NRL’s Sam Burgess in court over domestic dispute with Mitchell Hooke in NSW’s Southern Highlands

NRL star Sam Burgess has admitted he and his ex-father-in-law “failed” his two young children during a heated domestic dispute in October 2019.

The former Rabbitohs player and coach gave evidence at Moss Vale Local Court today about the incident, during which he claims his children were “left alone”.

A disagreement broke out when his ex-wife’s father, Mitchell Hooke, asked Burgess to leave Mr Hooke’s Southern Highlands property.

Burgess told the court the verbal argument began when his agreed visitation time with the children was up.

He recalled becoming angry when Mr Hooke said “time’s up, let’s go”.

“I told Mitch I thought this was inhumane,” he said.

“I didn’t want to leave my children with Mitch … I don’t trust him.”

He claims Mr Hooke left the children unattended when he followed Burgess outside as he attempted to leave.

“They were then alone inside the house,” he said.

His ex-wife Phoebe Burgess was on her way home at the time.

Sam Burgess with his former wife Phoebe.(Instagram)

Burgess told the court the argument heated up when Mr Hooke threatened him in saying: “I’m going to ruin your career if it’s the last thing I do.”

“He shouted at me … he said f**k you Sam … I said f**k you Mitch, you’re a piece of shit,” Burgess said.

“He said, ‘Sam, nobody loves you. Your own family doesn’t love you. We love you and you’re throwing it all away’.”

The court heard Mr Hooke’s other daughter, Harriet, intervened and took her father inside.

The prosecution told the court two police officers noted Mr Hooke was “visibly shaken” following the incident.

Burgess admitted he drank four schooners of beer at a local pub before he went to visit his children.

He claimed he was not affected by alcohol and considered himself “sober”.

Sam Burgess in court over argument

Mr Hooke denied suggestions he was the aggressor in the argument by raising infidelity in the marriage and threatening to “destroy” Burgess.

Burgess has pleaded not guilty to charges of intimidation and common assault.

A decision is expected to be handed down on February 5.

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St George Illawarra sponsor Norm Black slams NRL’s stand-down policy

Black, the owner of TripADeal, pours about $500,000 a year into the Dragons and a similar amount into the Sea Eagles. ‘‘The [stand-down] rule is so flawed it’s beyond words,’’ he said.

The NRL brought in the rule to appease fans and sponsors, but Black – a sponsor – does not share the NRL’s view. Of all the clubs, the Dragons have been hit hardest by the edict, which was championed by former ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie, and rushed through as the NRL dealt with a range of off-field incidents at the end of 2018. The Dragons have paid de Belin more than $1 million just to train during the past two seasons. De Belin watched on as each season crumbled and former coach Paul McGregor was sacked.


‘‘Of course I’ve got an interest in this as I’m a Dragons supporter and we put money into the club, but my view is not based on that at all,’’ Black said. ‘‘I believe that by being stood down from the game you are immediately cast as being guilty. You tell me what the message sends when a person is not allowed to work when they have a court case pending? It says one thing: you are presumed guilty.

‘‘Walk down the street and see what people say when a bloke is stood down. It creates a feeling of guilt. It’s a one-size-fits-all rule and I think that’s wrong.

‘‘I want to make it very clear that I am not defending Jack de Belin – I don’t know the full details of the case – but what I do know is he has been presumed guilty [by the NRL].

‘‘The same goes for Tristan Sailor [who has been charged with aggravated sexual assault]. Everything I know of Tristan is he is a good kid, but his career is stalled, as is his life. I think he should be allowed to play football until he has his day in court. If he is guilty, then the punishment should start. It’s innocent until proven guilty, not the other way about. I’ve got no doubt the police like big scalps like NRL players and my view is they [players] get a hard time.’’


Sailor has not entered a formal plea, but his lawyer has indicated he will fight the charge.

Black is aware not everyone will agree with his views

‘‘I know that people will say that I am on a soapbox, but the reason that the NRL wanted to bring this in was to get two days of bad press instead of months of it,’’ he said. ‘‘But it has not worked and it becomes like OJ Simpson with everyone bringing it up all the time.’’

The B-word rears its ugly head again

While on de Belin, the police’s phone intercept of his conversation with another NRL player highlights an issue that has existed in league for as long as I can remember: lack of respect for women.

The recording was played during de Belin’s sexual assault trial in Wollongong. When asked who had accused him of sexual assault, de Belin said: ‘‘Some little chick who was hanging around. So me, my mate went back to my cousin’s house. Just had a like f—ing bun, just like a typical f—ing standard bun. And then she’s never once said no, she’s changed position up. It baffles me she’s gone to police.’’

Many will remember Canterbury’s Coffs Harbour scandal in 2004. I fell out with Bulldogs management at the time, and more particularly the late Steve Folkes, when I quoted a Canterbury player saying: ‘‘Some of the boys love a bun. Gang bangs are nothing new to this club or the rugby league.’’

It appears not much has changed.

Shark scare at training

The dangers of off-season training were highlighted by the tragic death of Manly’s Keith Titmuss on November 22. In the same week that happened the Sharks had their own scare. An ambulance had to be called for half Braydon Trindall, who was unwell after a tough fitness session. Thankfully he was OK, but the Titmuss tragedy has clubs on high alert.

Promising Cronulla halfback Braydon Trindall.Credit:Getty

The Titmuss family want their son to be remembered and if clubs are now increasing their testing of players and exercising even greater caution, that’s a good thing. The Titmuss family has been amazed by the support they have received from Manly chief executive Stephen Humphreys and Sea Eagles owners the Penn family, who have done everything they can for them in the most difficult time.

Time will tell

Timing is the key to Brent Naden’s immediate playing future. The timing of when he used cocaine. If it was the night before the grand final he will get a minimal ban.

Naden, 24, has been stood down after being notified on Tuesday of a positive sample to metabolites of cocaine from a test taken after Penrith’s 26-20 loss to Melbourne.

Timing is also important for the Panthers. When they knew what Naden did is key. If they found out post-Mad Monday, they are without blame or concern. Any time before that and they will be facing serious questions.

My last interaction with Naden was at a Panthers media day in the lead-up to the grand final, where he spoke about the impact of the racial abuse he copped during the year and the incredible support he then received from people such as Adam Goodes and top NRL players.

There are other theories being put forward about why he went off the rails, outside of the racial abuse. COVID lockdown is one. The isolation from family led to more drinking and then drug use. I’ve been told he was with two people on the night when he used the drug.

Whatever the reason for his drug use, it’s unacceptable and hard to fathom he would do so before a grand final. That’s a worrying indication of his mental state. Let’s hope he gets the help he needs.

Filmmakers want to show the real Nick

He may not have played a match since February, but Nick Kyrgios remains a man in demand.

The 25-year-old has received a number of offers from major international filmmakers to follow his career for a fly-on-the-wall-style documentary in 2021.


Kyrgios is one of the most watched tennis players on the circuit and he is not afraid to tell people what he thinks.

What makes this even more intriguing is the filmmakers want to release the film immediately and not when he has retired, as is the case with so many other athletes, including Michael Jordan with The Last Dance.

Kyrgios has long been a TV ratings hit. His fourth-round match against Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open earlier this year was one of the most watched sporting events of the year. Film executives are confident this appeal will be box office gold.

Ace in the pack

Lleyton Hewitt is now the TV star in his family, and his role is only growing. Hewitt’s wife, Bec, was a big deal on the small screen – starring on Home and Away, among other TV shows – but now Lleyton is taking over. He is on the verge of signing a deal that will see him have an increased role in Channel Nine’s tennis coverage next year, including coverage of Wimbledon and the French Open, which have been secured by Nine.


Sounds of silence

The silence has been deafening from the Gold Coast Titans about the culture issues we highlighted last week. No official has stuck their head up to counter or dispute what we said – that the club was warned that Michael Gordon needed to be pulled into line by former coach Garth Brennan.

Gal starts blue

Paul Gallen is starting to make his mark as a commentator. The former Blues captain has put noses out of joint in the Blues hierarchy, though. He agreed with the claim that the Queensland side was the worst in 40 years. The opinion didn’t bother the Blues when he first said it, but they felt the comment from Gallen helped galvanise the Queensland side. Gallen is paid to give his views these days, so he won’t care. The Blues certainly didn’t lose because Gallen had his say. They lost because they didn’t fire when it mattered the most.

Lock and key

The old firm is very much back together at Manly. The lockers of skipper Daly Cherry-Evans and returning star Kieran Foran are next to each other. Youngster Josh Schuster has been told he is going to be the team’s No.6, so you have to think the locker placements are related to the pair being mates. At least that’s what Schuster would hope. His parents have already met with Manly to get assurances about his status at the club.

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NRL’s hands tied in rape case and so they should be

First, it’s absolutely crucial to maintain at the forefront of our reasoning the immutable principle, that a person is presumed innocent – and indeed remains so – until the opposite is proved to the criminal law standard. This remains the “golden thread” of our criminal justice system; it’s a rule whose importance is impossible to overstate.

When de Belin (with his co-accused) enters a Sydney courtroom four months from now, to again face serious criminal charges, he steps forth as an innocent man. Jack de Belin doesn’t get out of bed tomorrow; on Christmas Day; or next April, as “sort of” innocent or anything similar. Rather, he does so as AN. INNOCENT. MAN.

Jack de Belin departs the NSW District Court in Wollongong on Monday after a hung trial. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Section 141 of the Evidence Act in NSW roots in statute the principle that a court exercising criminal jurisdiction mustn’t find any prosecution case proved, unless the court is satisfied that the prosecution has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. Unless the prosecution can discharge this rightly heavy evidentiary burden, a person’s innocence of any criminal wrongdoing is preserved without any denigration.

It’s a hackneyed observation, that not a single thing which has happened up to this point detracts from the basic point that de Belin, and his co-accused, are presumed innocent of any criminal wrongdoing.

A long list of authoritative decisions of the High Court of Australia have persistently, and purposely, refused to wrap any further definitions, guidance notes or commentary around exactly what is meant by the words “beyond reasonable doubt”, other than to say that what’s a reasonable doubt isn’t confined to what’s a rational doubt, or even doubt founded only on a bedrock of reason. The words; they mean what they say.

At Jack de Belin’s retrial he isn’t required to prove, nor even say, anything; importantly, he has and enjoys the unmitigated benefit of doubt. Conversely, it’s the duty and responsibility of the Crown to prove criminal guilt, and in the absence of such proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution must always fail to make out its case. In any such circumstances, an accused person is entitled to an acquittal, with his (or her) innocence preserved, and intact.

‘The rules before the no-fault stand-down provisions were introduced skewed materially in favour of players and their right to play.’

It’s this very principle of innocence in the absence of proven guilt that is – to quote from the seminal UK House of Lords decision delivered by Viscount Sankey in 1935 – the “golden thread” of the criminal law, that’s always seen. That presumption of innocence is a cardinal principle of the system of justice in Australia. The principle is strict and immutable, and correctly so where matters of wrongful deprivation of liberty, and other grave injustices, are the consequence of any system more relaxed.

Therefore, unless and until at some future point it’s actually adjudged in court that the criminal charges levelled against de Belin are proved by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt he is, and remains, an innocent man.

But now, let’s return to the issue raised by de Belin’s counsel – a question of the reasonableness of the continued, concrete application of the NRL’s “no fault stand down” rule. Considering de Belin’s presumed innocence and the long path to justice that’s otherwise going to result in de Belin missing his third season opener in a row, should any relaxation of the strictness of the NRL’s rules be applied in the circumstances?

That de Belin was prohibited from playing in early 2019, under the NRL’s strengthened rules, has no effect in eroding his presumed innocence. That he then lost a Federal Court challenge, concerning the actual legality of those same rules, likewise doesn’t displace the fact that he is an innocent man.
It’s also noted that de Belin’s management team has foreshadowed the prospect of sitting down with the NRL, presumably for the purpose of exploring the prospect of whether the NRL’s rules might somehow be relaxed, given the procedural history of the case against the player. One suspects that conversation will be short, for the reasons that follow.

Jack de Belin has not played for the Dragons since 2018.

Jack de Belin has not played for the Dragons since 2018.Credit:NRL Photos

Basically, the NRL’s rule is relevantly written in such a way so that there’s actually no decisions which the NRL can, or is even able to take, about when the rule is activated for serious criminal matters. In cases criminal charges against players, which are as serious as those faced by de Belin, the NRL’s rule that operates to stand down the player triggers as an automatic guillotine. There’s no discretion for anyone to exercise.

The rule also says two important things. First, in cases where that guillotine drops without the NRL enjoying the discretion to activate it, the player has no right of appeal or review. Second, the rule expressly states that the automatically-imposed stand down is to remain in force until such time as the relevant criminal charges are either “determined”, or “withdrawn”.

As matters do stand, neither of those thresholds of finality have been reached; the NRL actually has no discretion in its own rules to relax its rules, nor decide that they won’t apply because of the procedural delays and the requirement for a retrial. Put another way, the NRL is hamstrung; unless it moves to change its own rules, there’s no prospect of that transpiring.

But what of the residual theoretical argument, that the NRL somehow should change its rules? Frankly, the rules in place in 2018 before the no-fault stand-down provisions were introduced, dealt with these sorts of serious matters in a manner skewed materially in favour of players and their continued right to play. That same system operated to the wicked detriment of the sport, the NRL’s good public name, and its various commercial interests.


Notwithstanding the potential for unfairness in the present case – and anyway, the rules aren’t about offering fairness to one affected individual – it must remain the case that the rules operate as currently in force. NRL players – who are charged with serious crimes involving violence, sex and female victims – must be automatically excluded from participation in the sport without judgment, pending the final outcome of the criminal proceedings.

And if you’re against me on that stance, explain to me what should be the outcome, if an NRL player is somehow allowed out on bail after being charged with murder? Should that player be allowed to play, until he faces a jury of his peers? Of course not.

But if those criminal proceedings involving that player meander on for years and then there’s a mistrial, what should the response of the game then be?

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Burton to join NRL’s Bulldogs from 2022

Penrith playmaker Matt Burton will follow Trent Barrett to Canterbury, but not until 2022 as the new coach continues his Bulldogs overhaul.

Burton will remain at the Panthers next season, the Bulldogs confirming the half’s three-year NRL deal from 2022 on Wednesday.

It continues former Penrith assistant Barrett’s Belmore restructure, with Burton set to partner Sydney Roosters recruit Kyle Flanagan.

“Having someone of Matt’s ability want to be part of what we are building here at Belmore is exciting for everyone involved at the club and all our members and fans,” Bulldogs CEO Andrew Hill said.

“Matt is a great talent and someone that was highly sought after, so we are delighted that he has chosen to join our club and be part of what we believe to be a new beginning for the Bulldogs.”

After a dominant performance in last year’s under-20 State of Origin he played just five games for the grand finalists this season, Jarome Luai establishing himself as the No.6 alongside halfback Nathan Cleary.

A Penrith statement on Wednesday described the 20-year-old’s deal as “significant” when accepting his decision.

“While we’re disappointed with this outcome, it’s important we respect Matt’s decision,” Panthers football boss Matt Cameron said.

“He gave particular consideration to a contract extension at Panthers before opting to continue his career at another club.”

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Rugby Australia must be careful not to become NRL’s poor cousin

For rugby, the victory is complicated. The annual broadcast revenue for the game is going to drop by a reported $20 to $24 million, depending on how much value is assigned to contra deals. Admittedly that figure is yet to include the northern hemisphere rights, but as it stands that’s 40 per cent less for players, coaches, everyone down to the grassroots (who will get 40 per cent short of diddly-squat). The ‘fantasy’ would have been for professional rugby to compete with the AFL and NRL. The reality is its continued progression towards pro-am status, with the most financially ambitious players trickling off to Japan and Europe. The quality of playing stocks is going to be stretched during the critical three years of the Nine-Stan deal, and Nine’s main code – league – will be singing its siren song to the most exciting young talent.

The best news is Nine’s promise to expose the code on free-to-air television. Behind the Fox Sports paywall, rugby’s viewership has dropped by 75 per cent since 2003 for both provincial and Wallabies games. Since 2015, audiences are down by 10 to 15 per cent each year. It’s likely that ‘free to air’ actually means a secondary Nine channel, such as Gem, which you only seem able to locate when you’re in a hotel, but still, it provides a degree of certainty and rugby fans can no longer blame the paywall for the game’s loss of popularity.

Credit:Illustration: Simon Letch

But at the same time, they can’t look to News Corp for coverage and publicity. The scorned suitor will drop the game like a stone.

Fundamentally, rugby’s challenge is the same now as it was before. In fact, now that there will be more rugby on free-to-air TV, the challenge is even more pressing. The game has simply got to become more attractive to watch. How does it do this? Not by parroting the diehards who tell the rest of us that we’re wrong, the game is awesome, and if only we watched more we would understand this.

Fact is, when you watch more, you get more referees stalling the action to watch video replays, more re-packing of scrums while the clock is running, more interminable rolling mauls, more pick-and-drives, more dropped ball, more aimless kicking, more of all the boring stuff that turned you off the game in the first place. In fairness, though, you also get more of those tantalising bursts of free-flowing play and matches of consequence that keep you on the hook.

How are the new broadcasters going to address the entertainment issue? There’s talk of drones and greater interactivity. OK, good. Union has been well served by its game-callers, but it would be nice if they could find expert former players who can comprehend, interpret and articulate the nuances of a complex sport that alienates an audience who can’t make head or tail of what’s going on out there. (It’s possible that such ex-players who are gifted commentators don’t actually exist.)

Red Bled redemption: The Wallabies celebrate in Brisbane.

Red Bled redemption: The Wallabies celebrate in Brisbane.Credit:Getty

No doubt the new broadcasters will repackage and pump up the game’s biggest asset, its international heft, and get the public to care more about the Wallabies. It helps that Australia play New Zealand so much, because even though the All Blacks are clearly sliding back to third or fourth in the world, many viewers can still be persuaded that they are No.1, and if the Wallabies can close the gap with the game’s greatest drawcards, it will feel like we’re getting back to the top.

This is all potentially exciting, but rugby, moving into its new home, will find that it has a very hostile flatmate who has the biggest bedroom and owns the fridge. Nine is the rugby league network. It is steeped in rugby league, it understands rugby league, and it has people who see winter sport through a rugby league-shaped prism. Rugby union will inevitably be judged in all the ways it differs from league. For example, rugby’s entertainment value is cluttered up by too many obscure rules. When this happens in the NRL, they just change the rules. They won’t be able to do this with rugby. Expect frustration.

Being the poor rugby relation in Nine’s house is an all-or-nothing play for Australian rugby. If it comes off, the game will prosper and the fantasy will indeed be real. On the other hand, if eyes accustomed to rugby league start looking at it closely, and its audience doesn’t increase, someone will begin to ask why a network should be funding two codes with so much in common, duplicating costs and achieving few economies of scale. And then someone asks why these two businesses can’t become one.


So the clock is ticking. The prospect of a code takeover in Australia, the professional branch of union being folded into the rugby league behemoth, is offensive to union loyalists and incomprehensible to those who see union as the superior global sport. But Australian rugby has not benefited from globalisation, and if you listen to Nine executives, they recognise that Stan is not Netflix and they are not operating a global business but a local one.

From a local-business point of view, unless union can justify itself over the next three years, the risks are great and the beautiful fantasy might eventually be seen as just that, a golden mirage.

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Canberra Raiders five-eighth Jack Wighton wins NRL’s Dally M Medal

Canberra five-eighth Jack Wighton has won the NRL’s Dally M Medal, becoming the first Raider to claim the honour in 25 years.

Wighton polled 26 votes across the 20 rounds of the minor premiership to finish ahead of Parramatta’s Clint Gutherson (25 votes) and Penrith’s Nathan Cleary (24).

Laurie Daley was the last Raiders player to win the award back in 1995.

Among the other awards announced as part of the virtual ceremony was the NRLW’s Dally M Medal, which went to Brisbane’s Ali Brigginshaw.

Penrith’s Ivan Cleary was named Coach of the Year and Wests Tigers’ Harry Grant was crowned Rookie of the Year.

More to come.

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Nothing the Melbourne Storm throw at the Canberra Raiders will break them in the NRL’s preliminary finals

It seemed like a solid plan when it was put it forward to the NRL weeks ago: instead of spending an afternoon on a bus or a plane mere hours before kick-off, teams would travel to whichever city was hosting a finals game in the morning, before spending a few hours in the afternoon resting up at a hotel.

The idea was to look after the players as much as is practically possible in a fly-in-play-fly-out COVID-19 world, and reap the benefits with the improved performances the players would provide on the field. And at finals time, that’s what you want — the best players in the best teams playing the best football of the year to decide a champion.

The plan worked a treat for the Canberra Raiders before last Friday night’s semi-final against the Roosters in Sydney.

Instead of being in transit late in the day, they rested up through the afternoon and arrived at the Sydney Cricket Ground relaxed and ready to end the reigning premiers’ tilt at a third-straight title.

They won 22-18.

Now, the Raiders are onto the next job — a preliminary final against the Melbourne Storm, which will be played tonight.

Of course, the game won’t be played in Melbourne, but in Brisbane — the Storm exiled themselves there in July, hours before Victoria pulled the gate closed on the bridge over the Murray River.

Their plan to make the Sunshine State home was approved by the Queensland Government, and covered travel to any potential finals games anywhere.

The Melbourne Storm played to a sell-out crowd of 6,000 fans for their first home game at the Sunshine Coast Stadium following their COVID-19-related move.(Supplied: NRL Photos)

Weeks ago, coach Ricky Stuart and the Raiders submitted a plan to rest up in a Brisbane hotel for a few hours ahead of a game, as they did in Sydney.

They couldn’t praise the NRL enough for the lengths they went to, to get the Queensland Government onside — but the approval never came.

Instead, what arrived at the eleventh hour was a lengthy process of steps to be documented, completed, verified, and signed off, and all with a two-hour deadline.

The plan was dead in the water.

Stuart described the saga as “typical of the Queensland Government at the moment” but insists they won’t let the late change to their travel plans ruin their game-day preparation.

“It won’t affect us. It hasn’t all year, and it’s just another punch in the head that we’ve copped in the week leading up to a game,” he said.

‘If we can play the Raiders way, we’re a very difficult game to play against’

An NRL coach stares at the camera while wearing a parka.
Ricky Stuart says the changed travel plans are “just another punch in the head that we’ve copped in the week leading up to a game”.(AAP: Rohan Thomson)

With the Roosters now several days into their off-season, the Raiders have had a light week in readiness for the Storm. But a light week doesn’t preclude the necessary details.

“I said it before last week’s game, if we can play the Raiders way, if we can play our style of football, we’re a very, very difficult game to play against.”

The Storm know exactly how difficult. They’re a side Canberra have beaten three times in Melbourne in the past 18 months, including last year’s semi-final. The Storm still may not have worked out how John Bateman scooted through to score the 78th minute match-winner.

Yet as good as the Raiders’ recent record over the Storm is, they trail in pretty much every measure on the NRL stats table in 2020.

They’ve not scored as many tries or points as Melbourne, and they’ve conceded more as well. They don’t make as many line breaks, and they aren’t as effective from dummy half. They make more tackles per game, but they miss more, too. And the Storm do make more tackle busts.

An NRL player evades a tackle to run in and score a try in a final.
John Bateman of the Raiders scores a try during the NRL Second Qualifying match between the Melbourne Storm and the Canberra Raiders at AAMI Park on September 14, 2019.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

But lifelong Raiders fans will tell you the Storm just don’t hold the same fear for the Raiders anymore. Maybe not even as much as the Roosters have done for years.

“No-one in the league has that record against the Melbourne Storm. It’s quite remarkable,” Blake Budak, one half of the weekly Raiders Review podcast, said.

“We’ve got the team to beat them, too, because you need to play a bit off the cuff. You need to have players, like Joey Tapine scoring that try last week, or John Bateman with the unpredictable stuff, because if you try and play predictable football going out wide, their defence is too good.

Budak’s podcast, which he creates in the storeroom of his Canberra city record store along with ABC Grandstand sideline commentator Tim Gore, claims to be rated as high as the third-most popular of all the weekly Raiders podcasts.

A rugby league player walks off squinting out of one eye as he raises his hand to his face.
The Raiders have beaten the Storm three times in Melbourne in the last 18 months, including last year’s semi-final.(AAP: Scott Barbour)

He feels that’s the perfect platform from which to speak confidently about the Raiders’ march to a second-straight grand final. Well, confident-ish. Hopeful, certainly.

“As a Raiders fan, I’ve ridden so many ups and downs over the years, so you’re never go in too confidently,” he said.

“Even as good as we played against the Roosters, we only hung on in the end. And if we lost, then you’d have to say the better side lost.

“So, yeah. Cautiously optimistic, but fingers crossed. I’m sure we can do it.”

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The NRL’s top eight is set, but the Roosters, Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm are heavy favourites

The NRL’s top eight is locked in, which means we can already start to look forward to a finals series that’s going to be packed with some really big games of football.

Looking at the eight, there are probably three or maybe four teams that can really stake their claims for winning the competition, with another two an outside chance.

Penrith, the Roosters and Melbourne are the three main teams in the box seat, with both the Panthers and the Roosters both possibly benefiting from not having to travel too much, which will have an impact, but not as much as getting a week off by winning their first semi-final.

Getting that week’s rest will go a long way in your favour of winning the competition this year, simply because nobody has had a break at all this year.


We know the semi-finals will be super high intensity because of the crazy speeds and intense play we’ve seen week-in, week-out so far this season.

The semi-finals are going to be very fast and if you can win the first week and get that week off, that’ll give you every chance the following week.

If you have to play every final all the way through, I think you’ll be too burnt out by the time the grand final comes around.

At the moment, Canberra are the only team outside the current top four that can really be in the discussion, with the possible addition of South Sydney.


The way Souths have been playing, especially their attack, they can certainly trouble any team in the competition if they get it right — and they’re getting it more right than wrong in the past few weeks.

They’ve probably been able to afford switching off here and there — like they did against the Tigers on Thursday — but they won’t be able to do that from here on out. They’ve got the DNA in that squad to really trouble teams.

In fact, at the moment I’d probably put both Souths and Canberra ahead of Parramatta, who are slowly declining and going backwards.

I don’t know if they’ve got the belief to get back and play the type of football they were playing earlier in the year — but while they’re still in the top four, they’re a chance.

Coaches tread fine line in managing players 

Fatigue is going to play a major role in the finals, and the top three teams have managed that in different ways.

Craig Bellamy is doing a pretty good job of rotating his Storm players, who have been able to sit games out with some niggling injuries.


He gave Ryan Papenhuyzen a bit of a break on the weekend, and Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith had a couple of days off during the week so they’ll stay fresh. Dale Finucane has been out for a couple of weeks too.

Bellamy has had that luxury of having a few players pick up minor injuries just bad enough for them to need a rest but, at the same time, his team has kept winning games. The Roosters are the same, while Parramatta have looked fatigued in playing their stars week-in, week-out.

Canberra are different again. They have a bunch of tough, resilient blokes and are playing some good footy.

They’ve also had a couple of injuries, and those players are close to coming back, but there is a risk that those players will have been out for too long and will be lacking match fitness. It’s a tough balance to strike.

The Canberra side is playing tough, solid footy — but the Raiders will face important selection decisions soon.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

The Panthers are in a bit of a different situation to some of the other teams though.

Their players are saying they don’t want to have a rest — and Ivan Cleary’s been letting them play.

They’re super energised, enthusiastic and, most importantly, winning.

As a player, when you’re in a team that’s winning every week like the Panthers, you don’t want to sit out. First, you don’t know if you’ll get your position back. Second, you don’t want to miss out on the work that you’ve put in as a team to be in that position.

The Sharks were very similar back in 2016 when we won the competition. Nobody wanted to take a weekend off and Shane Flanagan didn’t rest any of us, he just let us play.

Most sides will be feeling OK heading into the semi-finals, but if they can win that game, get a week off and have a really good rest, it will certainly go a huge way to helping them win the competition.

Sonny Bill a powerful addition, but absent Rooster could prove vital

It was a really good decision for Boyd Cordner to sit the rest of the Roosters-Knights game out after being taken off for all sorts of reasons, despite him passing his HIA.

A Sydney Roosters NRL player bows his head during a minute's silence before the match against Newcastle.
The Roosters made the right call to give Boyd Cordner an early mark against the Knights after a tough week.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Cordner had an incredibly emotional week and although he got out there for long enough to blow out a few cobwebs, it was a good call from an emotional point of view as much as a physical one.

He’s a big-game player. He’ll be right to go next week and for the semi-finals as well.

It also gave a couple of returning players, such as Sonny Bill Williams and Mitchell Aubusson, a bit more game time.

Williams, in particular, benefited from the extra time on the field and, the way he’s going, he’ll be a major threat come finals.

He’s gone from playing 12 minutes one week, to 37 minutes the following week.

Williams admitted when he spoke to ABC Grandstand after the match that last week had been a bit of a “punch in the face” because he didn’t understand how fast the game had got in his absence, but he didn’t miss a beat on Saturday.

He was very involved and got off a good pass that led to a try for James Tedesco just before half-time. He had a couple of nice carries, a couple of half-breaks, some nice offloads, and he got involved in his tackling. He’d have had some fatigue in his legs, but with two more games before semi-finals, he’ll be fine.

Having Williams come in is definitely a plus for the Roosters, just in the number of big games he’s played in and what he can offer. They’re coming in as favourites because of that, but I still think they’re going to miss Victor Radley.

I think he’s a massive part of that side. With the way that he can attack with his defence and the ball movement that he gets through the middle for that team, he’ll be massively missed.

Write off Penrith at your peril

Matthew Elliott has been winding me up on ABC Grandstand by saying Penrith are not favourites for the competition.

But sometimes when people keep writing you off, it gives you the motivation to keep proving everyone wrong.

I was lucky enough to live through that same thing in 2003, when we had a really good year but nobody gave us a chance.

We won the minor premiership but there was always talk that our defence wasn’t good enough to win the competition.

We beat the Broncos in the first semi at Penrith, but apparently we didn’t start well enough so that meant we couldn’t win the next game.

So we went and beat the Warriors and then the talk turned to the fact that we’d had a great year but now we’ll get pumped by the Roosters.

So we got out in the Roosters game, played our best defensive game of the season, won the match 18-6 and, with it, the Premiership.

Everyone kept writing us off but that gave us the hunger, drive and the motivation to keep playing with a smile on our face.

The more you compare that team to the Panthers at the moment, the more it looks similar. No-one is giving them a chance but they keep proving them wrong.

A Penrith NRL player dives in the air holding the ball with his right hand as he attempts to score a try while being tackled.
You can’t argue with success, and the Panthers are doing everything right at the moment.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

Penrith are playing the best footy at the moment.

They’ve just got to realise that they’re doing everything right, but they’ve got to be able to do it for a longer period of time and at a higher intensity when it comes to the semi-final.

They’ve got the players there to do that, they’ve got the skill to do that, and they’ve got the defensive patterns there to do that.

Everything is already there, they’ve just got to be able to go that extra 10 per cent harder and that 5 or 10 per cent longer than what they’ve been doing normally, because that’s what it will take to win a premiership.

Luke Lewis was speaking to ABC News Digital’s Simon Smale.

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NRL’s future plans for NRLW players mapped out

“It is something I believe will happen,” Apps said. “The more support we get, the more opportunities we get to train, to be coached by the best coaches … we do a really good job with what we are given.”

“If we were full time, imagine the game we could play and the product we could produce.”

The NRL announced in July it would fund the 2020 NRLW season for the first time, after the Warriors and the Roosters indicated they would not be able to participate in this year’s competition due to the financial impact of COVID-19.

The financial backing came despite the NRL undergoing a number of cost-cutting measures to save around $80 million a year.

“All the effort that has been put into women’s rugby league … ensuring that continued to grow in 2020 was vital as soon as we started working through what the impact of coronavirus would mean,” Slater said.

Apps said the NRL’s financial backing of the NRLW through an unstable period was a welcome development and a credit to the early pioneers of women’s rugby league.

“With everything that they [the NRL] have gone through COVID-19, people lost their jobs, people had to be put on hold … for them to agree and give us that confidence that they were going to do everything that they could possible so we can get our competition up and running, that was really nice to hear that,” she said.

Prior to COVID-19, the 2020 NRLW season was set to be a year of expansion. The game currently runs with just four clubs, who play in a round-robin competition. There is also one standalone Origin game.

This year’s theme of the Women in League round is ‘From Strength to Strength’, a fitting sentiment for 2020 according to Kezie Apps (left) and Tiffany Slater.Credit:NRL Photos

“It has been hard because we were hoping for an expansion this year because the growth has been amazing for women in sport,” Apps said. “We haven’t taken a step back, but this could have been the year that we took a couple of steps forward.”

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said more and more female-led roles and opportunities have resulted in a shift, with more than a million women now involved across all aspects of the game.

The television ad for the Women in League round, which has a theme of ‘Strength to Strength‘ this year, will be launched on Monday.

The ad focuses on some of the achievements of women in league over the past 14 years, on and off the field. They include Apps helping the Blues to a first State of Origin win in 2018, the work of Kris Buderus and Kirralee Hughes in driving the NRL Beanies for Brain Cancer Round, and the disability grassroots programs built by Gold Coast Titans community general manager Renee Cohen.

Abdo also praised Harvey Norman chief executive Katie Page for forging the Women in League round concept.


“If we’re talking about the strength and stature of women involved in rugby league, Katie is the ultimate role model and trailblazer for thousands of girls and women that have gone on to live out their dreams as part of our game,” Abdo said. “It [the NRLW] will be one of the highlights of a challenging year.”

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