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Zainab Alema: If you’re black, Muslim and a woman you can still play rugby

In the not too distant future, Zainab Alema hopes to be sitting on the sofa, cup of Earl Grey in hand cheering on a Muslim Woman playing for England.

If it happens expect tears, lots of them, because this woman known to her team-mates as ‘Bulldozer’ has spent her playing days smashing plenty of physical, emotional and cultural obstacles to get her there.

Growing up, Zainab never thought about playing rugby, she didn’t even know women could. But from the moment she first got “stuck in” during a PE lesson at 17, she relished every second of “feeling free and just running”. The game became intertwined in her life “like an old friend”. But like old friends, there were times she’d question the relationship feeling sometimes like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong.

From the moment she was born prematurely at only 26 weeks, she was a fighter and says she had an innate drive, “if I want to do something I try my hardest to get it done”. She liked sport at school but until that PE class, she never loved any sport. That same PE teacher who encouraged her to give it a go got her into a training session at Ealing Trailfinders, but even then Zainab’s rugby journey almost didn’t get started.

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This time last year I made my transition to @barnesrfcwomen . What a year it has been! I joined when I was 3 months pregnant , trained pre-season until I was 5 months then had to stop because I was becoming a liability 👀🤣🤰🏾 Watching on the sidelines with my ever growing bump , there was nothing more I wanted than to be out there with my new teammates. I'm so Happy I chose this club as I've never felt so free yet connected to such an amazing group of women. Ready to smash it up in the upcoming season!! Can not wait!💥💪🏾💚💛 Bulldozer Love

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“I was so excited to go to my first session and I got lost and the coach came to find me and by then the session was over. I was so mortified. I have lived in London all my life but I got totally lost.”

Accessibility, is she believes, one of the hurdles she had to overcome. “Often clubs are in secluded areas where you have to walk so far along the road before you actually get to the club. For me when I started at 17, I was going by myself by public transport. It was tough especially in winter, down dark streets. My team-mates had their parents dropping them off in cars but I had such a passion for the game I just carried on.”

By far the biggest obstacle for Zainab has been her culture. She says she often gets stared at and commented on when she is in the park kitted up, complete with her hijab and rugby ball in her hand. Her dad couldn’t understand why an African Muslim woman would want to play rugby, “a male, elitist sport”. There are stereotypes she says of Muslim households, “women are supposed to be at home cooking, cleaning and having kids. That’s what we do to some extent but we can do so much more. I am determined to smash those stereotypes”.

It’s not been straightforward. While studying to be a neonatal nurse at university, she joined the rugby team but sometimes struggled to fit in, not just because of the way she looked.

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I love this one – @rugby_marrakech 💕🏉 #beautiful #passion #rugby #team #teamwork #womensupportingwomen #womenempowerment #womensrugby

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“I felt a bit out of place because a lot of the time socialising was so alcohol-based. Not that the team would do it on purpose. We would have a pint for the Woman of the Match and I would win it quite a lot, and then have to nominate someone to have it, and it was so uncomfortable I wanted the ground to swallow me up. It may seem like something little to someone else, but it was those little experiences that were so difficult for me.

“I was the only black person on my team wearing a hijab and leggings under my shorts. I look different and all of that stuff played on my mind. I would end up just playing and then go, and when I look back it makes me feel a bit sad. I didn’t get that time to connect with my team off the pitch just because of that awkwardness.

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Soon…🤞🏾💚💛🏉 @barnesrfcwomen

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“People say, you could just sit down and have a coke, which I do now, but I think in uni it is a bit different, I guess you go to the bar a lot more too.”

When she left university and began nursing she found something was missing in her life. She needed a way to release the stress so she began looking for a new rugby club.

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Launch of the project in Ghana 20196🏉

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“What I did was have a little nosy at them on social media. What’s the vibe of the club? Is there a black person? Is there an Asian person? Is there someone that I can relate to?”

She settled on Millwall and earnt herself her ‘bulldozer’ nickname. Her job as No 8 was to pick the ball up at the back of the scrum and smash straight into the opposition fly-half.

“The name is sort of a metaphor for what I’m doing and who I am. It smashes and demolishes things, it’s like what I am doing with stereotypes. I kind of like it and it has stuck.”

Zainab currently plays at Barnes Rugby Club, “they’re amazing and it’s weird even though Barnes is a very middle-class area and there are barely any black people at the club, I feel so at home. I guess because I’m an adult I know how to take control of my emotions and I can say no if I don’t want to be in an environment. We had another black woman join us recently because of me and that’s brilliant.”

Given that, perhaps things are beginning to change – “there is a slow progression,” she says. Her hero was World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and now she loves watching England’s Shaunagh Brown.

“There is more visibility and I like to be active on my social media, because I want people to know that yes if you’re black and a woman you can play rugby. I know how difficult it is so I want to be open with my journey so that other people like me coming through, or thinking maybe I want to try rugby, can look at me and say you know what I can do it.”

Zainab runs “Studs in the Mud ” where she uses rugby to try and change people’s lives for the better, shipping out kit around the world to give people, particularly women and children, the chance to play. She also has a project which aims to encourage more Muslim women to give rugby a go.

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Wear the Red Rose 🌹🏉 (we both technically are hehe 👀) Massive thank you to @marlie_packer for showing her support for studs in the mud! A project launched earlier this year to help support grassroots rugby in Ghana whilst helping to change the lives of women and children for the better through the power of Rugby 🏉🇬🇭 Studs In The Mud are looking to host a women's 7s tournament next summer in Ghana and are raising funds . Please see LINK IN MY BIO to donate or visit @studs in the mud Facebook page to find out more ! Every little helps, Thank you 🙂 @worldrugby #rugby @womensrugbyhub @womensrugbyshow @rugbysaracens1 @englandrugby #studsinthemud #womensrugby #givingback #ghanarugby #Alhamdulillah #supportinggrassroots

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“It’s about making a safe space. We are so underrepresented I thought I was the only one at one point so I’m trying to amplify our voices and create somewhere for them to play. We’re here for you to come and give you advice. I’m hoping that we can go and watch each other’s games, have little social things together and have a sense of belonging within the rugby community.”

Zainab goes on to talk about the one time she very nearly did turn her back on rugby. “I was ready to say you know what, I’m done, I can’t see myself in this space. It was quite emotional.

“I went on to the World Rugby guidelines and I wanted to see for myself if someone like me could play in a head scarf, a hijab. I was ready to leave but seeing that it was ok to play in one cemented it for me. There in black and white, it said I can practise my faith and play the game. I can be a Muslim rugby player.”

What does your dad think of rugby now?

“Oh he’s so proud. I was in The Telegraph a while back and he was straight off to the newsagents to buy a copy and get it framed to put it up on the wall and I thought, ‘hey are you the same person who was asking me why do I want to play rugby?’ He’s so super proud of me right now.”

“You have to see it to be it,” she concludes.

Zainab will carry on ‘bulldozing’ her way through the game, being different and standing out is no longer a negative for her. She’s using it to make rugby truly diverse. She’ll deserve that celebratory cup of tea if and when her rugby ambition is realised and there’s a Muslim woman wearing the red rose of England.

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Super League: Monday’s talking points and team news

We look at what’s being said and team news ahead of Monday’s two Super League matches which see St Helens face Salford Red Devils and Leeds Rhinos take on Castleford Tigers, live on Sky Sports…

St Helens vs Salford Red Devils (5.30pm)

Since the Super League season resumed in August, defending champions St Helens have been near-on untouchable as they have moved to the top of the table on the back of 10 straight wins in the competition.

It is something of a turnaround from the pre-lockdown form which had seen Saints win just two of their five opening matches, although head coach Kristian Woolf ascribed that to some carry-over fatigue and the World Club Challenge.


Salford Red Devils vs St Helens

October 26, 2020, 5:25pm

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A 40-8 win over a Challenge Cup winners Leeds Rhinos further strengthened their chances of claiming a third-straight League Leaders’ Shield and although they now face runners-up Salford on a two-day turnaround, Woolf is not letting up on those ambitions.

“It’d be a great achievement that’s for sure and it’s something we’d like to do and are aiming to do,” Woolf said.

“It is going to be difficult because there are so many games played in short periods and the fact of the matter is, you’re going to have to rotate people whether you like it or not.

“You’re going to have to rotate good players and that does make it hard to win every game, but it’s certainly something we’d love to do.”

With that in mind, Woolf is set to make several changes to his side ahead of the derby clash with Wigan this coming Friday as James Graham, Jack Ashworth, Joseph Paulo and Matty Costello return to the 21-man squad while there could be debuts for Jake Wingfield, Tom Nisbet and Matty Foster.

Salford have Dan Sarginson back after missing the Challenge Cup final with coronavirus, while Gil Dudson returns after sitting out the 58-12 defeat by Wigan on Friday through illness.

“To come down from such a massive high is something our players are not used to and we’re not lucky enough to be able to rest players,” Red Devils head coach Ian Watson said.

“We’ve said the performance was not good enough and we don’t want to make excuses, but we have no back up for middles, who are having to play two games a week.

“Wigan were fresh and ready to go and I thought they were really good. They put us under pressure and we lacked energy and leadership, which is probably down to the fatigue factor.”

St Helens: Tommy Makinson, Kevin Naiqama, Theo Fages, Alex Walmsley, Dom Peyroux, Morgan Knowles, Kyle Amor, Jack Ashworth, Joseph Paulo, Aaron Smith, James Bentley, Matty Costello, Jack Welsby, Joe Batchelor, Josh Eaves, Josh Simm, Lewis Dodd, Matty Foster, Tom Nisbet, Jake Wingfield, James Graham.

Salford Red Devils: Ed Chamberlain, Dan Sarginson, Krisnan Inu, Tui Lolohea, Lee Mossop, Joey Lussick, Gil Dudson, Pauli Pauli, Tyrone McCarthy, Sebastine Ikahihifo, Greg Burke, Luke Yates, Chris Atkin, Rhys Williams, Elliot Kear, Connor Jones, Oliver Roberts, Andy Ackers, Kallum Watkins, Tom Gilmore, Oliver Ashall-Bolt.

Leeds Rhinos vs Castleford Tigers (7.45pm)

After resting players for their game against Saints on Friday, Richard Agar will revert to his victorious Wembley line-up, with the exception of injured prop Adam Cuthbertson, for Monday’s other game against Castleford.


Leeds Rhinos vs Castleford Tigers

October 26, 2020, 7:45pm

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Double-chasing Leeds are currently just outside the top four and jostling with Catalans Dragons for a semi-final spot.

The situation is clouded by the coronavirus pandemic which has wiped out the Dragons’ scheduled back-to-back home games against Hull FC and Warrington, but Rhinos head coach Agar is expecting to face sudden-death rugby before the start of the play-offs.

“We’ve talked about how we might do it and we’re saying that our play-off series could be two or three games long and we could be in sudden death the last two league games so to speak,” Agar said.

“We’re trying to navigate our way through the next two or three games and as a club we could be in sudden death then to get ourselves through.”

Leeds skipper Luke Gale will go up against his old club for the first time since his return to Headingley at the start of this season, while Bodene Thompson is set to take the place of the injury Cuthbertson.

Castleford are boosted by the return of full-back Gareth O’Brien, winger James Clare and forwards Liam Watts, Oliver Holmes, Matt Cook and Tyla Hepi, while coach Daryl Powell could hand a debut to England youth international Cain Robb.

If Robb does make his bow, he would follow in the footsteps of Bailey Hodgson and Brad Martin, who were handed their debuts for the Tigers in last Thursday’s 38-24 win over Hull Kingston Rovers.

“It was Bailey’s first game for I don’t know how long,” Powell said. “He had to make his debut at Super League level at full-back, which is one of the most demanding positions in the game, on the back of very little training and preparation.

“I thought he was awesome and Brad Martin was great, as was Lewis Peachey and Jacques O’Neill so some young bucks are doing us proud.”

Leeds Rhinos: Jack Walker, Tom Briscoe, Konrad Hurrell, Ash Handley, Rob Lui, Luke Gale, Ava Seumanufagai, Kruise Leeming, Matt Prior, Alex Mellor, Rhyse Martin, Brad Dwyer, Liam Sutcliffe, Richie Myler, Mikolaj Oledzki, Bodene Thompson, Cameron Smith, Luke Briscoe, James Donaldson, Alex Sutcliffe, Tom Holroyd.

Castleford Tigers: Derrell Olpherts, Michael Shenton, Jake Trueman, Danny Richardson, Liam Watts, Paul McShane, Oliver Holmes, Mike McMeeken, Jesse Sene-Lefao, Alex Foster, Cheyse Blair, Daniel Smith, Junior Moors, James Clare, Matt Cook, Tyla Hepi, Greg Eden, Lewis Peachey, Gareth O’Brien, Dan Fleming, Cain Robb.

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Channel 9’s staggering NRL Grand Final oversight mars epic finale

COMMENT

If this young, exciting Penrith Panthers team that went so close to chasing down the Melbourne Storm in Sunday night’s NRL Grand Final are here to stay, Channel 9 has a decision to make.

It’s not uncommon to see fans rip commentators in any footy code in Australia, but the vitriol directed at Phil Gould during the Storm’s 26-20 win was at another level and almost overshadowed a ripping finale to the season.

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There are a couple of qualifications that need to be made. There’s always going to be noise on social media when you have a lot of people from Victoria tuning into a game once a season that aren’t used to the NSW-centric make-up of the Nine commentary box.

Gould and his cohorts Ray Warren, Andrew Johns and Brad Fittler fall into the habit of speaking with a Sydney slant because that’s the vast majority of their audience most of the time. It makes sense to keep a blue tint to proceedings more often than not.

RELATED: Australia unloads on Gus Gould ‘disgrace’

It’s also worth mentioning people like Gould are great for the game. He’s almost like the Eddie McGuire of the NRL – a hugely recognisable figure who sometimes wears his heart on his sleeve to the chagrin of rival supporters and lives with a giant target on his back.

We’re lucky to have both of them – and the incredibly thick skin they have.

But the performance by Gould – and the whole Nine broadcast team – can’t be excused this time because of a staggering oversight.

Phil Gould wasn’t wearing a Penrith Panthers jacket on Sunday night but he may as well have been. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images

There was nothing wrong with Gould giving his view on the penalty try that opened the game if that was how he saw it – even if continuing to complain about it more than an hour later was kind of lame.

It was also fine to point out how the scoreboard perhaps wasn’t reflecting the action in the first half, if that’s how he saw it. And you could argue he was proved correct by the way the Panthers fought back into the game in the second half.

But what wasn’t excusable, and to a lesser degree this also includes Johns and Fittler, was the failure to celebrate anything the Storm did in a manner befitting of a grand final.

It’s OK to highlight, and perhaps even lament, where luck or Penrith’s defence broke down each time Melbourne scored.

But it needed to be balanced out with analysis of what the Storm had done well – and this was rarely heard in the two-hour broadcast.

The only time Gould really spoke positively about Melbourne was when Clive Churchill Medalist Ryan Papenhuyzen was involved – and you don’t have to be overly cynical to wonder if this was because he’s a NSW player.

RELATED: Cam Smith’s seriously sad revelation

RELATED: Dodgy Storm’s dirty Grand Final tactic

Suliasi Vunivalu incredible intercept and length of the field try was followed by frustration from the commentary box about how the Panthers had shot themselves in the foot. There wasn’t any celebration of the daring and top-level athleticism the winger showed once play-by-play caller Warren handed over the mic.

Instead, with the Storm up 16-0, we got Gould’s most memorable line of the night: “I honestly feel like the Panthers are on top.”

It was the same story after Cameron Smith’s score 10 minutes later. It was another moment of quick-thinking perfectly executed by the Storm skipper but all viewers heard was more discussion about how unlucky Penrith had been.

Papenhuyzen said after the game his team’s defence while building a 22-0 halftime lead was the best it had been all season but it was barely spoken about in the broadcast.

Watching at home Josh Dugan wondered: “Is Gus watching it or is his heart talking? Melbourne are well and truly on top. Their defence is on song.”

Johns did occasionally credit the Storm, including for their ability to turn players like Papenhuyzen and Jahrome Hughes into stars after the departures of Cooper Cronk and Billy Storm, but it didn’t go far enough.

There were also far too much overlooking going on when the over-exuberant Panthers, to put it simply, stuffed up.

RELATED: NRL smashes AFL out of the park

RELATED: Andrew Johns erupts: ‘You cannot do that!’

The Panthers only had themselves to blame. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images

The Storm deserved better. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)Source:Getty Images

Gould spoke as if the result came down to bad luck and bad refereeing when the reality was Penrith made way too many mistakes.

They were on the wrong side of an 18-12 error count, only completed 33/48 sets and continually knocked the ball on and gifted it back to the opposition.

Gould hasn’t commentated Penrith games because of the conflict of interest with his role in building the current Panthers team while serving as the club’s general manager until last year.

Sitting one of your best and highest-paid talents on the sidelines for the biggest game of the season isn’t a palatable situation for a big network, but unless Gould can provide better balance he might have to watch the Panthers’ win the competition one day from the grandstand.

Because even with the time to reflect after the final siren he still tweeted: “Congratulations to Storm. 2020 Premiers. However, GF could easily have gone to Panther. Half-time score did not reflect 1st half action. Panther 20-4 second half, showed possibilities. Panther ran out of time. Cameron Smith said ‘If it goes another 2 mins, I just don’t know’.”

Melbourne deserved better.

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Still no Smith retirement decision as Papenhuyzen’s emotions run high

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Melbourne may have won the grand final but Cameron Smith did not use his on field post match interview to call time on his illustrious career.

Smith was one of the Storm's best players in the 26-20 win – in which he eclipsed the all time point scoring grand final record.

Cameron Smith on the Melbourne Storm victory lap.Credit:Getty Images

"But we grew as a unit this year and there are connections in this team that we will have the rest of our lives. No matter where we are in this country or where we are in the world in the future, we will always have a connection to 2020 and the team that performed tonight."

Clive Churchill Medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen was emotional just minutes before being awarded one of the game's highest individual honours.

"I'm so emotional. Oh, wow," Papenhuyzen said. "The whole day was just the unknown. You don't know what's going to happen.

"You're so confident in the boys but [Penrith] coming off 17 in a row, it's the most butterflies I've ever had.

"These boys – we've done it so tough this year because back home, they're doing it a lot tougher than we are. That's unbelievable. I'm so proud of the boys and I never thought I could do one of these. We've done it."

Papenhuyzen bought surplus tickets to the match for one reason.

"I made sure I bought heaps of tickets in a good section because you don't know how many grand finals you're going to play," he said.

"I'm so happy [my family] are here. I wish I could go give them a hug. We're going to celebrate alright."

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Garry Ringrose: Ireland centre facing spell out with broken jaw

Ireland centre Garry Ringrose will be out for up to six weeks after breaking his jaw in Saturday’s 50-17 Six Nations victory over Italy, coach Andy Farrell confirmed.

Ringrose suffered the injury after his face came in contact with Edoardo Padovani’s knee when he tried to charge down the Italy winger’s clearance during the first half of the contest in an empty Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

The 25-year-old will miss Ireland’s final Six Nations game against France next week, where a bonus-point victory in Paris will guarantee them the title.

  • Ireland go top, but may regret late concession
  • Six Nations: Ireland 50-17 Italy recap

“Garry Ringrose has broken his jaw so bad news for us all,” said Farrell.

“He’s been so good for us the last 10 days, he has been absolutely fantastic with his leadership and he was a big part of the reason why we got what we wanted out of today.

“He was unfortunate with his thumb injury earlier in the Six Nations and has come back and had a setback like that which will keep him out for four to six weeks, so we’re gutted for Garry.”

Ringrose could potentially be ruled out of Ireland’s Autumn Nations Cup campaign which starts in November.

Ireland are scheduled to face Wales on November 13, England on November 21, and Georgia eight days later.

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Webster’s manager pours cold water on Adelaide trade talk

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Jimmy Webster's manager has poured cold water on the idea that the out-of-favour St Kilda defender could be traded to Adelaide as part of dealings that would bring Brad Crouch to the Saints.

SEN had reported that the Saints and Crows could contrive to ensure Adelaide got a first-round compensation pick for the outgoing midfielder, who is set to join St Kilda on a long-term deal.

Jimmy Webster (centre).Credit:Pat Scala

The report said Adelaide could trade late picks for Webster and fellow Saint Luke Dunstan, absorbing the pair's salaries. That would in turn allow St Kilda to offer more for Crouch, bumping the midfielder's salary up to a point that would trigger that first-round compensation selection under the AFL's secret free agency formula.

As it stands, that would provide the Crows with the first two picks in this year's national draft.

However Webster's agent, Peter Lenton of Kapital Sports, said on Sunday that he had not had any contact with Adelaide about Webster and that he expected the Tasmanian backman to remain at Moorabbin in 2021.

"I haven't spoken to Adelaide about Jimmy," Lenton said.

"He's got two years left to run on his contract and while there have been discussions with some clubs, as you would have with any player at this time of year, I expect he'll be at St Kilda next year."

Dunstan, Webster and fellow Saint Dylan Roberton are all contracted for 2021 but the experienced trio has been floated as trade bait after playing just two senior matches between them this year.

Webster, 27, has been limited to just 93 matches in nine years on St Kilda's list, with injuries regularly thwarting his progress. He played the first eight games of 2019 but hasn't appeared at senior level since.

An AFL memo has cast doubt over whether the Crows will receive pick No.2 as compensation for their 2019 best and fairest, with the league stressing that free agency compensation was not designed to fully make up for the loss of a player.

Brad Crouch.Credit:Getty Images

Adelaide are now the outsiders in the race to secure forward Orazio Fantasia, who is seeking a move back to South Australia after seven years with Essendon. Contracted for 2021, Fantasia is likely to join Port Adelaide in the upcoming trade period.

The Saints, meanwhile, are on the hunt for depth in their tall stocks after delisting ex-Geelong ruckman Ryan Abbott.

Essendon have zeroed in on Western Bulldogs midfielder Josh Dunkley but the Dogs remain insistent that they will not trade the 2016 premiership player, who has two years to run on his deal, despite Dunkley's apparent interest in a move to the Dons.

Clubs remain frustrated by the lack of clarity surrounding list sizes for 2021, with a resolution between the AFL and AFL Players' Association over a revised collective bargaining agreement still not forthcoming.

The free agency window is scheduled to begin on Friday, with trade period kicking off on November 4, but AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan told the league's website he could not guarantee a resolution by that point.

"Short answer is I don't know. I hope so," McLachlan said.

"Discussions are ongoing with the players' association. They're not probably progressing at light speed, but we'll get there and clearly it would be better to know that prior to the trade period, I accept that."

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Jack Nowell set to miss England’s autumn internationals with toe injury

Jack Nowell is set to miss England’s autumn international fixtures after revealing he is to undergo surgery on a ligament injury in his toe.

The 27-year-old says he has been playing through the injury as he helped the Exeter Chiefs to a historic European Champions Cup and Premiership double.

  • Exeter pip Wasps to secure historic double
  • Ireland go top but may regret late concession
  • England vs Barbarians cancelled due to Covid breach

Nowell broke the news after playing the entirety of Exeter’s 19-13 win over Wasps on Saturday that saw them seal their second Premiership title.

He said: “I’ve ruptured the ligaments around my toe and had to dig deep a little bit. I’ve not trained at all for two weeks so it’s something I have to get fixed and once I’ve sobered up I’ll find out.

“It’s been horrendous, it’s my big toe so any drive has been painful. I played in the final last week so spent the week trying to get the swelling out of it.

“But I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t given it a go and it’s great to be backed by the coaches.”

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said: “He’s battled through and done everything he can and you have to give him credit and to do that for the club when the international matches are coming along,” he said.

Nowell also featured in all 80 minutes of the Chiefs’ 31-27 victory against Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final on October 17.

Nowell has been a regular in Eddie Jones’ England squads since the Australian became head coach in 2015 and would have been a strong contender to feature in their four Tests over the next five weeks.

England conclude the delayed Six Nations in Italy on October 31 before hosting Georgia on November 14 and Ireland on November 21, and then travelling to face Wales on November 28.

Exeter pip Wasps to secure historic double

A Henry Slade try and 14 points via the boot of Joe Simmonds saw Rob Baxter’s Chiefs secure their second Premiership title with a 19-13 win over Wasps in driving rain at a deserted Twickenham.

The triumph also saw Exeter confirm a historic cup double, following on from their 31-27 European Cup final victory over Racing 92 in Bristol last week.

Wasps, who came into the final minus 11 squad players due to positive coronavirus tests and close contact protocols, scored their points through a Jacob Umaga try, Jimmy Gopperth conversion and two Gopperth penalties.

Lee Blackett’s side were always in the tight and error-ridden contest, played out in torrential rain for its entirety, but were left to rue a late five-metre lineout throw which was critically stolen by Exeter replacement Jonny Gray.

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Match Report – Ireland 50 – 17 Italy

Ireland scored seven tries and 50 points to move to the top of the 2020 Six Nations table with a bonus-point win over Italy, but the late concession of a try could hurt their title chances. 

Debutant wing Hugo Keenan scored two tries, while fellow debutant Will Connors scored a try and earned the man of the match for an all-action display in defence and at the breakdown.

CJ Stander, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan added further tries, while Sexton kicked five conversions and a penalty, with Ross Byrne adding a further conversion.

For Italy, an Edoardo Padovani intercept try, plus a further Paolo Garbisi try in the final play of the match – after Ireland had taken a drop-goal conversion to ensure further play – brought them 17 points.

Ireland now travel to face France in Paris in the final round of the Six Nations next week, while England travel to face Italy, with the title likely to come down to bonus-points and points difference.

More to follow…

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How each grand final player fared at the Gabba

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The 2020 AFL year has come and gone. In Saturday night's season-finale, the modern-day Richmond team stamped itself as one of the best since the turn of the century. See how each player from the Tigers and Cats fared on footy's big night at the Gabba.

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‘I’ve forgiven him’: McKinnon lets go of Cam Smith pain

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If anyone has a legitimate reason to cheer what appears to be the end of Cameron Smith’s career, it is Alex McKinnon. But he won’t.

In a true indication of what a good person McKinnon is, he has made peace in his own mind about what happened in the moments after his life was changed forever in a tackle at Melbourne’s AAMI Park in 2014. With McKinnon motionless on the ground in clear distress, Smith argued with the referee. McKinnon suffered fractures to his C4 and C5 vertebrae and is now a quadriplegic.

Moving on: Alex McKinnon and Cam Smith.Credit:NRL Photos, Getty

Smith’s actions were a bad look and a horrendous reading of the situation. They look even worse in hindsight. Smith has never properly explained what happened that night, nor apologised publicly for his reaction. I put it to the Storm at the time and offered Smith a chance to talk. I’m still waiting for his response.

For everything great that Smith has done as a player – and he is the greatest hooker to play the game – to some extent that night taints his career. His actions deeply upset McKinnon’s family and the player himself was fuming. With Smith possibly winding up his unparalleled career in Sunday's grand final against Penrith, McKinnon can now talk with a clear and calm mind.

‘‘I have no emotion when it comes to Cameron Smith these days,’’ McKinnon said this week. ‘‘I have forgiven everything that happened straight after the tackle, his response – I have forgiven him. It’s hard to hold on to hate. It really is. It’s wasted energy. It’s blinding.

‘‘At its worst, it can consume you and I’ll admit it did for a while there. There is no positive to being like that and, for that reason, I have moved past it and I hold no hard feelings at all.

Alex McKinnon on the ground after the tragic tackle in 2014 in Melbourne.Credit:Getty

‘‘The hard thing was for my family, my dad, to let it go. But I told them it didn’t do any of us any good at all to keep the hate. I talked with them about how it does not help anyone. And the family has been able to put it all to one side. My dad can now observe something that Smith has done and not see it in a negative light. Quite the opposite. And that has been some time in the making.

‘‘I work with [Knights coach] Adam O’Brien now and he has nothing but praise for Smith and [Storm coach] Craig Bellamy, and his love for Craig has certainly influenced my approach to the situation.’’

Smith has also been criticised for not reaching out to McKinnon after the accident.

‘‘I’ve got to accept that there was an attempt soon after it happened and my family wanted to protect me from that,’’ McKinnon said.

I am now looking for players like him. It’s my job to find the next Smith.

The next move came from McKinnon. ‘‘I got his number from Matthew Johns and contacted him,’’ McKinnon said. ‘‘It’s just how it happened. My view of Smith has all changed now in my role as a scout with Newcastle. I see him in a totally different way. I watch what he does on the field, his interaction with players. I watch Smith the player without emotion. And I am now looking for players like him. It’s my job to find the next Smith.’’

So will McKinnon be cheering for the Storm tonight?

‘‘I used to hope they would lose,’’ he admitted. ‘‘In the past, I got something out of that for sure. Now I can just watch. To be honest, I’ll be watching it thinking what will it take for Newcastle to be there one day, and I’ll be upset that we are not there now.

"I don’t have any particular leaning. If it was Souths, I’d want them to win for Wayne [Bennett]. But I no longer want the Storm to lose because they are the Storm.’’

Gus goes extra mile

At one point in his stellar young career, even the keenest Penrith observers feared they had lost one of the club’s best talents, Jarome Luai. And for a while, they did.

‘‘Where’s Broadbridge?’’ asked then Panthers general manager of football Phil Gould as he cast his eye over the team sheet while watching a junior side a couple of years ago. Broadbridge was there, he’d just changed his name to what it is today, Luai.

‘‘We were living at his grandmother’s house and, while we were there, she wanted him to go under his name,’’ Jarome’s dad, Martin Luai, said. ‘‘So he did. He decided to change back a few years ago and I am so proud when I see him out there.’’

The Panthers had another reason to fear they had lost him. Martin did two years in jail for drug trafficking. It was a bad decision made while his family was under huge financial pressure. That was a serious concern for the Panthers for a number of reasons, not least of which Martin faced being deported to New Zealand and the family being torn apart. References from Cameron Ciraldo – who coached Jarome throughout his junior career – and Gould helped Martin remain in Australia.

‘‘Martin Luai has acted illegally, irresponsibly and, dare I say it, stupidly,’’ Gould wrote. ‘‘Acting out of a sense of desperation to provide for his family is no excuse. Jarome is a hard-working dedicated young man … the qualities of Jarome speaks volumes for the loving and disciplined upbringing his parents have provided.

‘‘Your honour, Martin Luai and his family are already paying dearly for his actions. I genuinely fear for the welfare of the children and their futures if Martin is to be deported on top of his current penalty of incarceration.’’

Mum's the word

Nathan Cleary has used grand final week to defend his father, Ivan, and the controversial way he joined the Panthers. He also declared that his mum, Rebecca, is the true hero of the Cleary family.

‘‘Mum is the rock,’’ he said. ‘‘She has helped both of us so much. She is probably the main reason we have been able to turn it around this year. She is the support system. She is always willing to have a chat. I’m so grateful to have her.’’

Roosters close in on Suaalii

We told you last week about Joseph Suaalii dropping the Rabbitohs and following the Roosters on Instagram. It’s hard to ignore because he is getting close to knocking back rugby and signing a deal with the tricolours.

A deal is being prepared and those who know the young man say he has been in discussions with the Bondi club. The Roosters are clearly working on a succession plan for James Tedesco, who is already regarded as the best player in the NRL.

Tedesco is off contract at the end of next year. He will be offered a deal that will extend his stay until at least the end of 2023. Suaalii is on a small deal with Souths next year, but every indication is that he doesn’t want to be there. The attraction of playing under Roosters coach Trent Robinson is significant to a young player.



Dally M muddle

The Dally M farce has led to unfair online attacks on News Corp journalist Phil Rothfield. He has been slammed for a mistake by another journalist, who published an article criticising the award, and for News Corp publishing the winners – including the winner of the Dally M Medal, Jack Wighton – before the ceremony began.

As big an error as it was – and as much embarrassment as it has caused the company and the game – there was no malice or intent as far as this column is aware. But the issue here is what happened on Fox Sports’ NRL 360. Rothfield was on the show on Monday night. He already knew the points tally, knew the winner and knew there was an unfolding drama with the story having been published accidentally. His phone was running hot on air.

When asked about the result, he said he was hoping Nathan Cleary would win. He should not have been asked the question because he already knew the winner and, therefore, could not give a genuine answer.

The only answer Rothfield could have, and perhaps should have, given was a declaration there and then that he knew who had won and had already filed a story on it. The credibility of the show would not have been brought into question.

Equally concerning for a program that trades on its strong opinions and bags plenty of people for their errors, there was no mention of the stuff-up. The hosts of the show had the opportunity to come clean the next night and didn’t.

Sorry state

A group of officials on either side of the NSW-Queensland border are set to hand ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys his first significant defeat of 2020.

V’landys and NRL boss Andrew Abdo have backed and approved Karl Stefanovic’s behind-the-scenes Origin documentary, which was being shot for streaming service Stan. But now the blazer brigade, with support from Maroons coach Wayne Bennett, are set to block the move. V’landys won’t go down without a fight.

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