Toovey set to dropTaufua after high-ballblunders

Manly Sea Eagles coach Geoff Toovey is likely to drop Jorge Taufua after the winger’s horrendous opening finals game.
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The normally reliable Taufua has been having an unhappy September.

On Friday he struggled under the high ball as South Sydney followed North Queensland’s game plan of targeting him on the flank. Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds continued to pepper him, resulting in veteran Lote Tuqiri successfully leaping for a try.

The Rabbitohs had watched Taufua struggle against the Cowboys in the final game of the regular season.

Either Cheyse Blair or Clint Gutherson will come into the side for Taufua, who was on the verge of NSW selection earlier this year.

Toovey will make a final call on Taufua’s inclusion and finalise other selections before the captain’s run on Friday.

Hookers Matt Ballin (broken leg) and Jayden Hodges (neck) will have fitness tests on Friday.

Ballin is unlikely to be cleared to play. Hodges is expected to play dummy half against the Bulldogs, who are expected to be unchanged, at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.

Manly prop Jason King is one loss away from retiring.

“I can’t be thinking along those lines,” King said of retirement. “I don’t want to be side-tracked about my last game.

“We had some points scored against us on the weekend. We’ll have to be strong in the middle. [South Sydney] grabbed that momentum. It’s hard to put a stop to it.

“A lot of areas we’ve looked at [to improve them]. Our kick defence was one, the other was our kick chase – and a lot of things about our defence. This week the focus has been our defence.”

King will need to lead an inexperienced Manly forward pack. He has told his young teammates not to get caught up in last week’s big loss to South Sydney.

“I’m a leader at the club,” King said. “I do every thing I can do be a leader, not just of the forward pack but of the team in general.

“It’ll be along the lines of encouragement and focusing on the positives and not dwelling on our past performance and doing everything you can in your preparation to play the best you possibly can.”

Meanwhile, at Allianz Stadium on Friday night, the Roosters will welcome back No.9 Jake Friend from a chest injury and Aidan Guerra from suspension. Boyd Cordner (knee) will also play against the Cowboys.

North Queensland have named veteran Glenn Hall to replace the suspended Tariq Sims in the back row.

Waratahs face tough battle defending their Super Rugby title in 2015

No one said it would be easy but a gruelling 10 straight games and two defining clashes on South Africa’s highveld say going back to back will be a challenge for the Waratahs next year.
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After byes in round three and eight, well before the season reaches its halfway point next year, and no awkward break for the June Test series, the Waratahs face a long road to a potential second consecutive finals campaign.

The reigning Super Rugby champions will finish their season with a two-week tour to Johannesburg and Bloemfontein to play the Lions and Cheetahs at altitude before heading home for a final-round home clash with the Reds.

There was also good news in the 2015 Super Rugby draw, which has been rejigged to accommodate next year’s World Cup.

All three conferences start in the same week in mid-February, and the Waratahs kick off their season with a Sunday afternoon home clash against the Western Force on February 15.

It will be one of two home games held in the popular 4pm timeslot. In a coup for NSW administrators, who struggled to capitalise on the benefits of afternoon football without commercially attractive opposition teams, the Waratahs will host the Brumbies in the second game on March 22.

But fans face a long wait between home games early on. After hosting the Force, the Waratahs will not play in Sydney for a month until their Brumbies homecoming at the end of March.

There will be a grand final rematch – the Crusaders fly across the ditch to play their newly minted bogy team on May 23 – but then Michael Cheika and his team hit the road to tour South Africa in round 16.

The Waratahs will not play the Bulls or two-time champions the Chiefs next year but play every other New Zealand and South African team once and every Australian team home and away.

McCabe realised the worst

Pat McCabe has opened up about the moment he knew his rugby career was over in a television interview this week.

The 24-Test centre retired last month after suffering his third neck injury in two years in the Wallabies’ 51-20 loss to the All Blacks at Eden Park.

Wearing a heavy neck brace on Rugby HQ on Thursday night, McCabe said he had a “fair idea” he had played his last Test.

“Having done it twice before, I knew exactly what that pain felt like,” he said. “I probably stayed on there a little bit longer in that passage of play, which in hindsight maybe I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t really want to submit to knowing that that was probably the last time I’d walk off [a rugby pitch].

“As I was sitting on the bench watching it was a pretty dark time knowing I was heading to the hospital again to have scans. There was a decent chance they weren’t going to be too good.”

Now seeing out his contract in the corporate arm of the ACT Brumbies while he finishes off a dual commerce-law degree, McCabe also headed off speculation he had put his long-term health at risk by returning from the previous two injuries.

“Each of the times, if anyone said I was taking a ridiculous risk in terms of potential paralysis or anything like that, then I wouldn’t have come back,” he said.

“But I still had a really strong, burning desire to come back. I felt like I hadn’t achieved the things that I wanted to, and while I’m sitting here in this [neck brace] I’m still very glad that I did come back each of those times.”

Robinson dressed to thrill

Waratahs fans would have been delighted to hear of Benn Robinson’s return to the Wallabies squad for the Test team’s two-week tour of South Africa and Argentina.

Let’s hope they give him the full kit this time.

When the veteran prop was called up to join the squad on the Gold Coast last week, all he was handed was one set of training gear.

“I was there hand-washing my gear after every session in the sink. I was scrubbing away … I wanted to make sure the front-rowers knew I wasn’t too smelly,” he told Fairfax Media.

Asked on Thursday, after his tour call-up, if he expected the full monty this time, he said, laughing: “I shouldn’t have said that … I hope so. We’ll be in camp three or four days. Hopefully I’ll get kitted up.”

Making the grade

If the National Rugby Championship is struggling, in its first four weeks of operation, to put bums on seats at stadiums around the country, it cannot be questioned from a talent development perspective.

North Harbour Rays back-rower Michael Wells became the latest player to be snapped up from the third tier competition, earning a full-time contract with the men’s sevens squad after coming to the attention of new coach Geraint John.

Wells, Northern Suburbs captain and former 2012 Australian under-20s representative, is set to be followed into the professional sphere by the likes of Andrew Kellaway(NSW Country) and Jack Dempsey (Rays), who look to have been picked up by the Waratahs next year.

Busy year in the job

Happy anniversary to Tim Walsh, coach of Australian rugby’s top-ranked team, the women’s sevens squad.

Walsh marks a year in the job on Friday and has been a busy man, lifting Australia from mid-table in the world series rankings to No.2 behind New Zealand and helping produce Australia’s very own IRB women’s sevens player of the year, Emilee Cherry.

Not at all bad. Now there’s just the small matters of qualifying for the Olympics and winning a gold medal. No bother!

Buddy as Lockett once was: Sheedy

Headline act: Lance Franklin. Photo: Nic WalkerKevin Sheedy says Lance Franklin is a worthy recipient of the baton once carried by Tony Lockett and will follow in the footsteps of the goal-kicking great by becoming one of the AFL’s most important figures in Sydney.
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As Franklin prepares to spearhead the Swans’ charge to the grand final in his debut season in the red and white, Sheedy said the superstar forward would prove as significant to the game in Sydney as the late Tom Hafey, Ron Barassi and Lockett were before him.

The Swans, who play North Melbourne on Friday night, are one win away from booking their fourth grand-final appearance in 10 years and though they were successful in 2005 and 2012, interest in the club has spiked this season after landing Franklin in a stunning recruiting coup nearly a year ago.

The club has posted record membership numbers this year, breaking the 40,000 mark for the first time, and their home crowds are up 15 per cent on last year and at their highest since 2007 when the Swans were coming off back-to-back grand finals.

“We all need superstars playing in the teams because that’s what attracts people, people like to watch superstars,” said Sheedy, who won four premierships in a 27-year coaching reign at Essendon before becoming Greater Western Sydney’s inaugural coach and now a club director.

“You have your tough, ruthless types like [Glenn] Archer, people love watching those people play, but at the other end of the ground you have your dynamic goalkickers – players that turn the lights on and make people energise, players like Buddy, Barry Hall and Tony Lockett.”

One of the game’s greatest ambassadors, Sheedy said Franklin deserved to be mentioned alongside former key Swans Hafey, Barassi and Lockett for their impact in Sydney.

Hafey helped put the Swans on the map in the city after their move from South Melbourne in 1982, leading the team to consecutive finals series in 1986-87, while Barassi’s move in 1993 lifted the club from rock bottom.

But the arrival of Lockett, the game’s greatest goalkicker, turned the Swans into one of the glamour sides of the competition.

Sheedy said a grand-final appearance for the Swans this year with Franklin on board could even trump the Lockett era.

“You can look at it that way, ‘Plugger’ [Lockett] was so important for the game up in Sydney at that stage,” Sheedy said.

“Hafey, Barassi and Lockett were the most important steps, one after each other and keeping the flame alight.”

Sheedy also wanted the contributions of Mike Willesee, Basil Sellers and Peter Weinert, who were key financial backers during the club’s dark days of the late 80s and early 90s, acknowledged by the AFL with life membership.

“Those guys are like the disciples of the game in Sydney,” Sheedy said.

Although ensconced in the Giants camp, Sheedy said he wanted to see the Swans win this year’s flag because of the benefits it would bring the game in NSW.

“If Buddy ended up running out there in the grand final, the Swans win the premiership and he kicks four, gives away three, that’d be the perfect ‘fairy time’ story for Swans fans,” Sheedy said.

“I’ll be barracking for the Swans, I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. We just need the game really going well in NSW, in Sydney and getting kids like [Craig] Bird, Kieren Jack as captain, Jarrad McVeigh – this is exactly what we want.”

He even acknowledged the Swans had succeeded with Franklin in doing what the Giants had hoped to achieve with code-hopper Israel Folau.

“[We were] trying to get a place in the market in Sydney and Buddy’s done it,” Sheedy said.

“If Sydney lose a grand final and Buddy plays terribly then that will be a different example because you have to perform on the big day. They’ve still got to there yet but you have to perform on the big day, simple as that.”

How Pearce became the NRL’s No.1 halfback

Mitchell Pearce readily admits the nightclub incident that cost the Roosters star his place in this year’s NSW team was a catalyst for him becoming the No.1 halfback in the NRL on recent form.
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Pearce, who was stood down for the round 10 thrashing in North Queensland after being arrested outside a Kings Cross nightclub, heads into Friday’s semi-final with the Cowboys at Allianz Stadium as the best-performing halfback of the past five weeks.

According to a detailed analysis provided by Sportsdata, Pearce is in career-best form. At present Pearce ranks as the top halfback in the game, ahead of South Sydney’s Adam Reynolds, North Queensland’s Johnathan Thurston and Penrith’s Jamie Soward.

It is a massive turnaround from earlier in the season, when Fairfax Media revealed on the eve of Origin selection that the 25-year-old  was ranked 15th among halfbacks, based on Sportsdata’s contributor value rating system.

 

Pearce was subsequently dumped from the NSW team of which he had been a regular member since 2010. There is little doubt he would be recalled if a team was chosen now, as his recent performances have been far superior to Canterbury’s Trent Hodkinson, who ranks as the ninth-best halfback in the NRL for both the season and the past five weeks.

The 2013 premiership-winning halfback said the fallout from the off-field incident in May had been a turning point for him this season. “After that incident it was definitely a big focus for me,” Pearce said. “I knuckled down and ended up working real hard, as the whole team has. The reason you play well is because you work hard, so that is what we have all done as a team. And that is why we are in a finals position now.”

Undoubtedly a key reason the Roosters are still in contention to become the first team in more than 20 years to win back-to-back grand finals is Pearce. In his past five games, against Wests Tigers, the Warriors, Melbourne, South Sydney and Penrith, he has committed two errors, while scoring three tries, being responsible for six try assists and making 20 tackle breaks, five line breaks and eight offloads.

He has also made 112 tackles, including a try-saving effort when he chased down Greg Inglis in the 26-22 win over the Rabbitohs that secured the minor premiership for the Roosters, and missed just 12 tackles.

Such statistics show great composure, given the amount of times that Pearce touches the ball in a match as first receiver for the Roosters. Pearce said his relationship with Alan Bell, who worked with Warren Ryan at Newtown and Allan McMahon at Newcastle as a mentor to playmakers such as Andrew and and Matthew Johns, had helped him to become better at decision-making.

“He has been around the game a long time and he is really smart,” Pearce said. “He is one of the smartest guys I have spoken to about footy and my individual game. A lot of stuff with the mind and preparation has been really helpful for me and I feel like I have been playing a bit better footy, so it has been great, and I am really grateful for the time he has given me.”

Legendary boxing trainer Johnny Lewis, who worked with the Jets in the early 1980s, introduced Pearce to 71-year-old Bell about three months ago.

“I have been talking to him on the phone a fair bit. It started off we just had a bit of a brief chat and he has been really passionate, helping me out and giving me advice here and there,” Pearce said.

“As a halfback, if you can keep getting pointers from guys who have a smart analytical brain, you would be silly not to open your ears and listen.”

Pearce has also been working closely with Roosters assistant coach Jason Taylor, a former leading halfback with Western Suburbs, North Sydney, the Northern Eagles and Parramatta, and club insiders say his recent upturn in form had coincided with him becoming more decisive about when to run, pass or kick.

Fairfax Media was told whereas Cooper Cronk was a structured halfback who played within a system devised by the Storm coaching staff, Pearce plays more off-the-cuff. But his decision-making can be confused as he considers the best option.

However, in recent weeks Pearce has been sticking with his initial decision.  When he has chosen to run the ball, he has caused havoc with opposition defences – as evidenced by the try he set up for Daniel Tupou against Souths and the one he scored last Saturday night to put the Roosters ahead 14-8 against Penrith.

While Pearce ranks eighth overall among halfbacks this year, his season can be broken down into three parts: before Origin, until round 22, and the past five weeks, including the 15-14 qualifying final loss to Panthers at Allianz Stadium.

His CVR per match for the season is 322.42. Thurston, who will play opposite him on Friday night, ranks as No.1 overall with a CVR of 420.26. But until round 23, Pearce’s average CVR was a mere 260.1. He scored as low as 61.3 in round one, 66.4 in round seven and 124.3 in round eight. Before round 14, he had only recorded a CVR above 300 – considered a good score for a halfback – on one occasion, but since then he has had just three matches below that figure.

 

In the past five weeks Pearce has had a CVR above 600 – 704.5 against the Tigers in round 23, 601.2 against Souths in round 26 and 646.8 against the Panthers last weekend, while in the other two matches he had a CVR of 401.8 against the Warriors in round 24 and 442.7 against the Storm in round 25.

In comparison, Hodkinson – who ousted Pearce for the NSW No.7 jersey in this season’s historic Origin series win – has a CVR of just 263 per match in the past five weeks, which has been boosted by a score of 403 in last Sunday’s surprising 28-4 elimination of Melbourne – his highest score since round eight. Soward’s average for the past five weeks of 323.1 is well below Pearce.

Given a free hand, David Gallop tackles his FFA role with zest

David Gallop says football’s ticket to the big-time depends on grassroots
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There was something presidential about FFA chief executive David Gallop’s “State of the Game” address in Sydney on Thursday, a US-style declaration of national goals achieved and those still to be kicked.

It was also a City Hall tub thump aimed at his rivals in the middle of their finals, an “up yours” to the NRL, the game that sacked him, and the AFL, the code he seeks to overtake as No.1 in the country.

The gaunt Gallop’s speech was not quite Abraham Lincoln; more akin to the slim former US Senator Trent Lott who once said that uniting all his fellow Republican Senators in a vote was “like trying to load bullfrogs into a wheelbarrow”.

Gallop has done what Lott could not – unite soccer’s once-warring factions.

Significantly, it was he who made the speech, not Frank Lowy, the FFA chair.

When Gallop left the NRL two years ago, it was primarily because he suspected he would be merely a chief of staff for an ego-driven ARL chairman, John Grant.

The irony that Gallop’s predecessors at FFA, Ben Buckley and John O’Neill, complained they were not CEO’s but chief of operations for a billionaire autocrat, was presumably assuaged by Gallop swapping his $300,000-a -ear job for a $1 million one.

Yet none of the above transpired. Grant has withdrawn, allowing the limelight to shine on his chief executive, Dave Smith, while Lowy has stepped aside for Gallop to deliver Wednesday’s “National Plan for Whole of Football”.

Lowy, after all, has only a year left before mandatory retirement age and unless the shopping-centre czar anoints son Stephen, Gallop is in a position to fulfil his dream of eclipsing the AFL and NRL.

(Gallop, who once worked for Rupert  Murdoch, would be aware of the tricky intersection between big business and family politics. As North Korea’s Kim Jongs and the Clintons have also demonstrated, succession planning can be an all-in-the-family affair).

But Gallop had his eyes on his code rivals on Thursday, saying soccer’s opportunities “can only happen in a game based primarily on skill, not those based on collisions”.

Ten years ago, his code was No.4 in the pecking order of the national football, described by Gallop on Thursday as a “sport [then] on its knees”.

The Australian Sports Commission initiated reform via the Crawford Report, which recommended stripping away state and ethnic loyalties.

Gallop acknowledged this, indicating more has to be done. He said, “It’s fair to say that the game’s governance structures have been a work in progress since the reform process of the Crawford Report in 2003, and the inauguration of the FFA under the leadership of Frank Lowy in 2004.

“Frank Lowy and his board have done so much – starting new national competitions, qualifying for World Cups and joining Asia.

“Our chairman’s energy and commitment is a source of inspiration to so many people and I want to personally acknowledge his guidance and wisdom.

“FFA could not have done this in a decade without the support of so many companies, broadcasters and governments. There are too many to name individually, so you’ll see our acknowledgement on the video screens.”

Not recorded in actual words was crediting the ASC which, in consultation with then prime minister John Howard and federal sports minister Senator Rod Kemp, handed over $25 million for the reform process.

The Crawford Report did not address the governance problems of the grassroots and its alignment with the professional game – a whole-of-game approach that will be announced at the conclusion of summer’s AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

Gallop told Thursday’s audience, “The first phase of the national plan is to listen to the game’s key stakeholders – clubs at all levels and their members, our state and territory member federations, sponsors, broadcast partners, governments and stadium managers.”

But how much money will Gallop extract from government for this purpose?

As deputy chair of the ASC, Gallop must know his code has had more than its share of the public purse, as, indeed, has AFL.

He began his speech by stating: “Everywhere you look at the moment, you can see that Australian football [or the ‘beautiful game’ as he also called it] is enjoying a golden period.”

Your sport has joined the big boys now David. Time to dig your own gold.