Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The 'Mark It Down' NRL Season Preview

Well folks it's that time of year again, the beginning of the NRL season so I thought I'd share with you my vision for the season ahead. You're all very lucky and I'll tell you why. Back in October 1991 my then housemate and I were experimenting with chili's. We were making a chili con carne, using way too many habaneros. After throwing caution to the wind and consuming a bowl next thing I knew I had been transported to October 2012, where I didn't think to write down any Lottery numbers but while there I did make note of the Rugby League ladder for the season just completed. Back in 1991 there were no teams from North Queensland or New Zealand or Melbourne so imagine my surprise to read their names as I scanned the results, and I was shocked to see no Norths, and that Wests and Balmain had merged, as had St George and Illawarra. On returning to the present I filed away the information I had recorded whilst in the future and now here in 2012 I have opened up the vault and now that I have completed placing all my bets for the season, am now prepared to share with everyone what I know.

So here they are sports fans, my vision from the future here now in the present....Once you have read this I suggest you start contacting your bookies.....

                                                        Brisbane Broncos

The Broncs will have to face up to life without Darren Lockyer pretty quickly if they are to be any hope, not only for the crown but also to show the rest of the rugby league world they are not just one-trick ponies. Although with almost the entire state of Queensland to acquire talented youth, and gnarly old veterans like Hodges and Thaiday chances are they will go alright. Top 8 will be a minimum but if they haven't won by round 5 look for a return of the Messiah on a token contract, ratified by the league. My Prediction: 6th

                                                         Canberra Raiders

Canberra Raiders were once the best club in the league filled to the brim of International Superstars. But that was 20 years ago and since the greatest ever Raider Ric Stuart left for less Greener jerseys, it's been a big slide back to the ordinary team they were back in their formative years. Their star these days is Terry Campese, a bloke who played a whole 11 minutes for the entire 2011 season. If he can get past 12 minutes in this game the Faiders will think they are a chance at winning the comp. They do have an up and coming star in Josh Duggan, but his apparent 'Big head' and penchant for tattoos will ensure he spends most of the season in pain from all the tattooists needles and beatings from annoyed locals. My Prediction:11th

                                  Canterbury Bulldogs

Have been major disappointments to their fans the last couple of years, which is good news for everyone else because generally Canterbury fans are the worst in the league, just ask CityRail maintenance staff. The acquisition of last years premiership winning coach Des Hasler won't change much this year although it will bring improvement, albeit slight. No real star players I can think of although Ben Barba will probably top the tryscorers list. Look for them in 2013 when Des can bring all the manly players over. My Prediction:9th

                                       Cronulla Sharks

The long suffering fans of the competitions least successful club ever have reason to believe they will come out of the doldrums this year on the strength of Todd 'Schooners' Carney's arrival in the shire. It's a 50/50 chance he'll either fly high or crash and burn. He at least has the advantage of not having the Daily Telecrap stalking his every move like last season. But despite having 'Schooners' and the born again saviour of NSW football Paul Gallen, the old saying, 'You can't polish a turd' rings true here. Hurry up and die you sad club. My Prediction:12th

      Eastern Suburbs District Rugby League Football Club           

                         Sydney Roosters (as registered with NSWRL)

The proudest, greatest and longest serving club in the NRL had an underwhelming season last year after being beaten Grand Finalists the year before. The major reasons for last years fall from grace have now been removed from the club and a new generation featuring the youngest squad in the NRL, with only 3 players over the age of 25, has a chance to show their wares and do this great club proud. Led ably by former Captain of the year Braith Anasta, the atrocities and big headed arrogance of certain players will be a thing of the past. A decent season will see finals football, but the reliance on youth will become too much at the later end of the season. Watch for TauTau Moga in the centres. An 18yo kid the size of Mal Meninga, if Mal Meninga was bigger! My Prediction:7th

The legendary Captain Charger, former Gold Coast mascot.

                                       Gold Coast Titans

Last years wooden spooners Gold Coast have decided to recruit every bad-ass and miscreant they could get their hands on. They made a play for Todd 'Schooners' Carney but missed out. So with every other party animal in the NRL now residing on the glitter strip, expect the Tits to start the slow descent into the realms haunted by their predecessors the Gold Coast Giants/Seagulls/Chargers. Which makes me think I really miss Captain Charger, the greatest mascot in NRL history. Did you know he used to put socks in the front of his undies and golf balls in the back? Sorry I digress, but talking about Captain Charger is way more interesting than talking about this mob. Watch the fickle Coastie crowds dwindle as the losses pile up too. Not one sporting team of any code has succeeded on the Gold Coast long term, something to think about.  My Prediction:15th

                                Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Deserved premiers in 2011 the club started to implode not long after leaving the presentation, much to the joy of most rugby league fans, who have always loved to hate the team from the Insular Peninsular. It all began with the sacking of club Godfather Peter 'Zorba' Peters, and culminated with the loss of coaching staff including Noel Cleal and head coach Des Hasler to Canterbury. Fortunately for them the crux of the playing roster has remained and new coach Geoff Toovey probably spent more time on the field last season than most players anyway, and should know exactly what to do. Won't win it, but still top 4. Watch for the Stewart brothers to be obnoxious twits.  My Prediction:3rd

                                        Melbourne Storm

Remember the movie in the 80's Stand and Deliver? Based on the true story of maths teacher at Garfield high Mr Escalante, who took a class filled with rogues, miscreants and the general worst of society and helped them succeed and get to college, when truth is in the real world they cheated their way through. Well Craig Bellamy reminds me of Mr Escalante, he knew it was only cheating if you lose, if you cheat and win you are savvy, and if you are caught, deny responsibility and offer the excuse "I misinterpreted the rules". Cam Smith, Billy Slater and co have learnt well from Coach Escalante and get away with plenty as they are from an under-privileged rugby league area. This situation will continue in order to keep the Storm competitive and therefore continue to garner small amounts of interest in the AFL state. 'How do I reach these Kidzzz?' My Prediction:4th

                                        Newcastle Knights

From the aging Excalibur club to the incredibly aged Knights Nanna's, fans of Lord Tinklers plaything honestly believe they are going to win the comp this year, solely on the strength of new coach Wayne Bennett's arrival from St Merge. While Mr Bennett has an unenviable record as a head coach in the NRL, he is not Jesus Christ performing miracles, he is an experienced coach taking over a team of solid scrappers with a superstar winger and a fullback he brought with him, and teams whose best player is on the wing do not win titles. Purchasing old club legends for a last hurrah may be fun and fulfilling for Billionaire owners but it won't bring joy to the fans. With a bunch of old boys now also running the front office it's hard to see anything but trouble ahead. The real interest is in how long it takes for Wayne and Tinks to fall out over players. Tinks does love to sack coaches and trainers.  My Prediction:8th

                                   New Zealand Warriors

Last seasons losing Grand Finalists may have lost their coach, but this will turn out to be a blessing as virtually the same roster, plus the inclusion of some incredible talent from their Youth team and a local successful and respected new coach will go one better this year and take out the trophy. The only lingering issue that could stop them is the mind of the man who more than any other took them to the heights of last year, James Maloney. Homesick and already signed with another club for 2013, how he copes with one last year in the Shakey Isles will determine their hopes. My Prediction:1st

                               North Queensland Cowboys

With a squad of solid players rounded out with superstar Jonathon Thurston they are destined to go at least as far as 2011 if not further. Thurston had a sensational year last year and there seems no reason he won't do the same this year as he is doing well at staying out of trouble. Tariq Sims is another future star and the ageless Matt Bowen at the back playing without injury means they'll be hard to contain. Injury is their main demon, and Thurston and Bowen have been victims in the past. Will roll along quietly and will surprise many, without exactly exciting anyone. My Prediction:5th

                                       Parramatta Eels

Perennial underachievers for over 60 years with one golden era to their name. Between this mob and Penrith, no wonder the AFL believe the West of Sydney is ripe for the picking. Victims in recent seasons of poor recruiting (see Carl Webb, Paul Whatuira, Chris Walker et al) and total reliance on the Hayne Train. At least this year they have bought a quality yet enigmatic half in Chris Sandow, they have a swag of injuries from the trials and a really ordinalry playing roster. Expect nothing from them and you won't be disappointed with their position at the end of the season. My Prediction:13th

                                      Penrith Panthers

Penrith have a lot of flaws. Boring to watch and even read about, have always had the ugliest jerseys, failures for the majority of their history, come from the mountains and you know what they say about mountain folk. Phil Gould has become a sad parody of himself in recent years and will continue to embarrass the club and the league in the push for the hearts and wallets of the people of Western Sydney. Their players are crap and their prospects even more so. I would rather an Adam Sandler movie than this pack of losers. My Prediction:14th

                                 South Sydney Rabbitohs 

The perennial March champions have once again talked up their chances but this year they have one ace up their sleeve that has been missing every year since about 1989. They actually have a young progressive coach with a good CV showing success at the highest level in England. The fact he has already told owner Russell Crowe to but out is also a good sign. I can see them going on a decent run after they lose their first couple of games, then just as their long suffering and deluded faithful start to print up T shirts to celebrate making the finals, salary cap auditor and Rooster legend Ian Schubert will discover anomalies in the Rabbitohs salary cap and the ensuing breach notice being upheld will claim any points accrued during the season, consigning the club to its 9th Wooden Spoon and further shame. My Prediction:16th 

                               St George/Illawarra Steelers

A club that is entering it's fourteenth season, with one title that was gifted to them by officials with a string of dodgy calls throughout the season, yet the Woolongong power base continue to try and cash in on the past history of their club partner. Fact is they are now without the messianic influence of Wayne Bennett, and are now coached by a radio shock jock for all we know, with a bunch of old and over-rated players no other club would take they are the anonymous team with little appeal. The slide in the fortunes of this young club will commence now. My Prediction:10th

                                           Wests Tigers 

Now they have all but removed those pesky Wests Magpie types from the club, the way has been paved to go back to the name Balmain in the near future, promising a better chance of success in the minds of the big wigs out Leichardt way, seeing as Wests have hardly been shining lights over the league's history. Truth is Balmain has always been synonymous with mediocrity and long term that is where this club is destined to be entrenched. But for now they have a chance to add to the title they fluked back when Touch Footy rules applied with their gun Benji at the peak of his powers back in 2005. They'll be thereabouts again, but I just don't see them having the mental strength or actual talent to take the big prize. My Prediction:2nd

So there you have it folks, my unbiased opinion on how the season will end up based on my chili time travel experience.Of course if the season doesn't pan out as I predict, put the whole experience down to being just a dream.. If you have for any reason taken offense at my predictions for your team, I'm sorry you support a reprehensible club. You should start following the Roosters..... :)

Good luck in your respective Tipping Comps and Fantasy Leagues and remember on Grand Final day to shout out "Easts To Win!" Just like the great Ray Stehr did.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Speedway '77 - The Cost Of Racing.

In a previous post I discussed the history of Newcastle International Motordrome, particularly 1977, the first season under the N.I.M moniker and first season of Peter Gurbriel's successful promotion of the venue. During this time my father, Brian Burrell was having one of his most successful periods during his sedan racing career. His mother Mary, (my Nan) was also at her peak with regards to record keeping. I recently found a page in a book with a list she had made of racing expenses for the months of January and February 1977. Before I get to those I thought I'd start by running briefly through the meetings he raced in during those 2 months, and the prizemoney he won. I have run through most of these meetings in more detail in my post on the 35th Anniversary of the Motordrome so I won't go into too much depth here.

The first meeting for January 1977 was held on the 8th, Round 1 of the Fireball Derby. Brian at the time was running 2 Mini's. A Supercharged Clubman he had been racing for the previous 2 seasons, and the Silver Clubman formerly owned and raced by Peter Graham at Liverpool. This was the first meeting for the Silver Mini and he duly won the feature, picking up $160 along the way. The following Saturday, the 15th January was round 2 of the Fireball Derby and although he didn't win on the night was announced joint overall winner with Don McEwen and in doing so secured a lovely trophy and $180 cash.

Brian Burrell, Bob Christie & Don McEwen after the Fireball Derby
Then came a big weekend, Friday 21st January the Newcastle Motordrome played host to the visiting USA team of Welsh, Wilbur, Andretta and Pearson. The no hanky panky Yankees were too good for the local team of Butcher, Burrell, Ranger and McKew to the tune of 42 to 36.The drivers received $150 each for their efforts, and to end the night Brian finished 3rd in the feature behind Alan Butcher and Paul McKew, picking up another $50 for his trouble. Saturday the 22nd January saw the action shift to Heddon Greta Speedway for the annual Don Easter Memorial Trophy meeting. This time Brian was back running the Supercharge Blue and White Mini. He picked up $10 for winning a heat, then by finishing 2nd in the feature to local champ Charlie McGarva took home another trophy and a cool $100. Then on Saturday 29th January 1977 was the running of the 50 lap Wynns Enduro. Brian won his heat and led the feature until with 3 laps to go he suffered a flat rear tyre, struggling on to finish 5th. For his efforts at this meeting he received $100 in total.

Top: Heddon Greta's Charlie McGarva. Below: Brian Burrell.

February saw plenty of action and travel too, starting with Goulburn's annual Lilac City 50 lap challenge. This meeting attracted drivers from all over NSW and after Brian finished 1st in heat 1, he then finished just behind Bob Christie in his 2nd heat and then chased the local champ Christie for the whole 50 laps of the Classic, coming 2nd and picking up $300, a tidy sum making the trip worthwhile. The following Friday we were back to the Motordrome for the 2nd Test against the Yanks. Peter Gurbriel was obviously feeling benevolent towards his drivers as the big crowds flocked in, paying them all $250 this time around, up $100 on the opening Test. Australia beat the Yanks 45 to 34 well and truly earning their extra pay. Then to round out the month of February Brian raced the following night at Heddon Greta in the Northern NSW Championships, this time back in the Supercharged Mini. After finishing 2nd in both his heats he encountered engine trouble and failed to take his place in the field, meaning for the first time during this hectic period he picked up no prizemaoney. So in 8 meetings during January and February 1977 Brian Burrell won a total of $1300. Not too shabby for 1977.
Action during the 1977 USA v  Aust tests.

So now to the dreaded expense side of the ledger. To start with, Brian's cars were always immaculate. His father and mechanic Carr Burrell was almost obsessive about his cars and even carried a tube of Glow Polish and a rag in his pocket at  all times so it's no surprise the bulk of the costs went on painting and signwriting expenses. Here's a rundown.

Painting, Signwriting and Panel Repairs (Silver Mini):              $140.00
Painting and Signwriting (Blue Mini):                                       $25.00
Sunnyside Smash Repairs:                                                      $50.00
Tyres for both Minis                                                               $138.00
Dyno Tune and Head repairs at Precision Auto Conversions:   $56.00
Radiator Repairs and Brake Shoes:                                         $45.00
General Bolts and hoses:                                                         $13.90
1 night accommodation at Goulburn (2 rooms):                        $61.00

For a Grand Total of                                                              $528.90

So there you have it. A total profit of $771.10 after 8 meetings at 3 tracks in 2 months. He also sold one of his race engines for $1200.00 on top of his prizemoney earned. Plus a whole heap of fun and memories for all of us members of the family that have endured. Oh of course and some nice trophys that to this day sit in the shed overlooking the stable of Mini's he's collected over the years. I hope everyone found this interesting and stirs up memories of your own from a golden era of Speedway in NSW...

Another victory for the mighty Brick.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Hey everybody the Rugby League's about to Kick Off!!!!

As a kid growing up the time of the year that I looked forward to the most was the commencement of trial games for the upcoming Rugby League season. Even though back then Cricket was at the forefront of my mind during Summer, in the back of my young brain was the knowledge Rugby League season was around the corner, and really cricket was just filling in time until League season.

Due to my desire for sporting news I started reading newspapers quite young. Every Friday during League season I would also get the Rugby League Week and Big League magazines, but during the off season only the RLW Summer Special was available in mid December, not enough to keep up with my insatiable thirst for Rugby League knowledge. So I needed the Sunday papers particularly as there was often a page or 2 of RL stories to pore over to help tide me over until the season approached. Then all of a sudden the trial games would appear and the pre-season Wills Cup would kick off, a knockout competition played over a couple of weeends. Now was the time to see the new players my club (Easts if you didn't know) had purchased in the off season, and also gauge the strength of our opposition.  It was exciting because you knew Round 1 was only 4 weeks away, and now was also the time to dream of premiership glory, of arguing with your friends over who's team was better this year and to map out the season draw and highlight the big games you're looking forward to the most, the grudge match against the hated neighbours Souths being top of the list.

1976 Wills Cup pre season final winners Eastern Suburbs.
Then finally the day would come, season kick off. The morning would be spent reading the Sunday papers for any late news, and waiting until 11am when Controversy Corner would start on Sevens World of Sport. Ferris Ashton, Noel Kelly, Alan Clarkson, Col Pearce and a special guest on a panel chaired by the incomparable Rex Mossop would debate about the issues and give their opinions on who'll win. Then at 3pm I would spend that and subsequently every Sunday for the next 22 weeks listening to a scratchy radio broadcast of the match of the day. Listening through the static for updates from around the grounds,hoping Easts had scored since the last update, and running around the room cursing because their opponents had scored instead.

The Controversy Corner team; Clarkson, Mossop, Ashton & Kelly

Now as the Indigenous All Stars game nears, and with a few clubs already having played trials it's that time of the year again. Although, like everything as you get older and you are pondering the past, it's just not the same these days. That's not to say though that it's worse, it's just different. Nowadays with the Tri Nations International series being played after the Grand Final each year, it doesn't really seem as long between seasons anymore. Back then it was every 4 years the Kangaroo tour to Britain and France would be on during the Summer but that was it, every 4 years. Also the pre-season competition is long gone, left behind with cigarette advertising, star players working at their club as 'cellarmen' and Rex Mossop's 'Pass the Ball' competition. As well now I don't have to pore over the season draw to see when Easts played Souths. I know every year now, Round 1, Easts v Souths. This is good and bad. When I am not expecting a good season and I keep reading every off season how this is finally Souths year, it does build some nervous anticipation, as I recall growing up far more losses to Souths than wins but thankfully as an adult it has all turned around with us rarely losing, and Souths are March champions every year who invariably fail to flatter so if Souths do manage a rare win it doesn't hurt for as long, but it does tend to give a good idea of how our season will end up. Also thanks to Foxtel, it's rare 2 games are played at the same time, with most games now shown live spread over 4 days instead of a game on Saturday afternoon and the rest at 3pm Sunday, no night games.

Frank-Paul the Wrecking ball scores against Souths Rd 1, 2011

Also as I have stated in a previous post, back then the players were men and were heroes to a young boy. Now they are younger than the boy it is impossible to see them as heroes, only football players. But I'm still almost as excited as when I was a kid. Now I spend these weeks getting my Fantasy team together and joining various tipping comps, something that didn't exist as a kid in the 70's and 80's.

The countdown to March 1st is on, with game day for the Roosters March 5th. Every day between now and then I will get a little more excited, and I'll walk past my photo of the 'Roosters Team of the Century' dreaming of glory in October and proudly announcing 'Easts To Win'....

Good luck to everyone this season.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

So, Why Do I Do It???

I've spoken before about my passion as a fan of a football team, and how this has affected me personally throughout my life. How my moods are usually in direct correlation with my teams fortunes that week and how generally the course my life takes reflects on how well my particular teams are travelling. Well over the past few weeks I have travelled from Newcastle to Gold Coast, Gosford, Melbourne and Brisbane to support the Jets, and at these games I usually see the same few Jets fans milling about in the away fans area. In fact last week in Brisbane I met this young bloke who looked about 20, who I had seen at other away games in the past, who told me he goes to every game! Now I go to a lot but I tend to stick to all the East coast games. This guy said he works all week and on weekends he spends his money travelling the country following his team. I was so impressed by this blokes dedication to the club he loves.

So this got me thinking as to the monetary cost involved for me to follow my team, the Newcastle Jets, to the extent that I have chosen.
Opening night of A League, Jets v Adelaide, 26 Aug 2005.

 Since that very first A League game back on August 26, 2005. When the Jets went down at home to Adelaide United 1-0, I have only missed 2 home fixtures out of 73 games played not including this current season. One of those was in season 3 when Steely Dan played at Bimbagen Estate, a band I had waited to see for over 20 years. The other was in season 6 when I was trapped in the Queensland floods whilst trying to get to the airport to return to Newcastle for a derby game against the Mariners. In the first couple of seasons I mainly stuck to home games plus trips to Central Coast and Sydney, but from season 3 on I started branching out to the Melbourne and Queensland games too. Season 5 of the A League, 2009/2010 also incorporated the Asian Champions League for the first time for the Newcastle Jets. A home and away series between clubs from China, South Korea and Japan was scheduled before the commencement of season 5. This is when I decided to take advantage of the situation and use the ACL as an excuse to travel. So in March 2009 I was on a plane to Beijing  with my cousin Kyel and my friend Natalie. The experience of being one of the few supporters in gold at the Workers Stadium filled with over 30,000 screaming Beijing Guoan supporters decked in green was an experience I'll never forget, at least until dementia sets in! On the way to the ground we couldn't go 10 metres without being stopped by smiling Beijing fans wanting a photo with us.
On the way to Workers Stadium, Beijing
 On a bitterly cold night we cheered and yelled ourselves hoarse (or at least I did) but it was to no avail as we were beaten soundly 2-0. With the first goal coming from a former Newcastle United player, Ryan Griffiths, who is now back playing for the Jets currently. As we trudged out of the stadium, me solemnly blowing my recently purchased Vuvuzela in a low sad tone, we were commiserated by all the surrounding Beijing fans, in a show of sportsmanship that was fantastic to be a part of. I still treasure my Beijing Guoan shirt from that trip.
Moments before kick off.

As I could only really afford 2 of the 3 away matches, I chose to stay home for the match in Nagoya, Japan and instead go to South Korea for the 3rd away game in May 2009. The match was to be played in Ulsan, the home of Hyundai heavy industries. Again my cousin Kyel came along for the trip and this time I had the honour of being able to sit in as co-commentator with ABC Newcastle's Aaron Kearney. Having media passes gave us unprecedented access to a spectacular stadium, similar to Suncorp Stadium in size and capacity. Also the experience of staying in a city like Ulsan where if it wasn't for the Football, I would never have dreamed of visiting in my life, even if I did travel to South Korea in future, Ulsan is hardly a known tourist destination. Here we stayed in the Hyundai Hotel, which was next door to the Hyundai Hospital and Hyundai University. Over the road was the Ulsan equivalent to David Jones, The Hyundai Department Store, and a 24 hour McDonalds that delivered via motor scooter. We got to experience South Korean nightlife, food and culture, and the Jets beat Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I  1-0 in an almost empty stadium.
A typical street in Ulsan, South Korea.

Approx 1,800 at the 55,000 seated Ulsan Stadium on a Tuesday
After all 6 home and away fixtures were completed the Jets had won through to the next stage of the competition. This meant another trip for them to South Korea, this time to Pohang. If they were to win that match they would go on to play a team from Uzbekistan. I decided as I had already been to Korea a month before I'd hold off and if they won I would look into going to Uzbekistan. Unfortunately they failed to beat Pohang and the dream trip to Bunyodkor was over.

After my 2 Asian adventures I decided I was going to keep travelling to watch my team. The A League season kicked off in August and between then and December I had been to matches in Gosford, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney twice. Then in January 2010 I moved to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Six days after arriving in Queensland I flew back to Newcastle to watch the Jets defeat Melbourne Victory 3-2. The following week I had driven down to Brisbane, a week later on the 24th January was back in Newcastle for a home game, flew to Newcastle then drove to Gosford for a match on the 6th February that was postponed an hour before kick off due to rain. I then had to fly back to Queensland at 6am the following morning and open the Pizza joint I owned at 11am that day. I then flew back for the final home game of the season on the 12th February before driving to the Gold Coast the following week to watch them play in a semi final. All up that season the cost of Airfare, Accommodation, fuel, airport parking and my season ticket for home games cost a grand total of $11,799.00, the bulk of which of course was on the 2 overseas trips.

Season 6 of the A League, 2010/2011 I spent the entire year living on the Sunshine Coast. As I stated earlier, the only home game I missed that season was a 2-0 loss to Central Coast as I was stuck at Maroochydore after the great Queensland floods. That season I also travelled to games in Melbourne twice, Sydney once, Gosford, Brisbane and Gold Coast. The grand total on the same expenses as the previous season was $3,717.00. None of those figures include spending money, food and drink etc. So as you can see being a travelling supporter in a National Competition can be a very expensive hobby. On the other hand though I have had the pleasure of experiencing other cultures, and travel to great Australian cities like Melbourne and Brisbane regularly. (Yes I think Brisbane is great, particularly West End!) I've been able to live out a childhood dream and commentate on a match broadcast live to air, meet wonderful people within the club and league heirachy as well as fans of all teams, and watch a game I love in some of the best stadiums in Australia and Asia.

If I wasn't a fan I think my life would be pretty dull......That's why I do it!
Commentating with Aaron Kearney on the Jets ACL match v Ulsan Korea

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Why Always Sonny???

The recent news relating to Sonny Bill Williams impending return to Rugby League in 2013 has created an enormous amount of discussion during this off season, and has polarised opinion on whether or not he deserves the chance to return to the NRL after the acrimonious way in which he left the game back in 2008.

For those who don't know, Sonny Bill Williams burst onto the rugby league scene as a tall, skillful and hard running back rower at the age of 18 in 2004. He played most of the season in first grade and finished his rookie year with a premiership trophy. He then became the youngest man ever to play International Rugby League for New Zealand later that same year. He missed most of 2005 with a knee injury but came back strong in 2006 and 2007, before breaking his arm in a semi final against Parramatta in late 2007, causing him to miss the Tri-Nations series that year. Then, in July 2008 he walked out of the Bulldogs 18 months into a 5 year contract. He had been offered reportedly 4 times the amount he was on at the Bulldogs to play Rugby Union in France with Toulon.

So ended the love affair between Rugby League and SBW. He had aligned himself with Anthony Mundine and his management, who had long been on the nose of rugby league fans, and had converted to Islam, much to the chagrin of his coach, teammates and certainly a lot of the fans according to Sonny. The Bulldogs negotiated a transfer fee from Toulon Rugby Club, Sonny paid a sum of money back to the Bulldogs and he was free to leave on the condition he could not play for another rugby league club anywhere in the world until 2013. He became one of the most reviled and vilified people in the game.

Now as 2013 draws nearer, rugby league fans are split as to whether SBW deserves the chance to return to the game. The CEO of Rugby League, David Gallop has requested an audience with SBW to demand an undertaking not to leave the game again. The main argument against his return was that he broke a contract, and was disloyal the game itself, to his club, his teammates and the fans. All valid but are they enough to keep him out of the game forever? I argue only his disloyalty to the fans as being of major importance. Clubs whining about players showing loyalty should have a good look at themselves. All clubs are guilty of sending contracted players packing once they are deemed to be past their use by date. Players are commodities today and clubs know it. Most players are loyal until the point they are offered more money to ply their trade elsewhere and who can blame them? Gone are the days when working men played football. Footballers are working men. It's just now their job is playing football. Only fans are truly loyal, and as a fan I feel the pain of losing a player I love to another team but you get over it, boo them incessantly whenever you can and find another player to love. Only to be heartbroken again down the track. But no matter what happens I am always loyal to the club. No individual rates higher than the club.

We all have made decisions when we were younger that we ultimately regretted, or at least thought, "maybe I could have handled that better.." SBW is guilty of breaking a contract for the opportunity to earn more money elsewhere. He's not the first person to do it and surely won't be the last. In fact, not long after SBW absconded to France, Mark Gasnier announced he was leaving St George before the end of his contract to earn more money playing Rugby Union in France. Exactly what SBW was doing but the difference being mainly that Gasnier worked it out with his club and stuck out the season. He handled it maturely and behind closed doors before going public. Gasnier spent a little under 2 seasons in France, then returning to St George before retiring completely at the end of the season.

Mark Gasnier was welcomed back with open arms, so why can't SBW?? Is it due to the way he left, like a thief in the night, or is it more to do with his connections with Anthony Mundine and his conversion to Islam that prevents people from forgiving him?? Yes he broke a contract and left the game in a poor fashion, but he was only 22 years old at the time, and anybody can be susceptible to bad or rash decisions at that age. Surely he deserves another chance to resume his rugby league career after he has served his time out of the game? He hasn't shown any more disloyalty to the game itself than Mark Gasnier, or even Mal Meninga, an absolute icon of Rugby League who once famously stated, "What has rugby league ever done for me??" Both of these men continued to achieve at high levels in the game. Wendell Sailor left League for Union, tested positive to drugs whilst there, then returned to League after serving his time and enjoyed the support of most fans and the games heirachy itself. Did he damage the game or show disloyalty? What SBW did was morally wrong but he hasn't committed any atrocities has he?

 I admit my interest in this is due to the fact he is being connected with the club I support, but I would feel the same way no matter what club he was being linked to.

I remember SBW being the most dominant forward in Rugby League before he left. When he returns he'll be 27, barely knocked around from his years in RU and at the peak of his powers. If he wants to go boxing this year he can do that too. I hope he does come to the Roosters. I say pay him what he wants, he'll be a huge asset for at least one year, bringing in more fans, particularly young fans and females. Use him to promote good health and lifestyle. Then if he fails, like Willie Mason did, I will move on as a fan and support and cheer the next overpaid Superstar my club chooses to purchase, and boo SBW like I'll boo Todd Carney next year...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

My time with Big Jack.

When  J K Waterhouse died back in 1998 the Sydney betting ring lost a giant. Although his later years on the stand were more modest than the halcyon days of the 60's and 70's when he was one of the biggest bookmakers in the world, he still had a booming presence. He worked that stand in the Interstate Ring, sitting on a big swivel chair dressed immaculately in a 3 piece suit, jacket on no matter what the temperature right up until his death, a day that struck me personally as he was my boss at the time. A boss I was proud to have. A boss who changed my life for the better even though I couldn't see it at the time.

Before my first day working as a Bookies Clerk with Jack Waterhouse, I was warned by one of the senior clerks, Frank Norton, that Jack could be a cantankerous, cranky, even nasty character, but not to take any abuse personally as he was really a lovely gentleman once the races are over. Jack runs the book on the Brisbane races and John runs the odds for Melbourne and Adelaide. I was to work the ticket computer for Brisbane, working directly with the boss. Well I discovered early on he was a Jekyll and Hyde type of character. One minute he’d be talking to me about the beauty of Budgerigars, and what breed of chicken makes the best layers, the next he was poking me in the back screaming that I was no good, and would never make a decent clerk! After copping another torrent of abuse from him one day at Rosehill I recall one of the bagmen urged me to "tell him to go jump"(in more colourful terms!), but I thought, this man has been working as a Bookmaker on course for 57 years, who am I to talk back to him? So I learnt to take the abuse quietly and keep working as hard as I could, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact with the old bloke. I travelled from Newcastle to Sydney, the furthest distance of any staff (by about 150 kms!), I was first there to set up the stand, and last to leave packing it up. Yet despite the hard work and time I put in, the abuse from Jack became so overwhelming that his son John moved me from the ticket computer to the bag on the other side of the stand, allowing me some respite.

Well I thrived on the bag. Standing on that box yelling out “Board Odds here” made me feel like a Satchel Swinger of old. Unfortunately though Jack stopped talking to me altogether. For 6 months the only time he spoke to me was to occasionally berate me for being useless. At that point I thought of giving up and finding another job, but in the end I thought to myself this bastard isn’t going to beat me, I’ll convince him I’m the goods…'Last man standing wins the prize' is the best advice my Uncle had given me, hang in there and He'll eventually like me!

 Then one day out of the blue he called me over in that huge booming voice of his. My heart started racing as I approached him, convinced I was about to be fired. Instead he told me he had been watching me and that I was doing a great job. He told me I was one of the best clerks he’d had in 20 years and that he trained me well.  I thought for sure I was going to get my marching orders so to hear kind words from him was such a huge relief and totally unexpected. I have to agree he did train me well. The next few months were much more relaxed and fun after that moment of praise. My memories of the 1997 Spring Carnival in Melbourne will last forever. With my Uncle's horses winning some big races at Flemington, I won plenty of cash backing them with the neighbouring bookies, and so to did John and a couple of the other fellows who worked with us. I would laugh and smile all day while I swung the bag in the Interstate ring. I remember at the Christmas Eve meeting at Randwick I wore a Santa hat with fake beard. Jack told me I looked stupid all day until the last couple of races when every drunk in the joint wanted to have a bet with Santa!! I had punters lined up 4 deep trying to get on while all the other bagmen down the line stood idle. Our turnover skyrocketed and the old man couldn't praise me enough!! I couldn't wait until Saturday to drive down the F3 and get to the track, whether it be Randwick, Rosehill or Warwick Farm. The good times rolled, between my Saturday job at the races and my job driving for an escort agency my lifestyle was pretty sweet…..

When I was told by his Grandson Matt the old man had died my world came crashing down. Not only had my main source of income suddenly stopped, but a man I had grown to admire and love, and who was a massive influence in my life at that time was gone, and I knew I would miss those times listening to his stories of the past. Not only from him but from the other characters I was in close contact with as there was no going back to the track. He was the Bookmaker, and the licence went with him.  He died on his farm at Silverdale, west of Sydney while feeding his beloved chickens. He lived for his animals and birds, and most of the conversations I had with him were about his birds or horses.  At his funeral, which was attended by well over 500 people, his wife Gwen told me how “Pa used to talk about you all the time”. It was a humbling moment for me. During my time working for Jack I got to meet and mingle with some absolutely legendary characters of the Australian turf. I saw some of the biggest punters and how they operate. I got to meet wonderful people like Father O’Dwyer, the punting Catholic priest warned off all racecourses for life over the Fine Cotton ring-in scandal, and Coral, our runner who was in her 70’s, smoked like a chimney, wore joggers and could run from the Rails to the Ring to warn us of betting moves faster than any of the younger runners. Coral knew every piece of gossip in town.(She was the first person on the racecourse to break the news  of Michael Hutchence death) I was told tales of Coral sitting out the front of trainers houses, hiding in the bushes with listening devices to get all the mail on their horses. Then there was old George, who was a Bondi Iceberg member and former lifeguard who could roll a ciggie in one hand. He was the King of the ledger, with the fastest maths I've ever seen for a man in his late 60's, and Frank, who was a true Eastern Suburbs boy and had played reserves for the mighty Roosters in the 50's. 

I will never forget the lessons learnt and the fun that was had during my time at the track, where all men are equal in the betting ring. Down-and-outers' mingled with well-to-doers, all in the pursuit of that illusive tip that will change their lives forever, or at least until next Saturday! I went on to spend the next several years working in the racing industry, taking me around Australia and to Hong Kong and even Vanuatu to work in a betting shop taking bets over the phone for an illegal bookie, yet working for a man who was a true legend and “Leviathan” of the turf was one of the proudest moments in my life and I am thankful to still have a good relationship with his son John to this day, having worked for him for many years during the construction of the Grand Mercure hotel in Newcastle. 

The atmosphere in the betting ring will never be the same again. Corporate Bookmakers with pretty girls in miniskirts working as clerks may sound appealing but is not the same as seeing giants of men in expensive suits, larger than life working the stand and yelling out the odds while rough-heads like me swinging the bag, another penciling the odds onto a piece of cardboard, yelling the bets to the boss as the ring buzzed with the roar of voices from the hundreds of punters desperate to get on.  I can’t possibly see these little ‘Poppet Clerks’ handle 10 or more punters screaming their bets at once, with every bet recorded and nobody missing out. Then again these days nearly everyone bets at home. Those at the track now are there for the party and the champers more than the horses. Princesses Welcome!

They were grand old days, I count myself very fortunate to have been a part of it all…..

Monday, 28 November 2011

Whatever happened to Saturday night????

When I was a child growing up in the 1970’s, Speedway was my every Saturday night fare. With my father racing sedans, if we weren’t at Jerilderie Park (later renamed Newcastle Motordrome) on a Saturday night during the warmer months, we were travelling to races at Lismore, Toowoomba, Goulburn and the like. It was a great way to spend a Saturday night and we weren’t the only family out there every week, battling with the moths, mozzies, methanol fumes and dust. Speedway was the sport of the common man, and everyone knows the common man loves cars and car racing.  For a family night out it was great value. Dads, Mums, kids, a blanket and an esky. Everyone could cheer their favourite driver or car. The kids could run around and play with other kids they’d just met. Dads could drink the contents of the esky and at the end of the night Mums could drive them all home (after spending a good half an hour or so snaking out of the venue in gridlock traffic past the Ponderosa and back over Hexham Bridge to freedom).
Sadly move forward to 2011 and Speedway in NSW, and the Hunter region particularly is as good as dead. Two classic examples of this are as follows; A few weeks ago only 13 Late Model sedans turned out at Sydney Speedway and on the following weekend only 18 cars competed in the NSW Super Sedan Titles, also at Sydney Speedway. Even more disturbing is only half of those competitors were from NSW.  I can recall a time when the NSW titles were only open to drivers from NSW and 40 or more cars at least would enter.
So what happened to Speedway??  Of course there are a number of reasons why the sport is no longer as popular as in its heydays of the 70’s. I have a theory that a lot of the problems in the sport, particularly sedan racing, can be traced back to one point in time. Here’s my opinion.

Minis, Toranas and other old Holdens bought the crowds to their feet in the 70's

In the 1980 Speedway season USA drivers Charlie Swartz, Rodney Combs, Don Tilford and Jimmy Hopkinson toured Australia in their Howe Camaros. While the Americans had been coming out for several years with Gene Welch’s touring teams, those teams had always brought out standard cars modified into race cars. The Howe Camaros on the other hand, were purpose built race car chassis, and after this tour these Camaros started to flood into Australia to the point of saturation. While I believe purpose built race chassis like Gambler were good for the Sprintcar division, I feel they did immeasurable damage to the sedan divisions. Production line race cars that anyone with the money to spend could buy, pop in an engine and go racing sounded great. But slowly these cars took over, and the days of guys barring-out an old Torana, Falcon or Mini were disappearing. The local identity was slowly dying out as these beastly big American cars took over from the cars the people on the hill actually drove. Blokes like Stu Robertson drove a Supercharged Datsun. So every person on the hill who had a Datsun would cheer for Stuey. Those who drove Holdens booed him for driving ‘Jap crap’. Did he have as big a fan base when he started racing a Corvette? The Holden drivers cheered the Torana’s, the Mini’s were cheered by everyone who loves an underdog and the Yanks in their big Chevys or Oldsmobiles were booed, as were any Aussie who drove a Yank car!

Charlie Swartz in the USA 1 Howe Camaro. He and Rodney Combs were hard to beat  all over Australia.

Don’t get me wrong, the American cars looked great for a while but they slowly evolved into the ‘Late Models’,  huge wedged shaped powerhouses that were so big it was difficult to pass anyone in front of you. Suddenly all identity was gone. Even the Hot Rod division went from being an eclectic mix of all sorts of chopped up old cars, to what effectively looked like garden sheds with wheels. Overall they were ugly and bland and totally lacking soul. Sure there were exceptions, like Gene Cook’s magnificent Bullet Racer, and Barry Graham and Paul O’Neill and the like had outstanding looking cars, particularly on the asphalt at Liverpool. But on the dirt and clay it was fairly mundane single file racing. They were built for ½ mile tracks in the USA, not ¼ mile tracks in Australia. With production line chassis and parts, you then need a powerful engine to be competitive, and Chev engines and the like are not made in Australia. So costs involved to race competitively began to skyrocket, and it wasn’t the only cost going up, with prices at the gate also creeping up. Suddenly it was a costly night to take the family to the Speedway, particularly when the cars out on the track no longer represented the common man, interest started to wane. Gradually you ended up with just the true racing diehards, plus competitor’s family and friends.

Tasmanian Gene Cook's Bullet was a great looking machine, but what exactly was it?

Then when the Motordrome closed down it had a dramatic effect, particularly with the remaining fans. There is really little incentive to pack up the family and make the long haul down to Sydney, especially with kids, for a few hours watching the same handful of cars driving around. It makes for a long and costly night with the added danger of driving home, tired along that lonely Freeway making it hardly worth the effort. 

So how does Speedway fix this mess?? Personally I can't see a fix. While there are a lot of people out there who want to see a Speedway in the local region again, the logistics involved with finding the right location and setting up a track, taking out costly insurance policies plus hiring staff, marketing and sponsorship, I find it hard to see Speedway racing for 4 wheel divisions ever becoming reality in Newcastle again. There are still tracks out there in other parts of NSW holding meetings, but with a lack of competitors these day clubs need to look at running divisions affordable and entertaining. If you look into the past you can see the future. Go back to the 70’s, when you had divisions affordable to everyone. Go back to running Commodores and Falcons and the like, cars driven on the road. Make meetings affordable and maybe the people will come back. Maybe it’s all too late. But the way things are now I can’t see how you can attract new blood to the sport when it costs tens of thousands to get to the track to race for prizemoney they raced for 30 years ago. 
Maybe it’s not going to be this simple, and I could be totally off track with this, but if you take the sport back to the common man just maybe the common man will come back to the sport….