No axe hovering over Bennett, say Broncos

THE Brisbane Broncos says there's no axe hovering over Wayne Bennett's head despite former skipper Gorden Tallis saying the coach will have little choice but to quit if his NRL side flops in 2006.Tallis believes Bennett has put himself under enormous pressure by sacking Kevin Walters, Gary Belcher and Glenn Lazarus from his coaching staff following another finals collapse last year.

Payne sticks with Cowboys

HOOKER Aaron Payne has re-signed with the North Queensland Cowboys until the end of the 2008 NRL season.The 23 year old debuted with the Cowboys in 2002 and has played 62 games for the 2005 grand finalists. The Cowboys open their season in a Queensland derby with the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday.

Wests Tigers outsiders on eve of NRL opener

WITH the 2006 NRL season upon us, defending premiers Wests Tigers are considered unlikely to go back-to-back in the premiership race.Centrebet Sports have Wests Tigers listed at 15/1 to win this year's premiership, that's 10th in the rankings and well out of favour with the punters.St George Illawarra Dragons (6.00), Parramatta Eels(7.00) and Sydney Roosters (7.50) head up the list of favourites to take out the 2006 premiership.South Sydney Rabbitohs and Canberra Raiders are the rank outsiders at $61.00.For Friday night's match, Wests Tigers are paying $2.75, despite taking on an under-strengthed Dragons outfit. Saints are favourites to win the NRL opener at $1.48.All things considered, Wests Tigers are looking like specials this weekend.ROUND 1 BETTINGWESTS TIGERS 2.65 v ST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA 1.48 NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS 1.80 v PARRAMATTA EELS 2.00 THE BULLDOGS 1.38 v PENRITH PANTHERS 3.05 MANLY SEA EAGLES 1.23 v CANBERRA RAIDERS 4.15 NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS 1.72 v MELBOURNE STORM 2.10 SOUTH SYDNEY 3.65 v SYDNEY ROOSTERS 1.28 BRISBANE BRONCOS 1.65 v NORTH QLD COWBOYS 2.25 PREMIERSHIP BETTINGST GEORGE-ILLAWARRA 6.00 PARRAMATTA EELS 7.00 SYDNEY ROOSTERS 7.50 NORTH QLD COWBOYS 10.00 THE BULLDOGS 10.00 BRISBANE BRONCOS 11.00 NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS 11.00 MANLY SEA EAGLES 13.00 MELBOURNE STORM 15.00 WESTS TIGERS 15.00 CRONULLA SHARKS 23.00 PENRITH PANTHERS 23.00 NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS 41.00 CANBERRA RAIDERS 61.00 SOUTH SYDNEY 61.00 For all the latest odds, margins etc, log onto www.centrebet.com

Holmes a Court suspects Singleton involved in rival bid

PETER Holmes A Court suspects fellow multi-millionaire businessman John Singleton is behind a rival bid to privatise the South Sydney rugby league club.Holmes A Court, whose proposal requires the backing of 75 per cent of Rabbitohs members at an extraordinary meeting on March 19, believes Singleton is involved in a rival $4.8 million counter-bid to buy the famous NRL club.Singleton has denied any involvement.

Cronk is Storm's big hope with new long-term deal

MELBOURNE Storm appears to have settled on rising star Cooper Cronk as its long-term replacement for departed star halfback Matt Orford.The 22-year-old former utility has signed a new contract until the end of the 2009 NRL season. He's set to start in halfback position in this week's first round match against the New Zealand Warriors in Auckland. Cronk displayed red-hot form in pre-season trials to make his case as the replacement for Orford who moved to Manly in the off-season.Lock Dallas Johnson has also signed up for another two years with the Melbourne club after sounding out a possible move over the off-season.

Meyers blow for Bulls

BRADFORD'S Australian second row forward Brad Meyers could be sidelined for nearly three months with a knee injury.The 26-year-old Meyers, who has missed only four matches since joining the Bulls from Brisbane Broncos 18 months ago, suffered ruptured medial ligaments in his left knee during his side's 50-18 win over Catalans Dragons last Saturday. Cook Islander Adam Watene, a close-season signing from Castleford, has been brought in as cover and could make his Bradford debut against Hull at Odsal on Friday.

Villasanti's future in own hands

NEW Zealand Warriors coach Ivan Cleary says former Australian Test prop Richard Villasanti is free to stay or leave the NRL Club.Docked four competition points and fined $430,000 for salary cap breaches over the past two years, the Warriors are looking to cut costs before the start of the 2006 season. Villasanti has been asked to look at playing elsewhere as the Warriors seek to get under the NRL salary cap, but Cleary says the big front rower is not being forced out.Villasanti was left out of the Warriors line-up to play Melbourne in Auckland on Sunday and will play in a curtain raiser for the club's development side against a team from New Zealand's domestic league.

Focus back on 2006 for Eels, Knights

PARRAMATTA and Newcastle will today turn their attention back to the 2006 season and this weekend's opening round clash between the two sides following confirmation yesterday of Brian Smith's impending move to the Knights.Smith ended weeks of speculation by agreeing to a three-year deal with the Knights from 2007, completing a bizarre coaching swap with Knights counterpart Michael Hagan, who will join the Eels, also on a three-year deal, next season. Smith has admitted that the move could prove somewhat of a distraction this season as he helps Knights staff assemble their playing roster for 2007, but says he is committed to helping the Eels win a premiership this year.Both coaches believe this week's coaching drama will not affect the players in the lead-up to Saturday night's clash at EnergyAustralia Stadium. The Knights will be seeking revenge on their home turf after being walloped by the Eels 50-0 in the corresponding match last season.

Tallis renews calls to shift Locky

GORDEN Tallis has renewed calls for the Broncos to return Darren Lockyer to fullback ahead of this weekend's NRL season-opener against North Queensland.Tallis says the extra demands placed on Lockyer in defence at five-eighth would erode his attacking ability. Lockyer has missed most of the Broncos' pre-season build-up following foot surgery but will lead the club in Sunday's derby at Suncorp Stadium.Lock Tonie Carroll is expected to be officially scratched from the game tomorrow with Brad Thorn to receive an early reprieve.

Wests Tigers 2006 season preview

LIKELY squad: Brett Hodgson, Daniel Fitzhenry, Shane Elford, Paul Whaitura, Jamaal Lolesi, Benji Marshall, Scott Prince, John Skandalis, Robbie Farah, Ryan O?Hara, Anthony Laffranchi, Ben Galea, Dene HalatauInterchange: Bryce Gibbs, Liam Fulton, Chris Heighington, Sam HarrisStrengths:The Tigers? great strengths are their skills level and athleticism. Those factors alone got them their premiership glory in 2005 and will enable them to continue that good form for the 2006 season.The Tigers? depth is something to be admired. Young guns like Shannon McDonnell and Dean Collis and key forwards Keith Galloway and Bronson Harrison are left out of the team above. The Tigers purchased very wisely in the off season and as such have improved their roster for the upcoming season, something that would strike fears into the hearts of other teams.The Tiger?s forward pack would rate among the most mobile yet underrated in the competition. Players like Fulton, Halatau and Heighington really shone a bright light for the Tigers in 2005 and will continue to do so for 2006.The halves pairing would rate amongst the best in the competition also. The steadiness of Scott Prince and the creative brilliance of Benji Marshall are so vital for the Tigers? success.Tim Sheens, one of the most experienced coaches in the NRL, is a great strength for the Tigers. He has the ability to turn dirt into gold and he will continue to do so as long as he remains coach.Brett Hodgson is a key player for the Tigers. In 2005 he played like a man possessed. He was magnificent in that everything he touched turned into points. He was the form player of the competition and will be out to make sure it stays that way.Weaknesses:The loss of Pat Richards will be immense for the Tigers. The big winger?s goal-line dropouts, defence and finishing ability was a real highlight for the Tigers in 2005. But now he has departed and leaves a huge hole in a depleted backline.Other teams will now be out to get the Tigers any way they can. This is a weakness for the Tigers whether they like it or not. Last season they slipped under the radar through to the Grand Final. This season teams will be better prepared, better drilled and mentally ready to take it to the Tigers. The Tigers need to be good enough to withstand such pressure.One to Watch:Shannon McDonnell is my player to watch for the Tigers. Shannon had a taste of First Grade in 2005 when he made his debut against Penrith. Unfortunately for Shannon it didn?t go as well as planned as he looked out of his depth and quite nervous in his first outing. He was brought into Tim Sheen?s squad for the WCC where he was again part of a losing side. Aside from only having two matches that resulted in losses, he remains the one to watch for the Tigers. He is an outstanding player with tremendous talent and electrifying speed.Tim Sheens has a huge rap on this kid and it?s no wonder why. He has speed that would be up there with competitors in the Commonwealth Games trials for the 100m and he can finish off a try as good as anyone when given the opportunity. I have no doubt that if Shannon had a consistent spot in the team in 2006 that he would definitely not disappoint Tigers? fans.Gains and Losses:Gains: Sam Harris, Keith Galloway, Jamaal Lolesi, Ryan O'Hara, Filinga Filiga.Losses: Pat Richards, John Wilson, Mark O'Neill, Matthew Rieck, Ray Cashmere.Assessment:I believe the Tigers have recruited brilliantly in the off-season. The acquisition of Harris, Galloway, Lolesi and O?Hara has really enhanced the Tigers? premiership prospects. It has given them valuable size, valuable experience and valuable depth in order to defend their title. If you look at the past 5 years, you?ll find the premiers have all haemorrhaged players after their title win, but not the Tigers. They have increased their playing stocks and have a better squad, which is why I?m predicting that they will finish in the Top 4 and be the most likely team since Brisbane in 1992/1993 to take back-to-back premierships.

The clock's ticking...

PUT away the cricket bat, beach balls and whatever else you want to associate with summer, because the long wait for NRL in 2006 is almost over.While we?ve had to put up with a low quality tour by the West Indies and a slightly better South African Test series to relieve us from the now traditional summer boredom, Australia then started playing Twenty/20 games and a meaningless 15-game One Day series against nonsense opponents with ridiculous ?super-sub? and ?powerplay? novelties as rules. It was about that time that I think most footy fans were joining me in crossing the days off the calendar, until now.In spite of the fact that cricket has a tendency to dominate the back pages over summer, rugby league still found ways to show the fans that the game had not disappeared off planet earth, but no doubt the publicity the game received was some that it could have done without.It even went as far as commanding the front pages, but unfortunately for rugby league, the game doesn?t usually feature there for the recognition of players? charity work. And Craig Gower made sure of that?Then there was the ongoing saga with regards to the South Sydney Rabbitohs becoming privatised, which has interested me about as much as a badminton tournament in Uzbekistan. The issue has dragged on and on, and the sooner a decision is made the better things will be for all parties, and we won?t have to bear another whining comment from George Piggins ever again (hopefully!). The club needs to make a decision which will lead them to become a superior football team to what they have been since their return in 2002. Memo to Souths: Whatever you decide, just hurry up! You?re putting us all to sleep at a time of year when we should be jumping out of our skin.It did, however, keep rugby league in the news over summer. And I guess, for that reason alone, it can be given some credence.The Scott Prince saga was another the game could have done without, in particular diehard Tigers fans. Not the best look is it? The Wests Tigers captain having dinner with the Gold Coast Titans Chief Executive Michael Searle in Martin Place, the heart of Sydney?s city, for one and all to see. If I was a Tigers supporter, I think I would have been excused if I had have choked on my dinner when the pictures were aired on the news that evening. At least now Prince has signed, and we can all concentrate on the footy. The game also had to cope with the tragic news of losing one of its favourite sons, Cronulla legend and CEO Steve Rogers, who sadly took his own life in January of this year. And let?s not forget the ongoing and bizarre coaching saga. It started with Michael Hagan signing with Parramatta for season 2007, and we thought things were uncertain enough at that stage. We are then informed that Penrith have told John Lang that his services are not required, and Matthew Elliot will be his replacement at the end of 2006. I guess a playing equivalent would maybe be Newcastle telling Andrew Johns that his services are not required beyond this season, and that their reasoning behind the decision was because Cooper Cronk was too good a player to refuse. There?s plenty more to come with the coaching saga, all I?ll say at this stage is that I?m not only crossing off the days to March 10, but also June 30.We also had the dreaded news for all Bulldogs supporters that Sonny Bill Williams will again be injury-affected in 2006. The teenage sensation has played just 20 of a possible 52 games in two seasons for the Dogs, and he looks set to miss at least the first 6 weeks of the 2006 season. If he doesn?t get on the field for a reasonable number of games this season, the Bulldogs may look to offload him at the end of 2007. They must be scratching their heads after offloading Braith Anasta to keep Williams and Willie Mason, who appear to have more injury problems than the Roosters-bound NSW five-eighth.Last but definitely not least, the Warriors were caught breaching the salary cap by $1 Million over 3 seasons, but for some reason they only lost 4 points. Correct if I?m wrong, but didn?t the Bulldogs lose 37 points for a $1mil breach just 4 years ago? It?s obvious to me that the NRL gauged the Bulldogs? punishment on their success, and not the crime. It?s also clear that the only reason they didn?t dock more points from the Warriors 2006 tally, was because they would have done well to get three men and a dog to the games if more points were lost.Some good news to finish though, with Andrew Johns returning successfully in a trial game against Cronulla a couple of weeks ago, and the game?s best player looks set to start the season free of injury. Let?s hope that in 2006, the superstars of the game such as Johns, Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall can stay injury-free, for the sake of the kids who love watching the game?s best, in particular that trio, perform free of any injury.So buckle up for a magnificent season ahead, with all news, live scores, and match reports right here on www.leagueunlimited.comWith just 2 days left to cross off the calendar, personally I just can?t wait. Season 2006 - Bring it on!

It?s Official - Smith joins Knights

PARRAMATTA coach Brian Smith will join Newcastle next season after agreeing to a three-year deal with the 2005 NRL wooden spooners, the Knights' board has announced.The deal brings to an end the Knights' month long search for a new coach after it was revealed current coach Michael Hagan had accepted a three-year offer to head to Parramatta from 2007. Smith was told in November last year that his contract with the Eels would not be renewed beyond this season, making this his 10th and final campaign in charge of the 2005 minor premiers.It was a case of third time lucky for the Knights who's attempts to lure Wests Tigers premiership winning coach Tim Sheens and Canberra mentor Matthew Elliott to the club both ended in disappointment. The announcement is sure to add extra spice to Saturday's opening round clash between the Knights and Eels at EnergyAustralia Stadium, with both coaches going up against the club they will be in charge of in 2007.

Round 4: Leeds crush Castleford

LEEDS got their season back on track by ruthlessly disposing of local rivals Castleford by 66-14 in their rearranged engage Super League clash.Following the postponement of the tie on Friday night due to freezing conditions in West Yorkshire, Leeds wasted little time in reapplying the heat on current leaders St Helens, making a mockery of the close battles these two clubs have shared over the years and in the process subjecting Terry Matterson?s men to a record Super League loss.Coach Tony Smith was able to hand a Leeds debut to forward Ian Kirke, while Danny Williams retained his place on the wing at the expense of Lee Smith.Castleford were able to welcome Matt Whitaker back from an ankle injury, although a knee problem ruled Danny Ward out of making an instant return to the club which sacked him just over a month ago.Despite securing their first win of the season against Catalans last weekend, any hopes the Tigers may have had of backing up that win were well and truly over by the interval.Aside from their poor discipline, conceding eight first-half penalties, they also shipped seven tries to trail 42-8 at the break.Chev Walker and Rob Burrow were the main architects of their downfall, the former bagging a hat-trick and the latter a brace as Leeds ran riot. They had taken an early lead through Burrow, who collected Williams? pass to race over, before Willie Poching breezed into a gap to score in the corner.Walker then posted a length-of-the-field score after a Paul Handforth pass went astray with Leeds camped on their own line, quickly followed by Kirke marking his debut by cantering into a gap to score under the posts.With Castleford visibly wilting, Burrow outfoxed their defence to jink over for his second, before Walker registered a quickfire double, the second of which came right on the half-time hooter to secure his treble. Kevin Sinfield converted all seven tries, while Castleford?s contribution came via a try from Tom Haughey and two Craig Huby goals. All their points were scored while down to 12 men, with Danny Sculthorpe in the sin bin for dissent.The second half began in similar fashion with Danny McGuire racing clear of the defence after collecting Richie Mathers? pass, before Ryan McGoldrick provided some respite for the visitors, collecting Gray Viane?s offload to cross the line.With the scores set at 48-14, any hopes of a comeback were somewhat fanciful, and that was confirmed when Mathers helped Leeds pass the 50-point barrier with his first try of the season, stepping past the Tigers? defence with ease.After a quiet period, Ali Lauitiiti restored order with a typically rampaging effort, before Ryan Bailey followed suit after charging down the middle of the field. Sinfield converted both and ended with a 100% record from his 11 goal attempts.Leeds: Mathers, Donald, Walker, Senior, Williams, McGuire, Burrow, Bailey, Diskin, Peacock, Lauitiiti, Poching, Sinfield.Replacements: Millard, Feather, Kirke, Ablett.Castleford: Platt, Pryce, Shenton, Dyer, Viane, McGoldrick, Handforth, Sculthorpe, Henderson, Nutley, Huby, Whitaker, Haughey.Replacements: Bird, Kain, Blanch, Boyle.Leeds (42) 66.Tries: Burrow 2, Poching, Walker 3, Kirke, McGuire, Mathers, Lauitiiti, Bailey. Goals: Sinfield 11.Castleford (8) 14.Tries: Haughey, McGoldrick. Goals: Huby 3.Referee: Phil Benson (Bolton)Att: 16,650

Round 4: Huddersfield take Wakefield in thriller

ALBERT Torrens crashed over in the dying moments as Huddersfield snatched victory by 18-16 in a tense engage Super League encounter at Wakefield on Saturday night.The Wildcats spent most of the second half on the back foot at Belle Vue but had been clinging on to a two-point lead until Torrens sneaked over with three minutes remaining.Two tries from David Solomona had helped the Wildcats open up a 16-8 interval lead but the Kiwi forward allowed the Giants back into the game when he was sin-binned in the second half.Semi Tadulala also crossed for the Wildcats while Chris Thorman scored 10 points for the Giants.It was another freezing night in West Yorkshire but the Belle Vue pitch was in good condition after spending much of the week under cover to protect it from snow and frost.Huddersfield drew first blood as two penalties allowed Thorman to gain good ground and then kick the first goal of the match.The Wildcats responded well and quickly switched play to the other end but David March almost inexplicably missed a chance to level the scores when he slammed a straightforward penalty against an upright.The home side lacked nothing in passion though and claimed the lead when Solomona was contentiously awarded a try on 12 minutes.The second row powered to the line and although some television angles appeared to show him tackled short, he was given the benefit of the doubt after lengthy deliberation by video referee Dave Campbell.Huddersfield hit straight back with a flowing move involving Stephen Wild and Robbie Paul that saw Thorman race in behind the posts from a smart overhead pass by James Evans.Home fans were incensed at a perceived forward pass by Paul but Thorman capitalised and added the conversion.The Wildcats again came back at their visitors and levelled as Tadulala raced away from a Kevin Henderson pass.Solomona then crashed over from dummy half ? Campbell having little doubt this time ? and after missing three attempts, March was replaced as kicker and Ben Jeffries converted.The stand-off added a penalty but Huddersfield moved back within two points as Thorman engineered a superb try six minutes into the second half.Paul Smith gathered well from Thorman?s astute kick and sent Steve Snitch racing over to score against his old club. Thorman again added the extras.The Giants gained a significant advantage as Solomona was sin-binned for holding down Eorl Crabtree and the prop almost capitalised as he charged over but Mark Applegarth prevented him grounding the ball.But despite almost incessant Giants pressure, Wakefield managed to hold out for the 10 minutes Solomona was off the field and Colum Halpenny went close to relieving the pressure on the break.Yet Solomona?s absence had seen the momentum swing in Huddersfield?s direction and the Giants battled to the end to secure their second win.The Giants were awarded a scrum after the ball was knocked down and the ball was worked wide for Australian Torrens to dive in.Wakefield: Halpenny, White, Demetriou, Henderson, Tadulala, Jeffries, March, Griffin, Betham, MacGillivray, Solomona, J. Field, Applegarth.Replacements: Korkidas, Elima, Wrench, Saxton.Huddersfield: Reilly, Aspinwall, Evans, Torrens, Gardner, Thorman, Paul, Crabtree, Drew, Snitch, Nero, Jones, Wild.Replacements: Jackson, March, Smith, McDonald.Wakefield (16) 16.Tries: Solomona 2, Tadulala. Goals: Jeffries 2.Huddersfield (8) 18.Tries: Thorman, Snitch, Torrens. Goals: Thorman 3.Referee: S Ganson (St Helens)Att: 4,110

Round 4: Bradford too strong for Catalans

BRADFORD Bulls maintained early-season pressure on St Helens with a nine-try extravaganza at the Stade Aime Giral against newcomers Catalans Dragons.The match was preceded by one-minute?s silence in memory of lifelong Bulls fan Graham Woodcock who sadly passed away on his arrival in Perpignan earlier in the day and he could not have had a more fitting tribute than this performance.Bulls were immediately on the attack and made their first spell of pressure tell as early as the fifth minute with a well-worked try from Shontayne Hape after Paul Deacon?s kick had given them good field position.Deacon made good the first of seven successful conversions and on their very next attack Brian Noble?s men ripped holes in the Catalan defence before Ian Henderson sent prop Stuart Fielden crashing over just three minutes later.The scoring spree continued, giving the Bulls a 24-0 lead after the opening quarter when first Andy Lynch and then Jamie Langley - the latter after a superb four-man handling move - crossed the Dragons? whitewash.Spurred on by some fervent home support among the 9,373 in attendance Catalans hit back when Justin Murphy got on the end of a Sean Rudder kick to score, but their riposte was brief.Working their way back up field Hape completed a first-half brace when Deacon?s grubber bounced awkwardly over the head of full-back and left the Kiwi with a clear run to the line.Though Bulls were without try-scoring sensation Lesley Vainikolo they showed their potency in the backs when centre Ben Harris benefited from another superbly placed Deacon kick to cross for the sixth Bradford try shortly after the break.Though Catalan took advantage of a rare Bulls error for Mounis to score a second they were clearly in need of direction in the absence of Kiwi Test star Stacey Jones. But that was sadly lacking.The Bulls reminded the French outfit exactly why they are champions with two tries in a three-minute spell when first Lynch completed a brace and then Marcus Bai crossed to put Bradford out of sight.A 60-metre solo effort from Justin Murphy cheered the home fans before Bulls had the final word through youngster Andy Smith.Catalans Dragons: Bosc, Murphy, Wilson, Hughes, Verges, Rudder, Frayssinous, Chan, Rinaldi, Beattie, Fakir, Guisset, Hindmarsh.Replacements: Mounis, Fellous, Touxagas, Guigue.Bradford: Withers, Bai, B. Harris, Hape, Smith, I. Harris, Deacon, Fielden, Henderson, Lynch, McKenna, Meyers, Langley.Replacements: Vagana, Gene, Ferres, Cook.Catalans Dragons (6) 18.Tries: Mounis 2, Murphy. Goals: Frayssinous 3.Bradford (30) 50.Tries: Hape 2, Fielden, Lynch 2, Langley, B. Harris, Bai, Smith. Goals: Deacon 7.Referee: R Silverwood (Dewsbury)Att: 9,373

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