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Rugby League struggles to cope with one of its darkest weeks


Chief Sports Writer, The Sydney Morning Herald

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The Gus and Webby show

Phil Gould and Andrew Webster discuss all the big issues of the week in the world of Rugby League on Wednesday.

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Tempers frayed

Last Sunday afternoon, Wayne Bennett wrapped his arms around his players as they huddled in the middle of Hunter Stadium in honour of their stricken teammate, Alex McKinnon.

Heartbreak: The Newcastle Knights huddle together in silenced for stricken teammate Alex McKinnon.

Heartbreak: The Newcastle Knights huddle together in silenced for stricken teammate Alex McKinnon. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

It was one of those damp-eyed moments when a brutal code shows that it bleeds, just like everyone else.

Then everyone lost their head.

As Channel Nine reported on Monday that ‘‘McKinnon and his family have been told he is a quadriplegic”, McKinnon was telling those at his bedside he had feeling in his arms and that he would walk again.

Served up: the Storm's Jordan McLean at the judiciary.

Served up: the Storm's Jordan McLean at the judiciary. Photo: Getty Images

If the picture painted of the man in the past 10 days is any indication, we’ll back McKinnon to do so.

The Knights, Bennett and not least McKinnon’s mates are furious with the Nine report. We’re also told his doctors are far from impressed, although it should be noted that nobody - including his family - has said it was wrong.

Reporter Neil Breen has subsequently been defending his story all week, and Nine powerbrokers are standing behind him, even if the story wasn’t delivered as compassionately as it could have been.

Melbourne Storm CEO Mark Evans speaks to the meda after McLean's judiciary hearing.

Melbourne Storm CEO Mark Evans speaks to the meda after McLean's judiciary hearing. Photo: Getty Images

“Doctors are not in the hope business,” Breen told Ben Fordham on 2GB on Tuesday.

Asked about the Knights’ claim the report had jeopardised McKinnon’s recovery, Breen said: “I’m happy for people and anyone to be angry at me if that makes people feel better. I’d rather them be angry at me than Jordan McLean.”

Fordham then asked Breen if he was preparing people for “the reality of the situation”.

Happy camp? Sam Burgess shares a joke with teammates at training.

Happy camp? Sam Burgess shares a joke with teammates at training. Photo: Getty Images

“And that is the reality,” Breen said. “In that statement, the Newcastle Knights can say that about me, but in the same statement they confirm everything - that he has a devastating spinal injury … Ben, I wish the story was wrong.”

Right on cue, the normally mute Rugby League Players Association opportunistically pumped out a media release, taking the media to task.

Meanwhile, the NRL served up Jordan McLean on a platter, as anticipated.

Crowded house: The SCG jam packed for the 1965 Grand Final.

Crowded house: The SCG jam packed for the 1965 Grand Final. Photo: Fairfax archives

They’ve given him a seven-match suspension for a tackle that has been branded a “freak accident” by those who would know better than any of us - the players and coaches.

Burgess bashing

Sam Burgess has become the favourite punching bag of rugby league fans, from the squirrel grip episode through to the announcement of his sudden departure to English rugby at the end of this year.

But we’ll commend the Souths prop for fronting the media after his side’s loss to the Raiders on Sunday, their third consecutive defeat.

It was Burgess' idea to break his own media ban, because he wanted to quash widespread talk that the Bunnies were a divided group, mainly because of him.

"There is always talk and speculation, but to be honest I don't even know what is being said about us," Burgess said. "To be honest, I'm not really that fussed about what is written because, as a group, we are that tight and we understand that happens in sport.”

Apology owed: Andrew Fifita.

Apology owed: Andrew Fifita. Photo: Getty Images

Talk about in-fighting at Redfern stems from an Xbox promotion during the finals last year.

Burgess wanted to attend but was told by the club that he could not.

He attended anyway, and the next time the group met fullback Greg Inglis made it very clear how angry he and his teammates were.

After all, if Burgess can make some extra coin outside of the club, imagine how much someone like the Kangaroos and Maroons superstar could make in additional drinking silver.

Yet this is old news.

We’ve checked and asked and sniffed about, and we’re told there is no residual anger between Burgess and his teammates.

Alas, the Rabbitohs’ poor start might come down to something far complex: bad form.

Kicking homophobia out

Inglis is one of several high-profile sportspeople who will attend a special function at Government House on Wednesday night as the chief executives of major football codes and cricket endorse new legislation to eliminate homophobia.

In a world first, the professional sporting bodies have collectively committed to tackling discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The sport leaders will agree to implement anti-homophobia and inclusion policies by the end of August when thousands of international gay rugby players compete for the Bingham Cup.

Inglis, who has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage in the past, will be joined by former Wallabies captain Nick Farr-Jones, Matty Johns, Sasa Ognenovski, Sara Walsh and Mike Pyke.

In defence of Fifita

You know how The Fonz could never say s-s-sorry? Well, this column is more Ralph Malph and would like to offer an apology to Andrew Fifita.

A cautious apology.

It was easy to cop the line coming out of Belmore about the Bulldogs going cold on their $3.5 million deal with the Sharks prop because of his stated desire to sign with rugby union.

To her credit, chief executive Raelene Castle said that wasn’t the reason the deal was aborted - but there were others within the club who were certainly pushing it.

Evidently, Fifita made his comments last Friday after being told the day before the contract on the table from the Bulldogs was about $1 million less than promised.

The Dogs performed a great smother earlier this week, suggesting it was a mutual decision.

Maybe not.

Believe us: there is more to play out with this one.

Halcyon days

And they say snobby Sydney rugby league fans won't attend games. In 1965, for the grand final between St George and Souths, half the city turned up at the SCG.

Ahead of Saturday night's Heritage Round clash at the same ground, it seems appropriate to remember the time when the same opponents created amazing scenes.

Fans sat on the roof of the grandstands, and snuck into the ground via the old Showground, where there was a motor show on, climbing walls and dodging barbed wire to get in.

The official crowd was 78,056, but estimates suggest it was more than 90,000. Police closed the gates two hours before kickoff, denying access to thousands more.

It used to take Souths great Bob McCarthy 20 minutes in his car from Redfern to the SCG, but on this day he feared he wasn't going to make it as he made his way toward the ground.

Police made him park under an oak tree, but then he had to make his way through thousands of fans who had been turned away.

"Nobody knew who I was," McCarthy, one of the greats, said. "I wasn't a Johnny Raper or a Graeme Langlands."

Bob Fulton was there that day, too, sitting on the roof with fellow Wollongong boy Peter Peters. He told "Zorba" they would do a lap of the SCG one day.

Eight years later, after Manly beat the Sharks in a brutal decider, Fulton pointed to the Sheridan Stand and told Peters: "I told you we would be here doing this."


"That’s the price you pay in relationships – the greater the relationship, the greater the pain." - Knights coach Wayne Bennett explains why he is hurting so deeply over the plight of Alex McKinnon, the player whom he considers a son.


Mudassar Bukhari, the former assistant manager at the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport branch of Burger King, who took 3-12 in the Netherland's stunning World Twenty20 win over England. “This definitely beats flipping burgers for a living, I can tell you that,” Bukhari said. We're told the Bukharis are better at Hungry Jacks. (We just couldn't resist).


Mickey Arthur is starting to resemble Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. On Saturday night, in an interview to be aired on Channel Nine, he says he privately wished Australia had failed during the Ashes. Maybe the South African should consider his former side's form since his sacking, and stop boiling bunnies.

It’s a big weekend for … the Sydney Swans, who had roared into this season as one of the premiership favourites with that bloke, er ... What's his name? Anyway, the big bloke up front. They take on Adelaide having lost their first two matches.

It’s an even bigger weekend for … the very expensive and not-so expensive two-year-old racehorses who will tip-toe out on to the Rosehill course for the $3.5 million Golden Slipper on Saturday. Win this most fickle of events and your horsie could retire to stud, and then you can also retire.

Q&A: Christian Sprenger

We spoke to the Olympic silver medallist and world title holder minutes before the 100m breaststroke final at the Commonwealth Games trials in Brisvegas.

When you are preparing for a big race, are you slothing around watching The Simpsons all day?

Yes! I’ll watch whatever is on. I’ll listen to a lot of music. Whatever is on the charts at the time.

The mail is you play a mean guitar.

I’ve played guitar for about 10 or 12 years. I was pretty good at it. I haven’t played for a while but I’m sure I could pick it up and smash it out again. You never forget.


I used to play a lot of Foo Fighters, a lot of Metallica. It was quite tricky some of that stuff.

On Wednesday night, Jim Wilson said on Sportsnight on Sky News that it was time to abandon the Commonwealth Games. Thoughts?

It's still a competition that is respected by Australia. Although it’s not a worldwide competition, in some respects it’s still important. I do see where he’s coming from, but it's a good chance to bring the team together as a warm-up for an Olympic Games.

And you will be up against the bloke who pipped you for gold in London, South African Cameron van der Burgh?

For me, it’s the start of an Olympics, to be honest. I can’t agree with Jim to scrap the Commonwealth Games in that regard. But I understand it’s weaker in other events.

Are you thinking about van der Burgh all the time? Not in a stalker way but a competitive way?

Not so much. You can’t get too involved with that, but I am always curious about what he’s trying. At the same time, I am trying to do new things as well. I know what I’ve been doing has been working well.

Were you ripped off in London, because of his illegal kick?

Regardless of whether he did the kick or not, I think he would’ve won gold. But he did do the butterfly kick (at the start of the race) so he must’ve trained for that.

4 comments so far

  • Andrew, as an Emergency Dept doctor, I can't agree at all with your implication that what happened to McKinnon was simply a "freak accident". After all hullabaloo, I looked at the footage for the first time yesterday, expecting that it would be something quite minor. However, I was shocked! It was clearly not -- it is clear that McKinnon was purposefully lifted and turned up from the very beginning of the tackle. If it is true that this sort of tackle is an everyday occurrence in the NRL, then more injuries like this are SURE to follow.

    One eye
    Date and time
    April 04, 2014, 8:46AM
    • You make a valid point One eye with regard to the prevalence of such an injury in the NRL. I have been following the game as a fan, player and coach since 1969. During this time, there has never been a spinal cord injury as a result of a tackle in first grade football (NSWRL/ARL/NRL). In 1978 John Farragher became a quadriplegic after a scrum collapse but a recurrence of this is unlikely because scrums are no longer contested. The game though is constantly changing and the modern style of tackling with the intent on tackling in an upright position and using multiple tacklers to force the ball carrier to land on his back has thrown up a number of unexpected challenges to law makers, referees and medical staff. We now have banned 'chickenwing' and 'cannonball' tackles. I believe the most pertinent question should be 'Is this a freak one-off injury or are we entering into a new style of play that could see this being the first with others to follow'? I suspect and I hope I am correct that it is the former and not the later.

      Date and time
      April 04, 2014, 3:00PM
  • I agree with "One eye" it was a spear tackle involving 3 culprits pure and simple - x thousand mothers have just transferred their kids to soccer - the game is flawed.

    Date and time
    April 04, 2014, 1:04PM
    • 'Rugby League struggles', why do we treat our sport like a house of cards, ready to be blown down by the next domestic headline. Whilst it is extrememy sad what has happened, I'm sitting here on the other side of the planet about to watch Rugby League in a different competition, completely dissafected by what happens in Australia. It's not Australia's sport to pick and choose when the sport is in crisis and when it isn't. Perhaps the NRL is struggling - but Rugby League? I am of course anxious whenever I hear such news for all sports.

      Date and time
      April 05, 2014, 12:19AM

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