1. Friendly fun
It might have only been a friendly but what a fun night was had by all at Headingley Carnegie on Friday night. New Zealand got the workout they needed, exposing a few new players with debuts, while Leeds got to bid farewell some legends of their club. The Kiwis ironed out some rust, tested their new halves, and displayed enough to demonstrate that they will be tough for England in the next few weeks. The Rhinos gave some youngsters a run and young Jordan Lilley looks like he has a promising future ahead. Adrian Morley and Ali Lauitiiti got to run on to the Headingley turf again and Danny McGuire showed Steve McNamara what was missing. It was fast, furious and a great evening for all those in the stands, or those watching on TV thanks to Premier Sports’ broadcast.
The night was capped off by a haka featuring Lauitiiti and Kylie Leuluai and the rest of the Kiwi squad. Leuluai has been in Yorkshire so long he is almost part of the furniture, but the former NRL journeyman got to enjoy a special moment with some fellow countrymen in his final time in Rhinos colours. All in all it was a big success, especially compared to the fare dished up in Leigh a day later. New Zealand will be back on this shores in year’s time for the Four Nations and it would be lovely to see them back at Headingley once again to face Leeds.
If you don’t know the abbreviation RTS then after Friday’s entertainment you should. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is a huge talent, one of the rising stars of the NRL and one of the best fullbacks on the planet. Those who don’t watch the NRL regularly might be unaware, but RTS is a star. Like those other key rugby league players down under he has an abbreviation or a nickname – SBW, JT, GI, DCE, G-Train, Hayne Plane and Jammer – and the skills to match. Only 22, Tuivasa-Sheck bagged two tries against Leeds and was a constant threat. He broke records in the NRL this season and at 182cm and 93 kg, he has amazing strength and footwork.
Meeting him at Thursday’s international series launch I was struck by his humility and gentle demeanor. The baby-faced fullback, who grew up on rugby union, will be a huge asset when he joins the New Zealand Warriors from the Roosters next year. Against the Rhinos he was a weapon in attack and defence, stopping several certain Leeds tries and evading tackles at will. The loss of Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran is a worry for the Kiwis, as they lacked direction and leadership at Headingley. But with RTS at the back and the influential Isaac Luke at hooker, their spine still has two unbelievably good, word-class talents. Just how good RTS can become in the season ahead is frightening. Earlier this year he rescued a man from a car crash. Footy star and good Samaritan to boot, the heir to the world’s best fullback crown held by Greg Inglis and Jarryd Hayne in recent times has arrived.
3. French flogging
Friday night might have been fun but Saturday afternoon, for England or France fans, was not. Sure, England did win by 80 points, so on face value it was a great result for the ‘Wall of White’. But they were never really tested, not in the manner that the Kiwis were, and Steve McNamara surely would have been hoping for more of a grueling, difficult examination. France were simply woeful and had little chance with 11 to 12 first-choice players out. England ran in 15 tries, a hat-trick claimed by Brett Ferres. But where were the likes of Remi Casty, Theo Fages, Tony Gigot, Ben Garcia, Thomas Bosc and Olivier Elima? Questions need to be asked about this supposed ‘Test’ match that was little more than a glorified training run.
Around 8000 people turned up to this game in Leigh compared with the near 20,000 that went to Headingley. Those at Leigh got little value for money and maybe it was the right decision not to broadcast the match on television, considering it was such a one-side display. France coach Richard Agar admitted after the game: “England looked slick at times but it was hard to get a gauge because at times it was like a training run for them. As French coach, I got nothing out of it. You’ll have to ask Steve but I wouldn’t have thought either of us would have envisaged it as a useful exercise given the playing strengths of both teams”. Of course injuries are a part of rugby league, but there is no point playing these matches if France are so under-strength. With a full squad available they can give England a competitive contest, as was shown in the last World Cup, but this was farcical and does little to help grow the international game.
4. Crazed Koukash
You have to wonder what goes through the mind of Marwan Koukash some times. Sure, he was being very generous giving a Maserati to Salford fullback Niall Evalds as a gift for his performances this year. We all should be so lucky. But was it smart to tweet the news?: “Had a coffee with @NEvalds1993 and gave him an early Christmas Present for his awesome performances this year. He also wants more followers.” And it was it bright for Evalds to show off his new luxury car on social media as well?
Alarm bells must be going off at Red Hall. After Leigh’s public declaration that it will ignore the salary cap questions have to be asked about Koukash’s gift. Is this included in the cap? How do we explain it? By our reckoning the cheapest Maserati goes for around £53,000, with the more expensive model retailing for £97,000. That’s some special gift from Santa for the young fullback. The integrity of the competition is under threat when we have clubs openly flouting the rules so flagrantly. We do live in interesting times.
5. Golden Boot
The award for the best player on the planet will be given out in the next few weeks. Shaun Johnson won the gong in 2014, with Jonathan Thurston getting in 2013, Kevin Sinfield in 2012 and Thurston again the year before that. Johnson missed half the NRL season with injury and won’t be in the running. Last year I thought he was a touch lucky to win the accolade, considering the outstanding campaign of club footy Sam Burgess played. But this year it should be a pretty obvious choice – ‘JT’ once again.
Thurston was simply sensational for both the Cowboys and Queensland. He helped North Queensland win their first-ever grand final, knocking over the winning drop goal in extra-time, and helped the Maroons reclaim the State of Origin shield. He won the Dally M award this year (his fourth), the accolade for the best player in the NRL, and also the Clive Churchill Medal for the player of the grand final. In 2015 no one else comes close. In 25 games Thurston scored four tries kicked 78.1% of his goals but it is his playmaking, his amazing skill-set and ability create, that is so special. The 32-year old from Brisbane with the outrageous laugh is a freak and should soon collect his record third Golden Boot.