Tuesday 2 July 2013

#NRL 2013: In the Press Box - At the footy with an Irishman... @BrendanFanning

In the Press Box: Lions Tour takes backseat to ins and outs of Rugby League

2013 NRL Premiership

By W D Nicolson - July 2, 2013

The Complete Set will return next week on www.wdnicolson.com - but this week we recount watching a Rugby League game with an Irish Rugby Union Correspondent.

Monday Night Football at the Footy Stadium… now this is what MNF was made for.

Central stadiums are the best place to play this fixture on the first working day of the week - because you have to try and tap into the traffic from the workplace... asking families to trek out to their home ground in the suburbs/country just isn’t going to work. So next year NRL - please lock in Allianz Stadium, Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and AAMI Park in Melbourne for at least two or three games each please.

I was at the SFS to cover the Easts-Manly Round 16 clash for the Official NRL Social Channels – the first game I’d been able to finagle my way into live… that is absorbing the game’s atmosphere and letting it direct my analysis, as opposed to doing my best to add not-on-location value (in 140 characters) to what you can already see on via the television broadcast.

The Roosters had been kind enough to clear a space for me in the Press Box and truth be told – the quality of what was then tweeted over the next two hours was going to ‘feel better’ than any ‘off the TV’ coverage can possibly translate into.

But I’m not here to talk about the process, rather the experience that came when an Irishman sat down beside me in the Press Box and introduced himself.

Brendan Fanning, from The Sunday Independent newspaper Dublin.

I quickly deduced from the accent* that this was not the indeed lead singer of Powderfinger but rather the real @BrendanFanning, well-respected Irish Rugby writer who is in Australia covering the British and Irish Lions tour that wraps up with the 3rd Test in Sydney this coming Saturday.
* Though admittedly, I didn’t catch his name first time around due to said accent.

We exchanged pleasantries but welcomingly this Irishman was keen on the scent of Rugby League.

He wasn’t just here to watch a game of footy to fill time - Brendan wanted to experience as much of the nuances and intricacies of the Greatest Game of All during his short week in Sydney.
Brendan Fanning (left) with a few Irish Rugby internationals you may recognise
The lead-up to the actual first grade encounter was spent with us talking about both codes – so if you’ve got a few minutes, here is a summary of what we discussed and observed.
  •  The Lions Tour is too long… while Brendan had only been out in Australia for the Test Series itself, he noted that other journos had been on the road for six weeks through the lead up games – which led to the discussion on the value of the ‘build-up’ games.
    •  From his perspective the games had been cheapened somewhat by the ARU’s planning of the actual tour, meaning that not all of the home country’s provincial sides had been able to field their full strength lineups for the games against the Lions. He lamented the scheduling of the Western Force game in particular that took place just a few days after the Force had played in a Super Rugby game.
    • Conversely – what we both agreed that denying players the chance to play the Lions because they may or may not feature in the actual Wallabies team – meant that realistically once in a rugby lifetime opportunity may have passed by some players.
    • We then looked at how this same issue had cropped up in past Ashes Tours – whereas the players in the squad were denied a chance not only to push their claims for Test selection but purely the experience of playing across England/Australia in games/locations they may never get a chance to again. Such is the cycle of said Tours.
    • What this has to do with Rugby League you tragics may be asking? Well nothing, outside of the disappointment that the Kangaroo Tour is never going to be as it once was… 1994 seems so long ago… it is.
  • Will Sonny Bill Williams return to Rugby in 2014?
    • This was of great interest to Brendan – because he couldn’t understand why SBW was playing in the backrow in Rugby League, after playing the majority of his Rugby in the centres. His reasoning initially was he’s going to get bashed and not be able to unleash his freakish abilities enough during a game.
    • Disappointingly – SBW was shifted to five-eighth for the game we were watching – so it wasn’t until late in the first half that SBW did some of his magic – running onto a short ball from Mitchell Pearce and then butchering a pass to Michael Jennings after a 50m run. Brendan did get to see SBW make two great plays though in the second half. The first was having the vision to see what everyone in the press box had seen – a major numbers advantage down the left edge near the halfway line that led to Jennings and Daniel Tupou doing the rest. The second was some sublime Sonny Bill skill – heading down the short side and sliding a pass through defenders for Jennings to put the game (seemingly) away with 8 minutes left.
    • My two cents on SBW that I relayed to Brendan was this: I can’t see SBW walking away from the Roosters after just one season… unless one of two things happen: 1. A idiotic fan steps well across the line during a game – pray this doesn’t happen, or 2. The Roosters win the competition.
      And I honestly believe that even though #2 could happen – I still think he will stay for at least one more season.
    • Brendan’s information was that the New Zealand Rugby Union were going to throw everything at SBW to come back… so we shall see.
      I will add that I don’t believe that SBW will commit his future until after this season ends… just a gut feel, but his focus will be on getting the Roosters to a title or at least a Grand Final – so I think he doesn’t let this ‘speculation’ force him into a rushed decision.
  • Apart from being a Rugby Correspondent – Brendan coached Union in Dublin and the whole reason he was in the Press Box was as a favour from League coach in the UK who was setting him up with a chance to watch Trent Robinson train the Roosters during the week.
    • If you are old enough you’ll remember a tall five-eighth who ran around for the Illawarra Steelers and St George Dragons in the early 1990s but the name of Smith, Tony Smith. The brother of Brian Smith, Tony is currently in charge of Warrington in the English Super League (who just signed Roy Asotasi for 2 seasons btw) and Brendan had been speaking to Tony about getting out to a League training session while he was in Australia for the Lions Tour. Now given Robinson was the coach of Catalans for a couple of seasons before he came out to take charge at Easts – Robinson and Smith were obviously acquainted enough for Brendan to get a favour called in and the Roosters are looking after him this week.
    • The big attraction for Brendan is the defensive side of the game. He wanted to take some notes on the drills that the Roosters used at training. Only downside for Brendan is after a physical Monday Night game – this week might be a bit light on the heavy stuff at training – but for future Rugby stars in Ireland – I sincerely hope Robinson can help him out with some advice if nothing else.
    • Might just be me – but this is great to hear. Not so much that there’s a Union/League breaking down the borders exchange of information – but that Robinson in particular – is willing to do it. It is a refreshing story about how open clubs can be – especially given the way that they are almost forced to adopt a ‘closed door policy’ with the way that certain sections of the media troll for a story these days.
The view from the Press Box at the SFS is rather handy...
  • Now for the nerds – let’s watch the game analytically. Brendan has watched a lot of Super League so the game of Rugby League isn’t new to him, but for 80 minutes we sat there and at times shared notes as it were on how the game was being player or what was noticeable. Here are a couple:
    • Goalkicking… Of course we talked Rugby in the lead-up to the game – you know it is possible to follow more than one sport people – and the fact that heading into the 3rd Test, it was now possible that the entire series may be decided with the final play of the game being a shot at goal. First we lamented poor Kurtley Beale’s stud malfunction in Brisbane (noting that the smart money should have been on the surface being an issue as he lined the kick up… yet no one seemed to be ‘out of the moment’ enough to make that assertion before Beale went on the slip and slide.) We were not surprised that Leigh Halfpenny fell short with his kick in the 2nd Test – but we were happy he hadn’t slipped over. But I then made a comment that must’ve sounded ludicrous about 10 minutes later.
    • "Rugby League kickers have improved out of sight in recent seasons… any percentage over 69% was good a decade ago… not if you aren’t kicking in the high 70s/mid-80s you are giving away points…” I declare... Then Boyd Cordner stepped up for the first kick at goal of the game… you know how that went and I shut up for about 15 minutes… good one League-guy…
    • We had to wait til Jamie Lyon took a shot to convert his own try before someone could kick… and then gave Cordner next to no chance of kicking that penalty goal despite it being in front after the examples he and Mitchell Pearce had put forth in their previous attempts. I also managed to sneak in a “Will he slip over?” call before Cordner popped the penalty over... though being out of the moment is a little easier for a Round 16 club game than watching the deciding kick on a once every 12 years 1st Test.
    • Brendan was impressed by Lyon’s strike… as I desperately tried to explain that the guy who normally kicks for the Roosters was injured and yes – he could in fact – strike them as sweetly as most Union kickers. I think I can still hear Brendan’s inner monologue sprout sarcastically… “Yeah right…”
    • Watching Manly attack Shaun Kenny-Dowall for the first two sets on the Roosters’ line… and it kind of working bar two knock downs by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck that saved tries… and then not seeing Manly attack SKD again the rest of the match. We were perplexed… as was this League-guy after openly suggesting “Manly will attack SKD all night… and it’ll pay off.”
      "Yeah right…” Brendan no doubts repeats internally.
    • The contact in the middle of the field… Manly and Easts didn’t hold back in the physical confrontation and although Brendan had admitted the bash and barge aspect of League wasn’t a strong point in the appeal of playing the game – I got the feeling he did appreciate the toughness required to keep running it like that. Mind you, he did express on a number of occasions (quite rightly) that a little bit of foresight on behalf of the block head running the ball and there’s a ready-made 3 on 2 on the outside that needs to be exploited. Brendan did note the 3 concussions in the game… with Daniel Mortimer’s front and back head clash particularly tough to watch on replay.
    • The condition of the SFS… Brendan said he’d been to the SFS a few times over the years (with Irish tours etc) and mentioned that he’d never seen the surface looking immaculate. Having visited the SFS for years myself… it was an interesting observation. But if I’m not mistaken it did look pretty handy in Round 1 when the Roosters hosted the Bunnies… and as I then realised – it must’ve been in good nick – the A-League season would have demanded that it be of ‘good enough’ quality for soccer… sorry football to be played. Though Brendan’s comment of “They play football on this?” was quite fair and probably echoed 84 times during the season by the players who actually played on the surface.
    • The crowd… between Brendan arriving in the box and kick-off the crowd did swell considerably but the 16,000 figure posted was a bit of a surprise. Brendan did show his veteran press box experience by asking the gooses in front of us to sit down on more than one occasion… politely of course. He also enjoyed the reason all the fans were standing up in the second half not watching the game itslef, was because Manly coach Geoff Toovey had ‘reacted’ to the Easts fans giving it to him in the coaching box…
Other things were discussednot least the ridiculous price of ‘official’ gear for both League and Union items he was buying to take home for his son – but all in all it was a refreshing way to watch the game. So on behalf of Leaguies everywhere (in particular this one who had only a day before reached my lowest level of league apathy that always comes during a season) – thanks for wanting to watch the game we love and probably take for granted Mr Fanning.

Now go put the finishing touches on the next Powderfinger album good man – it’s long overdue…

Just finally, it was a pleasure to sit and talk League and Union with someone who brought a genuine interest to watching the game. It was really a great way to spend a couple of hours working, so thank you to Brendan for his time but I can't wish his Lions all the best for the 3rd Test... I just can't do it.

If you want to read some of Brendan Fanning’s work:
Check out his columns in The Sunday Independent and his own Rugby site at brendanfanningrugby.wordpress.com.

You can also follow him on Twitter @brendanfanning

I sincerely look forward to one day perhaps watching a game of Union in Dublin with Brendan… though I do not expect my 2,300 word recap to be reciprocated 24 hours later on brendanfanningrugby.wordpress.com.

PS. Get out and watch a game of footy away from the TV people - it is well worth it... like this weekend.

@NRLTweet Player of the Year Update:
Round 16 Voting is available via the Hashtag #NRLTweetPOTY