4 February 2015

How about a Super League 9s?

The second annual instalment of the NRL Auckland 9s has been deemed a success. We saw big crowds, wide coverage and great on field excitement and entertainment.

This has inevitably got keyboards tapping over here about whether we should get in on the 9s action. The biggest thinker in modern day Rugby League, Marwan Koukash, is known to be keen on the idea and it's one of the regular questions he puts to fans in his Twitter polls. Plenty of fans are also up on the idea, many thinking it should replace the Magic Weekend.

I don't want to be Mr Negative but I've run this idea in my mind a bit and I'm not convinced it would work for us.

Although there is interest in taking it elsewhere now it's proved popular, the Auckland base for the 9s in my mind was integral in its inception. A major rugby league event was needed for New Zealand to help grow the sport and the NRL brand. This bite size version of the game is ideal for new audiences because you can showcase the speed, athleticism and skill offered up without having to get too held up in the rules and intricacies of full game - and crucially, not delaying everything with constant video ref referrals.

We would have to do something similar to get the idea off the ground and fully capitalise on its potential, but that was the concept with Magic Weekend and that part of its purpose has fallen away somewhat after limited success. The places you'd think of would be London or Cardiff with any real similarity for the reasons for taking it to Auckland. That would be by and large rejected by the commonly introspective and regionally protective rugby league core audience.

The plus that Auckland has is an already large audience who support the local NRL team. A team which represents the nation so can draw some patriotism and support from the curious audience members. Neither London or Cardiff can really offer that. Auckland also has a core rugby audience, which Cardiff can offer, but London sits on questionable ground with. I'm not sure we have a location like Auckland that can so suitably fit the bill.

The NRL is big business down under. It's the major sports league in terms of media coverage, television deals and sponsorship revenues. Dick Smith has stumped up major money to get the 9s going, with each team picking up a handsome chunk of money for just being in the event before you think of the price money for winning the thing.

A total pot of around £1.2 million is dished out to the sides competing over the weekend. Put another way, that is more than the fantastic new Challenge Cup sponsorship deal brings in per year of Ladbrokes three year contract.

Quite simply, I'm not sure there is the audience or television interest on this side of the world to have such a commercially successful product as they have developed down under.

In the end that will result in a lesser standard of professionalism surrounding the whole event, which could leave the organisers with egg on its face. Lower prize money would also mean a lesser incentive to put out your best players for what is a sideshow event, but I'll move on to that later.

Another thing that is so great about the Auckland 9s is that it comes as the starting point of the NRL preseason. League fans have had a long wait between meals so they are ready to eat it up.

The bonus in this down under is that it comes as summer is winding down. OK, it rained a bit during the second instalment after 2014's sun saturated weekend, but it didn't exactly look cold with everyone who wasn't in fancy dress wearing shorts and singlets. There was definitely no chance of a frozen or waterlogged pitch calling off the action like you might get in England in preseason.

Two 'solutions' to this come to mind. Both of which I have reservations about. Firstly, have it in the preseason but move it away from the north of England. That could give you the weather that guarantees games will be played but would have issues in terms of generating an audience.

The second, more commonly mentioned and endorsed, is play it in May in place of the Magic Weekend. The best strength of the Magic Weekend is that it means something, so teams turn up with something important at stake, league points. Swap that for something that is effectively a festival that is likely to provide little incentive to really win and you won't get the same commitment to playing with the top players on show as you get at the Magic Weekend.

The final major issue that challenges the potential success is one of the criticisms that has been made of the NRL 9s - the absence of a number of major stars.

This year most of the Australian big hitters were missing, and this for a preseason event rather than an event in the middle of a packed season.

What happens by and large in the NRL 9s is you get a few first team players in the early or middle stages of their career. You get a group of reserve graders or young players that might be stepping up in age group this time around. Then, for fun, you get the odd side featuring a former player coming out of retirement for the event.

No matter how any Super League 9s was put together, I can't imagine much difference in squad make up. There will not be more star names, and if you put it in the middle of an every minute matters season I would guess there could be even less, as we've seen in the midweek 9s series that were ran a few years ago that were effectively under 19s tournaments with a sprint on finals day.

My point is, you don't get wall to wall best of the best players at the 9s. The thing is, their back up players down under are better than ours. Their top clubs have a bigger pool of talent to call upon for a tournament like the 9s. What we could see is teams mostly made up of squad players, which are nowadays usually limited to academy products.

The fans
My last doubt would be how many fans are realistically going to turn up, potentially having to travel and pay for overnight accommodation, to watch teams largely made up of squad players and likely missing a number of stars. Probably not enough to support the idea and bring the desired attention and sponsorship I would fear.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom but when we sit watching the Auckland 9s and get excited about the same thing happening over here, we need to remember that other than the shape of the ball and the size of the pitch, there are a lot of differences to the place our great sport sits in the order of things.

I'm not saying it couldn't happen. Like anything these days, money talks. If someone stumps up enough money it could become worthwhile for the clubs to take it seriously. From that the rest could follow. If we do get a 9s, lets hope we get it right!


1 February 2015

The Halfback Problem

The biggest problem our flagship national side - be it England or Great Britain - has faced in the last decade or so is filling the halfback positions.

There have been a number of issues - inconsistency in selections, a lack of quality talent or depth, a saturation of players who come from a land down under. On the dawn of the New Era I don't want to be negative, but I'm a little concerned that this problem might be perpetuated by some of the changes we've seen.

Credit where its due, the prompt for this blog was a piece by Rugby League Latest and a subsequent Twitter chat with Bobbie Goulding. The piece covered Rugby League Latest's top number 7s for the 2015 Super League season. The top three, and four of the five noted, were from Australia. Bobbie highlighted the problem with players effectively not good enough for NRL first grade taking up spots in our sides and suggested limiting the number of overseas players in the key play-making positions. That was a interesting idea but not one I'm going to explore here.

Inconsistent selection
Steve McNamara has coached the England side since 2010. In the 26 games he has overseen there have been 8 different halfback pairings - if you only count the Sinfield-Chase pairing once (they have lined up both ways round). Tellingly England have never entered an Autumn series with the same starting pair as the previous series under McNamara.

England halfback pairings under McNamara
v France, 12/06/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v NZ Maori, 16/10/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v New Zealand, 23/10/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v Australia, 31/10/2010 - O'Loughlin, Robinson
v PNG, 06/11/2010 - Brown, Robinson
v Exiles, 10/06/2011 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 21/10/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Wales, 29/10/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Australia, 05/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v New Zealand, 12/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Australia, 19/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 16/06/2012 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 04/07/2012 - Smith, Brough
v Wales, 27/10/2012 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 03/11/2012 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 11/11/2012 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 14/06/2013 - Sinfield, Myler
v Italy, 19/10/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Australia, 26/10/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Ireland, 02/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Fiji, 09/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v France, 16/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v New Zealand, 23/11/2013 - Widdop, Sinfield
v Samoa, 25/10/2014 - Widdop, Smith
v Australia, 02/11/2014 - Widdop, Smith
v New Zealand, 08/11/2014 - Widdop, Smith

You can go back even further if you want to find a pair that started the first game of consecutive series for either England or Great Britain in the same 6 and 7 jerseys - it was the 2004 Tri-Nations, where Paul Sculthorpe and Sean Long repeated their staring pair from the 2003 Ashes series. Harris, Deacon, McGuire, Burrow, Horne, Pryce, Gleeson and Eastmond have all joined those listed already above in having a go in various combinations since 2004.

2014 Four Nations
We do have one ace in the hole. Former NRL winner Gareth Widdop was finally brought in as a starter for the 2014 Four Nations along side 2013 Lance Todd trophy winner Matty Smith. Backing them up was Stefan Ratchford.

The England pair did show some flashes of getting it together. Smith's kicking game was a positive, Widdop's goal kicking was strong, and there were a few inspired moments leading tries, but not many. Ultimately it was the sides with the better halfback combinations that won through to the final, Australia particularly showing their depth with star man Johnathan Thurston missing the tournament.

The 2015 trend
Seven of the twelve Super League sides have revamped their halfback options by making a signing or two. Eight of the eleven players signed are of Australian origin - including the permanent re-singing of Tim Smith at Wakefield. Five have arrived directly from NRL sides for this year.

2015 halfback signings - likely starters
Castleford - Ben Roberts, Luke Gale
Catalan - Todd Carney
Hull FC - Leon Pryce, Marc Sneyd
Hull KR - Terry Campese, Albert Kelly
Salford - Michael Dobson
St Helens - Travis Burns
Wakefield - Jacob Miller, Tim Smith

Three sides are definitely going to be running out with a first choice pair of overseas players - Hull KR, St Helens and Wakefield - for all of these, the third choice half is also from down under. Catalan are probably going to a be part of that group too, and depending on how you see the nationality of Rangi Chase you could put Salford in that group.

The five that have come in from NRL sides for the 2015 season feels like a high number to me. On a quick count back off the top of my head I came up with nine halves that came in directly from the NRL during the second licensing period (2012-2014). That's an average of three a year, and that includes two short term stop gap signings in Liam Foran at Salford and Sam Williams at Catalan, so its a jump up in this number for 2015.

Halves signed straight from NRL sides - 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons
Lance Hohaia - St Helens, 2012
Tim Smith - Wakefield, 2012
Brett Seymour - Hull FC, 2012
Jacob Miller - Hull FC, 2013
Liam Foran - Salford, 2013
Travis Burns - Hull KR, 2013
Luke Walsh - St Helens, 2014
Kris Keating - Hull KR, 2014
Sam Williams - Catalan, 2014

I have a couple of explanations why this is the case. Firstly, the increase in central funding from the new TV deal means that all teams should be able to spend to the full salary cap. That will mean back up NRL halves would likely be able to better their salary by moving over as a starting half in Super League - you don't expect many NRL back ups will be on AUS$150,000-AUS$200,000, but you do think the average starting halfback salary is £80,000-£100,000 in Super League. The second, possibly more significant, explanation is the reintroduction of possible relegation. With the risk of dropping out of Super League and the impact that will have on a club again a real possibility there will be a willingness to put a bit more money on an experienced overseas signing than risk an inexperienced young prospect.

All of this is worrying for me, as it will likely stunt the first grade development and opportunities for British (and French) halves. One the immediately jumps out as being unfortunate is young Theo Fages at Salford. He made plenty of progress in the second half of 2014 only to now likely be knocked down the pecking order for a player clearly not good enough for the NRL. I look at the talented youngster Ben Reynolds and wonder if his departure from Castleford was related to the signings they made. Similarly, Matty Wildie at Wakefield is another who has had to drop down a league in search of first team opportunities. You also have to wonder if Gary Wheeler thought he might get more opportunities to play as a British half in a Warrington side than a St Helens side with three overseas halves at the front of the queue. And then what must you be thinking as a young British half in the Hull KR system? Rovers have signed three antipodean halves for 2015, as part of a run of signing halfbacks direct from NRL sides.

Reasons for optimism
Its not all doom and gloom though for the prospects of British halfbacks. We have the aforementioned Gareth Widdop, a genuine star who has can lead us around for some time to come given the opportunity and luck with injury.

Also, whilst more sides than you would like have no home grown halfback, half the Super League sides will be running with an all British combo in 2015 - Huddersfield, Hull FC, Leeds, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan - only Hull FC of those even having an overseas half in their back up options.

The days of playing for England are behind Danny Brough and Kevin Sinfield now. You can fairly confidently add Leon Pryce, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow to that list, and probably Luke Robinson and possibly Kevin Brown after his 2014 non-selection. Even with that being the case, these players are still there with their masses of experience to help bring others through, and others are there, if maybe not in the numbers we want.

Marc Sneyd at Hull FC was a revelation for Castleford in 2014 and hopefully can kick on after a couple of disappointing displays in the big games he played. Liam Sutcliffe is already starting to make an impact for Leeds, his last minute winning goal kick against Catalan in 2014 showing that he might have what it takes to be Sinfield's successor. Warrington trio Ratchford, Myler and O'Brien are all players with time still on their side and plenty of quality along with big game experience. Joe Mellor for me is one of the most underrated halfbacks in Super League, who at 24 is approaching his best years and in 2014 Widnes actually had a better win percentage for games he played in than they did for games Kevin Brown played. As well as Smith, who has turned into a champion player at Wigan, the Warriors have put faith in their young players with Blake Green moving back to the NRL. George Williams and Sam Powell are both on long term deals and had plenty of game time in 2014, with Ryan Hampshire and Jake Shorrocks waiting behind them to get a chance to show off their great skills.

Lets hope for this group of players to be a success in 2015 and beyond for their clubs, so it shows what having a home grown domestic half back pairing can do for your club. Maybe then the trend will be to sign British or promote from within, in turn strengthening our international options.

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