And Then There Were Four

Only three matches remain in this year’s Telstra NRL Premiership. 16 teams began the season and 12 have bowed out. We’ve seen the rise of South Sydney and Eastern Suburbs to bring back the rivalry of old.

We’ve watched in awe as Wayne Bennett has coached yet another team, this time Newcastle, to a finals series. And once again the Manly Sea Eagles have made their mark on the competition.

So what’s in store for the final four? Souths will face off against Manly. The last time South Sydney won the premiership Jack Gibson was coaching St George. With Souths defeating the Gibson coached outfit in 1971.

Manly, on the other hand, have been one of the most consistent teams of the past decade, winning two premierships in three grand finals.

Newcastle will play the minor premiership winning Roosters. The Knights will be looking to make their first grand final since their 2001 triumph against the record breaking Parramatta Eels.

Whereas the Roosters will be hoping to get a shot at redemption for their 2010 performance against the Bennett coached Dragons. Easts will do their best to prove that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

The Manly verse Souths match-up will pit two of the best backlines against each other. The Rabbits will be looking to deliver early ball to Greg Inglis, giving him plenty of time to put the try-scoring machine, Nathan Merritt, away.

Manly will be using their deadly right side attack to open up the game. The combination between halves Kieren Foran and Daly Cherry-Evas as well as the Stewart brothers and Jamie Lyon will cause the South Sydney defence plenty of headaches.

With Nathan Merritt having some question marks over his defence in big games I’d also expect Manly to test him out early on. Possibly trying to cash in on some indecision from the veteran winger.

We have a terrific halves battle in this match. Adam Reynolds and John Sutton will line up against the aforementioned Foran and Cherry-Evans.

Both sets of halves have sublime kicking games and more than solid defence. Where Souths have the advantage here is the size and agility of John Sutton who has caused more than his fair share of damage this season.

Looking at the forward packs, it’s hard not to be intimidated by the Souths pack. Three of the four Burgess brothers have been named in the side with Sam and Luke starting whilst George is on the bench.

Isaac Luke will run things from dummy-half while Ben Te’o will be looking to continue his good form out-wide. You know Souths have a strong forward pack when Roy Asotasi is coming off the bench.

For Manly Matt Ballin will be more than solid opposition against Isaac Luke. The Sea Eagles’ forward pack is one that combines skill with aggression. Anthony Watmough was awarded the Brad Fittler medal this season as the best player for NSW.

Justin Horo has been a revelation since leaving Parramatta. He’s shown all the talent that saw him gain a regular starting position before Stephen Kearney decided he wasn’t part of his plan.

Brent Kite is showing there’s still life in the old legs as he continues to push for another premiership to add to his mantle. Glenn Stewart is back in form following his early season injuries and his combination with his brother has seen Manly score plenty of points this year.

The Roosters-Knights match-up pits the rookie against the super-coach. Trent Robinson may be in his debut year as head of an NRL team but you wouldn’t know it watching the Roosters this year. In the coach’s boxes next door is a man who continually proves he can turn any club he wants around.

Wayne Bennett has seven premierships to his name, averaging just under one every three seasons. Well guess what, this is the third season since his 2010 triumph. Alongside Jack Gibson, he is seen as one of the greatest coaches of all time. He’s right at home in the finals.

Both Newcastle and the Roosters will field well-rounded sides. The Roosters have arguably a more star-studded line-up but Bennett’s Knights have proved it doesn’t matter who you have on your roster, in the NRL if you play as a team you will win as shown in their win over Melbourne.

Easts will no doubt be trying their best to get quality ball to Sonny Bill Williams early on. His combination with centres Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Michael Jennings has been invaluable to the Roosters’ success this season.

James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce will be expected to control the match with their kicking game, making Newcastle consistently work the ball off their own line.

The Knights showed last week, against arguably the best defensive team in the competition, that they weren’t afraid to spread the ball early. Their quick interchange of passing in the forwards caused plenty of headaches for Melbourne.

Knights’ halves, Jarrod Mullen and Tyrone Roberts, have hit good form to the back-end of the season. Possessing terrific kicking games and control around the ruck, they too will look to pin the opposition in their own half.

Manly have shown terrific grit in their defence this season as have South Sydney. However I believe the Greg Inglis led Rabbitohs will be able to pierce the North Shore wall. In a tight affair I see the Rabbitohs winning 12-8.

At times this season it’s appeared as though the Roosters have scored at will. However, coming up against a Newcastle out-fit that effectively blunted three of the best players in the game will provide a different challenge. I tip yet another close match, with Newcastle winning 16-12.

So there you have it. I am tipping a Newcastle against Souths Grand Final. But, it’s the NRL. Anything is possible.

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A day at Anfield

The Spion Kop stands to attention as the men in Red make their way towards the stand. The ground goes quiet apart from a small section of Southampton supporters. Then it begins, Gerry Marsden’s voice breaks the mid-afternoon air; “When you walk through a storm…”

The Kop picks up the song and before you know it every man, woman and child dressed in Red is belting out the world famous tune. It comes to a heavy crescendo as more and more emotion bubbles to the surface before a deafening roar signals for everyone to focus on the centre of the pitch and wait for the match to get underway.

As you’re probably aware by now I’m a Liverpool F.C. fan and I attended the match on 21st September against Southampton. I decided on the full stadium experience, beginning with the Stadium Tour followed by the Boot Room pre-match meal and finished off with a seat at the Anfield Road End.

Unfortunately for us the museum tour was unavailable due to refurbishments taking place but that didn’t mean it impacted on our fun. We began at the players entrance where we bumped into the Southampton kit managers busily unloading their gear.

We moved through the entrance, looking into the media rooms and stopping at the top of the tunnel. There it hung, the famous “This is Anfield” sign. Then through the tunnel we went, emerging next to the player’s dug-out.

After that it was on to sit in the famous Spion Kop. For those who don’t know, the Spion Kop was so named after 300 men died in the Boer war, the majority were from Liverpool who stood at that end of the ground.

It is now the voice of the stadium, leading everyone in the famous chants and songs. Any Liverpool players who are fortunate enough to score at Anfield get their name chanted following the goal.

With some time to kill following the tour which ended at the Kop it was off to the stadium gift shop. Luckily for me it was well before kick-off and so was nowhere near as packed as it was later on. Some half an hour later and lighter in the bank account I emerged with plenty of Liverpool merchandise.

Upon leaving the gift shop the UEFA Cup had made an appearance and so what better way to commemorate my visit to Anfield than a photo with the European trophy. About three hours prior to kick-off and it was time for lunch.

Up the stairs and I was welcomed by the friendly Boot Room staff with a personalised envelope containing my match-day ticket and itinerary. Seated at my table I was met by three fellow Reds. One from Singapore, one from Japan and one from Auckland.

Over a lunch of chicken, baked salmon and cheesecake we discussed the upcoming match as well as learning about our own experiences of supporting LFC from different parts of the world.

Then it was time for the main attraction of the day. The match between LFC and Southampton. The Southampton fans were small in number but loud in voice. Of course being only 2,000 strong in a 45,000 seater stadium they were always going to be droned out by the home fans.

Any energy and effort on the ball by a Red was met by a loud applause. Any call against Liverpool and the boo’s directed at the officials were deafening.

Whilst Liverpool showed endeavor early on, they failed to impress on the score-board. Ultimately it was Southampton who took their chance early in the second-half with their lone-goal being the difference at full-time.

Apart from the match-result the day was one to be savoured. For any true Liverpool F.C. supporter a trip to Anfield has to be on the bucket list. It is unlike any other ground in the world and you will truly be swept up and pushed along by the Red tide. And remember, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

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Heart Close to Securing Mifsud

The Melbourne Heart are close to announcing the signing of Maltese National Captain, Michael Mifsud. Heart Chief Executive, Scott Munn, told SBS that the terms have been agreed but nothing has been signed.

“Just to be clear. We have not agreed or signed anything.” Said Munn. The signing of Mifsud would be a huge boost for the young club which also announced the recruitment of Socceroo and former Liverpool player, Harry Kewell.

Michael Mifsud is revered in Malta, holding the goal-scoring record and is the current captain. He has played for Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern, the same club as Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, as well as Coventry City in England. 

Melbourne has a large Maltese population and Mifsud’s signing could be a masterstroke for the club, enticing a large supporter base to awaken.

Whilst 32 years of age his form has been impressive of late. In Malta’s World Cup qualifier against Italy back in April he was a constant threat in front of goal with only an in-form Buffon and the woodwork denying him a goal.

A combination with Kewell will have Heart supporters salivating and more than ready to challenge cross-town rivals, Melbourne Victory. 

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Stuart Quits When Team Needs Him The Most

“It’s a tough job and there are going to be plenty of tough times ahead.” Those were the words of Ricky Stuart when he took over the coaches box at Parramatta at the end of last season.

Fast forward 12 months and he’s thrown in the towel. The hottest seat in the NRL is once again vacant. Since Brian Smith left, the club has been through six coaches with none of them completing their contracts for various reasons.

I’m disappointed in Stuart to say the least. He talked a big game and I guess I’m a sucker for believing it. It was always going to be an uphill battle at Parramatta but that was expected with a weaker roster than the one fielded in 2012.

Stuart bid farewell to 12 players mid-season and signed a host of others. Now he’s left the club in a hole. If those players Stuart has signed decide they’re not coming to Parramatta then the club is back to square one.

For Parramatta fans it’s a feeling of frustration and betrayal. Stuart said, as recently as Monday, that he had a job to do at Parramatta. Fans have every right to feel aggrieved at what has happened.

From what I’ve read on social media and a number of supporters’ sites, Stuart will be in for an interesting return to Parramatta. With one supporter saying “The Blues going through the Caxton will look like a cake-walk when Sticky returns.”

“This (Stuart’s return) has all the hallmarks of a career long Parra welcome wagon in true Jamie Lyon style,” said another fan. Parramatta’s fans have every right to feel let down, disappointed and plenty of other emotions which would be expletive filled.

So where to now for Parramatta? Well a couple of coaches have been tabled by the media. Neil Henry was recently fired by North Queensland but have since made the finals. Jason Taylor appears to be firming as a favourite among the Parramatta faithful.

Taylor played his final NRL season with the blue and golds, leading them to a Grand Final. He also took over as care-taker coach in 2006, delivering them to a finals appearance. The other name being thrown up is former Eels mentor Brian Smith.

Smith is regarded as one of the finest coaches in the game with a penchant for discipline; something lacking heavily in the Parramatta outfit. Smith coached the club for 10 years and enjoyed relative success, winning two minor premierships and delivered a grand final appearance.

In an ideal world I’d have Brian Smith as a coaching director with Jason Taylor as the coach. Taylor is reportedly a very good man-manager and has a good relationship with captain, Jarryd Hayne. Smith, as I wrote above, is probably the best re-builder in the business.

Outgoing coach Ricky Stuart.

Former Parramatta coach Jason Taylor

Former Eels mentor Brian Smith

Race to the top

26 weeks have passed and the competition has been halved. For the next month we will be entertained by the best 8 teams in the competition, all vying for the Provan-Summons trophy.

So, what might be install for the most competitive competition in the world? On Friday we see the Rabbitohs take on the Storm. The Rabbits have used their big men up front to belt their opposition before unleashing Greg Inglis. Rabbits fans will be hoping for a big performance from the former Melbournian.

The Storm have been their consistent selves, flying under the radar. They’ve executed their plans to pin point accuracy and have been led by the best spine in the competition. Melbourne will be looking forward to welcoming back Gareth Widdop from a dislocated hip.

On Saturday we’ll see the double-header at Allianz Stadium. First up will be Cronulla facing off against the Cowboys. Cronulla have had nearly the season from hell but still find themselves in the finals.

They’ll look to shift the ball wide early and use their fringe forwards to target Johnathan Thurston. However, the men to watch for Cronulla will be Todd Carney and Jeff Robson. Robson has big game experience, having played a Grand Final and will be the chief organiser.

Carney too has big match experience. He can be a hot and cold player but at his best he can rip even the best teams apart. Paul Gallen will be his usual hard-working self.

Since Neil Henry was sacked the Cowboys have played an exciting brand of football. Johnathan Thurston has led the team as you’d expect and his forwards, namely Matt Scott, have punished teams up the middle. Matt Bowen has shown shades of his youth and will be a target for Thurston’s deft kicks behind the defensive line.

The second match of the double header could quite be the match of the week. The Roosters will face the Sea Eagles. Two talented sets of halves with equally talented back-lines will face off.

The Roosters will definitely be looking at shifting the ball to Sonny Bill Williams early. With any type of space SBW can rip apart the best defences. The Roosters have a fast, mobile pack and will be looking for a high paced match. Getting Jennings in space will be a key element in their attack.

Manly have shown they can play both a grinding style of football but have the flair to pile on points. The Sea Eagles will hope to welcome back Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough. Stewart’s combination with his brother Glenn and centre Jamie Lyon will be a pet play of Manly.

Kieran Foran and Daley Cherry-Evans will look to control the match with their kicking game but will be ably matched by Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney.

Sunday will see the Bulldogs take on Newcastle. The Knights, despite their negative press at the beginning of the season, have managed to sneak into the eight. Supercoach Wayne Bennett will enter yet another finals series, his 22nd in 23 seasons.

Newcastle finished the season on a high, blasting wooden spooners, Parramatta, off the park. Danny Buderus will be looking to end his career on a high and the Knights are looking as if they’ve been played into form.

Although he’s 35 years old Buderus will be a key man for Newcastle. He runs the ruck for them and is one of the most experienced players in the team. Out wide Newcastle have plenty of speed in Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate. Look for their early shifts wide to attempt to give “Aku” room to move.

The Bulldogs, whilst not in the same form that saw them dominate the 2012 season are in the finals for their second year running under Des Hasler. The big blow for the Bulldogs is the injury to fullback Ben Barba.

Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson have struck up an effective partnership with Michael Ennis providing quality ball from dummy-half. Props Aiden Tolman and James Graham will try to get the Dogs on a roll early and give their halves time and space.

Bulldogs fans will be hoping that Tony Williams decides to turn up for this match. His presence on the left edge will be used to create space for Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett. If the Dogs make it to the grand final Inu will be hoping it’s fourth time lucky.

My tips? I’m going for Souths over the Storm. I think the Bunnies can surprise Melbourne and ambush them in Sydney. I see the Cowboys defeating the Sharks. They have the momentum and have already said they want to emulate the Eels’ season of 2009, this time with a grand final win.

I’m struggling to pick a winner between Manly and Easts. But I think Manly’s big game experience will be the winner here. As for the Dogs and Knights; I believe Newcastle can get the win with Ben Barba’s absence impacting heavily on the Bulldogs.

The NYC is a Failed Experiment

Whilst many people would disagree with me I am of the firm opinion that the Under 20’s or the National Youth Competition/Holden Cup has not done the job it was intended for.

The major idea of this competition was to have an elite avenue for young rugby league players to progress into the NRL by playing against people their own age. That is where it falls apart.

The NRL is the best and most competitive rugby league competition in the world. It has seen players from the age of 16 up to the age of 40 play in the first grade competition.

For 100 years the premier rugby league competition, whether it was the NSWRL, ARL or NRL operated with a three tier system. Jersey Flegg (Under 23’s), Reserve Grade/NSW Cup and First Grade.

The premise was to build the players into first grade. Under23’s allowed them to play against guys roughly their own age but who may have more size as due to the age difference allowed. 

Reserve Grade gave the opportunity for fringe first graders to show their worth, injured first graders to gain match fitness and the young players to test themselves against guys much bigger, stronger and experienced than them.

First grade was the benchmark by which all were measured. Now we have today’s system. It relegates NSW Cup to park football with the NYC taking position as the NRL curtain-raiser.

The major issue with the NYC is that it doesn’t prepare the players for the NRL properly. When it was first introduced you’d see players picked directly from NYC, struggle and then get dropped. Then they’d play NSW Cup and force their way back in.

Anyone who has watched the NYC can tell you that there is very little focus on defence. Contrastly, the NRL is built on defence. NSW Cup, whilst not as intense as the NRL, still focuses on a team’s defensive ability.

We have seen over the past few years in the NRL, that teams can stage huge comebacks and score points at an unbelievable rate and that is where I believe the NYC is having its impact.

The young players simply don’t have the mental aptitude to apply themselves for 80 minutes. When you look at teams like Melbourne, Souths, the Roosters and Dogs, they have limited numbers of NYC players in first grade and it shows.

They apply themselves for 80 minutes and can grind out a win. Now look at Parramatta. They have a team made up majorly of NYC players and they’re lucky to concentrate for 20 minutes.

The old reserve grade competition allowed young players to play against seasoned veterans of the game who were either on their way down or returning from injury. The NYC doesn’t allow that.

When Andrew Johns was playing for Newcastle in reserve grade he faced a Manly side that featured Cliff Lyons. Lyons tore Newcastle to shreds in that game and gave one of the greatest halfbacks of all time a footballing lesson. 

That game taught Johns how far he had to go to become a regular first grader and what it meant to play in the NRL. These days coaches, before promoting an NYC player, they will play them in the NSW Cup to see how they perform against bigger, more experienced players.

If this is now the case then why does the NYC still exist? If this supposedly elite competition is now being ranked behind NSW Cup by the NRL coaches then it has surely failed as a developmental competition.

I am a Parramatta supporter and I have quite clearly seen the difference between NRL players and NYC players. Parramatta’s wingers are all graduates of the NYC system. Their defensive reads and positioning are terrible. They constantly get turned inside out by their opposites.

To paraphrase Phil Gould “The game seems to have a view of if it’s not broken then fix it until it is.” The Jersey-Flegg, Reserve Grade, First Grade system worked for 100 seasons. Why change it? In my opinion it’s a failed experiment and it needs to go for the good of the game.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

The famous quote by Sir Isaac Newton in describing his gravitational theory is applicable in almost every facet of life. Unfortunately for Michael Clarke it currently applies to him.

“Pup” has not had the greatest of years by his lofty standards. Just two centuries to his name in two series is not what was expected.

Last year Clarke blazed away at all and sundry. It seemed his bat was three feet wide and he had a near inability to be dismissed. He passed 100 runs on five separate occasions last year, scoring three double centuries and a triple century. The only player in the history of cricket to do so.

Fast forward to the end of the 2013 Ashes series and he leads a team struggling to pass 300 runs collectively. I am not bashing Clarke, I respect the man and his phenomenal ability.

But it appears he has lost some of his mojo and invincibility. Whilst it still takes a terrific delivery to remove him from the crease, those deliveries are coming about more and more.

For Clarke’s sake and Australia’s I hope it’s merely a stutter that will be overcome on home soil. Whilst Clarke has been delivered back to earth his body is still intact. He has a desire to score runs and more importantly a desire to win.

Whilst he might not be the blonde haired kid from Liverpool who debuted nearly 10 years ago he is definitely the man to deliver Australia success under his watch.

His rash stroke-play that brought him runs but could also be his downfall have been replaced with the patience expected of a man who’s played nearly 100 Test matches. 

England and the rest of the cricketing world know of Clarke’s ability and how dangerous he is with willow in hand. Australia hopes that the man nicknamed “Pup” will once again rise on home soil and reclaim the most treasured trophy in Australia.

Clarke celebrates his Triple Century in 2012 during the 100th Test match at the SCG.