Belief alone won’t beat All Blacks

Pass test ... the Wallabies captain's run at ANZ Stadium yesterday.THE Wallabies are buoyant after repeatedly peaking at the right time during the Wales Test series, but know they are still well short of what is required to be confident of beating the All Blacks at ANZ Stadium tonight.
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Wallabies captain David Pocock yesterday called on his teammates to lift their game and make full use of home-ground advantage.

The Australian Rugby Union has certainly applied the pressure on the Wallabies by focusing its marketing campaign around how it has been a barren decade since they last won the Bledisloe Cup, and that the task may be easier as they are playing two of the three Tests at home.

No wonder Wallabies coach Robbie Deans was provoked into commenting over whether it had been too long since the team had shown off the cup. ''Clearly it's time,'' Deans said.

At least the Wallabies head into the series with some of the attributes needed for trans-Tasman success. After the blip against Scotland in Newcastle, the Wallabies rebounded brilliantly against Wales, one of the best northern hemisphere teams to tour Australia in decades, winning the series 3-0. What was most encouraging was the team's ability to play at their best near the end of each Test and withstand pressure, showing the squad's level of conditioning had improved markedly.

The sign of a good side is that they consistently win the tight ones, and several close victories had the desired effect of boosting the Wallabies' spirits.

''We took confidence out of that series,'' Pocock said. ''As a team you want to win those arm-wrestles right at the end. In these Tests, we stayed in the contest and found a way to win.

''But the Rugby Championship is going to be a totally different beast, and we know those performances against Wales won't be anywhere near good enough.

''We just have to do everything better, and in particular we know we have to start better against the All Blacks. Our general intensity has to go up, because New Zealand tend to take their opportunities. Wales, in the first and second Tests, created a lot of opportunities and didn't take them. But the All Blacks do.''

As importantly, Pocock knows he will play a critical role in the outcome of this Test. The breakdown battle will be decisive, and with the All Blacks showing during the Ireland Test series that their intensity at the tackle is of the highest standard, Pocock's openside breakaway work will be important in providing a handbrake. As important will be how new Wallabies blindside breakaway Dave Dennis, and No.8 Scott Higginbotham, combine with Pocock.

But Deans also argued it is imperative Pocock gets a fair deal. The coach was irritated during the Wales series that Pocock was often held back by opponents after the breakdown so that he had no involvement in the next few phases. Deans called on the touch judges to properly adjudicate that area, as he believes the All Blacks, knowing how pivotal Pocock is to the Wallabies' plans, will try similar tactics.

''It's not so much at the breakdown, but what's happening long after the breakdown is over,'' Deans said. ''The ball is gone, the game is carrying on and players are being denied the ability to participate. It's the touch judges' responsibility because the referee, invariably, is watching the game, which is somewhere else.''

But one area where Deans is forever evasive revolves around his new opposing coach Steve Hansen. As expected, Hansen, in his first Bledisloe Cup battle as head All Blacks coach, has tried to provoke his old Canterbury playing and coaching partner with old-fashioned sledging.

The All Blacks coach this week had a dig at the Wallabies forward pack, and also suggested Deans made a succession of selection bungles during last year's World Cup. The inference was Deans no longer had confidence in World Cup five-eighth Quade Cooper, who has not been picked for this Test.

Asked about the comments yesterday, Deans laughed and said: ''Steve is a very good fisherman. He loves fishing.''

Hansen will keep tossing the burley in Deans's direction during the season. But the ever cautious Australian coach will keep spitting out those smelly bite-sized pieces of pilchard. He has been around too long to attack low-grade bait.

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Sitting pretty for the run home

Illustration: Jim PavlidisFINAL WORD
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THE Tigers, in my observation, have more supporters who go to the footy dressed up and in costume than any other club.

Last Sunday, as the Olympics were closing and the Brits were preparing to put on a show to dazzle the world, Richmond was playing the Bulldogs at the MCG.

The Tiger Army, full of ribald chants, was about a dozen rows behind us. Around us were middle-aged women in black and yellow outfits that made them look like semi-inflated wasps and the odd young man in a head-to-toe Tiger suit. In front of us were two demure young Asian women, both dressed in black, one wearing a head scarf which suggested she was a Muslim.

At half-time, unable to contain my curiosity, I leant forward and asked the young women where they were from. They were international students from Malaysia. Someone had given them free tickets to the match. They had cardboard sheets with autographed photos of all the Richmond players.

''The game,'' I told them, ''is crazy, but beautiful.''

They nodded and smiled as if to say that was as they had found it. The Tigers gave the Dogs a thumping. The Dogs played some pretty football but lacked the big, capable players who hold a football team together the way buttons hold a cardigan. It's hard for me to look at the Tigers and think they shouldn't have done better in 2012 but I think about Carlton, too. It's a bias I have towards teams with recognisably individual talent as opposed to teams like Sydney and North Melbourne that have a near-uniform identity.

In the case of the Tigers, I like watching Dustin Martin play.

He's the football equivalent of a four-wheel-drive with a tray full of work equipment and red dust on its sides.

He's quick, strong, reads the play and kicks the ball long. He slaughtered the Dogs. And I like watching Trent Cotchin play. A lot of people do - he's young and good-looking, a one-touch player with a quicksilver mind who is deceptively slow in his movements so that it constantly seems like he is performing tricks or acts of football magic.

A Brownlow for Cotchin would be like an Olympic gold for Tigerland and be received by the Tiger Army with that degree of reverence.

Another team I like watching is West Coast. Mick Malthouse was a mighty coach but I would argue that John Worsfold's Eagles teams have been better to watch than Malthouse's Eagles even though Malthouse's sides had more talent. The Eagles teams of the early 1990s were strewn with great names - Matera, Jakovich, Kemp, Lewis, Mainwaring, McKenna - but the captain of that formidable unit was John ''Woosha'' Worsfold.

A pharmacist by trade, he played with a lot of nous and had a small boy's smile when interviewed after games. On the field, if he got the chance, he'd hit you like a semi-trailer and leave you in a trance. Malthouse's teams were solid as cement. Woosha's teams, for one reason or another, have been more fragile but, again this year, the Eagles are in the finals mix.

The big controversy in Perth this week concerned Geelong coach Chris Scott saying the West Coast crowd was the worst in Australia. This followed Geelong's Tom Hawkins being booed by a small section of the Perth crowd last weekend as he was being carried off senseless.

Seeking to further plumb the West Coast psyche, I found a website for West Coast supporters.

The post I read alleged the Eagles were cheated of the 2005 premiership through the systematic intimidation of the umpires during the course of that season by Sydney coach Paul Roos. It included this view of Worsfold: ''One of the things I most like and respect about Worsfold is that he keeps his trap shut when things don't go our way - he simply has far too much class and fortitude to go all crying to the media when things go wrong.''

It made me realise something I had either forgotten or not properly processed: Woosha is a hero in the West. These are the passions beginning to stir as we close on September and the finals.

Sydney and Adelaide, sitting one and two on the ladder, are looking at home finals, but Malthouse said this week they aren't the two best teams in the competition which, if true, is a serious indictment of the AFL roster. Beneath Sydney and Adelaide sit Hawthorn, Collingwood and Geelong.

Collingwood was built during the terrible depression of the 1890s on the principle that no individual is bigger than the club. As the suspension of Dane Swan showed, Collingwood is still Collingwood. The Pies are a tough, attractive team but Hawthorn played the best footy I've seen this year when it defeated Collingwood in round 17.

Geelong, meanwhile, is defiant, like Nellie Melba being told the time has come to leave the stage when she can see further great performances ahead for herself.

I have no idea who will win. I don't know anyone who does - it's that sort of year. All I know is that on the last Saturday in September, the season will have a crazy but beautiful climax. People around Australia, and around the world, some in costumes and some with painted faces, will be gathered in groups, shouting at televisions.

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Old boys in awe of classy North

GREG Miller was one of the key architects of North Melbourne's dominance through the 1990s. As chief recruiter and later general manager, he helped build a side that featured in seven preliminary finals and claimed two premierships.
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Those North teams, led by the likes of Wayne Carey, Glenn Archer and Anthony Stevens, boasted skill and muscle, something the Kangaroos have not been able to replicate since those heady days - until now.

Miller has watched the Kangaroos intently in recent months and has marvelled at the development of a team that has won eight of its past nine matches heading into tonight's blockbuster against Collingwood at Etihad Stadium.

''This current group are playing the best football since the late '90s - the style of footy and the precision,'' Miller said.

''It is the best assembled group and skill level that I have seen. Their skill level is fantastic. I have seen their sides that have made finals [in 2007 and 2008] - this side is better. Their football is better.

''I have seen the Kangaroos play all their games recently and I can't believe they are playing unbelievably good footy.

''They were just miles ahead of Essendon in their movement of the footy [last Sunday]. Everything they did was first class. They have come a long way.

''They are very fit, obviously. They are leading and moving at one end and moving at the other end. They put Essendon to shame in that regard.''

The victory over the Bombers was pivotal, for the Kangaroos dislodged a team that earlier this year was considered a premiership favourite, prompting Carey to declare his former team had now taken the ''next step''.

Now comes an even mightier step, against a Collingwood side that has embarrassed the Kangaroos by an average of 80.5 points in their past four meetings. The Magpies have won all 16 quarters.

''I think they [North] are one of the form sides of the competition,'' Carey said.

''Obviously, they have got their troubles now with injury, which they haven't had, but the way they played on the weekend, they have certainly proved they have improved as a side and winning games that are important to them.

''It feels like they have taken that next step, but once again it's another challenge this week against arguably the best side in the comp.''

Good management and luck had allowed the Kangaroos to avoid soft-tissue injuries until last weekend, but they have been forced to make three changes with Daniel Wells (calf), Leigh Adams (shoulder) and Nathan Grima (hamstring) out.

Carey said the move to three marking forwards - the developing Robbie Tarrant and Lachie Hansen working alongside veteran Drew Petrie - was working well.

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Armfield gives it his best shot

Thinking man: Dennis Armfield is trying to keep things simple and help himself and his team.WHEN Dennis Armfield started playing in Carlton's forward line he was certain of just one thing: he did not, unless absolutely necessary, want the ball to be in his hands, as he lined up a shot for goal. ''It sounds silly, but I didn't think that was my duty,'' he said. ''I went down there to play as a defensive forward and when you do that, you think, well, defensive is the word. I thought, if I'm not near it then my opponent won't be near it, but now it's turned into realising that if you've got it, he doesn't. I'm getting used to it. It took a few weeks of Brett Ratten saying, 'What are you doing? Try to attack!' ''
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It's six or seven weeks since Armfield - at times a backman, at other times a wingman and often a bit of both - was shifted to a whole new part of the ground, asked to use his pace, to tackle, then do it all again. The move came at a time when the Carlton side had been stripped of several senior players through injury and needed those who were left to make sure the team somehow started to win. Armfield has done his part. But while his instructions have been simple from the start, his interpretation has needed to be adjusted.

For one thing, he needed to stop thinking, which hasn't been easy, given it's what he has always done too much of.

''I've always been a person who sort of looks for the negative side of things first. Then if that happens you're prepared for it and you expect it, and if it doesn't then you can feel happy and a bit relieved,'' he said. ''I found that if I didn't get into a game in the first quarter, I'd never get into it. If I missed a kick early or my opponent got the ball early I'd think about it all the time and by the end of the game I would have made more mistakes and they would have got a lot more kicks.

''I've had to do something about it and I've had to say to coaches, how do I stop this and just live more in the now? Nick Duigan told me that one of his mates who thought bad things would whack himself in the leg whenever he found himself doing it, to make himself forget about it and move on, and I'm not that extreme but I try to talk to a teammate or lay a block, little things that might help my teammates and just get me back into the game.

''I tend to hang on to things for days thinking, 'Should I have done this? Should I have done that? Why didn't I do this or that?' but now I'm trying to just think about the moment and what I can do about it. Every week, I use the first training session to work on the things I didn't think I did well, whether it's kicking or just cracking in - as much as you can crack in at training at least, considering they're your teammates. I'm working on it, but I know now that if I do my job and do what's asked of me I'll be OK. If I don't, that's my fault. It's pretty basic that way.''

He has applied the same thinking to his new role. When Armfield first played forward his head was filled with a million things. ''I was over-analysing things again,'' he said. ''I felt I had to get this many possessions, this many chases and this many tackles, and I was getting a bit caught up thinking, thinking and thinking, putting expectations on myself and trying to lock down on my player and not really thinking about the things I could bring to it, how I could make them play on me, too.''

The role has been complex, in some ways: doing enough research on his opponents that he knows which defenders like to go up in marking contests, who stays down, and which side of the play they run to.

''I've played on a few different types and if you focus on their strengths, you can try to take them away from that and get them to play to their weaknesses. So then if they beat me, they're going to have to beat me at one of my strengths, or one of their weaknesses,'' he said.

''Some players like to see the play in front of them, so you can try and make it so they have to run backwards or run around. It's little things, but if you can take them away from the strengths three or four times a game, hopefully it helps us kick goals. So there's that, but in the end, all I really have to do is crack in.

''My two strengths are my run and my tackle pressure and that's what all the coaches say, if I bring that then the rest of my game will come with it. John Barker's my forwards coach and he calls it the pit-bull attitude: if the ball's there get it, and if the man's there, tackle it. It's been simplified for me and I know that sounds stupid - why can't you simplify it yourself? - but sometimes you do get caught up thinking.

''Ratts was saying it week after week - that I didn't just have to lock down - and finally you start to have confidence in it. Things are clearer now. I know what I have to bring, what I need to do to play good footy, and that's all I've got to do, those few things.''

There are some things Armfield hasn't got used to, just yet, though: if he can give off a pass or a handball, rather than shoot for goal, he's much happier. ''I like that feeling of being the link man,'' he said, ''and feeling like you've contributed to someone's success if they run on and kick the goal.''

Still, that he's kicked 16 goals for the season - six in the past three weeks - is no accident, and perhaps where Armfield's worst-case scenario tendencies have worked in his favour.

''In previous years, I've run into goal and missed, so I've thought, 'OK, I might only get 30 shots for the year, so I want to make sure that turns into 25 goals','' he said. ''I work on that on the training track all the time, trying to make the most of my opportunities, but if I can give it off, that's better. That gives me a lot more joy.''

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AFL puts integrity on the line as tanking probe continues

ANDREW Demetriou maintains tanking does not exist, but, if an investigation into Melbourne proves otherwise, any punishment will be handled by the AFL Commission.
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AFL integrity officer Brett Clothier is continuing his investigation into claims made by former Demons midfielder Brock McLean that Melbourne did not want to win matches in 2009 and he has interviewed several officials, coaches and players associated with the club at the time, including former senior coach Dean Bailey.

Demetriou, the AFL chief executive, said tanking, if proven, was one of the worst acts a club or player could commit.

''Anything that affects the integrity of the competition, we put in that basket things like the salary cap, we put in that basket performance-enhancing drugs, we put in that basket things that relate to betting scandals, information sharing and, of course, tanking if that exists,'' he said yesterday.

The Demons won four matches and finished last in 2009 to qualify for the top two picks in the national draft, including a priority pick. They used these picks on Tom Scully and Jack Trengove.

The AFL maintains there is no time frame for Clothier to file his report, although it is felt the league would want it completed before the finals, particularly if there are damaging findings.

Clothier will present his report to AFL operations manager Adrian Anderson, who will then decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant the commission handing down a sanction.

''It's an ongoing investigation, I understand Brett has conducted several interviews and has got more to complete, and we'll await the outcome of that report,'' Demetriou said.

Geelong football manager Neil Balme yesterday questioned the validity of the investigation, claiming it was ''a political investigation to look like they're doing an investigation''.

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Star colt centre of attention

THE return today of Australasian racing's most valuable colt, All Too Hard, at Rosehill will attract abnormal scrutiny with major horse studs circling following revelations that the horse's owner Nathan Tinkler is reducing his investment and could sell his entire stock and holdings under the Patinack Farm banner.
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It was reported in The Age yesterday that the Patinack Farm racing and breeding operation had been offered for sale for $200 million. It was confirmed yesterday that Patinack Farm will offer around 350 horses for auction with the Gold Coast-based Magic Millions during a three-day horses-in-training sale from October 30.

All Too Hard, the half-brother to superstar Black Caviar, cost Tinkler $1.025 million as a yearling, and is already valued at about $10 million. That is likely to swell to $20 million and beyond if he can win a group 1 race this spring, in either or both next month's Golden Rose at Rosehill or the Caulfield Guineas the following month.

Patinack Farm has made no announcement on whether All Too Hard is for sale, but on type, performance and potential, he is an irresistible prospect for some of the larger studs in Australasia keen to buy into Black Caviar's immediate family.

A winner of three of his four starts in the autumn, All Too Hard is today marked about a $1.70 favourite to make a winning return to racing in the group 3 San Domenico Stakes.

Patinack Farm chief executive Peter Beer said yesterday that the time was right for a reduction of the massive operation. ''Patinack Farm operation is now one of the biggest in the world, with a very strong broodmare band,'' he said.

''We have reached a point where we need to reduce our numbers and we regret losing some of our best stock, but a decision had to be made. The sale will be filled with quality entries and will be a genuine reduction.''

John Hawkes, who trains All Too Hard with his sons Wayne and Michael, concerns himself solely with the fitness and well-being of the colt, and the trainer of some of the best colts of recent times in Octagonal and Lonhro, is well pleased.

He said this week that the colt would impress in the parade yard at Rosehill today. ''He was doing it on raw ability when he was a young horse,'' Hawkes said. ''He is much more physical, a much more stronger horse than he was as a baby. He used to lay down a lot when he was a young horse.

''Now he still does but nowhere like he used to. It was because he was just still growing. He used to eat and then lay down. He was kind of a young kid, all he used to do was eat and sleep, and they do that until they mature. Once they mature they don't have to sleep as much. He is just a bigger, stronger horse this time.''

Hawkes said his eyes were fixed on the Golden Rose in four weeks for the colt. ''We are trying to get to the Golden Rose first and then take stock,'' he said. ''There is no use getting ahead of yourself. It is a group 1 and worth $1 million, we can look at other races after that, including the Caulfield Guineas.''

All Too Hard is unlikely to run into the only horse to have beaten him - Pierro - in the Golden Rose.

But Samaready, the filly that looms as the horse that All Too Hard will have to beat in the September 15 group 1 race, also begins her campaign on her home track at Caulfield today in the listed Quezette Stakes.

Jockey Jamie Mott is free to ride promising filly Lady Of Harrods in the Quezette.

He gained a reduction in his 10-meeting careless riding suspension from last Monday's Swan Hill meeting on appeal to the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board yesterday.

With aap

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Clubs will need CEO to collect new grants

NRL clubs will be required to have a chief executive and other senior officials to receive certain grants from the ARL Commission under a proposed new funding model aimed at ensuring their viability.
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The proposal, which is likely to have clubs receive different levels of funding depending on their needs, was the major topic of discussion at this week's meeting of NRL clubs. Since taking control of the game on February 10, the ARLC has been auditing clubs as part of a benchmarking process that will determine future funding.

It is understood that all clubs will continue to receive an annual grant from the ARLC that will cover the salary cap, which is expected to be $5 million next season.

However, they will be able to apply for additional funding to help pay for initiatives such as membership campaigns and match-day promotions.

To have the opportunity to apply for such grants, the Herald was told, clubs would be required to have a chief executive, a marketing manager, a membership manager and a community relations manager.

The club most obviously affected would be Cronulla, which does not have a chief executive and has fewer staff than any of their rivals.

The Sharks' set-up involves football manager Darren Mooney overseeing the day-to-day running of the football club, while chairman Damian Irvine is responsible for board matters. It is believed that the Sharks are now planning to appoint a chief executive.

Struggling clubs will also be able to apply for assistance grants but to receive extra funding they will have to meet certain conditions set down by the ARLC about how they are run.

It is understood the ARLC wants the clubs to operate more like businesses and is concerned that Brisbane and South Sydney were the only clubs whose football operations did not run at a loss last season.

Without funding from leagues clubs or private owners, few clubs would be financially viable and the new funding model is understood to have been proposed by the ARLC.

It was discussed at the meeting of clubs, which were asked to provide feedback before the ARLC council meeting on August 27. In attendance at the meeting will be the chief executive and chairman of each club as well as the eight ARLC commissioners.

The clubs are also seeking assurances they will receive the $500,000 each that they were promised late last year would be forthcoming once the new television deal is finalised.

Several club chief executives said that Tuesday's NRL Club Council meeting did not discuss the broadcast rights negotiations, the search for a new ARLC chief executive or issues such as refereeing standards.

"The common issue that people continue to have is financial viability of clubs, so there was a lot of interesting discussion about that and the approach the commission will have in coming years to addressing that problem,'' one said.

"That is the fundamental issue the clubs have. All of that other operational stuff is not things that clubs can or should have any interest or input into and people saying otherwise is just pure speculation. Whoever the new CEO is, it will be the best man or woman for the job.''

The Herald has been told that the number of contenders for the chief executive's job is down to two after interviews last week with applicants on a short-list of six.

It is rumoured that the successful candidate is someone whose name has been linked to the job previously and is from outside the game - sparking speculation the AFL's No.2, Gillon McLachlan, has been offered a $750,000 package.

McLachlan was reportedly in Sydney for a meeting on Thursday, which AFL boss Andrew Demetriou said was to talk to the AFL's broadcast partners, not to talk to the rival code.

''It would be surprising to me if someone hadn't spoken to him, or hadn't approached him, because he [is] very talented,'' Demetriou told radio 3AW. ''He is a very dedicated AFL person, loves the game and has been a great servant to myself and the game for 12 years. I hope he sticks around.''

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History shows winning ways lie in a game of follow the leaders

WHEN the Wallabies won the 1991 World Cup they had at least five assured, experienced on-field leaders - Nick Farr-Jones, Rod McCall, Simon Poidevin, Michael Lynagh and David Campese.
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Likewise in 1999 with John Eales, Tim Horan, George Gregan, David Wilson and Matt Burke, as did the 2011 All Blacks - Richie McCaw, Brad Thorn, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Kieran Read.

In times of trouble, and there have been many in the history of the Wallabies, a common cause for failure has been a shortage of proper leaders. As the Wallabies tonight begin a campaign to win the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in a decade, they argue that at last they are getting the required number of qualified on-field marshals to match the All Blacks in the mental and physical battle.

That is important, especially as their last loss to the All Blacks - in the World Cup semi-final in Auckland - revolved around some of those in charge losing their bearings, either by not doing enough, or getting flustered and trying to do too much. In the end, poor direction saw the Wallabies end their World Cup campaign prematurely.

There may still be an element of inexperience among those in charge at the Wallabies, but some are starting to take the right steps to indicate they are leaders of substance. And the higher the number the better the chances of success tonight.

The promotion of David Pocock to the captaincy role for the June Test series after James Horwill was sidelined through injury was a great decision. Real leaders require a sense of aura, know all about a sense of occasion, and their chief asset is commonsense.

Pocock has all of that. Like his direct opponent, McCaw, Pocock knows how to keep a referee on edge, is prepared to stand his ground and keeps his cool when others are losing theirs. As anyone who watched his recent appearance on the ABC television show Q&A, where he put federal MP and former tennis player John Alexander in his place, Pocock is a man of principle and can be very persuasive. He fits perfectly into so many different and demanding environments.

And it appears Pocock's off-field leadership is also a prime reason for the Wallabies looking surprisingly composed before the inaugural Rugby Championship. He has taken to the role with due diligence, putting in the hard work to ensure that everyone involved at squad level feels a part of it.

But as coach Robbie Deans stressed yesterday the leadership responsibilities cannot rest on just Pocock. It relies on many others in the team believing and then acting as true leaders. Deans yesterday put the pressure on Will Genia, Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale to also be on-field leaders.

''David can't do it by himself,'' Deans said. ''It's like the breakdown. He can't master that by himself. He needs support. We've been working hard in that area so he can thrive in games. It's crucial with leadership. We need people around him prepared to stand up and offer solutions, because he's busy with his head down quite often. We will rely on the directors of our game, like Will, Berrick and Kurtley to provide the initiatives.

''The rest of the group has to be responsible for the small stuff, which more often than not is the point of difference. It's not the big, grand stuff or big ideas, it's just people being accountable for their small part in it.''

Another crucial leader will be second-rower Nathan Sharpe. Of the Wallabies contingent, he is easily the most experienced in playing the All Blacks, and knows all about the agony of losing to them - having felt defeat in 18 of his 24 trans-Tasman Tests. But the Wallabies argue that at 34, Sharpe is playing the best football of his career, and is revelling in being a mentor.

But Sharpe knows the perfect mentoring role is not being an innocent bystander, but someone who has earned the right to carry the Bledisloe Cup under his arm.

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Kangaroos ready to take on Magpies, says Gibson

FOUR-TIME premiership coach Leigh Matthews drilled into his troops that anything longer than four weeks ago was ancient history. One of his former charges, North Melbourne coach Brad Scott, is determined to prove that tonight when his side takes on Collingwood at Etihad Stadium.
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Just ask in-form Kangaroo Sam Gibson. North plays the Pies for the first time this year after 87-point and 117-point thrashings from Collingwood last year - but those defeats are now distant memories. ''Collingwood are a very good side and we are acutely aware of that,'' Gibson said.

''We won't focus too much on what they're going to do. We'll just make sure that we're playing the game style we want to play and we'll do our best to nullify them as a whole.

''We've addressed a few things that perhaps didn't go right for us last year and we'll try to rectify that and put in a good performance.''

Indeed, North Melbourne, sitting sixth, has come a long way since the start of the season. Scott publicly blasted his side after its two-point loss to Port Adelaide in round eight, saying it was the first time he had questioned his team's effort.

Gibson hadn't made his AFL debut then (that came in round 12 and since then the side has only lost one match). But he knows the team seized Scott's words and has been determined that its effort will never be questioned again.

After years of being ''denied in the draft'', North recruited Gibson last year from Hawthorn VFL affiliate Box Hill, where he was captain.

''Having seen what it's like to not be in the system and wanting to be in the system, I know I'm going to try to do everything I can to stay there,'' he said.

''I've always had a bit of confidence in my ability but you never really know when you get, I guess, denied in draft after draft. You just have those … worries that perhaps you weren't cut out to play AFL.

''But I don't see myself as anything special. I just go out and play a role for the side and am just happy that I can be in a successful side at the minute.''

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The Kirribilli agreement: North's interest in Nathan Buckley, as reported in The Age in June 2009, prompted Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to broker a deal in July 2009 that gave coach Mick Malthouse two more years before Buckley would replace him.IT WAS nearly 20 years ago, but former North Melbourne powerbroker Greg Miller remembers the moment as if it was yesterday when he and coach Denis Pagan met a young Nathan Buckley, who at the time appeared more interested in munching on an apple than dealing with the Kangaroos.
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''I was there. That was at the Sheraton after the Rising Star,'' Miller said this week. ''He met with us but, again, he was very immature, sitting in the room with the people who signed him. I remember that day.''

That day was when Buckley, who had just quit the Brisbane Bears after a season, confirmed to North officials he would not join the club in time for the 1994 campaign, ending two years of haggling between the Kangaroos, Collingwood and Brisbane Bears that even involved the Magpies, unbeknown to Buckley, briefly hiring a fake player-agent for him and a private investigator secretly recording interviews between the warring Bears and the Magpies.

It was also the first of two ''sliding doors'' moments between Buckley and the Kangaroos. Had he joined North as a player, Miller believes he could have helped the club to four premierships in the 1990s. The Roos would win two.

Buckley would twice play in grand finals for the Magpies, but wouldn't taste success.

Buckley would also spurn the Kangaroos 16 years later when president James Brayshaw and chief executive Eugene Arocca, also a good friend of Buckley's, wanted him as coach after the departure of Dean Laidley.

It was this move that sparked the Magpies to enact their own ''Kirribilli agreement'' with Mick Malthouse, and for a secret push by North director Ron Joseph to pursue Malcolm Blight and Wayne Carey in a coaching double-act.

It remains to be seen whether Buckley can guide the Magpies to a flag before Brad Scott does with a developing North Melbourne list. That picture will become slightly clearer tonight when Buckley faces North Melbourne for the first time as a senior coach.

''Irrelevant,'' a no-nonsense Buckley insisted this week when asked how close he had been to accepting a deal to coach North.

That may be true but his history with North Melbourne remains a talking point for those from the club who dealt with him in the 1990s, and in more recent times.

''There is a long history there,'' Miller said. ''He signed with us in '91, a week after he played his first senior practice match in central Australia in Alice Springs with Port Adelaide.''

Buckley, as a naive 20-year-old, did sign, for three years, and was paid a $10,000 sign-on fee, literally in a brown paper bag in the carpark at Alberton Oval by Miller, a sum he would return home with and count on the kitchen table and divide into $1000 parcels.

The ''scheming and skullduggery'', as Buckley put it, which followed, makes for a ripping tale, and one that was detailed in Buckley's autobiography - Nathan Buckley, All I Can Be.

To avoid having to worry about other clubs taking Buckley at the 1992 national draft, Miller had been able to persuade the AFL that Buckley was of Northern Territory origin, despite being born in South Australia, and therefore was zoned to Brisbane as the Bears had priority access to any Territory player at the time.

That Buckley should have at least played a reserves match for the Bears to comply with this ruling was overlooked at the time.

Miller hoped this would then allow him to deal directly with the Bears, allowing Buckley to join North in 1993.

However, the Magpies were soon made aware of this tactic, which they felt was illegal, and hijacked North's plans.

The Bears, tired of being abused since their inception, suddenly decided to play hard ball under coach Robert Walls and not release Buckley during the 1992 trade period. Initially against his wishes, Buckley had little option but to play with Brisbane by default in 1993.

Once that year was over, though, Buckley made it clear he was leaving for Melbourne.

North was hopeful he would reject Carlton, Geelong, Essendon and Collingwood and still head to Arden Street - until Miller and Pagan met him after the Rising Star award, which Buckley had won.

Wayne Carey details these events in his book, Wayne Carey: The Truth Hurts.

''They walked into the room and, as the story was repeatedly told to us later, Nathan didn't get off the bed to greet them. He just lay back with his head resting on his hands, occasionally moving one of them to take a bite out of an apple,'' Carey wrote. ''The North officials were slightly taken aback by this offhand treatment, but went about pleading their case and selling the club as a great destination for an ambitious young footballer.

''A short time later, Nathan sent back word to the Roos saying he wanted to play in a premiership side and he didn't think that North Melbourne was going to see much September action in the short term so he was politely declining our invitation.

''Well, didn't that get a few people riled at North? Denis [Pagan] was all steamed up, as were others, not so much at Nathan's decision to spurn the Roos - although that was hard enough to take given that we had been the first to sign him up and paid him $10,000 - but the reasons he gave. As though we were a bunch of no-hopers.''

Pagan would remind his players before every Collingwood game how Buckley, ''looking like f---ing Marilyn Monroe'', had disrespected them, prompting many of his players to mercilessly sledge the champion midfielder.

''You didn't want to play here, but who's playing in the finals now?'' was one sledge.

Carey, who has recently scolded Buckley over the Magpies' decision to suspend Dane Swan, told The Saturday Age this week: ''The Denis Pagan story. He would bring it up every time that we played them. I heard that story a few times.''

Said Miller: ''There was an ongoing angst by our players against him because he said to us when he reneged under contract that he wanted to play finals because during the '90s, when we were playing finals and Collingwood wasn't, the boys kept reminding him.

''We had a very loud-mouth group of players who wouldn't play with the current no-pushing, no-mouthing-off rules.

''We had guys like David King, and [Mick] Martyn, and [Dean] Laidley, [Glenn] Archer and Carey, we had some of the biggest mouths in the game. That was just the way of the time, they were all pretty good at it.''

One player who did not sledge Buckley was Wayne Schwass, who would match up on the six-time Copeland Trophy winner.

''He was probably one of the only blokes I didn't get stuck into. He wasn't one of the guys that you could have a crack at because he wouldn't have a crack back. You would leave it alone,'' he said.

According to Carey, Buckley would struggle to dominate the Kangaroos through his career. Buckley later admitted he had not handled the contractual discussions well with his eventual player manager, Geof Motley.

''Despite my justification at the time, I'm not proud of the way I treated Greg Miller and North,'' he wrote. ''I had a choice - to stand firm and see where it all ended, or to jump ship. The fact is, I reneged on a contract, legal or otherwise, and there's no sidestepping that. I was an immature 20-year-old, ignorant about the circumstances I found myself in. But at the time I felt more like a pawn being moved by far more influential characters than me.''

What North had conveniently forgotten through the years was that Buckley had returned the $10,000 in 1992, secretly directing the money into a North bingo account after the club had refused to take the money because Buckley had felt ''they wanted to maintain the moral high ground''.

When Brayshaw approached Buckley to lead his club in 2009, it was a very different man the Kangaroos were dealing with. As captain of the Magpies, Buckley had emerged as one of the great leaders and his tactical acumen meant he was destined to become a coach.

Just where, though, was an intriguing debate, even though it was felt he would eventually land at Collingwood. That did not stop North from wooing him, a move that heaped pressure on the Magpies and prompted worried Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to broker a deal that gave coach Mick Malthouse two more years before Buckley would replace him.

The North Melbourne board would have endorsed Buckley had Brayshaw and Arocca been successful but some directors did have concerns.

Ron Joseph said this week: ''In my view, I felt that, just like a boss, he needed to go out in the world and learn under somebody who had experience.''

Buckley would do that under Malthouse for two years and now has the Magpies primed for another run at a premiership.

Miller, for one, has been impressed with Buckley's development through the years and what he has achieved this season. Any bitterness from the post-season of 1994 has long gone.

''He has grown up an immense amount since then and he has made his quiet apologies and he has written things in books and done all sorts of things,'' Miller said.

''You have got to admire him, the way he has handled it since then. He was a very young kid at the time, was seduced by Collingwood. Obviously he would have played in premierships [at North], maybe more than two … if he had stayed in Brisbane, he would have played in [three].

''At the end of the day, he has been at a great club and he is now coaching that great club. While he has missed out on match-day premierships [as a player], he now has the opportunity to coach a day premiership.

''In those days, when he was young and he had those nicknames, players used to give it to him on the field because he made some naive junior comments.

''I have got to say, personally, he got his peace with me pretty early because he was very open and very honest and said it as it was. Personally, I am proud of him at what he has achieved.''

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