Tabcorp shares slump despite profit result

TABCORP shares slumped yesterday despite a solid full-year result as the market took issue with the company’s earnings outlook.
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Tabcorp reported a net profit of $340 million in the year to June 30, down from $534.8 million in 2010-11, but the prior year included earnings from the casino business, which was demerged in June last year.

Based on continuing operations the net profit was 12.7 per cent higher than the $301.6 million reported last year driven by strong earnings growth and lower interest expenses following the demerger.

But Tabcorp shares slumped as much as 5 per cent during trading yesterday after the company flagged higher costs and lower-than-expected earnings from Victorian wagering business.

The termination of Tabcorp’s poker machine licence in Victoria next week will leave it with $17 million of corporate and IT costs to be allocated across the continuing business and higher racefield product fees. Tabcorp also warned that the terms of its new wagering licence in Victoria are ”significantly different” to the current licence, which expires next week.

If the new licence had applied to the Victorian wagering business this year its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) would have been $150.2 million not the $229 million reported. ”The company has guided to pro forma wagering earnings of $150 million, which compares to our FY14 forecast of $190 million,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Mark Wilson.

The company was also keeping quiet on its plans to recover the $687 million it is owed in compensation as a result of its poker machine licence being cancelled next week.

Tabcorp chief executive David Attenborough said the company is ”looking at all options” but has not made a decision ahead of August 23 when the payment is due.

Tabcorp will lose its biggest profit engine with the loss of its pokie duopoly in Victoria but is looking to offset the loss with its new Keno licence in Victoria and the poker machine services business TGS.

The latter is on track to record underlying earnings of $55 million per annum based on the 8500 poker machines it has signed up.

In 2011-12, Tabcorp’s online wagering operations generated $2.16 billion in turnover, growing by 14.5 per cent compared to the prior year.

Fixed odds revenues were the highlight, growing by 41.5 per cent to $321.4 million. Totalisator revenues continued to decline as the market shifted to fixed odds betting where the profit margins are lower and Tabcorp faces strong competition from new entrants.

The company declared a final dividend of 11¢ a share full franked and said it targeted a dividend payout ratio of 80 per cent of net profit excluding the expected $47 million write-off of Victorian gaming goodwill in the current half year. Tabcorp shares closed 3.3 per cent lower, down 11¢, at $3.20.

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Not upwardly mobile, Telstra holds the line

THERE are not too many analysts with a buy recommendation on Telstra. Of late, there have been plenty downgrading it to hold or even sell. At the $4 level at which the company has been trading, this is no surprise.
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Telstra needed to pull a rabbit out of a hat yesterday to justify a ”buy” tag. It didn’t.

It produced earnings that were a bit shy of analysts’ expectations given the second half was a bit weaker than the first. The share price dipped 8¢ to $3.89 in response.

It’s not that Telstra has done anything wrong. It is still performing well, churning out cash, and sucking up handouts from the government to compensate it for the building of NBN infrastructure.

But the strong growth in mobiles it has experienced over the past couple of years will start to taper off in 2013. Telstra still expects to increase its subscriber numbers but not at the same rate.

It will look to offset this by increasing prices, but has to manage this process carefully to avoid the previous mistakes of overpricing and losing market share.

The game is not up in mobiles, but having now reached 60 per cent market share there is a limit to the pace of growth.

There are some brighter spots in the pipeline in other Telstra businesses areas, such as Network Application Services, which provides communications solutions to large organisations.

The Hong Kong-based CSL put in a good performance, as did the global connectivity business. But in absolute terms they are small, relative to mobiles.

And then there are the troublesome businesses.

Sensis – better known as the Yellow Pages directories business – continued to go backwards, with print revenue falling 22 per cent and margins slipping by 9 percentage points.

The headwinds from the decline in revenue from the fixed copper network continue.

The latest numbers (although not provided by Telstra) say 14 per cent of households no longer have fixed line connections. The trend will continue and more likely than not it will accelerate.

As is always the case with Telstra, the emerging technologies are required to offset those in decline. In 2012, the company managed to post a modest rise in revenue of 1.1 per cent, and an equally modest improvement in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) of 0.8 per cent – both of which were inside guidance.

The company’s outlook statement paints a fairly similar outcome for 2013 – low single-digit income and EBITDA growth.

One of the reasons these forecasts can be relied on is the stellar job Telstra is doing in managing its cost base, and we should expect to see more of this in 2013.

While these results are not the sort to generally excite the market, there are a series of other factors weighing in to Telstra’s share price performance, which this year alone has risen 16 per cent – more than 2½ times the rest of the market.

Its a combination of a flight to yield and reliability.

And this is scarce commodity at the moment.

There will be other companies reporting bigger improvements in 2012 earnings, but none have quantified a near-guaranteed dividend.

Given the rise in Telstra’s share price, the yield isn’t as attractive as it was a year ago but it certainly not bad at just over 7 per cent.

The other solid bit of information is that the government will drip-feed billions into Telstra’s coffers in upcoming years – $420 million was received in 2012.

While analysts now take the view that on financial fundamentals Telstra is fully priced, the trouble for investors is that there are few solid options out there in the market.

Punters can make a bet and buy plenty of what appear to be cheap stocks trading on low price earnings multiples, but they run the risk that earnings won’t improve or may even slide and dividends will fall.

With commodity prices falling, investors have been bailing out of the big stocks such as BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

There are myriad cyclical stocks, but most have risks associated with the broader economic environment.

Telstra is far less sensitive to the vagaries of consumer sentiment, although mobile revenue from the small business segment did suffer in 2012.

But where is the next growth driver?

There is no real suggestion from management that Telstra will spend up big on acquisitions.

Rather, it appears to be placing its bets (and $500 million of capital expenditure this year) on its new 4G mobile network. Right now this reaches only 40 per cent of the market.

But increasing capex is not always as popular with shareholders as it is with management.

While investors were not really expecting any capital management announcements yesterday, nor an increase in dividends, either one would have offset any earnings disappointments and resulted in Telstra’s share price ticking up even further.

The author owns Telstra shares.

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Changes from the waste up hit stumbling block

IT IS shaping up as this year’s most toxic board scrap over the remnants of a listed hazardous waste company.
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Dolomatrix wasted no time yesterday announcing that its 19.9 per cent shareholder of only two weeks, Roger Collison, had been appointed as its new managing director – and announcing plans to transform itself from a toxic waste concern into listed investment company.

Logical, one would think, given the state of financial markets. Dolomatrix cited Collison’s ”skills and experience as a funds manager”. But not all Dolomatrix shareholders appear to agree. The head of Brisbane fund manager Trojan Equity, Troy Harry, has lobbed a requisition of meeting seeking the removal of Collison and his appointment to the board with former Dolomatrix director Greg Soghomonian and Wilson Asset Management director James Chirnside.

Harry, like Collison, snapped up his 13 per cent stake after Dolomatrix paid a 35¢-a-share capital return to its shareholders after offloading its waste management business. Wilson has a 10 per cent stake, and the Soghomonian-chaired Weston Aluminium a 13.5 per cent stake.Banking ranking

RESERVE Bank assistant governor Guy Debelle provided some comfort yesterday to patriotic sports fans unhappy about Australia’s ranking on the Olympic gold medal tally, especially when compared with Team Great Britain. ”Australian banks are also benefiting from the fact that they look good compared with other banks in the world,” Debelle assured a Senate inquiry into the banking sector in Sydney yesterday. ”The risk premium on Australian banks is nowhere near as high as the risk premium on some Spanish banks.” He went further: ”We’ll get some back for the Olympics here … it’s true for UK banks too. The UK banks’ risk premiums are much higher at the moment than Australian banks.”Soft touch?

ASCIANO managing director John Mullen seems to be a softer touch when its comes to negotiating the pay rates of other chief executives, as opposed to the stevedore workers on his company’s docks.

Four months after Asciano ended its 20-month standoff with the maritime union by signing a new enterprise bargaining agreement, Telstra disclosed yesterday that its remuneration committee had approved an 8.7 per cent lift in the annual fixed pay of its chief executive, David Thodey, to $2.65 million from October.

This is on top of the 6 per cent fixed-pay rise Thodey received last October. Telstra, whose remuneration committee is chaired by Mullen, said Thodey’s fixed-pay increase would take him to the ”ASX 20 CEO market median”. Telstra said it would also seek shareholder approval for a lift in its non-executive fee pool from $3 million to $3.5 million. It disclosed that Thodey’s total pay increased from $5.1 million to $7.7 million in the year to

June 30. Telstra also disclosed that its former chief financial officer, John Stanhope, was paid a $745,000 termination benefit and secured a $600,000 12-month consulting deal ”to ensure a seamless transition on NBN-related matters”.Gray area

SIRTEX Medical has joined the list of ”first-strikers” to try to placate its shareholders before this annual meeting season, averting having a ”second strike” recorded against its remuneration report.

This would have forced its directors to automatically stand for re-election.

But the cancer treatment company’s issuing of a ”remuneration update” yesterday might struggle to avert another 25 per cent or above vote against its pay report, given the current board’s toxic relations with Sirtex’s former chairman and 17 per cent shareholder, Bruce Gray.

Sirtex provided a lengthy five-page explanation on how it had increased the ”difficulty of achieving the vesting conditions” of the performance rights granted to executives and so on. Sirtex’s remuneration committee chairman, John Eady, argued that his board had ”improved the company’s remuneration structure while enforcing its values and culture”.

But it remains doubtful Sirtex will win over one key shareholder, despite its shares hitting a 30-month high this week and tripling since Gray was dumped as chairman in August 2006.

Gray, at last year’s annual meeting, voted against all the resolutions put before shareholders.

After being dumped as chairman in 2006, Gray failed in his bid to have Eady, Grant Boyce and Sirtex chairman Richard Hill dumped from the board.

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Bird in the hand: Titans welcome lock back for Storm clash

TITANS lock Greg Bird completed his side’s final session yesterday and will take his place in the team for tonight’s clash with Melbourne at AAMI Park. Bird, who missed last week’s loss to South Sydney with a hamstring strain, was given the all clear to return after training in Melbourne yesterday, but it is unknown whether he’ll start from the bench.
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He could slot into the starting line-up when coach John Cartwright finalises his team today. Storm centre Justin O’Neill, who left the field in the second half of last week’s victory over the Panthers, is in doubt with a groin injury. He missed the previous two games with the same injury but may be forced to push through the pain barrier for the rest of the year.

South Sydney will tonight welcome back Issac Luke from a three-game suspension against Manly in Gosford, but he’s likely to start off the bench with Nathan Peats to remain in the run-on side. Coach Michael Maguire hasn’t decided on his bench – he is yet to omit two players – but Roy Asotasi is expected to play his first game in three months after returning from a pectoral injury via the NSW Cup. Manly are hopeful prop Jason King will play despite a bruised chest, but Steve Matai is in some doubt after picking up an ankle injury in the win against the Cowboys.

Parramatta and the Roosters have no injury concerns and are likely to use the same 17 players they both named earlier in the week.

Dragons forward Josh Miller still has to pass a cognitive test to take on the Tigers, who are expecting Beau Ryan (nose) and Gareth Ellis (ankle) to take the field tomorrow night. A decision on benched five-eighth Jamie Soward is yet to be made, but he won’t be sent back to the NSW Cup.

The Cowboys are in a similar boat with little to worry about against their clash with the Warriors. Brian McClennan’s men flew to Townsville yesterday with Simon Mannering, James Maloney, Jerome Ropati and Sam Rapira all on board, despite being injured. They aren’t tipped to play, but have been brought along for their influence on the younger players.

The Panthers will again be without lock Luke Lewis, who hasn’t trained since surgery on his neck to remove a lump. The Raiders have some uncertainty around their side, with Joe Picker still battling concussion. Bronson Harrison and Jarrad Kennedy will travel with the team on standby. Dane Tilse could be a late scratching, expected to miss the game if his wife Katie goes into labour.

Canterbury are hopeful Englishman James Graham will be fit to take on the Broncos on Sunday. Graham suffered a knee injury against the Knights and left the field for treatment, before returning late in the match. He’s been on restricted duties this week but is likely to play, as is halfback Kris Keating, who hasn’t taken the field since injuring his hamstring against Manly three weeks ago. The Broncos have dropped fullback Josh Hoffman for being late to training, with Corey Norman to move to fullback in his absence, and Luke Capewell added to the bench.

The Sharks are likely to be without Wade Graham and Bryce Gibbs for Monday night’s clash with the Knights.

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Milne fined for crude call

STEPHEN Milne was last night fined $3000 by St Kilda after an AFL investigation concluded he had made homophobic comments on-field for the second time in his career.
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Milne, who apologised for his comments to Collingwood defender Harry O’Brien via a club statement, must also undergo an AFL education program ”to address the inappropriate nature of his comments” after the incident in last Saturday night’s match at the MCG.

AFL integrity officer Brett Clothier, who was called in after umpire Dean Margetts overheard Milne calling O’Brien a ”f—— homo c—” during the third quarter, found the St Kilda forward had breached the players’ code of conduct and the AFL’s discrimination and vilification policy.

Milne and O’Brien clashed verbally after Milne was penalised for sliding feet first into Collingwood ruckman Darren Jolly. The umpire then paid a 50-metre penalty against him for abusive language.

In a post-match interview, O’Brien declined to reveal what Milne had said to him.

Clothier’s investigation stemmed from Margetts’ report of the incident rather than a complaint from the Collingwood player. O’Brien said in the interview with Triple M: ”What happens on the field will stay on the field. I’m just glad we won.”

Margetts was picked up by television microphones saying: ”That language is unacceptable” after he paid the 50-metre penalty, with O’Brien, who had moved in to take the kick of the winded Jolly, continuing to remonstrate with Milne as they moved upfield.

In 2010, Milne was fined $3000 by the AFL for directing a homophobic comment towards Collingwood assistant coach Paul Licuria during a quarter-time clash in which Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse was also fined $7500 for calling Milne a rapist.

The AFL’s operations manager, Adrian Anderson, noting Milne’s repeat offence, said the league considered the verbal altercation serious. ”It is simply not acceptable – even in the heat of battle – for AFL players to use homophobic insults on the football field,” he said.

”The AFL investigated Milne’s comments last weekend and found that they breached the players’ code of conduct and also the AFL’s policy on vilification. The St Kilda Football Club is to be commended for taking this action and sending a strong message that homophobic comments are unacceptable.”

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One star stays out, another’s star rises

Chance: Lin Jong could win his first taste of AFL.DETERMINED not to make the same mistake twice, Hawthorn will hold back superstar Lance Franklin for another week to ensure he does not suffer another relapse with his hamstring injury before the finals.
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While the Hawks will keep Franklin on ice for Sunday’s game against Port Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs could give Lin Jong, their exciting rookie with Taiwanese and East Timorese heritage, his first taste of the big time.

On a night of big selection news, Collingwood recalled Alan Didak and Chris Tarrant for tomorrow night’s top four match against Sydney, while Adelaide selected Kurt Tippett, who has missed two games with the after-effects from multiple concussions, for its crucial showdown against Fremantle at AAMI Stadium.

Jong, born to Taiwanese and East Timorese parents but raised in Australia, was elevated to the club’s primary list yesterday and is in line to make his senior debut, as is young forward Fletcher Roberts. The pair loom as replacements for Tom Liberatore (club suspension), Jason Tutt (hamstring) and Christian Howard (adductor) for Sunday’s game against Richmond at the MCG.

The 19-year-old Jong was one of the big stories of the last rookie draft, given he only took up the sport four years ago and might not have even played TAC Cup football last year had the Oakleigh Chargers had the same list limitations that restrict some of their rivals.

Before then, basketball had been Jong’s preferred sport.

”If we only had 40 kids on our list, we probably wouldn’t have listed him,” Oakleigh Chargers under-18 coach Greg Doyle told The Age the day after Jong was added to the Dogs’ rookie list in December.

The athletic midfielder started the season in Williamstown’s reserves but is developing quickly, featuring regularly in the Seagulls’ best players in the VFL since then, fast-tracking his potential debut.

That the Dogs have also been hit hard by injuries late in the season and are out of contention for the finals might also prompt them to roll the dice with the raw, broad-shouldered teenager, who plays with the kind of hard-at-it style coach Brendan McCartney likes.

”Lin is a great competitor and a terrific young person who works extremely hard at his craft,” Williamstown coach Peter German said on the club’s website.

”He can play in a variety of positions and has been a consistent performer in the VFL this season.”

Franklin missing his fifth game in a row – avoiding a trip to Tasmania – means his hamstring will be at full strength upon his return, but sitting out another game will hurt his chances of winning the Coleman Medal.

The 25-year-old, who has already won the league goal-kicking twice, is third, four goals behind Fremantle’s Matthew Pavlich, in the race for this year’s Coleman and could drop further off the pace if the Dockers spearhead and North Melbourne star Drew Petrie, currently second, continue in their current form.

Hawthorn football manager Mark Evans said Franklin was certain to return for next week’s game against Gold Coast at the MCG.

”He trained quite well at the start of the week, but we just didn’t feel he was quite there,” he said last night.

”There hasn’t been any setback. We were positive about him early in the week, but in the end we decided to play the cautious game with him.”

With Franklin out, the Hawks will trial playing ruckman Max Bailey alongside David Hale and Jarryd Roughead against the Power, which will have its first hitout under new caretaker coach Garry Hocking.

The Crows might not make a decision until today on whether to play Tippett, with the key forward attempting to come back after suffering concussion three times in five weeks, the last time in round 17.

Didak (back for his first match since round 11) and Tarrant (late withdrawal last week) will both make just their sixth appearances for the Pies this season, and Collingwood also gave Irishman Marty Clarke another chance to make an impression before finals, as Dane Swan sits out the his two-week club suspension, joining Tyson Goldsack (ankle) and Tom Young (omitted).

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Injuries ravage Cats for clash with Eagles

GEELONG has been ravaged by injury for tonight’s clash with West Coast, losing three players, including midfield star James Kelly, and naming Paul Chapman despite speculation he, too, had not made the trip to Perth.
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The Cats ruled out Kelly with a groin injury but did not return calls last night after it was reported that Chapman, the tough forward and midfielder, had damaged his hamstring at training.

Kelly has been one of the Cats’ most consistent ball-winners this season and he and Chapman are both in the club’s top four for contested possessions.

Chapman was instrumental with three goals in the Cats’ first-quarter blitz against Hawthorn last Friday night, and the 30-year-old has said he believes his body is capable of fulfilling more than the one-year contract extension offered by the club.

The Cats are already missing Joel Corey, who has not recovered from a hamstring strain, from their deep on-ball division and will miss the injured midfielders on the wide expanses of Patersons Stadium.

Rugged defender Josh Hunt, who was subbed out of the classic win over the Hawks with a quadriceps injury, was also left out of the team last night, along with the exciting Billie Smedts (calf).

Veteran David Wojcinski was named as an emergency after returning to VFL action last weekend, his first match since straining a hamstring five weeks ago.

Geelong picked elevated rookie Jonathan Simpkin along with Cameron Guthrie and Jordan Murdoch.

Fifth-placed West Coast has lost three of its past four games but still sits just above Geelong on the ladder, on percentage. Andrew Embley will make his long-awaited return from a serious shoulder injury for the Eagles, while captain Darren Glass is back from suspension to help contain the Cats’ man of the moment, Tom Hawkins. Eagle Mitch Brown was the selection table victim, dropped after patchy recent form.

Geelong’s ruck department is also depleted for the contest with the dominant duo of Nic Naitanui and Dean Cox.

”It’s probably the hardest road trip going around,” coach Chris Scott said of the West Coast assignment this week. ”We’ve known our draw is tough towards the end of the season since the fixture came out, so, fortunately, we think we’re playing pretty good footy and we’re going to need to be at our best to compete with a really good team that will be smarting coming off what they consider to be a pretty poor performance [against Fremantle].”

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Green light: Giants flag interest in Demon

Smart and courageous: Brad Green.RETIRED Demon Brad Green looms as a potential ”top-up” target for Greater Western Sydney if the expansion club is unable to meet its needs through trades or uncontracted players.
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Should GWS choose to pursue Green, list manager Stephen Silvagni believes the Giants could face competition from rival clubs who think the 31-year-old still has something to offer.

The Giants recruited veterans such as James McDonald and Luke Power from Melbourne and Brisbane Lions, respectively, to shepherd their young players through their first season.

They are keen to provide these young bodies with another year of protection, having witnessed how Gold Coast suffered from losing seasoned players such as Nathan Bock, Gary Ablett and Michael Rischitelli for large chunks of the Suns’ second season.

”Certainly there is a chance [of recruiting Green],” Silvagni told The Age yesterday.

”We probably need to do a bit more homework on it all but his form has been pretty good the last half of the year and there might even be another club out there that thinks he might have another season in him if he still wants to play.

”We’ve had no discussions with him and I don’t know if he wants to keep going, but that’s where we sit. If we decided to go down that track again, which we may have to depending on trades and uncontracted [players], if they don’t fall our way, we may need to top up with some older players.

”But a lot is going to depend on our list size and what we might get through uncontracteds and through the trade period.”

Green, the former Melbourne captain, announced his retirement this week but will play out the season with the Demons and, at his press conference on Wednesday, did not dismiss the possibility of continuing his career at another club.

”I haven’t given it one ounce of thought yet. You never say never, but I’m retiring here today,” he said.

A fortnight ago, he told The Age of his burning ambition to play in finals six years after Melbourne’s most recent foray into September, and that is a dream unlikely to materialise for GWS within Green’s AFL lifespan.

But he has expressed an interest in coaching, an avenue that opened up for McDonald, Power and former Port ruckman Dean Brogan when they extended their careers at GWS.

On the field, the smart and courageous Green could provide valuable support for developing forwards Jeremy Cameron and Jonathon Patton, especially if the Giants are unashamed in their efforts to entice power forward Travis Cloke from Collingwood.

Green has kicked 13 goals for Melbourne in the past month in the absence of injured forwards Mitch Clark and Liam Jurrah.

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Kangaroos welcome finals-like challenge

THE ladder permutations, should North Melbourne beat Essendon on Sunday, could be significant in helping the Kangaroos avoid a hat-trick of ninth-placed finishes.
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The Kangaroos (seventh on the ladder), Essendon (eighth) and Fremantle (ninth) are separated only by percentage and, not only would a win give North a one-match break on a top-eight rival, but it would also draw level with either West Coast or Geelong, depending on the outcome of tonight’s match in Perth.

Fremantle faces a daunting away clash against the second-placed Adelaide tomorrow. Such a high-stakes scenario is, according to North Melbourne coach Brad Scott, exactly what the players and staff have been yearning for.

”We’ve been seeking this sort of pressure and this sort of exposure for a while,” he said.

”We’re going to look forward to testing ourselves against genuinely good opposition in what will be … probably a finals-type atmosphere. We’ve wanted to play in those sorts of games for a long time. We get our chance on Sunday.”

The Bombers have regained four players from injury – Dustin Fletcher, Angus Monfries, Stewart Crameri and Michael Hibberd – and have named David Hille and untried Brendan Lee on an extended bench. Hamstring-injury victims Jason Winderlich and Ben Howlett were followed out of the team by struggling defender Tayte Pears.

The Kangaroos have named Leigh Adams, a late withdrawal last weekend with a shoulder injury, and included Aaron Edwards and Levi Greenwood in their squad.

Crameri’s return gives the Bombers significant depth among their key forwards. In his absence, Scott Gumbleton has assumed greater responsibility, kicking 10 goals in the past month.

As well as being a duel between legitimate finals aspirants, the match also features teams which have had contrasting fortunes with injuries this year. While Essendon’s spate of soft-tissue injuries has been well documented, North’s exceptional continuity has been unheralded.

Under medical director Steve Saunders and sport-science strategist Peter Mulkearns the Kangaroos have not had a single soft-tissue injury among their first- or second-tier players, an achievement Scott was keen to highlight as a factor in his team winning all but one of its past eight matches.

”Continuity’s a great thing,” he said. ”I’ve been rapt with our football staff this year [and] not enough credit [is given to them].

”People talk about injuries and they associate a great injury run with luck. We don’t feel that’s the case. You get a certain element of luck when it comes to direct-contact injuries, but our soft-tissue rate has been just unbelievable this year. We think that’s in direct response to the staff we’ve got here who do an enormous amount of work in preventing those types of injuries.

”We haven’t changed an assistant coach in three years. We’ve kept the same development team. Continuity across the board, not only on-field but off-field, has been really important.”

Scott also praised the performances of Liam Anthony since his recall from the VFL seven weeks ago. That the midfielder has averaged almost 25 disposals a match in that period has not been out of character, but his increased effectiveness with those possessions has been a welcome change for the team.

”His improvement’s pretty much been in line with our improvement as a team,” Scott said of the 24-year-old.

”The way he’s used the ball has been really damaging over the past few months.”

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Demons in purgatory

MELBOURNE has taken the radical step of putting contract discussions with 11 players on hold until mid-October, as the club delays decisions on players’ futures until it has entered the free agency and trading market arenas.
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The Demons have 14 players coming out of contract, not including departing veteran Brad Green, and have told 11 of them that they will not enter contract discussions until mid-October – free agency ends on October 19, the trading period a week later – as the club seeks to improve its list with players from other clubs.

The 11 out-of-contract players whose futures are unclear are Liam Jurrah, Brent Moloney, Jared Rivers, Ricky Petterd, Joel Macdonald, Lynden Dunn, Matthew Bate, Clint Bartram, James Sellar, Jamie Bennell and Troy Davis.

The Demons have been in contract discussions with youngsters James Strauss, Rohan Bail, Jake Spencer and Sam Blease, whose pace and kicking ability have led to him attracting strong interest from other clubs.

Midfielder Jordan Gysberts, meanwhile, is under contract, but is on the radar of Geelong and might be considered for trade – making it a dozen players whose futures are uncertain, though the Demons will clearly keep some and lose others, depending on their needs and their capacity to attract players.

Coach Mark Neeld has informed the relevant players the club will not hold contract discussions with them until mid-October.

The decision is a reflection of Melbourne’s desire to drastically re-shape its playing list under Neeld and to test the free-agency and trading waters before determining which players are retained in the wake of a poor season.

The Demons are likely to be in the market for three or four experienced players from other clubs, with their inability to run and spread an obvious weakness that requires redress.

Of the more experienced players, both Moloney, 28, and Rivers, 27, are free agents. Moloney, last year’s best-and-fairest winner (when he polled 19 Brownlow votes), has had a dismal season compared to last year. While he is seen as a potential defector – he can walk to the club of his choice if Melbourne chooses not to match the offer – the former vice-captain has stated his wish to remain at the club.

Rivers, who has been a mainstay of the back line, is an unrestricted free agent and can simply go to whichever club he wishes, regardless of what the Demons offer. Jurrah’s situation, obviously, is likely to be dictated by his legal position, as he faces serious charges in a Northern Territory court.

Bate sought a trade to the Bulldogs at the end of last year, but the Demons declined to accept the Dogs’ offer of a late draft pick. Bartram has been receiving unorthodox treatment for a career-threatening knee injury.

Gysberts, a first-round draft pick from 2009, showed some early promise but has played only one game this year, his season largely ruined by injury. A bad ankle injury kept him out for several weeks before he suffered a broken jaw in the same VFL game in which father-son recruit Jack Viney had his jaw broken.

Petterd, 24, a capable if injury-prone forward, has played only four games at senior level this year. Ex-Crow and key-position journeyman Sellar, drafted by the Demons with a late pick in the national draft last year, was contracted for just one season.

Earlier this season, Moloney said of his free-agency status: ”It’s the first year of it, so I’m not really too aware of what’s going to happen, but I want to stay at the footy club. I want to finish my career here, and that’s all I’m focusing on.”

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Wallabies’ Bledisloe mission: to show McCaw his powers have been bettered

There is one scoreline edgy Wallabies fans could use to transport themselves to their mental happy places as they contemplate the importance of the breakdown in the coming Bledisloe Cup double-header.
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It is also one that the Wallabies coaching panel is well aware of, judging by the composition of their 30-man squad announced on Tuesday. That scoreline is 36-5, and it is the number of pilfers secured by the trio of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Liam Gill compared to those of Richie McCaw in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.

Already against Scotland and Wales, head coach Robbie Deans has shown a determination to finish games with two openside breakaways on the field. The promotion of the youngsters is possibly premature but bold. Hooper has the pace of a centre and Gill the enthusiasm of a cattle dog. McCaw’s head has been targeted by knees and elbows of various nationalities for the past decade, but now plans might be in place to test out the 31-year-old’s legs.

As Rod Kafer alluded this week, looking for signs of the great openside’s decline has become something of an annual pastime among rugby nations, especially Australia, for two particular reasons.

There is a portion of Wallabies fans who hold a genuine dislike for McCaw and his methods – an ardent bunch who witnessed his tussle with Quade Cooper in Brisbane last year but saw only McCaw attacking Cooper’s unprotected knee with his head.

More balanced minds regard the No. 7 less harshly – he showed plenty of grace after the Hong Kong loss in 2010 – but still associate him so closely with a painful spell of All Blacks dominance that they deduce if his powers were to wane the Wallabies would be poised to get their paws back on that coveted silverware.

That theory is tantalising for Australia, but is far from straightforward. There is a certainty about McCaw’s eventual vulnerability, for the same inevitable reason that applied to each champion before him, but its timing and impact are trickier to pin down.

Contemporary evidence of lower standards is not easy to come by. Curiously, due to injuries and the Super Rugby schedule, a 36-minute tussle between Gill and McCaw in round 11 in Christchurch is the only time any of the Wallabies’ opensides have gone head-to-head with the All Blacks captain this year. With Deans watching from the Christchurch stands that day, Gill’s breakdown ubiquity forced the Crusaders to summon McCaw from the bench shortly after half-time, whereupon a lesson in subtle blocking was handed out to the youngster.

McCaw’s competition total of five turnovers – the outstanding Gill led the competition with 16 – also belong in context. McCaw had a delayed entry into this year’s tournament and spent significant minutes in the No. 8 jersey, both with the Crusaders and the All Blacks.

A modification of the No. 7 job description has also been under way in the past few years. Neither of the Super Rugby finalists had a specialist jackal. The number of steals alone does not define the role, which includes a broader set of responsibilities such as ball carrying, support play and lineout work. It is why Pocock is the best breakdown operator in the world but not yet the most complete openside, no matter how many times that claim is repeated.

The memory banks are full of Pocock squat over the ball and ripping away possession, yet they are too light on his running support lines off the No. 10’s shoulder or providing the final link to a try-scorer. It is a harsh criticism but he has been carrying a heavy burden at the Force and Wallabies for two years now. A greater contribution of those around him can help him in taking the final step.

A further complication faces the Wallabies. Over the past few years McCaw has had Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino by his side. Now, Sam Cane and a harder Liam Messam are jostling for places. The All Blacks have begun lessening their dependency on their captain, especially with the rise of Read.

Still, McCaw remains their totem. If the Wallabies are serious about not just winning the odd Test but grabbing back the Bledisloe and keeping it in the coming years, they will have to make McCaw second best. Every judge will have their opinion on McCaw in this period. Deans might show his thinking with his selections. But until the Wallabies test him, as the Chiefs did two weeks ago, only the great breakaway will know how much more there is left in the tank.

Twitter – @whiskeycully

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Two cool Cats show the Twain meets midfield

IT’S a safe bet Mark Twain didn’t feature too highly in the ”favourite author” category when the Geelong list sat down to fill out those player questionnaires at the beginning of this season.
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But his famous quip that ”reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” seems lately to have struck more of a chord with the Cats than any sporting biography or a Stephen King thriller might have.

While we seem to have waited most of this season to find out whether the Geelong of 2012 was anything like the outfit to be feared 12 months ago or one slowly disappearing into the sunset, the past few weeks have had ”we’re not done just yet” written all over them.

There was an imperious smashing of Essendon, the tone set in the opening moments with the relentless physical pressure the Cats routinely apply so well. There was an efficient enough win over Adelaide, perhaps underrated given the loss of Steve Johnson in the opening seconds and key midfielder Joel Corey after half-time. And last week’s consolidation of the winning streak over a Hawthorn many had just about over the premiership line.

There have been some common denominators: Tom Hawkins upping the ante again as a powerhouse and goalkicking key forward, Harry Taylor and Tom Lonergan shoring up the Geelong defence, skipper Joel Selwood and James Kelly in top gear.

But for another couple of key contributors, it has been a different story. Paul Chapman and Johnson have been arguably even bigger parts of Geelong’s greatest era than those mentioned above, but in their case it hasn’t just been about more of the same.

Geelong’s rise from the canvas has coincided with ”Stevie J” and ”Chappy”, as they are almost universally known, playing almost mirror images of the roles to which we have become accustomed.

Johnson, the forward sharpshooter with the penchant for the freakish goal, has spent more time midfield as the Cats have upped not only the ante on hard ball gets and possession, but the quality of their disposal.

Chapman, along with Selwood so often the hard-nut presence in the centre square and around the contest, has slipped forward more often to offer everything in a goalscoring sense that his teammate regularly has been able to provide.

While Johnson was collected by Adelaide’s Scott Thompson at the opening bounce of the game at Simonds Stadium a fortnight ago and was not able to have any impact at all, their numbers over the past month are instructive.

The biggest point to the switch is simply their numbers of centre bounce involvements. To the end of round 15, Johnson’s average was four. Since then, it has been 18. Chapman up to round 15 had 10 per game, which has slipped back to three.

But the other numbers prove it has been a shift far more successful than merely redistributing the deckchairs on a sinking ship.

Chapman had a total of 16 goals in the Cats’ first dozen games. Over the past five, he has kicked 14, including two bags of four, one of those last week, alongside Hawkins’ half-dozen, accounting for more than half Geelong’s winning score.

He’s a hard-running forward, too, proven in his possession breakdowns in the games breakdown. Until the end of round 15, Chapman was accruing 68 per cent of his disposals, that number since having fallen only marginally to 61.

His rate in the forward 50 has soared from 17 to 33 per cent.

The value of Johnson’s silky ball use in midfield, meanwhile, was never more evident than in that closing play against Hawthorn last Friday night.

With exactly 30 seconds left on the clock, and Johnson taking possession on the half-back flank just 15 metres in from the boundary line, he swung on to his left foot and centred a ball that nine times out of 10 would have had potential turnover in the most dangerous part of the ground and opposition goal written all over it.

This, though, was Stevie J. The 40-metre pass found Selwood, whose opponent Brad Sewell rightly expected a boundary line play, and in desperately trying to make up ground overshot the mark, allowing Selwood to turn and hit Hawkins on the lead. You know the rest.

Johnson’s greater midfield involvement is reflected in his disposal count climbing from 22 to 28 over the past month, and the quality of his ball use headed into the forward 50 arc seeing his score assists climbing from an average 1.6 to 2.3.

Yet, as Chapman has still been able to retain an influence midfield while creating more scoreboard pressure, so does Johnson still hit the scoreboard from even further afield, averaging 1.3 goals in the latest period compared with one beforehand. Chapman and Johnson are two enormous talents with a big impact wherever they play. In this latest mini role reversal, Geelong has extracted even more from its biggest stars. The death notices for a great team and a great era might be on hold for a while yet.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Port asks for help on coach

PORT Adelaide has asked the AFL and the AFL Coaches Association for help with the process of finding a replacement for sacked coach Matthew Primus – and hopes the appointment will be made in four weeks.
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Club chief executive Keith Thomas will meet with both groups early next week and also hopes to engage an outside expert in the mould of AFL greats Leigh Matthews – who assisted Adelaide in its appointment of Brenton Sanderson – David Parkin and Gerard Healy.

Former Sydney and Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade is the leading contender for the coaching role. It is understood the AFL, which closely monitors but does not control Port’s finances, has expressed support for the club buying the best available coach.

“The AFL has a number of support mechanisms – consultants they can put us in touch with in regard to the process [of finding a new coach],” Thomas said.

“They may say, OK, here is how Essendon dealt with it, Geelong dealt with it and Melbourne went about it. They will give us various different approaches for us to decide which way to go.

“We will establish a panel that we want to make a recommendation to the board. It will consist of me, a couple of board directors and one external AFL expert. That will happen quite quickly. That panel will establish our needs and the criteria that we will use to appoint the coach. We will then put together a hit list of candidates – those who we want to target as well as those putting their hand up.

“We will establish an interview process … a time-frame, and I suspect that will be between four to six weeks. We certainly want to get it done before serious player trading in October.”

Coaches’ Association chief executive Danny Frawley said it would assist by showing Port Adelaide the methods that had worked for other clubs while suggesting people who could be added to the panel.

Thomas said fundamentally every coaching appointment was important, but this one quite clearly had greater significance because of the delicate situation in which Port had found itself.

“We are on a journey towards Adelaide Oval, which is an event we want to maximise,” he said. “We want to make sure that opportunity that presents us with is fully maximised, and this next period of restructure will be really important in that process. There is a different dimension to this coaching appointment.”

Thomas reiterated that Port was not in crisis, which he stressed at Monday’s announcement that the club had chosen not to reappoint Primus for a third year – a decision reached by the board on Sunday morning after Port’s crushing 34-point loss to Greater Western Sydney the previous day.

“There has been a lot of emotion this week, but it is subsiding and we are moving forward,” Thomas said.

“I guess there is always emotion. Matty Primus was always a legend of the club and a popular coach and person. There is a great deal of personal emotion associated with this, and we are dealing with that.

”The other complexity was Brett Duncanson’s decision [not to seek re-election as president].

“We were very clear in our decision-making [on Primus]. We knew why we made the decision and we are very quickly in the process of building a strong club. We are now focused on getting on with it.”

The immediate issue is how the players will respond to the loss to the Giants and the exit of Primus under caretaker coach Garry Hocking when Port meets Hawthorn at Aurora Stadium in Launceston on Sunday.

Thomas said Hocking had been “fantastic” in settling down the playing group. ”They are very well focused and I am very pleased with how they are dealing with it,” he said.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.