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State State of confusion

May 28, 2004

Feeling blue: NSW coach Phil Gould. Photos: Steve Christo. Photo montage: SMH

Rugby league is the people's game, but it certainly doesn't use the people's language. And amid the doublespeak, it's no wonder the code is struggling for credibility, writes Roy Masters.

George Orwell wrote that the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. It is a lesson rugby league ignores. Nothing better exemplifies the lack of direct, frank speech in the code and the confusion it creates than some of the answers NSW coach Phil Gould gave at a press conference following NSW's 9-8 win in Wednesday night's first State of Origin match.

A national TV audience of three million saw an anguished reaction from Gould after Blues halfback Craig Gower dropped the ball when he was in position to kick a match-winning field goal with one minute remaining.

A journalist, describing his response as "colourful", asked Gould his thoughts on Gower's mistake. "I just felt for him," Gould said.


Earlier, Gould was asked if he thought the NSW team panicked, particularly in the closing stages when desperate passes were being thrown. "Not panic, just pressure," he replied.

Such responses have echoes of OJ Simpson, who once said that if he had killed his wife "it would have to have been because I loved her too much, right?".


No one has done more than Gould to maintain State of Origin's lofty position in the sporting firmament. He is an outstanding coach but as an actor he's in the class of Wayne Bennett and Spencer Tracy, who once said just look them in the eye and don't trip over the furniture.

The root cause of the code's credibility problem comes down to a lack of direct answers.

NSW assistant coach Laurie Daley admits he may have contributed to the confusion in the foyer of the NSW team hotel last week when seven players decided they were free to go out at 3.40am.

Manager Chris Johns had gone upstairs to bed when the group returned to the team hotel at 3am. The players asked permission of Daley and he responded to the effect that it was not his decision to make.

Accompanied by security guards, the players then went out on the town. Meanwhile, Johns is in danger of losing the positions of manager of the NSW and Australian teams.

It has been reported he returned to the team hotel at 5.30pm earlier that day drunk, despite the fact he appeared on Channel Seven an hour later, and has been praised in letters by hotel staff for his role in asking them not to serve inebriated players the same evening.

OK, I'll declare my loyalty and affection here. I've known Johns since I coached him at St George and I love the bloke. I've had enough lunches with him to know that if he is drunk at 5.30pm, someone has laced his beer with vodka.

Asked about his culpability in the incident that led to two players being sacked from the NSW team and five more being fined a total of $20,000, he said: "My mistake was not standing by the lift to stop them going out."

Two of the players fined were Bulldogs Mark O'Meley and Willie Mason, whose club has a suspended NRL penalty of $350,000 hanging over its head for any action that brings the game into disrepute.

The reason O'Meley and Mason's fines do not activate the suspended fine? They were under the control of the NSWRL at the time and the $350,000 sanction was imposed by the NRL.


No wonder players have more power than at any time in the history of the code.

"What's wrong with the old NTA [Never to Tour Again] rule?" former Melbourne Storm boss and ex-international winger John Ribot said this week in response to the fines imposed on players who earn an average $250,000 a year.

Ribot played at Western Suburbs with prop John Donnelly, who was widely believed to have an NTA order against him following a trip to New Zealand with a Sydney team in 1976.

Folklore has it that "Dallas" ate a pet goldfish at a party in Auckland, offending team manager Eric "The Bosun" Cox. The truth is Donnelly suffered from epilepsy and tour officials didn't like dealing with his fits. At Wests, we learned to anticipate them, reminding him to take his tablets or, when he did fit, rolling him on his side.

(Unfortunately we forgot to tell Ted Goodwin, who witnessed a Dallas convulsion shortly after joining the club. Lord Ted thought Dallas had been seized by the devil and fled the dressing room.)

The point is we looked after Dallas, even if NSWRL officials did not. Compare this with the consideration afforded Mason by officials because of his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

We live in more enlightened times and should be glad there is a feeling of sympathy towards those with medical disorders. But there is a degree of cynicism about this rare adult disease of ADHD and a feeling officials are relieved to learn there is an now an excuse for Mason's behaviour. Mason has been embraced by his NSW teammates, with Gould saying: "He kept us jovial all week."

The Blues will need a funny man in Brisbane when the second game is played on June 16. The Maroons will still be angry about Wednesday night's game not ending in a draw. The varying interpretations of the golden-point rule are further evidence of the confused language of the code.

Queensland officials were blowing up in their room after the match, claiming the golden point applied only to Origin deciders. This was never the case, although there was confusion in the press box when the match went into extra time.

A press release last May led some to believe the golden point applied in Origin only after five minutes of extra time had been played. When Gould ran on to the field to celebrate Shaun Timmins's field goal, the reporters realised they were wrong.

But there was no confused language on the field when it counted on Wednesday night. Timmins insisted he stand on the opposite side of the ruck to the targeted kicker in order to drop a field goal with his left foot.

After all, the NSW team had listened to a story told by Russian-born world champion boxer Kostya Tszyu regarding his early problems with spoken English.

When he arrived in Australia, trainer Johnny Lewis employed a translator and the instruction was given to Tszyu before his first fight to "win the first round".

An incredulous Lewis watched Tszyu attack his opponent like a crazed Tartar and knock him out. Asked why he departed from strategy, Tszyu said: "I thought you said, 'Win in the first round'."