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THE WEEKLY: The court jester will dance a merry jig
Dolphins lose, Cowboys win and lose, Titans win, Grant Anderson, Ikin & Payne and cheating
NRLM Round 22
What an incredible visit from the Ghosts of Cowboys Past. For those of us who were getting a bit hot under the collar about North Queensland’s purple patch and unwisely thinking about upgrading them from potential grand finalists to definite premiers, I found this game a refreshingly cold bucket of water and a timely reminder that being a good team is not path dependent. The bad results early in the year count for as much as the good results later in the year and both are informative as to the true nature of any team. On Sunday afternoon at C-Bus Super, the Cowboys weren’t bad per se but the Titans made more metres, had more ball and could just kind of dick around with it. The Steel Greys kept dropping the ball when there was any sense of momentum, gave away more penalties, didn’t play with any kind of force and just let the Titans win.
With four games left, it’s time for the Cowboys to decide what kind of team they are. They can still absolutely botch this. North Queensland are 1.5 wins clear of Manly and Newcastle, who both have a game in hand. The Cowboys still need to face down the two best teams in the competition, will probably beat the Sharks and have a fantastic opportunity to fall through the Dolphins’ trap door. While Parramatta final themselves in a similar position, both Newcastle and Manly have a cruise into the finals. The Ghost of Cowboys Future waits.
Any time there was half a Cowboys break, there was Isaac Liu. Any time there was a loose ball, there was Kieran Foran. In the ten minutes following the resumption of play, the Titans stamped on the Cowboys and strangely, that was it. It must be an endless source of frustration to Gold Coast fans that the Titans can turn in this kind of steadily good (albeit not great) performance given the chance to play spoiler but when the season actually matters, turn up and play they did last week or not turn up at all. The Titans’ season is already finished, as they sit atop the pack of teams with eight or fewer wins and the next best teams have ten, or close enough to. Gold Coast have five games left and could just as easily lose all five or pick up a couple more wins, just as a muck around.
As for the Dolphins -
This is a game they would have comfortably won with any of the following current or future Dolphins on the pitch: Tom Gilbert, Herbert Farnworth, Tom Flegler, Jake Averillo (in red and gold, not blue and white) or maybe Isaiya Katoa. They had who they had and got the according result against a team that didn’t look all that much better, despite some of them allegedly being stars of the game. Looking at you, Addo-Carr, Mr I-get-paid-$600k-a-year-to-be-coordinated-and-didn’t-put-my-foot-on-the-line-and-catch-the-ball-in-the-right-order.
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Moment of the Weekend
Grant Anderson opens the scoring for Sunshine Coast with a spectacular put down in a game where I would conservatively rate 75% of the tries as being full sick.
Honourable mention to Valynce Te Whare running over Josh Addo-Carr and brushing off Reed Mahoney on the way to the try line.
NRLW Round 2
Who knew Kirra Dibb had another gear to go to? Until Dibb kicked a 40/30, 12 minutes in, it looked very much like the Knights were going to pick up where the Titans left off the previous week. The Cowboys were in disarray, making no impact with the ball, disheveled in defence and only kept in reach by Dibb’s boot. The 40/30 was like flicking a switch and the Cowboys became the team of their potential. The first North Queensland try followed five minutes later and then another six minutes later again. The Cowboys gave away plenty of penalties, including April Ngatupuna (incidentally, any fears I had about her place in the league were unfounded) being binned for a wonderfully dirty shot on Hannah Southwell, but took a two pointer and carried the lead into the break.
Even in the second half and only down a pair of points, Newcastle’s game plan seemed to involve being individually better than the opposition but when the opposition stood up to them as a team, the Knights had few means to break them down. The Knights were +5 on errors, handing the Cowboys more ball with fewer sets. The Cowboys made far, far more breaks with that ball, took their opportunities and ran away with the game. The running metres finished almost equal but Dibb’s boot smashed Southwell’s. It never even looked particularly doubtful.
North Queensland probably won’t play like that every week but they don’t need to. There’s only seven weeks left in the regular season and they’ve already taken one of the top two scalps in the competition (the Titans also have a transitive scalp, which is promising for those fans), on the same weekend as the Roosters fell to the Raiders1. As long as you aren’t the Eels or probably the Broncos and maybe the Sharks, the path to the title remains wide open.
Ikin & Payne
Two stories ran on Sunday, both hinting at the current state of play in Queensland rugby league.
The first is Ben Ikin’s plan to meet with all 17 NRL clubs and give them the sales pitch on why they should put more money into the QRL. Given only three clubs demonstrably care about the rugby league in Queensland, it seems a tall order to convince the other 13. Still, it’s better than sitting mute and taking what the ARLC deigns to hand out. If the clubs agree to sing Ikin’s tune, then the court jester will dance a merry jig.
What Ikin plans to do with the money, should he be successful, is not clear. I can easily think of a list of things that would improve life for me, the consumer, and I imagine there’s a similar list of things to be addressed elsewhere in the QRL’s infrastructure for players, coaches and administrators. Whether Ikin plans to pitch the clubs on supporting the Queensland Cup and QRLW premiership more directly is unknown and would seem to be an even harder sell.
The second is the firing of Aaron Payne from the Blackhawks. Townsville are the sole beneficiary of the Cowboys’ fringe players and given the Blachawks’ subsequent lack of success (they remain a draw behind the Pride and outside the finals), I don’t think Payne losing his job is terribly surprising. Even before this year, Townsville scraped into the finals and were bounced week 1 in 2021 and missed the finals altogether in 2022. It doesn’t compare well to Kristan Woolf’s tenure from 2015 to 2018, where the club didn’t miss the finals in the then top six system, or Payne’s inaugural season in 2019, finishing with a 17-6 record.
Payne was apparently resigning at the end of the year but the board has made it immediate. What’s not clear in the reporting is whether Payne was brought in at the behest of the Cowboys, which seems likely. The firing would then appear as if the Blackhawks are creating a bit of space between themselves and the Cowboys. If you really wanted to stretch, you could infer some stress on the relationship, given the results and the Cowboys openly desiring their own reserve grade team. The Blackhawks have not given any indications on who will be taking over next year, but they would hardly be the first rugby league club to fire an underperforming coach without a replacement in the wings.
“His passion for the game and commitment during his time with the club has been exceptional, pushing through some challenging times and this season in particular where the frustration of not being in full control of our Hostplus side due to this season’s agreement with the North Queensland Cowboys where he has not had full control over the team and playing style has been remarkable.”
Carroll later clarified that the decision to release Payne had no relation to the club’s feeder arrangement with the Cowboys.
“We would like to apologise to the North Queensland Cowboys for any negative implications our media release has generated. The decision to release Aaron Payne had nothing to do with our arrangement with the Cowboys,” Carroll wrote.
-Cowboys legend Aaron Payne relieved of duties with Blackhawks, Townsville Bulletin, 30 July 2023
Make of that what you will. For discussion: are the Blackhawks Cowboy-cucks?
Let's talk about cheating
Cheating is the intentional breaking of the rules to gain an advantage. By participating in a sport, you agree to abide by the rules. When you cheat, the transgression falls into the same family of moral duplicity as breaking one’s promises2, a subset of lying. You claimed you were doing something and then did not do that, which has disadvantaged me and is therefore not fair and so is bad3.
The delta from the state from not cheating to cheating is the most morally fraught part of the spectrum of available outcomes. Most people seem to accept a little cheating but draw the line at big cheating, while also being quite unclear about where their line actually is and will almost certainly lie to themselves about how straight that line is.
Cheating is endemic. It's present in all places and at all times because there's a part of each of us that will cheat if the incentives and consequences align with our personal tolerance for risk and we can convince ourselves that it's not bad, if not right even, to do it or are otherwise apathetic to the harm that might be caused.
There are plenty of well worn examples of cheating in sports: shamateurism, doping, taking public transport. To think that professional rugby league or individual clubs are immune, because they are inherently good, is naive. These entities are comprised of people, people are flawed and people cheat. Over a long enough timeline, big cheating is inevitable because the chance of it occuring is never zero. Even if individuals would never cheat - or, at least, say that - individuals come and go and it just requires the right combination of personalities and conditions for cheating to occur. It even seems likely that the people who want to run professional rugby league clubs might be more prone to this than the general population, given that they must, on some level, believe that they are uniquely equipped to propel the club to premierships and subordinate everything else to that goal, or else why not get an easier job?
Whether it's 5% or 25% or 100% over the cap, the cheating is bad. The badness comes in degrees but doesn't change its essential badness. A conviction can be handed out for first degree murder or second degree or third but the victim is still dead.
Given every club has breached the cap in some form, in amounts that cannot be the result of poor accounting (or possibly it is negligent to employ such poor accountants, creating a moral hazard classified somewhere else in this burdensome family tree), then all clubs are bad. The crimes of some are worse than others but none of us is without sin4. There is no moral high ground to occupy as a fan.
I find this makes it difficult to get all that upset about cheating in sport. Until the discovery of some sort of emotional cold fusion process, there is not enough energy for me to care that deeply about cheating, given its frequency and the hypocrisy of doing so given my loyalties, in something as arbitrary and unimportant as sport. If anything, I'm more fascinated by the ingenuity of cheating in sport. The Storm example is classic smart-dumb thinking (“is you taking notes on a criminal fuckin conspiracy?”). A dumb person would've handed out cash in a paper bag, and run the risk of doing too much cheating instead of trying to keep track of it to avoid over-spending on illegal payments, but wouldn't have left such an obvious paper trail.
This might be why people focus on the big examples and let the little ones go. It's possible to find the strength to rail against the big cheats and the injustice of it all because they appear to be rare. But then you'd have to build a framework post facto to explain why some cheating matters and others don't (if 5% over is ok, why do the rules not reflect that?), and I prefer my personal morality to be more grounded in the righteousness of means than of ends. Both approaches are equally effective, which is to say neither achieves anything because nothing ever really changes and you and I are both passive consumers in this endeavour.
There are some reasons why we haven't seen a repeat of the breaches of the scale of the Raiders, Bulldogs and Storm. In punishing the Storm, the NRL has made it clear that the penalties can be paid in trophies, not just in cash and competition points. It also turns out lying on a statutory declaration is something the real judicial system takes an interest in. That changes the calculus on the potential consequences of cheating.
Crucially, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This gives a potentially false impression on the rarity of large scale cheating. While ire is focussed on Melbourne as the most recent and largest proven cheater, other organisations escape unscathed because their cheating, while possibly similar in scale and identical in badness, is unproven (or unlikely but possibly, non-existent).
Think for a few minutes about how the NRL gathers evidence to level a charge, let alone prosecute a case. They aren't the police and they have none of the resources or powers to investigate a charge of cap breaching or other rule breaking. The only way the NRL gets to these breaches is by self reporting or whistle blowing.
If anything, the NRL’s interest is to not discover anything too big because it's detrimental to the sport’s reputation. With the stakes raised so by the Storm cap breaches, denial and non-cooperation with any serious investigation is then further incentivised because what is there to lose? In the meantime, a few self-reports that result in slaps on the wrist gives the system the veneer of honesty. Maybe it truly is honest? We have no way of ever being sure.
The NRL can't levy a severe punishment for something it cannot prove happened because that would put the NRL in breach of their participation agreement with the club, a legally binding contract, along with probably triggering several other causes for civil lawsuits. The NRL can only have proof if someone talks. No talk, no crime and no one for fans to get angry at.
In summary, cheating is bad but so common that if the Storm want to celebrate premierships they won and were later stripped of, in a game against Parramatta, the last club to be stripped of competition points and a trophy (albeit a Nines one) for cap breaches, while Justin Pascoe was deregistered for making offers that he could not make under the cap and was then allowed to return as if nothing had happened and keep running the Tigers into the ground, and Manly breached the cap for five years and paid a fine only half of the amount they were over the cap, and the Sharks were out of compliance in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 and the Knights out of compliance in 1998, 1999 and 2002, and it's really only a matter of time until your club thinks it's smart enough to get away with it only to discover it is not, then good for them.
It’s better to cheat and win than to cheat and still lose. That’s just dumb.
It occured to me after posting the previous newsletter that the Dogs got paid by the Queensland government to edge out the Dolphins in Bundaberg, and got paid by the NRL to host the NRLW double-header. Instead of taking the NRLW double header to somewhere it would have been more appreciated, like Newcastle or Townsville5 or Balmain or Campbelltown or Cronulla, Canterbury got paid twice for one game. I wonder if a well-connected and well-known bloviating media figure that sometimes moonlights as a football general manager was involved?
Referring to the number of views the NRLW season preview got as “disgusting” and the sentiment shared over at the League Eye Test has resulted in the preview getting as many views as a regular post. Thank you for your solidarity in the war on patriarchy.
Brisbane Red defeated Cairns, 44-28, to win the XXXX League Championship. More on this later in the week.
Hull KR are apparently interested in signing the Dolphins’ ball playing second rower Anthony Milford.
Moreton Bay Regional Council became the City of Moreton Bay this year. As a fully fledged city, presumably because they now have a NRL team, I wonder if that will be enough for the Dolphins to consider adopting a geographical component to their name or are they worried the Moreton Bay-Sunshine Coast-Wide Bay-Fraser Coast-Central Queensland Dolphins is too much of a mouthful?
The Sydney Morning Herald published two stories entitled “How rugby league could stop China’s march in the Pacific” and “Why the Tom Bradys of the NRL are dominating this season”, neither of which I read and neither of which I have the energy to comment further on.
Not something I expected: Duncan Thompson's Never Published Book Now Available. Thompson, veteran of the first World War, businessman, Hall of Famer, North Sydney Bear turned Toowoomba Clydesdale and coach who I briefly wrote about a few weeks ago, was a big advocate of what he called contract football and presumably this book explains what that is. Thompson’s coaching influenced subsequent generations. You can buy it here for $20, with proceeds split between the Toowoomba RL and the Clydesdales.
Not Queensland: a short one from John Davidson on the state of Super League: “Cash in the bank gone, losses have increased, TV money has gone down, distribution to clubs have decreased, costs have increased.”
Wynnum took a last minute penalty goal to get home over Sunshine Coast in Maryborough, 30-28. Norths beat Ipswich in the least surprising result of the weekend, even if the Jets made it surprisingly close. Burleigh and Northern played out an unexpected draw, 22-all, thanks to a last minute multi-phase try to Christopher Ostwald and Evan Child conversion. Townsville crushed Mackay, 46-6, and Central cruised home against Western, 26-10.
In the Sunday game, the Hunters pulled away early but were inevitably ground down by the Tigers, finishing 32-18, who are one of the better but less interesting teams in this year’s competition.
Souths Logan, Redcliffe and Tweed were all on the bye.
NRL North Standings
The Cowboys have two games in hand, against the Broncos and the Dolphins, to move off the bottom of the division. A win over either would be enough to consign the Titans to the bottom. Gold Coast have finished their divisional games, splitting their series against Brisbane and North Queensland and getting swept by Redcliffe.
The Dolphins remain the Lineal Queensland Champions until at least round 26.
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Dan’s title for the review of the men’s game: Spiritless. For the women’s game: History. The duality of the Raiders fan. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Harold and Kumar is for old people and Cheech and Chong is for really old people.
See also: the 1909 Sydney grand final.
Or wrong, lacking in virtue, etc
Very few of the people who cheated are still at those organisations, so there's a real Ship of Theseus as to whether the club is still sinful.
The NRLW has played many, many games in Newcastle, especially in 2021*, but the NRL seems intent on making sure the Queensland NRLW teams play in front of an actual home crowd as rarely as possible.