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The ridiculous Willie Mason saga

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George Riley George Riley | 06:48 UK time, Friday, 22 April 2011

Rugby league's top story this week hardly merits a hearty pat on the back for the game, or its rulemakers. When the latest twist in the Willie Mason soap opera was leaked on Thursday lunchtime, I did my best to explain it to my colleague on the 5 Live sports desk before chuckling and admitting "I know, it's a ridiculous one this isn't it?.

Having been acquired as "arguably the biggest signing in the club's illustrious history" last September and paraded as a rugby league superstar when he arrived at Hull KR only last month, Mason now finds himself de-registered.

Why? Well Rovers were able to exploit a loophole in the laws governing overseas quotas and de-register their injured Australian half-back Michael Dobson to pave the way for Mason's initial arrival.

The plan was for Mason to grab himself a Tongan passport and be excluded from the quota by the time Dobson was ready to return from injury. The problem is that Dobson is now fit, Mason's passport has not been rubber-stamped and two into one does not go.

So the man with monster hits and a monster wage-packet now sits it out until he either gets his passport or the club decide to give up and do a deal elsewhere. Rugby union side Toulon have already been linked with "Big Willie", who has not ripped into Super League as explosively as many expected.

Willie Mason

Rugby league giant Mason has been linked with a move to rugby union side Toulon

It has been some story for Mason, an Australia international who has a Tongan mother but was born in New Zealand. He even visited the King of Tonga to try to gain a Tongan passport and cut through the red tape that had threatened his move to Super League.

But it is also a story that does not paint our game in a great light. I cannot help feel that this situation should never have been allowed to arise.

I do not blame Rovers. They have had a look at the rules and seen a way to bend them.
But the Rugby Football League can hardly be enjoying this.

Would we even entertain the notion of trying to accommodate a "lesser" player in such a clumsy manner? And does this now give the green light to other teams to make as many marquee overseas signings as they like, safe in the knowledge they can just rota them all on and off the quota throughout the season?

Cue a flurry of major signings just before the play-offs!

I exaggerate, of course, but this is a situation that does baffle me.

Moving on from the Mason story, I spent last Friday at what has become my second home during my exile from Yorkshire - the Twickenham Stoop.

This was a big night for Harlequins given the worrying attendance problems that threaten their licence bid.

RFL boss Richard Lewis said last week that the London club's poor turnouts should not be seen as a reflection of their success or otherwise. But the existence of attendance figures on the Super League licence criteria is an unavoidable argument.

So, having averaged crowds of only 2,500 at home this season, Quins chief executive Gus Mackay made a big call, dishing out 2,500 pairs of free tickets for the game against Castleford via the Evening Standard newspaper.

I put it to Mackay before the game that this was a no-win gesture. If people turned up, then the critics would say the club could only get a decent gate by giving out freebies. If the attendance was still low, then Mackay would be told that he couldn't even give tickets away.

The official gate was 4,128 - and those who showed up witnessed a thrilling 26-26 draw.

Harlequins cannot give away free tickets every week, so the hope is that those who came to the Stoop last Friday will have enjoyed it enough to head back for more.

From having a beer with club captain Rob Purdham and man-of-the-match Luke Dorn in the bar afterwards, it was clear the players had noticed the difference.

Coach Rob Powell told me he felt the atmosphere inside the ground had helped his team fight back to grab a point.

Finally, do not let anyone tell you there are no characters in rugby league. Ryan McGoldrick is a striking Australian covered neck to waist in tattoos, including a topless female torso on his chest.

Castleford's Ryan McGoldrick

McGoldrick (left) is yet to feature this season because of a knee injury

The Castleford player has been forced to apologise following a newspaper article about a club he has built in his back garden.

McGoldrick insists: "It is neither a night club nor a strip club. It is a kennel/outbuilding." Either way, I am told his club were not too impressed.


  • Comment number 1.

    rules are rules i guess and as long as HKR follow them to the letter no one can argue they have done anything wrong. the service that HRK (probably unwittingly) have done to our sport is serve to highlight was an "ass" the rules actually are....if it cant be suggested that HKR broke any rules then it certainly can be argued that they broke the spirit of the game and made a few people look very silly in the process ! Its a good time now to reflect of the Mason saga and make sure that something similar does not happen again......the do nothing approach would be a fundamental dereliction of duty by our administrators and absolutely not an option !

  • Comment number 2.

    What I don't get is, why does he not count towards the overseas quota when he's Tongan, yet he does when he's Australian?

  • Comment number 3.

    "I do not blame Rovers. They have had a look at the rules and seen a way to bend them."

    I blame Rovers. They've tried to pull a fast one. It might not be against the letter of the law, but it's clearly against the spirit. I'm not a Hull KR hater, or a rugby league fan (just a union man that respects league), and I've got no axe to grind. It just seems fairly obvious that they've tried to exploit a loophole, knowing full well what they were doing, and it's backfired on them. Somehow it feels like they've got what they deserved.

    Legal? Yes.
    Ethical? No.

    (and in response to any union bashers: you're right, union has it's fair share of poor decision makers at club/board level as well.)

  • Comment number 4.

    Tongan's don't count a foreigners due to the Kolpak ruling. This states that nationals of countries that the EU has certain trade agreements with have the same freedom of work and movement that EU nationals do. The EU has such a treaty with Tonga, but not Australia or New Zealand.

    I think this is all a bit of a storm in a tea cup really. The people at fault are the Tongan passport authorities. I mean, how many people are trying to get a Tongan passport at the moment? Given making Willie a Tongan would give them the right to tax him, and he is probably a wealthier Tongan, it's incompetence that is costing everyone.

    Given it's an arbitrary delay, and given Willie's box office draw, seems a shame that the RFL aren't willing to bend their rules. So Willie can't play this week but he can next week once the Tongan passport hits his doormat? Arbitrary .....

    It's Ben Cockayne's comments this week that have put East Hull and RL in a poor light

  • Comment number 5.

    Giving away freebies on that scale is a mistake- however well intentioned - plenty of sports organisations have done it - 1 club in football league one did it this week as well- see how many Quins get today and the football team in their next home game.

  • Comment number 6.

    It's not only an embarassing situation for HKR but an insult to the rules of sport that any overseas player can be registered, de-registered then registered again. HKR shoud have had this sorted long ago & if not, then the RFL should have stepped in to stop this from happening. We have the greatest sport on the planet yet we are expert at making ourselves look stupid in the sporting worlds eyes.

  • Comment number 7.

    What do the Union boys think of signing Willie Mason to play their game? At 31 I wouldn't blame him for going, the money, the drop in intensity, the money, the sunshine in the south of France, any player with his reputation and at this stage of his career would be mad to turn down an offer of the kind Toulon are dangling in front of him and his manager.

    That said as a Rovers fan I'd also be happy to see this entire debacle brought to an end and the club could find either a replacement or invest in youth.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ 7 Rob

    Nice attempt at a dig at rugby union "the drop in intensity". But having played both codes of rugby and american football I found rugby league, the least intense and entertaining to not only play but also watch. Saying that it is still miles better than football. Saying that, if there was no union near me I would happily go back to playing league and would happily watch a league game over that softies sport known as football!

  • Comment number 9.

    I'm not sure #4 is correct on this since the Kolpak ruling resulted in a huge influx of australians, south africans and kiwis into the Country Cricket circuit. Perhaps it's just a ruling to limit australians and kiwis keeping local players out of the teams they grew up supporting, but if the aussies weren't there, rugby league would cease to have enough players to make a championship in the UK. Not surprising that Harlequins don't have crowds, when London already has 3 or 4 big Union clubs, where Union is dominant. Is it worth keeping a token capital presence? Why not make it a league of the Roses, since Yorkshire and Lancashire provide 80% of the teams?

    As for Toulon signing this Mason chap, I think they've already got their hands full with their new recruit Henson, who on the contrary already knows rugby union.

  • Comment number 10.

    What is most ridiculous is the fuss about this has-been. He looked out of place with North Queensland last year and came to full for a final pay day. Not the greatest Australian export ever, still at least he's not Jeff Lima. As an ex-pat in the colony it makes me sad to see this level of dross marketed as 'marquee'; this is part of the reason our game is just so far short of Australia's right now.

  • Comment number 11.

    People miss the point. If HKR were signing a 4th Aussie Int when they already had the max 3 then maybe they could just be forgiven. Just looking at today's derby squad, they fielded 8 overseas players, even without Mason.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm not really a rugby fan but do know of Willie Mason very well due to be located in Newcastle, Australia - where Mason grew up and played for Toronto.

    Have to say, he is an awful person. Disgusting manners, horrendous alcohol abuse and non stop fights in clubs and bars in and around the area. I would not recommend any club go to these efforts to sign him. I am unsure of his reputation in UK and Europe but I can tell you that when Newcastle Knights tried to sign him here not too long ago there were a few protests to say the least. In my opinion, not worth the trouble.

  • Comment number 13.

    The rules regarding foreign players are a joke and need to be reformed more drastically than what is gradually happening, and some teams use the rules to the full extent to employ as many non european born players as possible to help keep them competitive, and to an extent I have to support teams doing this as I support Sheffield and they have/had some good players recently that are/were only their because of these loop holes, ie Menzie Yere, Misi Taulapapa, Tangi Roparti, Dane McDonald, Brendon Lindsay and the most recent singing Quentin Togaga'e.
    Also I wonder if Toulon are genuinely interested in signing a player like Mason with the background he has after, what looks like, being messed by Gavin Henson, or have they got that much money it doesn't matter if he performs or behaves.

  • Comment number 14.

    As a Rovers fan I have mixed feelings about the Mason signing. He's definitely good box office but has been out on his feet after 20 mins when I've seen him and I worry if he has either the desire or ability to get back to full fitness and make a genuine impact. Hopefully he proves me wrong. The de-registering of Dobson was very worrying and easily the most troubling episode of this saga so I hope that has been put to bed once and for all. Let Willie sit until he gets his passport or decides to move on.

  • Comment number 15.

    Texrugger (8), I share your irritation with Bob's unnecessary dig at union(7). It's fairly unlikely that a forward will make the transition either way in the two codes.

    On the other hand, I'm always amused when posters put comments like, 'having played both codes and American Football.' Oh yes? and to what level have you played these three sports?

  • Comment number 16.

    As far as George having difficulty explaining the situation to his colleague on the sports desk, so what? Explain it this way George. Rugby League is there to provide entertainment for the crowds in a competitive sports market.Full stop. Willie Mason is a spectacular player (generally) and will draw the crowds. Rugby League does not exist to serve the administrators but entertain the fans. Rules are there for a purpose, getting round the rules (so called) is another way of saying you are complying with them. The quota is a flawed concept particularly with regard to the country of origin discrepancies and why should trading relationships between countries (which are changeable anyway) have any impact on clubs ability to sign high calibre players. The game is over administered and there is too much red tape. We must create or wither on the vine and I say good luck to Hull KR for having the creativity to get Willie over in the first place.

  • Comment number 17.

    Mason had his agent shop him around the NRL, and there were no takers.

    What does that tell you?

    He was always looking for more cash at the Dogs, Easts & the Cowboys.

    Take the Rugby cash on offer in France while you still can.

    And, RFL, sort your act out re player registrations...

  • Comment number 18.

    A drop in intensity, your having a laugh, union players go to league for a rest, uncontested scrums, can't steal the ball, 12 interchanges so players can have a rest and a pitch that's only 78m wide (is that for the wide game!!!) before you have a dig at union have a look at how your game is viewed by everyone else outside of it.

  • Comment number 19.

    Edinburghpilgrim - it seems you need to better understand both sports before having a dig !!!

    Complaining that a RL pitch is ONLY 78 m wide is very funny - the recommended sizes (taken from RFU and RFL web sites) for both sports are:-

    width RU MAX 70m RL recommend 68m
    length RU MAX 100m RL recommend 100m
    in goal RU Max 22m RL recommend 6-11m

  • Comment number 20.

    ...on another note....

    On Good Friday I took my 7 & 10 year old children to watch Pie's v Saints. What a game, what brilliant sportsman...everyone of them. No fouls, just pure pure sport at its best. Brilliant.

    The ref was treated with respect from start to end.

    Oh and after the whistle the Saints players showed how themselves to be the top sportsmen that they are.

    I'm a Wigan fan but even I can recognise what a credit they aer to the game with how they've brought on the endless stream of youngsters.

    I was proud to have taken my children to watch those players.

    ...and then last night I watch RM v Barcelona....where do I start...I'm sad to say I encouraged my 10 year old watch those 'great' they they treated the ref....shameful. Weak sport at its worst.

    RL really is the greatest 10 year say so !

  • Comment number 21.

    Ok rlexile I got the width of the pitch wrong, it's actually smaller at 68m!!!! Hmmmm what's your point???

  • Comment number 22.

    Pie N Tries: spot on. The way the media spoon feeds soccer to a mostly ignorant public is shocking. A game that rewards cheating & produces role models like Rooney. No thanks. Glad I moved down under...

  • Comment number 23.

    Oh dear #18....Opta stats show:

    League.... ball in play 50-55 mins in an 80 min game.
    Soccer... ball in play for 50 mins in a 90 min game.
    Yawnion...ball in play for 30-35 mins in an 80 min game.

  • Comment number 24.

    I don't have a problem with overseas players as some add to the super league but I believe that many of the clubs are creating great home-based talent and don't necessarily require many overseas players. My team the Huddersfield Giants have very few overseas players and are doing really well in the Super league. Even though all teams try to get the best possible line-up it goes too far sometimes as people are over-hyped and don't add as much to the game as suggested, the academies and quality of rugby league in Britain is strong at the moment so why don't clubs rely more on local talent and less on largely priced overseas players. Lets give the local lads more of a chance to impress at the highest level to improve our international pedigree


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