NRL News & Notes 10 November 2004

McLinden departs, New skipper at Easts, Souths well served at top, NRL season too long.

By Warrick Nicolson, [email protected]

The most stunning news of the week in football circles came out of Canberra with the revelation that former NRL Rookie of the Year Mark McLinden had invoked a clause in his contract allowing him to leave the Raiders and head to the London Broncos for the upcoming Super League season. Having signed a three year contract during the 2003 season, it appeared McLinden would stay with the club til at least 2006 but people should remember that before signing that deal McLinden openly talked about his desire to play in the Old Dart sooner rather than later. While the Raiders are undoubtedly losing one of their most talented and explosive players, it could be a blessing in disguise for a club that regressed in 2004. McLinden was facing a tough battle for a starting spot in Canberra with star signing Jason Smith and boom rookie Todd Carney in coach Matthew Elliott?s plans as the halves for next season. Facing a season coming off the bench didn?t appeal to McLinden and the English pound being offered from the Broncos was very hard to resist. As was a starting and key role in the London attack for the next three seasons. This kind of opportunity would not have been as guaranteed in Canberra and McLinden may have been more of a disadvantage than an advantage given the need to give him quality minutes, thus taking away valuable meshing time between Smith and Carney. Make no mistake the Raiders will miss the freakish running ability of McLinden, but truth be told the returns that will come from a Carney-Smith combination for the duration of the season without being interrupted by a bench half needing playing time will be significant in the present and future of the club.

Luke Ricketson has been appointed the new skipper of the Sydney Roosters to replace the retired Brad Fittler, only six months after appearing to be on the outer at the club. Ricketson will be 32 when the season starts but the Roosters seem to be convinced he is far from past his used by date and are looking to secure the Eastern Suburbs junior beyond 2005. After missing the 2004 decider through suspension, Ricketson will be fired up to perform and lead from the front as the Roosters look to start filling the massive void left by the absence of Fittler. Craig Fitzgibbon and Chris Flannery were also considered for the role.

Andrew Johns made his first trek onto the training paddock Monday with a ballwork session in Newcastle. Making a comeback from a serious knee injury, his third major injury in the past three seasons has the 30-year-old superstar on edge as pre-season training commences. After playing only three games in 2004, Johns was very pleased with how the knee felt at his first session, ?The knee feels great - really strong. I didn't feel it at all. It feels better than I thought it would to be honest. I'll ice it up after every session as a precaution more than anything else." Comments like this from the Newcastle halfback should have all Knights fans excited about the upcoming season, particularly with the health of Johns having such a direct impact on the success of the club since they won their second Premiership in 2001. Fingers crossed Joey.

The South Sydney club has been training for just over a week and new head coach Shaun McRae has an opportunity to leave a definitive mark on the NRL after leaving a legacy of his own in the UK. McRae was brought in by CEO Shane Richardson and both men know they face a monumental challenge to take the Rabbitohs from the cellar where they have languished since being readmitted to the competition in 2002. But Bunnies fans take heart, you have the best combination available for the rebuilding process and results will be forthcoming this season. While the Finals seem a tad ambitious, Souths should be more than nuisance value and if the players buy into McRae?s system then the club will benefit. McRae has served his apprenticeship under some of the best coaches ever to use a clipboard including Bob Fulton, Tim Sheens, Wayne Bennett and Don Furner ? all legendary coaches. Success in the UK followed with St Helens, Gateshead and Hull, but McRae will not rest on his laurels as the Rabbitohs lack the genuine star power those teams in Super League had. Something to note is McRae was part of the brains trust that helped mold the pure attacking genius of the Green Machine, and like Tim Sheens with the Wests Tigers in 2004, look for the Bunnies to emulate some of the signature Canberra set plays that thrilled the fans in the past.

Newcastle coach Michael Hagan made another public plea for the NRL Season to be shortened, as his charges started training for 2005 this week. His argument for a 22 round season, as opposed to the current 26 round format has particular merit with the commitment being made to the Tri-Nations Tournament (which has been a very good tournament thus far). Dally M Winner Danny Buderus is a notable absentee from the first sessions and that is because his 2004 season is still not finished. Buderus has up to four more games of football to play before his season is over, and Hagan won?t be seeing him at training until mid-January. Hagan is not dismissing the value of the Tri-Nations by any means, but he is putting a sensible case forward that the NRL season is too long, especially in this day and age of professionalism where each player is back at training roughly a month after the end of the Finals. While the players are being paid good money, they also cannot be expected to physically survive year after year of unending football. Rugby League is not a kind sport on the body at the best of times and to expect any player ? let alone the elite ones ? to be able to last more than ten years in the sport under the current fixture format is foolish. Financially clubs may complain that taking away two home games per year is unfair and the like, but the ability of their players to fulfill their contracts will increase. In addition, reducing the competition by four rounds could very well help avoid the ridiculous situation where a team like Canberra (who lost two more games than they won) can make the Finals series after a poor season. And three other teams with records of 10 wins and 14 losses can be only two points off the pace. Then again with a Top 8 system as poor as the McIntyre one, situations like this may not be able to be avoided.


Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY ?Your definitive sports resource? Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected]