Rugby league has changed a lot over the last twenty years. There is no longer a five-metre rule. The days of the part-timer and the amateur are long gone with rugby league now a fully-fledged professional code. Super League came and went but its legacy still lives on today. Interchange rules seem to change as often as refereeing interpretations. Scrums today are a pale and languid ghost of days gone by. There are no North Sydney Bears but instead we have teams in Auckland, Melbourne and Townsville.
One thing remains the same though: Wayne Bennett is a winner.
Eighteen years after winning his first premiership with Brisbane, he claimed his seventh title and his first with the St George-Illawarra Dragons. He ended a 31 year drought for St George fans and he provided Illawarra with their first ever premiership. Bennett, according to most good judges, pushed past the legendary supercoach Jack Gibson on Sunday night as the Dragons surged to the 2010 title. In only two years, Bennett has turned the Dragons from a team built on glitz and a reputation of individualism with a soft underbelly to one made of steel and heart with a team-first ethos.
After the 2009 finals, it would appear shocking to any outsider that the McIntyre System is still in place. Anyone involved in rugby league is not surprised though. Blinkered vision and defiance of logic have been hallmarks of rugby league administration for over a century now.
The 2009 finals system highlighted the deep structural failings of the McIntyre System and its inherent unfairness.
The biggest losers were both the Dragons and the Titans.
St. George-Illawarra won the minor premiership and were eliminated in straight sets. They were given the advantage of hosting a final against the lowest ranked team in the first week of the finals but upon losing that match to Parramatta they ceded any advantage they had earned over 26 rounds with a single loss. They subsequently not only had to play the sixth placed Brisbane Broncos but they had to travel to play the match at Suncorp Stadium. The Dragons went down 24-10 and were eliminated.
The NRL cannot afford to sit on its hands as the ICC has done. Rugby league cannot afford to weather the decline cricket has in the last decade. Any stench of match-fixing or spot-fixing in rugby league will significantly marginalise the code in the most competitive sporting marketplace in the world.
For two weeks, rumours have circulated in both rugby league and gambling circles that a rort was on in the North Queensland-Canterbury match in Round 24. There was a significant and disproportionate amount of money for the first scoring play in the match to be a Cowboys penalty goal with betting agencies reporting that punters stood to win between $250,000 and $500,000 with the TAB reporting that 95% of the hold on the match was for the minor option of the first scoring play being a Cowboys penalty goal. The price shifted from $13.0 into $3.0.
The Chicago Cubs blame their failure to win a World Series in over a century on the Curse of the Billy Goat, a hex placed by a billy goat owning fan after he and his goat were thrown out of Wrigley Field. Japanese baseball sees the Hanshin Tigers believe in the Curse of the Colonel with the team failing to win a title since hurling a life-size statue of Colonel Sanders into Dotonbon River. The AFL has the Curse of Norm Smith to explain why the Melbourne Demons have not won a premiership since firing their legendary coach midway through the 1965 season. There is the Sports Illustrated Cover jinx, the Andretti Curse and the Curse of Biddy Early.
Rugby league is not to be left out with the St. George-Illawarra Dragons struck down by the Curse of Canberra.
One positive to emerge from the upcoming election being determined by Western Sydney and Queensland is that the rugby league vote is now being courted. Long forgotten, rugby league is starting to become more of a draw card for politicians on the hard chase for votes.
On a superficial level, there is no support for rugby league among the party leadership of either the Labor or Liberal parties. Julia Gillard is a Welsh born Adelaide girl living in Melbourne who claims the Western Bulldogs as her own. She calls herself a Storm fan but that is nothing more than lip service and rings as true as Kevin Rudd being a Broncos man.
Rugby league is in dire need of an independent commission. It needs to be in place before not only the new television deal is negotiated but well before the start of the 2011 season.
There has never been more proof that rugby league needs its independence than the 2010 season where the Melbourne Storm scandal brought about accusations of conflicts of interest from both the NRL executive and News Limited, where players have become more vocal in their demands for increased pay while clubs such as Cronulla and the Gold Coast have required extra funding from the NRL just to pay the bills and where the AFL has been allowed to enter rugby league markets while the issue of expansion in the NRL is ignored.
If the Melbourne Storm are to be competitive in 2011 and beyond, they need to bid farewell to Greg Inglis. He is the one dispensable player in the so-called Big Four. The Storm need the money Inglis swallows to build a competitive forward pack and the Storm have the players and the coaching staff to adequately replace the Queensland and Australian centre.
There is no doubt that Inglis is a fantastic player. In six seasons and 111 games for the Melbourne Storm, Inglis has scored an astonishing 75 tries including six hat-tricks. He has scored 10 tries in 13 matches for Queensland and he has represented Australia 16 times where he has scored 15 tries. He was awarded the 2009 Golden Boot Award for the best player in the world and the 2007 Clive Churchill Medal for the best player in the Storm’s grand final victory over Manly. He won back-to-back Dally M Representative Player of the Year awards in 2008-09 and was named Four Nations Player of the Tournament in 2009. Throughout his club career he has averaged an incredible 4.73 tackle breaks per game along with 114.5 metres per match. All this and he is only 23 years of age.
Yet it is clearly in the Melbourne Storm’s interests to cut a deal with the Brisbane Broncos that will see Inglis move north and free up the better part of $550,000.
When the Wests Tigers shocked the rugby league world in 2005 by winning the NRL premiership, they did so on the back of youthful impetuousness, free-spirited enthusiasm and the self-belief that came from eight straight wins late in the season. The Tigers were unharnessed by Tim Sheens, an attacking force that ranked top of the NRL in point scoring with the Tigers averaging the more points scored per match than any team over the last five years.
Of the eighteen players who played 15-plus games, eleven were aged 25 or under with three of the Tigers four key playmakers among those eleven under 25. Scott Prince was 25, Robbie Farah 21 and Benji Marshall 20. Only Brett Hodgson as a 27 year old was a seasoned campaigner in the NRL with Prince playing only nine games for Brisbane in the two years before joining the Tigers in 2004. The likes of Anthony Laffranchi, Chris Heighington, Bronson Harrison and Bryce Gibbs would all go on to play rep football but at the time were simply precocious talents looking for a break.
David Gallop should be making a note in permanent marker. Those touted as contenders for the proposed new independent commission should be doing the same. And when the time comes to talk television deal, the notebook should be pulled out and read aloud:
“Channel Nine Screws Rugby League Again”
Nine should then be told they will not be given NRL rights from 2013 and beyond. Nine should be told that they will not be sold the rights to State of Origin. Nine should be told to go to hell for the contemptuous nature in which they have treated the rugby league fan and the game of rugby league.
The Challenge Cup is the most revered trophy in British rugby league. Its history stretches back to the formative days of the sport over 110 years ago. Like F.A Cup final day in soccer, Challenge Cup final day is the most important day of the season in the British rugby league world with 80,000 making the pilgrimage from the rugby league heartland of the North to Wembley in London every year.
The format of the competition is simple and egalitarian. Any team is eligible to enter. Super League teams join the competition in the final thirty-two. The draw is random in every round. The configuration is straight knockout.