best for them to admit it and move forward, or we’re in for a truly long season.

Now, I quite liked the Thursday night football for the first month last year. After a long off-season, a liberal immersion in the great game was a terrific way to clear the cobwebs before normal programming resumed. As it turned out, it was more to do with crushing Channel 10’s The Game Plan than anything else, and now for some strange reason we have a solitary Thursday night game in 2014 as a seson opening … ahem … extravaganza. The mind boggles. At least, mine does, like jelly mostly.

Why would a season-opening match between what are essentially two eastern suburbs clubs, and two heavyweight Premiership contenders at that, be:

a) played on the only Thursday designated for NRL in 2014? Is there anything particularly special about a Thursday? Clearly not – it’s the only one;

b) played almost an hour away from their fan bases;

c) be played so late at 8pm when, combined with significant distance and travel time, families would prefer to just watch it on the box?;

There is no question that Allianz Stadium would have been bursting at its 40,000 capacity seams, much like the A-League on Saturday night, which featured a Sydney derby that doubled as a top 4 clash deep into the season (Round 22). This was a poor decision, and an entirely and obviously preventable one. Another 13,000 bums on seats and an incalculable increase in the atmosphere on the night would have been the right way to begin NRL 2014. It’s plain common sense.

This was just the first of seven – seven – Sydney-based games for the weekend. For all the blather about growing the game in the season launch and release of the 2013 annual report, which was basking in a healthy profit (heavily influenced by the broadcast deal cash infusion to my eye), taking the game far and wide seems to have escaped NRL management. It should be benchmark policy for every opening round.

Now, this is a bit like City-Country-gate from last year, another preventable calamity, and it’s difficult to escape the notion that the NRL has been schooled again in the art of logistics. How can we forget the unavailability of ANZ Stadium last year because the NRL hadn’t secured the ground for the Semi Finals? This year it was the Reds rugby team with first dibs on Suncorp Stadium. Then the A-League on Sunday. The low hanging fruit I love to refer to continues to fall to the ground.

I will bet there were ashen faces at League Central when this was pointed out, but there needn’t have been – it’s not like they didn’t have a working internet connection and many months to collaborate with the stadium. How hard could it have been to organise a ‘rolling carnval’ start to the season, with a game in each of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Now that’s forward thinking!

Anyway, a  real mistake was made regarding Suncorp and the Broncos, but the response was worse. Rather than schedule the Broncos match in Brisbane, it was instead jammed into ANZ Stadium with half the crowd it would have drawn up north. As all golfers know, it’s best to take your medicine after a mistake rather than compound it. So, with the Fox-allocated Saturday and Monday seemingly out of the question (for Channel 9, mostly), the least worst option would have been to use the only Thursday match of the year to pack out Suncorp at a family-friendly time of 6:30-7pm, and still give Channel 9 its precious Brisbane ratings uplift. We could then roll into Sydney and Melbourne crowning the weekend on Monday night back in Sydney. I mean, there is no particular reason that long time rival Roosters and Rabbitohs need to open the season.

I may be off base here, but my view will always be to look after the best interests of the game. In turn, the broadcaster will benefit from a better, more organised product. There is a middle ground where the latter still makes an enormous amount of money televising matches that almost sell themselves (and advertising space), and the former still has a say in how its own competition is run. Unfortunately, we know that isn’t the case, as Todd Greenberg implied when saying “Thursday night was a selection from the broadcasters who have paid handsomely for the commercial right and they chose to place the game then.”

The irony is that we, the NRL and Channel 9 could have had it all.

There are two further related issues here. First, playing at ANZ Stadium is a commercial reality that enables cash-strapped clubs to pay the bills. I get that, even if I don’t personally warm to the stadium myself (Allianz and Suncorp are unsurpassed from a viewing standpoint). The problem was the scheduling for the opening week of the season, which is supposed to be a showcase event and whip the crowd into a frenzy. If anyone wants to argue the season’s draw makes it difficult, then the draw is the problem, but in this case, the three games in question – Rabbitohs-Roosters, Bulldogs-Broncos and Manly-Storm – all have return matches. All it would have required is to switch the home game. It’s not “significantly complex”, as the NRL said, at all.

Second, the idea that crowds have been poor is numerically correct, but as always when there are a lot of moving parts, it’s complicated. The NRL could have ensured this debate didn’t have the oxygen been given it by simply being a little shrewder with their schedule. It’s opening round, for goodness’ sake, the exact time when fans will part with a bit of coin, just for the experience and atmosphere. So it’s not ticket pricing per se that I would point to when analysing low crowd numbers for Round 1, 2014, but it does remain an urgent issue that concerns me, and I attempted an entirely workable, revenue-positive solution almost a year ago. You can add to that solution variable pricing for the quality of the opposition, night of the week, and so on.

As strange as it must sound, I am a supporter of David Smith and what he’s trying to achieve, and realise that a lot of work still needs to be done to cut through decades of mismanagement. But I can’t in all good conscience say the weekend was a stunning success. It was sloppy. Too much chat about ‘members and fans’ without the eye on detail to back it up.

The Channel 9 ‘Cross-Sell’

I know I railed against the inequity of the Dally M voting process as favouring the spine at the expense of the rest of the team, but I didn’t expect the Channel 9 Man of the Match voting panel to rush to the other end of the spectrum and ignore Greg Inglis at the expense of Sam Burgess. I can’t help but think they play favourites with their own ‘talent’. Some will say I’m mad, others will nod and say ‘spot on’.

Sam Burgess had a superb game, there’s no doubt. However, like 2013, Greg Inglis was the difference between the two teams, pure and simple, and not by a small amount. He scored three tries himself, and the manner in which he did so highlighted his strength, speed and vision. Not many would have – could have – scored the first two of his tries, and not many achieve 10 tackle-breaks in a match, either.

As impressive as Souths were on Thursday night, without Inglis they were just another team.

Felix Baumgartner-cam

New technology can really provide useful insights and information. Then again, it can provide nothing of the sort. Channel 9’s aerial camera added nothing to the experience except to have many question how, if the players resembled ants because of its height, it was of any use at all. It wasn’t, and needs to be retired so that we can return to the action that is already shown from and elevated angle sufficient to show us what we need to see.

The Similarity

It was hard to escape the feeling that we’d seen the season opener before. Well, we had – last year’s season opener. Not only did the match take a similar path with the Roosters scoring early only to be over run and convincingly beaten by the Rabbitohs, but the score was almost identical, as was the lopsided penalty count and possession statistics.

The Bunnies are once again being crowned as the March premiers with a performance as awesome as … well, last year’s Round 1. Their size didn’t seem to be impacted by the new rules increasing the pace of the game. Indeed, it was the (once again hesitant) Roosters on the back foot from a rolling barrage of red and green tanks.

The Roosters were given an abrupt lesson last year of what it took to be a Top 4 team, which they quite obviously learned as they moved through the season and became Premiers. They have been given the exact same lesson in 2014, and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Having already won a Premiership, the inevitable let down will need to be carefully managed, particularly with the incessant talk of back-to-back titles.

The similar flavour carried through the remaining games, highlighted by the Eels once again trouncing the Warriors, and the Sharks and Titans repeating another close match.

The Surprise

Ok, ok, it’s only Round 1, and Parramatta had a similar win last year at this point.

But … having shrewdly picked them to lift themselves above the wooden spoon this year, I’m now not comfortable having picked them for 14th. They looked a little too good for that on the weekend, and have a size and pace advantage, particularly in the backline, to trouble many teams.

They are a definite watch-this-space team, even if if I don’t see them playing Finals footy in Brad Arthur’s first year.

Referees

Round 1 saw an average 16 penalties per game. If this is an indication of their approach this year, then shoot me now. The median penalty count was 17 per match, highlighting that there was a heavy skew toward the pedantry of high penalty counts, and reducing those games as a specatcle.

Yet when it came to the crunch and they had an opportunity to really stamp their authority, they crumbled. Reynolds should have been sin-binned against the Roosters, Cameron Smith should have been on report for a high shot toward the end of the match that looked worse than the one that earned a Melbourne player a report minutes earlier (can’t remember who now!)

One of my first ever blogs made the point that referees were actually a danger to the progress of the game, and their flighty, inconsistent performances right up until last weekend don’t disabuse me of this notion.

Whatever you think of Bill Harrigan is, well, usually balanced out by what he thinks of himself … but whatever you think of him, he was the best referee I can remember because he understood that the flow of the game is crucial. A faster game also reduces foul play – there just isn’t enough time! So when he criticises the referees’ Round 1 effort and suggests they needn’t blow the whistle for minor offences that don’t affect the flow of the next play, I say ‘amen’.

It’s too early to judge whether these clowns have learned the most basic rules, but if they need a primer, I just happen to have a resource to assist them!

Player movement and contracts

It saddens me somewhat to see players announce they will be playing elsewhere next season before the current season has already kicked off. First we had Sam Burgess, whose role as a ball-playing forward appears to have been given to two players more suited to the role – John Sutton and Ben T’eo. Where this leaves him with regard to an English rugby backline position without experience is anybody’s guess, though I’ll stick to the idea that he is far better suited to no.8.

Along with team mate Michael Lichaa, Andrew Fifita is the latest pre-season signing, and both are going to the Bulldogs, Fifita for four years. If the Bulldogs have any brains they will have inserted a clause that financially dissuades Andrew from leaving early, as Sam Burgess has done – also for money.

The standard contract does nothing of the sort, but should as a matter of priority. I have a bee in my bonnet about reneging on contracts. In fact, all club contracts should understand by now how disruptive an unanticipated change to the roster can be, especially when that playing group has been carefully planned for years in advance.

Sportsmanship

Anyone who watched the enthralling chase between Reece Robinson and his shadow Michael Morgan on Saturday night would have seen a gesture that epitomises what rugby league (and sport in general) is really about.

Both gave each other a friendly tap of congratulation, Morgan to Robinson for running the length of the field to score a try, and Robinson to Morgan in recognition of his superb chase.

It sure beats seeing a classless try-scorer dumping the ball on their opponents head.

 

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