How do all.
I've done an NRL 2014 preview for my Facebook page that may interest you - it's kind of "entry level" in some areas as it's an attempt to explain RL to friends who don't know the game.
Here it is anyway:
Despite being a big rugby league fan for as long as I can remember, until last year the NRL (National Rugby League for the unfamiliar - Australia’s elite domestic rugby league club competition) was something of an anomaly to me. A spook story, even, so often did their players come over to our shores and wipe the floor with our boys in international competition that it took on a Keyser Soze-esque reverence, fear and impenetrability in my mind. For no reason other than practicality and out of loyalty to Super League and my own affiliation to its perennial mid-table no-hopers Hull Kingston Rovers, however, I never took much of an interest. In sport you always tend to assume that they have it better and more glamorous overseas and it’s important to fight that instinct where possible and support your own structures.
Last year, however, the combination of the RFL’s clueless mismanagement of the sport over here (pit village teams are apparently now not only our sport’s past but its future) and the ready availability of every NRL game on Premier Sports for a tenner a month meant that I finally took the plunge. Quite simply, rugby league (and, indeed, sport in general) has looked different to me ever since. For where English rugby league is – sadly – slow, error-strewn, parochial (thus widely ignored) and grey, NRL is fast, technical, innovative, colourful, ubiquitous and, quite frankly, downright sexy. Charles Bukowski once wrote that basketball (my other favourite sport) “moves with force”. What Old Charlie would have made of NRL in 2014 I have no idea but I suspect it would make him ###### his already filthy undercrackers. It moves with the force of a million juggernauts and is at times limitless in its ability to excite and confound – the greatest paean to physical endeavour and sporting competition yet conjured up by mere humans. If you don’t believe me, just watch a game. Without even any prior knowledge of the sport (for most people outside of Australia and some areas of the North of England don’t have it), you will pick up the bare bones and be enthralled within minutes. For this is not the glacial-moving, overly tactical, largely incomprehensible spectacle that is rugby union; this is what the Aussies call “footy” - lightning quick, flowing, ruthlessly hard and like all of the best sports, astonishingly simple.
The league is franchised, like any modern sporting league must be. There are 16 teams, 8 of whom have won the competition in only the last 11 years, such is the league’s intensity and parity (hard won through constant modernisation over many decades). 9 of the 16 teams are based in and around Sydney but even this rather large geographical imbalance came by way of the enforced merger of 4 Sydney sides into 2 in the late 1990s and most rhetoric in and around the league suggests that the sport’s administrators are only too well aware that this is still slightly too many to allow the league to grow and prosper. For its and their part, the Australian media and public are quite willing and able (as we are sadly not) to confront this issue head-on and with maturity, most recently when it was suggested in very high quarters that Queensland’s demand for a 4th side could be satiated by relocating the cash-strapped (in NRL terms at least – they make most Super League sides look like Manchester United) Cronulla Sharks there. The idea was largely quashed as hopeful and baseless but it (and others like it) remain out there and open to consideration and it is in my view both comforting and inspiring to know that – as in the late 1990s – the NRL will make whatever decisions it sees fit in order to expand the profile and commercial appeal of its (yes) product rather than make decisions purely on the basis of emotion, history and the squawking of ageing fans demanding for themselves more than is reasonable and that which is in conflict with attracting younger generations of fans. The NRL will do what they deem is right for the wider good of the game and more power to them. This notwithstanding, it seems likely that any side forced to relocate (virgin territory for even this most forward-thinking of leagues) will be dragged kicking and screaming from the fierce rugby league enclave that is Sydney. Watch this space.
Expansion (not virgin territory – Melbourne, New Zealand, North Queensland and Gold Coast are young clubs that have been a roaring success and key to the league’s growth into new markets) is also a continuous watchword, with a Perth side almost certain to add further colour and geographical reach within a few years. Furthermore, lengthy talks to hold a regular season game in China this season broke down only at the last minute and it remains a case of not “if” but “when” Australia takes the game to Asia, with potentially glittering rewards. NRL is simply very big and getting bigger and almost certainly for only a few years or so more the sporting world’s best kept secret.
Slight anomalies in fanbase (Brisbane – the league’s best-supported side – average well over 30K attendances, the smallest sides around the 15K mark) and investment are overcome by a strict salary cap (and, crucially, a 92.5% salary floor ensuring that no side bails on its fanbase through cheapskate accounting). The stated aim of the cap on the league’s website is to “spread the talent around the league” and best maintain and grow commercial sponsorship appetite, both of which it does in spades. The cap has risen massively in recent years in proportion to its ever-spiralling TV deal and continues to rise year on year.
The players are all called Blake, Trent, Todd or Brett and are as hard as nails. To this end, the sport has at times battled a slightly tarnished reputation in recent years via occasional off-field stories of hard drinking and woman-pestering (again Bukowski might approve, one feels). However, as NRL moves into a new era so its “Integrity Unit” has stepped up several gears, claiming its most high profile victim by de-registering Canberra’s exceptional young centre Blake Ferguson without blinking last year following a conviction for indecent assault (depressingly arising from his booze-fuelled celebrations of his outstanding Game 1 performance for New South Wales in last year’s State of Origin series). NRL is determined to clean up its act; Ferguson for his part has spent the last few months alternately losing low-key semi-pro boxing bouts and working on a building site. Whether he will be rehabilitated into the sport remains to be seen but is essentially down to him. For sure, league players in Australia are often of a certain breed: young (naturally), Alpha Male (again, naturally), from tough backgrounds (often with drinking cultures), pumped full of fire and eager to believe their own hype. It’s to the NRL’s credit, however, that it is now – perhaps belatedly – sending out a tougher than ever message as to the acceptable usage of testosterone.
YouTube clip: Titans’ Ben Ridge smashes Cowboys’ Rory Kostjasyn
(You don’t see it on this clip but on the TV footage Kostjasyn actually smiles as he gets up to play the ball; these lads really are a different breed)
The teams all have cool names like Cowboys, Warriors, Raiders and Titans and wear Nike and Adidas kits emblazoned with the names of huge multinational sponsors like Toyota and Vodafone. Contrary to popular UK myth, this does not render the league soulless and is fundamentally not a bad thing. With modern sport you find your soul in the nerve-shredding, heart-stopping moments where equally matched teams of superstars lock horns in front of massive crowds rather than within the misguided notion of romance that is small teams struggling against big teams in the name of history and some spurious sense of fair play.
To specifics now and the departure of Sonny Bill Williams to rugby union at the end of this season is a blow for the league but has at least ended the worrying debate about tweaking or even disbanding the cap to pay him even sillier money. This in any case missed the point that Williams – for all his sparkling RL talent – is a Kiwi of a certain background and thus a devoted union fan and player first and foremost. That he has spent the best years of his career in league and no doubt could not have considered himself a rugby player of any stature without serving it with distinction is testimony to the sport’s standing in that part of the world and a success rather than a failure. Instead of shedding tears or bending over backwards to keep him unwillingly in an NRL jersey, the sport should be thankful for his glowing comments about the toughness and physical demands it brings over and above union and it should let him move on with its best wishes. It will surely do this, in time. But for some reason Williams was never wholeheartedly embraced within league circles (note his mystifying exclusion from last year’s Dally M awards lists). He was never seen as “one of us” and his cross-sport (even extending beyond rugby into boxing!) ambition was often viewed as callous and mercenary rather than the more deserving impressive and ambitious. That may just change this year, in his 2nd (and likely last) NRL farewell season. For his part, he owes us and the sport nothing more than 1 more season of amazing football littered with the staggering, impossible offloads late in the tackle that are his stock-in-trade and leave us all gasping in awe and shaking our heads time and time again. His title-defending Sydney Roosters again look formidable and have a great chance of winning back-to-back titles for the first time in the modern NRL era.
[Footnote: Another of the league’s leading forwards – England’s Sam Burgess – has also announced a move to rugby union at the end of the season. I will write a separate piece about this in due course (if I can find the time, that is) but for now will just add that my overall feeling is one of indifference and a distinct lack of concern. In any case, if he isn’t back in NRL within 3 years – and this time for good – I will be somewhat surprised].
YouTube Clip: The Sonny Bill Williams story (from The Footy Show)
(No offloads, sadly, but a decent and at times heartwarming insight into a misunderstood sporting genius)
Never afraid of a rule change or 2 to either enliven an already thrilling sport, embolden player safety or both, this season’s are on the money. 1 year on from the banning of the shoulder charge (and good riddance), the wretched “cannonball” tackle (a 3rd or 4th defender tackling an upright ball-carrier below the knee, with potentially career-shattering results) is now Public Enemy No 1 with no such tackler allowed to strike that area. To assist, refs will be encouraged to call “held” earlier in such Alpha Male stalemates of upper body strength, with the potential to erase some of the thrilling, defensive-line wrecking late offloads exemplified by Williams and his ilk. However, never afraid to change things on the fly, one suspects the league will play this by ear and get it right. Perhaps the early held calls will disappear in time. But for now, player safety comes first and rightly so.
A successful “40/20” kick (look it up – it does what it says on the tin) now results in a tap rather than an offensive scrum, perhaps signalling the end of the scrum in rugby league, for which few modern league fans would shed tears.
The clock will now automatically stop during any break in play in the last 5 minutes of regulation, thus milking yet more drama from the closing stages of tight games (previously the clock kept running during penalties, conversions, restarts and the forming of scrums and will continue to do so prior to the last 5 minutes).
For this writer the only major rule concern is the continued baffling legality of tackling whilst airborne an attacker with a try scoring opportunity (no other player may be tackled thusly). The league narrowly missed a broken neck or 2 last season as outside backs showed increasing bravery and disregard for their own safety in the name of spectacular finishes out wide and should do more in my opinion to protect its flying young wingers like Wests Tigers’ David Nofoaluma. Fingers crossed we don’t need a horrible incident staining the sport to retrospectively learn this.
YouTube clip: 1 of Tigers’ flyer David Nofoaluma’s many sensational scores of 2013
Despite Queensland’s ridiculous 8 year stranglehold on the competition (between them and New South Wales, played mid-season over 3 games), the aforementioned State of Origin remains the most-compelling and bitterly contested rivalry in world sport. Excitingly, the league’s best 2 young players (Cronulla’s Andrew Fifita and Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans) wear blue and maroon respectively and should star this time around.
YouTube clip: With New South Wales in complete control, 2013 SOO Game 1 gets bafflingly and thrillingly tetchy
(In case you were wondering, Gallen’s actions here are a sending off any day of the week. That the refs bottled it in front of 85,000 rabid hometown Sydney fans is perhaps human; this nonetheless proved an Albatross moment for NSW and Queensland cruised – perhaps justly – to wins in Games 2 and 3 to make it 8 series wins in a row)
OK so if you’ve got this far you probably want to know who they all are and how they’re going around this time. Here’s my lowdown (my prediction is regular season league position only – the post-season play-offs will of course do what they will):
Brisbane Broncos – Last year’s worst ever finish won’t do again at the league’s biggest club and the recruitment of superstar full back Ben Barba from Canterbury fits the bill, although with Canberra’s Anthony Millford imminent and Josh Hoffman signed on again this surely represents a salary cap jam at the 1 “jumper”, with the halves remaining a worrying work-in-progress. Upfront, meanwhile, the irrepressible Corey Parker and ever-reliable Sam Thaiday are another year older.
One to watch: Jack Reed – Elite defensive centre is key and can shine with injury-free year
Canberra Raiders – Shorn of strike players Blake Ferguson and Josh Dugan for disciplinary reasons outside of their control and with the aforementioned Millford departing at season end for family reasons, it’s hard to see what more could have gone wrong for “The Green Machine” in 2013 at a time when the sport could use a boost in Capital territory. The silver lining is their latest crop of very fine juniors. That’s for later, though. For now....
One to watch: Josh Papalii – Wrecking ball 2nd rower is amongst the league’s most exciting players
Canterbury Bulldogs – Barba’s exit hurts but the Dogs still have a formidable pack led by James Graham, the sport’s best passing prop. The key should be to resist the temptation to play the specialist centre Josh Morris at full back but plugging the widely-accepted most important position on the park will be their biggest worry, with apparent player dissent (most notably from the talented but hot-headed Krisnan Inu) also uppermost on coach Des Hasler’s mind.
One to watch: Josh Reynolds – “X factor” half back is amongst the game’s cleverest and sees things others don’t
Cronulla Sharks – With the dual worries of the ASADA doping investigation and potential relocation behind them (the latter at least for now), the focus will be on their brutal pack and the “Sharkies” will clearly win more games than friends this year, whilst secretly being the side that no-one wants to meet come play-off time. Todd Carney will pull the strings impressively in a solid back line. But it’s really all about that pack and their discipline.
One to watch: Andrew Fifita – The “Metre Eater” is simply unplayable on his day (which is most days)
YouTube clip: Andrew Fifita – Tribute (“One hundred fourteen kilograms of Shark!”)
Gold Coast Titans – Before the surprise late exit of elite centre Jamal Idris to Penrith I had the Titans troubling the top 4. Without him I still see a solid improvement, although most of the talent now resides up top, with Ryan James and Dave Taylor well placed to establish themselves as Alpha Dog skilful big men. And there is always Greg Bird, pest-like and innovative from loose forward. The halves pairing of Albert Kelly and Aiden Sezer is still largely unproven, however, and holds the biggest key.
One to watch: Ryan James – Hits it up, side-steps, plays some footy, young prop has the lot
Manly Sea Eagles – Arguably the league’s most talented and well-balanced squad, well-coached and with strike from all back areas, the Sea Eagles should again go very close this year. The mercurial Jamie Lyon is a little past his prime now but young half back Daly Cherry-Evans should step up to Dally M medal contention and heap more Origin misery on New South Wales to boot. As reliable and likeable as a Ray Warren commentary; the league’s good guys.
One to watch: Daly Cherry-Evans – The sport’s best young half back for whom the sky is the limit
Melbourne Storm – Aussie skipper Cameron Smith remains (for now) to keep the 1-7-9 Slater/Cronk/Smith superstar skeleton intact but around them the expansion good news story Storm look increasingly average. No team coached by Craig Bellamy and with that trio and Grand Final experience can ever be discounted but the Storm don’t hold the same fear as only a couple of years ago. Juniors and fresh impetus may be needed to prolong the glory years.
One to watch: Cooper Cronk – Best kicking game in town will keep everyone keen on the last tackle
New Zealand Warriors – Brilliantly enigmatic and unpredictable, the Warriors can dazzle and frustrate in equal measure. The acquisition of Super League’s best player Sam Tomkins looks a moderate but assured gamble and his mercurial, rangy side-stepping game will add yet more fizz and sparkle to an already expansive side. Seeing how they juggle him, Shaun Johnson and Kevin Locke in the full back and halves roles will be fascinating.
One to watch: Sam Tomkins – Talented import will excite but also be the most targeted player in the early rounds
Newcastle Knights – Their deep play-off run from 7th last year has raised expectations and in Dane Gagai and Joseph Leilua the Knights have the best centre pairing in the competition. They’ll still be brilliantly coached by the irrepressible Wayne Bennett, they’ll still be written off as too old in key departments but they should still be in the mix come crunch time, although the 4 month absence to injury of playmaker Jarrod Mullen must cost them a few places on the league ladder.
One to watch: Dane Gagai – Can stake claim as tournament’s most destructive running centre
North Queensland Cowboys – Last year’s underachievers until a frankly unlikely late season burst squeezed them into the eight, the Cowboys are hopefully still not squawking about the 7 tackle try that perhaps then cost them against the Sharks. Whatever, a glut of exciting young backs coupled with the majestic Johnathan Thurston pulling the strings and James Tamou and Matt Scott doing the grunt work upfront bodes well for the Townsville regulars.
One to watch: Kyle Feldt – Giant young winger excited last time out and apparently plays a bit of full back too
Parramatta Eels – Things can’t get a whole lot worse for the beleaguered back-to-back wooden spoon winning Eels but the continued retention of Origin star back Jarryd Hayne is a boost and testimony to the salary cap and overall health of the league. Will Hopoate is back from a 2 year Mormon mission (!) to provide much needed help and Lee Mossop from Super League (steady if unspectacular) will give some much-needed punch up top.
One to watch: Will Hopoate – Can pick up promising NRL career but will undoubtedly take time to readjust
Penrith Panthers – Already solid recruiters prior to the exciting pick-up of Idris, the Panthers look poised to go much better this time around. They may rue allowing scrum half Luke Walsh to strangely depart for Super League, however, although Jamie Soward’s playmaking skills should soften the blow. With so many new faces, however, no team will need longer to gel and slow starts are notorious season killers in this league.
One to watch: Matt Moylan – Poster boy full back needs to elevate and provide genuine star factor
South Sydney Rabbitohs – The best team until last season’s halfway point, the Rabbits really just met their match in the better organisational skills of the Roosters and Sea Eagles. Sam Burgess’ imminent departure will leave a bad taste but in Greg Inglis they have the sport’s best athlete and in John Sutton and Isaac Luke 2 of the most creative sparks around the ruck. And probably the league’s best goal-line defence. Don’t be fooled by that cute, fluffy logo – this is a wounded animal.
One to watch: George Burgess – Will be filthy about the needless high tackle that cost England a World Cup final spot; opposition bigs might not want to remind him
St George-Illawarra Dragons – A full season of Josh Dugan alongside talented back line strike like Jason Nightingale and Brett Morris looks a recipe for success and in the bigs Trent Merrin was as good as any last term until injury late on. The Dragons are not much that a good half back pairing wouldn’t fix but in this league this is the difference between glory and bust. Could certainly surprise but too many intangibles to back with real confidence.
One to watch: Josh Dugan – Lucky to still be in the league but can win games single-handed
Sydney Roosters – Packed full of talent to the point of embarrassment, the champion “Chooks” are the league’s current benchmark. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves does the first class grunt work, Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney pull the strings and Sonny Bill does, well, a bit of everything. It ain’t broke so not much has changed but prop Remi Casty comes over from France and should go well. Genuine back-to-back credentials and will take all the beating.
One to watch: Boyd Cordner – Sparkled from 2nd row in 2013 until late injury put the brakes on; will light up both NRL and Origin
YouTube clip: Michael Jennings wins the 2013 Grand Final for the Roosters
Wests Tigers – Much to lift the spirits following a poor 2013: Talisman hooker Robbie Farah is back, David Nofoaluma and Tim Simona continue the league’s best outside flyer combo and young half back Luke Brooks brings the biggest rookie rep for many a year. Keeping Brooks protected from rough stuff and away from unfair media hype (ludicrously compared to NRL immortal Andrew Johns already) will probably be coach Mick Potter’s first priority.
One to watch: David Nofoaluma – Circus act winger should add to impressive highlights reel