Bomber slow to take off but now he’s flying high

Shining light: Michael Hibberd is proving a major plank in Essendon’s 2013 success. Photo: Simon O’DwyerSo comfortable has Michael Hibberd looked at AFL level from the moment he stepped into the Essendon side three seasons ago that you’d think it had all come pretty easily to him.

The truth is, outside of game day, it’s been anything but. First, Hibberd had to battle just to get the chance to play, overlooked at draft time two years in a row before finally being picked up by the Bombers from VFL club Frankston at the end of 2010.

Then came the injury hurdles, the cool-headed defender suffering two major soft-tissue injuries in both of his first two seasons.

Then came a mess of his own making, a drunken nightclub incident in July 2011 that had him face court and fined for unlawful assault and recklessly causing injury. Hibberd was suspended indefinitely by Essendon, his AFL ambition almost curtailed before it had barely begun.

Now he’s plying his trade against a backdrop of Essendon’s performance-enhancing drugs controversy.

But if people are searching for evidence of that saga taking a toll on the Bombers’ performance, they’d better look anywhere but in the direction of the cool-headed 23-year-old half-back.

Hibberd, with an AFL career still just 28 games old, is proving a major plank of Essendon’s undefeated start to the season, and will be again on Friday night as the Dons take on Geelong – the AFL’s other unbeaten side. And after his various struggles, he’s not taking anything for granted.

”When I think about some of the stuff I’ve gone through, with the suspension and the hammies, it kind of hits you pretty hard at the time, but you come out stronger,” he says.

”It’s taken me a while to get here, and I just want to make the most of it and be the best I can be.

”I’m far from arrogant, but I want to be one of the best players every week, I want to beat every opponent I play on. I just want to be competitive and help us win games of footy, and any accolades are just a bonus.”

But a bonus at the moment that is well deserved. Because Hibberd’s trusty left foot is causing plenty of damage to opponents. He’s ranked second in the AFL for effective long kicks, equal fourth for intercept possessions, and equal fourth for combined rebound and inside 50s.

Averaging 24 disposals a game, only once has his kicking efficiency slipped below 75 per cent. But his attacking bent hasn’t come at the expense of his defensive expertise, the judgment call of when and when not to go the subject of much work between him and back-line coach Sean Wellman.

”I guess I’m lucky it’s something that comes pretty naturally, but reading the play and dropping off opponents at the right time is something Sean Wellman and I have worked on a lot, and we’ve been watching a lot of footage,” he says. ”It’s improving the more games I play and the more confident I get.”

And Hibberd won’t have to look too far on Friday night for a few more tips, even if they’re courtesy of the opposition. ”I’ve watched a lot of Corey Enright’s stuff over the last couple of years. He’s an absolute star. He’s a great intercept mark and a master at dropping off opponents at the right time … If I could get half as good as he is, that’d be great.”

But simply to have the opportunity to study a champion at close quarters is something for which Hibberd is grateful, an AFL career seeming a long way off when his TAC Cup peers were being picked up left, right and centre.

He’d played just one year with Dandenong Stingrays, even then injury intervening, plagued by groin problems and playing just half the season. Overlooked on draft day, he headed to Frankston, then coached by former Kangaroo and later Essendon assistant coach Shannon Grant.

”He did everything he could to get me on a list, but it wasn’t to be. I probably wasn’t ready for it, to be honest,” Hibberd concedes. ”I went back to Frankston for 2010, when Simon Goosey was coach, and he was the same, pumped me up quite a bit. Fortunately, Shannon was working here then. He spoke to [recruiting manager] Adrian Dodoro and the coaches, and they called me just before the pre-season draft. I had a meeting, had a training session and did OK, and they called my name out, which was great.”

After overcoming an early-season injury in 2011, Hibberd had played nine out of 11 games in the seniors by the time his nightclub fracas managed to injure his standing far more seriously than any torn muscle. Suspended by the club for the rest of the season and missing out on a finals appearance, it was a hard lesson, but one that he says has proved valuable.

”It really woke me up,” he says. ”I realised how much I loved playing footy and being around the club, and the next pre-season, I think I really grew up. I trained really hard, put my name up for selection in round one, and played the first five games before I did my hammy on Anzac Day. It was a big wake-up call, and something maybe I needed.

”I’d always trained hard when I was on the track, but there were a few things off the field … I really think I’m starting to become more professional now in the way I approach my rehab and the pre-season. And the club was good enough to stick with me and give me guidance where I needed it. Hopefully, I can repay the faith.”

Improved fitness is Hibberd’s latest goal, and the gains there have been as impressive as his increasing returns in games.

”When I got here, endurance was definitely one of my weaker points, but I had a really solid pre-season this year. I went to Colorado [for a high-altitude training camp] and that’s really helped me. I’m up in the running now with some of the midfielders, and that’s something that continually needs to improve to be a good AFL player.”

Fortune hasn’t necessarily always smiled on Hibberd. But he’s found that old cliche about the harder you work the luckier you get also proving a truism. And in 2013, that is proving Essendon’s good fortune as well.

Paul Cully: Waratahs have skill set to stop mauling by Stormers

As the Stormers tried to bully the Blues into submission last Friday night, one South African journalist sent the following pithy tweet. ”Heaven help us South Africans if the IRB ever bans the maul. We’d actually have to play some rugby …”

It was tongue-in-cheek of course, but not without truth. The maul has become the South African weapon of choice this season, particularly at the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls. So how can the Waratahs stop it against the Stormers on Saturday? There are several schools of thought.

The first, rather worryingly, is that you can’t. If it is set up quickly from the lineout, with depth and the right body position, the odds of preventing South African packs trampling over the top of you lengthen considerably: especially as there seem to be fewer penalties this season for putting men in front of the ball.

This raises the curly question of legality that the tweet alluded to. Mauling is certainly a skill, in that it requires timing and organisation, yet you could say the same thing about putting dummy runners in front of the ball to rumble into defensive lines. But that’s one for the IRB to deal with.

The second is that you can, and that is, in itself, a skill. Blues second-rower Ali Williams disrupted one Stormers lineout maul last weekend with a combination of long arms and aggression. In the previous round his teammate Luke Braid was penalised for trying to do the same thing against the Reds.

However, the waters get murky here. Very murky. Earlier this week, SANZAR referees boss Lyndon Bray admitted Williams should have been penalised, while Braid was actually on the right side of the law. That penalty against Braid, late in the Reds’ game, cost his side the match. In other words, you can be right in trying to stop the maul and still be wrong.

The third, and the one that has been most effective against the Stormers this season, is stopping them winning lineout ball in the first place.

It was the tactic used to great effect by the Crusaders in round seven when they beat the Stormers in Cape Town. However, not all teams have a second-row partnership of Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano, and the Stormers were missing outstanding youngster Eben Etzebeth that day. Still, you can predict a lot of lineout ball will go the way of Andries Bekker.

The fourth, and it’s an avenue open to the Waratahs because of a particular skill set in their back three, is to get out of their own territory. If it’s done effectively enough, the maul is taken out of the equation.

Cam Crawford’s tries have attracted the headlines since his introduction, but it’s his booming right boot that can also deflate opposition packs. He has been a real asset. Similarly, one reason why Drew Mitchell will no doubt still be very much in the minds of Wallabies selectors is his left peg. The Waratahs will want to use the ball of course, but that’s probably what the Stormers, with their suffocating defence, want too.

For all the celebrating about the Australian conference’s good record against New Zealand sides, the relatively poor one against the South Africans has been brushed to one side.

The Waratahs’ win against the Kings last weekend was just the fourth by an Australian side against a South African rival, compared with nine losses and a draw. That’s the sort of statistic that will get Warren Gatland thinking about what sort of brand of rugby he might use in a couple of months.

Favoured Brumbies forwards probably had question marks scrawled next to their names after the Crusaders went direct last Sunday and found hints of a pudgy underbelly.

The Waratahs’ pack can have question marks next to them erased if they cope with the confrontational Bekker, Etzebeth and excellent young loose-head Steven Kitshoff. If you want to play rugby against this lot you’ve got to get your hands dirty first.

Potential Storm boss not threatened by AFL

Melbourne Storm’s CEO-in-waiting Mark Evans says rugby league does not have to fight tooth and nail with the AFL in Victoria and, instead, sport as a whole should be trying to attract people away from other leisure pursuits.

In his first interview since being tapped by the club’s potential new owners to take over from chief executive Ron Gauci, the high-profile English rugby union administrator has outlined how he became involved, what stage takeover talks have reached and his initial impressions of the Australian sports scene.

Asked if was ready to roll up his sleeves and battle AFL, Evans said: ”No, I don’t think so. I think it’s about doing a good job yourself as a sport and competition. If you do that, nine times out of 10 people will come and watch.

”When I was in Australia recently, I noticed some cultural differences. In the UK, sport sees itself as a competitor with other leisure activities, like going to the cinema or whatever. You rarely have sports saying, ‘We have to keep ahead of … ‘ and name another sport. In most markets, rugby league and rugby union are not really competitors. Australia might be a bit different in that regard. Melbourne is different in that there are nine AFL clubs, rugby league, rugby union and two soccer clubs. But you just have to do your own job well and if you do that hopefully enough people will do what you want them to.”

Evans declined to comment on the identity of the London-based consortium that approached him to run the Storm but said he had initially conducted an informal, in-person assessment of the NRL and world premiers for the group before agreeing to become chief executive.

He added the sale of the club remained imminent. ”It’s close but not done,” he said.

The former chief executive of Harlequins and Saracens, and a consultant for this year’s Rugby League World Cup, Evans said Melbourne was a ”wonderful place” but he would not leave his London-based consultancy without regrets. “It’s not Somalia, is it?” he said when asked about the lifestyle change. ”This is an opportunity … it came out of the blue,” he said.

Beale breaches alcohol ban

Kurtley Beale’s rugby future has been thrown into doubt for the second time in six weeks after the Rebels five-eighth was caught breaching behavioural protocols in Melbourne at the weekend.

Beale has been stood down for the Rebels’ round 13 game against the Blues in Auckland on Saturday after being reported for drinking alcohol while out with friends last week, despite agreeing not to drink following his involvement in a drunken fight after the team’s loss to the Sharks in South Africa in late March.

Beale’s drinking was brought to the attention of Rebels chief executive Rob Clarke, who fronted his marquee player this week before taking the matter to the Rebels board on Wednesday night.

While uncertainty remains around the circumstances of the transgression, Fairfax Media understands he was not drinking when he and teammate James O’Connor went to AAMI Park to watch the Storm play the Raiders on Saturday night. The pair went on to dinner with a group and then to a gathering at which other Rebels players were present.

It is not clear whether any of Beale’s teammates saw him drinking but at some point, it is understood, members of the playing group noticed he was affected by alcohol and organised to remove him from the premises. It is believed the evening was over by 11.30pm.

Beale also missed a compulsory counselling session on Tuesday, Fairfax Media was told – his first transgression since committing to the process in March.

It is a disappointing lapse for the talented Test playmaker after his strong return from a month-long ban in the Rebels’ loss to the Chiefs 24 hours earlier.

While all parties involved, including his club, management, the Rugby Union Players’ Association and the Australian Rugby Union, will take into account the comparative minor nature of the incident, the timing could not be worse for Beale with the Wallabies squad announcement nine days away.

After sitting out this weekend’s match he will have four games up his sleeve to play his way into one of the final spots in the squad leading up to the first Test against the British and Irish Lions.

But if ARU boss Bill Pulver decides on a more severe course of action upon his return from Ireland next week, there will be wider ramifications for his future.

Rebels coach Damien Hill said Beale had been ”genuinely gutted” he had again slipped, but his latest breach in trust to the team would be ”testing the relationship” with his teammates. ”I think everybody who knows Kurtley wants to see the best for him, and he has a lot to offer rugby, but everybody, and Kurtley included, is conscious for that journey to continue his behaviours off field need to improve,” Hill said.

with Stathi Paxinos

Leaking of details may spark rebellion

People on Kurtley Beale’s side of the table are furious the precise details of the troubled player’s undertakings to the ARU were made public on Thursday, and that his Rebels teammates had not done more to support him on Saturday night. The Rebels and ARU released a broadly worded statement referring to a breach of ”behavioural guidelines” but within minutes it was being reported that Beale’s slip was over alcohol: that he had agreed not to drink but had done so in the presence of his teammates. The Rebels were careful not to go into who was and was not aware of Beale’s decision-making process after the Storm NRL game at AAMI Park but, notwithstanding valid points about personal responsibility, the incident raises further questions about the quality of leadership at the club. Beale’s future at the Rebels, already in serious doubt due to overtures from the Waratahs, now looks terminal.Horne dilemma

Will Rob Horne be at the Waratahs next season? The Test centre, who this year transitioned to No.12 for the Super Rugby side, is one of the only remaining starting back-line players yet to lock in his future in NSW or elsewhere.

Fellow Test-capped Waratah Adam Ashley-Cooper has re-signed, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes are set to move offshore, Cam Crawford is still on contract, Israel Folau is a work in progress, and it is expected that Peter Betham, Bernard Foley and Brendan McKibbin will all recommit to coach Michael Cheika’s squad in the coming weeks.

But there is less certainty as to Horne. The recent defection to NSW of Reds playmaker Jono Lance adds further intrigue, since there is speculation Cheika wants a kicker at inside-centre.

The salary cap will also play a part, particularly if NSW can keep Folau and sign Beale. Accommodating both those players, plus Ashley-Cooper and the likes of Wycliff Palu, Benn Robinson, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Sekope Kepu, will be a costly exercise.

In the course of Cheika’s book-balancing, a player such as Horne and even Lachie Turner might be asked to take a pay cut. It is also worth noting that Horne is highly regarded by his former coach Michael Foley, who has been recruiting his socks off at the Force.In a bind

It is becoming hard to keep up. From ”crouch, touch, pause, engage” to ”crouch, touch, set”, the International Rugby Board council has changed the scrum engagement call once more to ”crouch, bind, set” for a global trial set to start next season in both hemispheres.

In a move designed to enhance player welfare by reducing impact on engagement by up to 25 per cent at elite level (that’s the IRB’s figure), props will be expected to bind on to, instead of simply touching, their opponent, after the referee has called ”bind”. The front rows will maintain the bind until the referee calls ”set”, at which point the packs engage.

The Kiwis are jumping in early, trialling the change in this year’s ITM Cup before the Super season kicks off next year, while there is also a plan to use it in this year’s Rugby Championship.

The IRB hopes the move, which was used during the recent Pacific Rugby Cup, will lead to a more stable platform and fewer unpopular resets.