THE WEEKENDLY: Putting the minimal viable football product on the field
NRLM and NRLW previews, Mitchell Butler, Ben Barba, Blackhawks file for divorce and the new international calendar
NRLM Round 23
GOLD COAST: While this is technically a Titans home game, the Gold Coast is home to plenty of New Zealanders. If past history is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that the fans of the Wahs will let the fans of the Tans forget it. Despite my misgivings a few weeks ago, the Warriors are a legitimate top four team and will likely finish there with their incredibly soft run to the finish. The Titans have nothing to play for, not even pride if they ever had any, and aren’t above putting the minimal viable football product on the field until the referee lets them go home. Expect the Warriors’ fans to be very loud for each of the ten tries scored.
TOWNSVILLE: It’s time for the Big Game, the Derby, the Oldest Rivalry. Last time, we didn’t know just how good the Broncos were going to be and it looked like the Cowboys might actually be very bad. The Broncos are indeed very good and the Cowboys looked to have shaken off the very bad tag, until they tripped over against the Titans last week. Expect a bruising encounter, with both sides looking to have a lot to prove in the marquee Queensland derby, but with the Broncos eventually coming out on top, possibly by just a field goal.
PERTH: Western Australia seems like a perfectly normal place to watch the Knights of Newcastle take on the Dolphins of Redcliffe in what is ostensibly a Dolphins home game. Fun fact: Kayln Ponga was born in Port Hedland. The Knights come in as the form team of the competition and Elo has them pegged as the next best in the league after the Panthers and Broncos, and we all know that’s definitely sustainable. The Dolphins are not even that and with a long road trip on those aching aged bones in the forward pack and Kodi Nikorima starting at centre this week, it’s hard to see how the Red Fish will keep this under 40. Expect the Knights to have a lot of fun getting revenge for their embarrassing start to the season by running large men at Nikorima’s edge, which at least allows Te Whare’s side a moment’s respite.
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Mitchell Butler opens scoring for Brisbane Red.
On the weekend of Women In League round, the irony of Ben Barba appearing at halfback for Cairns wasn’t lost. It’s very hard to take anything the NRL or QRL says seriously in relation to women or domestic violence, given the track record of both the (male) players in general and the obviousness of the lip service by administrative bodies in particular.
While Barba might not be the only piece of shit on this pitch or any other or in any given workplace, he’s a known piece of shit. The League Championship is a third-tier rep footy game and I think it says a lot - far more than if this was a game that lots of people cared about - and is incredibly disappointing that the FNQRL choose to prioritise winning by fielding Barba than having any sense of shame, and that the QRL has allowed Barba to play at all.
I bummed myself out so much writing this, that I stopped watching when Brisbane got 20 in front with about half an hour to go. Brisbane Red defeated Cairns, 44-28.
NRLW Round 3
TOWNSVILLE: Time for the first women’s Derby and whether it has the intensity of the men’s version remains to be seen but I remain hopeful. The Cowboys have the opportunity to build on last week’s milestone win against the Knights. Kirra Dibb will be critical to their success. Her kicking game will keep North Queensland in touch until the forward pack can get them into the game and, hopefully, hold the ball for 15 consecutive minutes to rub the Broncos out of the game. There are a couple of Broncos you’d take over their Cowboys equivalents based on form this year, but not many.
The Broncos placed most of their women with the Northern Suburbs Devils in the 2023 BMD Premiership. The Devils had a frustrating season, finishing 2-4-1 despite a star studded lineup for state cup, and it’s not hard to see the parallels with how the Broncos are currently travelling. It’s all just a bit too messy and too heavily reliant on Brigginshaw or Broughton putting the team on their back and going for it. That strategy has points in it but not enough. We’ll find out whether the defensive displays against the Roosters and Titans were impressive because of quantity of defending, or it’s what it looks like. Expect the Cowboys to win the Big Game by two or three scores.
SYDNEY: The women’s Sharks side were shown up to be huge frauds, in a spookily similar parallel to their male counterparts, shut out by the Tigers last week. The Titans are undefeated, having defeated both the Broncos (a haphazard gaggle of veterans who don’t seem likely to threaten for the title) and the Cowboys (then a haphazard gaggle of children who may threaten for the title if they can really pull it together). Nobody seems to have quite caught on that the Titans have a really good team that should only get better as they a) cohere and b) when Taliah Fuimaono returns or c) Lofipo and Kiria-Ratu settle into the big leagues. A win here would go a long way to establishing their credentials. Expect the Tans to have to work for a win but get the win nonetheless.
Proprietary vibes-based tips
NRLM: Warriors by plenty, Broncos by a little, Dolphins not at all
NRLW: Cowboys by plenty, Titans by some
QCup: Tweed, Redcliffe, Norths, Central, Sunshine Coast, Souths Logan and Wynnum for wins
Blackhawks file for divorce
Nic Davrienza of the Townsville Bulletin, who has been doing some fine work on this story, reports that it’s all over:
Chairman Glenn Carroll told this masthead the Blackhawks were ready to proceed into the future with or without the Cowboys.
“The agreement that we have the Cowboys this year will not be in existence in 2024,” Carroll revealed.
It seems to be less about the fabric of rugby league, more so that it just didn’t work out for the Blackhawks, who are unlikely to make the finals.
The QRL apparently made a rule change that allowed the Cowboys to stockpile talent in just one feeder but that will require NRL clubs to evenly spread the quantity and quality of players among their feeders next year.
This leaves North Queensland in an awkward position. Either the Cowboys have to admit they were wrong, return to the previous feeder arrangements for 2024 and accept they will never be the Townsville Panthers, or they have to join the NSW Cup, a fate worse than death.
A third possibility might be to dump Northern, Townsville and Mackay and link up with, say, Ipswich and concentrate their talent in their sole feeder, presumably as the Titans will be doing with Tweed in 2024. It would be less travel than flying to Auckland and Canberra for reserve grade games. Then again, the Jets are even less likely to accept the Cowboys ordering them around than the Blackhawks were.
Townsville’s favourite son looks likely to return home:
“I still have that loyalty to the Blackhawks,” Laybutt declared.
“I never wanted to leave and I can speak for a few other boys - none of us wanted to leave the club. We barely knew this year it (the Cowboys reallocation) was happening until it was all too late. I absolutely love the club and that’s why I’m so disappointed about this year and how it has panned out. We’ve been building stuff for the past six years I’ve been there and it’s all gone to s--- this year, really. Next year will have to be a massive rebuild, I guess, and I’m happy to do it. All I want is for the club to be successful.”
Laybutt revealed he had already begun discussions with the Blackhawks about a comeback.
I don’t know if this is the end of the story but it seems to have a happy not-quite-ending.
The international calendar
The IRL has announced that the next Rugby League World Cup will be in 2026, will be hosted in the southern hemisphere and will feature just ten men’s teams and eight women’s teams.
The IRL’s capitulation to the Polycule of the ARLC, NRL and NZRL to cheapen the tournament by having fewer men’s teams is pathetic. The path for the likes of Greece, Jamaica, Ireland and Italy to get better has just gotten orders of magnitude harder. As I wrote at the end of last year, even though the minnows get are going to get belted, the belting is what gives them a visceral taste for where they need to get to if they are to be competitive. It’s an important part of the development process.
Reducing to ten - Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, England, Tonga, PNG, Lebanon and Fiji, plus two qualifiers which are almost certainly going to be France and the Cook Islands - means developing rugby league nations are denied the opportunity to raise the profile of the game in their countries, denied the opportunity to set their own goals (e.g. qualification for the tournament or for the finals) and are denied the opportunity to even just try getting better. They have been cut from top level international rugby league and there’s no conceivable way they can work their way back to it, unless France declines even further and creates an opening, which I guess is likely but not exactly welcome.
The 2026 format will make the hacks who complained during the last World Cup happy, a thing that is definitely possible, as they will certainly watch the more refined, “elite” tournament and not spend their post-season working out how to turn whatever Latrell Mitchell is up to in the off-season into what they try to pass off for news.
I don’t see how any of this aligns with the IRL’s stated goals of growing the game internationally1, but the IRL has no money, no power and no leverage, so must do what the Polycule says. One assumes that the RFL will fall into lockstep, because they are more worried about going bankrupt from concussion lawsuits before IMG can try to bail them out of their mess. I have serious doubts a “World Series” addresses this, given the propensity of the Polycule to spend as little as possible and seemingly has no sense of what the word “investment” means.
“The cancellation of France 2025 has given us an opportunity to refresh the structure of the World Cup and associated tournaments as part of a long-term international calendar that all in the game have been desperately seeking,” said Troy Grant, International Rugby League chair.
The much-anticipated calendar has supposedly been locked in to 2030. Australia will play New Zealand and Samoa this year, while Tonga tours England. The Ashes2 will return in 2025 in Australia and then in England in 2028. New Zealand will visit England in 2027. There are as yet unnamed plans for PNG, Fiji and the Cook Islands, which may or may not be Tri- or 4-Nations formats. Other nations will have to play in regional tournaments and/or World Cup qualifiers and/or some other format yet to be agreed. Having a semblance of structure is good. That it’s the absolute bare minimum, doesn’t seem all that concrete outside of a handful agreed fixtures and is unlikely to restore the prestige of the international game (and therefore be a continual target for those who like to whinge when rugby league is played in the absence of Sydney suburban teams) is not good.
The next women’s World Cup will then follow in 2028, which I was ambivalent about whether it stayed twinned with the men’s tournament or became a standalone event, so I guess we’ll see how that goes, clashing with the summer Oympics3. It's also not clear how many games the women's teams are expected to have in the new calendar. Will the Jillaroos be playing Ashes series of their own?
As John Davidson pointed out, the stated absence of 9s on the calendar means that getting rugby league in the Olympics for 2032 is dead in the water. Even that’s generous because that turn of phrase implies that there was a boat in the first place when all that really existed was a press release whose content and purpose was insulting to anyone who was expected to take it seriously.
Limited in time? Here’s what’s good in Queensland rugby league this weekend.
It’s a super duper Saturday this week, with only two games - the Titans (M) playing tonight in the early slot and 3rd placed Wynnum versus 2nd placed Burleigh in the Sunday QCup feature game - not on Saturday. In the NRL, the Titans (W) clashes with the Big Game (M) - a rare hors catégorie of quality - both kicking off around 3pm, which is less than ideal.
Quality (Q) is rated by the average of the team’s Elo ratings - the higher the average, the higher the quality of the match. Competitiveness (C) is rated by the difference of the team’s Elo ratings - the smaller the gap, the more competitive the match. Matches are rated in each category from very high down to very low and given a star rating from one to five accordingly. Bonus stars available for Queensland derby in the NRL (+1), statewide feature game (+1), PNG home game (+0.5) or the involvement of the Dragons (-0.5).
Northern Pride coach, Ty Williams, is leaving at the end of the season to allow him to prioritise his personal life. This seems more business-as-usual than Aaron Payne’s departure.
The Tino/Fifita becoming free agents story sure has died down because presumably the origin of that rumour might have been closer to Holbrook’s management, than the Titans’. It was baffling that Holbrook kept getting NRL hype, despite his record but again, that probably originated closer to Holbrook’s management than the NRL clubs. Then I made a little joke on Wednesday night, after Mikaele’s return to Warrington was announced and Wire fired their coach earlier in the week, and then lol4:
Papenhuyzen and Olam playing for the Falcons this weekend?! It's a shame the Birds are playing the Jets or else this would be a big game. Worth remembering that the ‘19 Falcons ruined their shot at being the best (regular season) QCup team of all time by drawing with the Jets in the final round, 28-all. It’s the first time the pair have played together for Sunshine Coast since round 6 of 2019, a game the Falcons won 30-6 over Easts. Here are some of the Falcons and then Storm-contracted players that featured: 1. Hynes, 4. Olam, 5. Papenhuyzen, 6. C. Johns, 9. Grant, 10. Schonig, 12. C. Lewis, 13. Stimson, 17. Fa'asuamaleaui. The Tigers had Billy Walters at 6.
Forgot to include this on Monday but Brian Kelly extends with the Titans until 2026. The Titans calling this the “‘26 gang” feels like a direct troll of me, the one person who’s noticed that half of Gold Coast’s top 30 is locked in for the next three seasons.
Gold Coast Titans hooker Aaron Booth has today announced he will retire from playing the game. Booth made his Titans debut in 2022, with a serious knee injury cutting short his season. After conversations and advice from medical professionals, Booth has made the decision to hang up his boots. He will remain at the Titans, taking on an administrative role with the organisation while also continuing his position as an assistant coach with the club’s NRLW team.
Valentine Holmes missing the rest of the regular season seems less than ideal for the Cowboys.
Jake Clifford returns to the Cowboys for 2024. His long layover in Hull has ensured he returns a better player but probably still the fourth best half at the club.
Oliver Gildart has left the Dolphins/Capras for Leigh. Doesn’t seem like much of an improvement over Rockhampton and is certainly a step down in competition quality but good luck to the 2022 recipient of the Roosters’ Ryan Hall Memorial Scholarship for One (1) Super League Player.
Thomas Mikaele has left the Titans/Bears for Warrington. We’ll never forget those 12 minutes against the Dolphins because if we did, we’d not remember you had even come back.
Paul Crawley: “The race for Payne Haas exposes why the NRL salary cap in its present state is just not working and why it never will without a draft or a similar trade system like the AFL employs… When Haas’s situation was discussed on NRL 360 this week every member of the panel agreed the Broncos prop would be a tremendous acquisition if the Storm could fit him into their cap. But it was Braith Anasta who brought up the elephant in the room: “My question is how do they afford Payne Haas?” I, for one, am convinced that the salary cap is just not working by this rehash of what was said on NRL 360 because there is a massive gas leak in my house that I have done nothing about for weeks. Remember that they want you to pay for this.
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Or even the NRL’s attempts to break into the United States.
A name I personally hate but whatever. There’s nothing wrong with it, if this was cricket.
The men’s tournament will clash with the men’s FIFA World Cup but no one at the IRL seems to care that there are odd-numbered years that have neither event.
Yes, Stinky Pete Badel has reported that Holbrook rejected this offer but I have to think that it's all shit - both the offer and the rejection - as everything else has been.