Thank God That's Over: League's Nightmare Centenary

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After months of turmoil, scandal and volatility, the Centenary rugby league season is now over and the difficulties both on and off the field for the Melbourne Storm have ended in the most unfortunate way — a record-breaking defeat by Manly 40-0.

This has been a debauched and spectacular Centenary of the National Rugby League with controversy yet again being the star player.

In some ways it’s fitting that the final game was played between teams representing the two factions of rugby league in Australia, the veterans of the Super League War. "The War" is remembered as the corporate wrestle during the mid-90s between the News Ltd-backed Super League and the Kerry Packer-backed Australian Rugby League — or alternatively, the time when rugby league decided it wanted to become the pay TV monolith of sport by ripping it’s own heart out and chopping it in half.

Once again, league’s problems are all about money. And alcohol.

The Melbourne Storm is wholly owned by Rupert’s News Ltd and reportedly loses $6 to $8 million per year. Manly is owned by businessmen Max Delmege and Scott Penn. Although in better financial shape (expected loss this year of $300,000), Manly will be wanting to sell plenty of their "2008 Premiers" t-shirts as their main sponsor Delmege Commercial (yes, the property development company belonging to the team’s part owner Max Delmege) is ending its $1 million annual sponsorship.

Manly have found a new sponsor in Colin Tidy’s Betchoice but they’ll have to work something out there, because the NRL won’t allow Betchoice to put its name on Manly’s jersey — the NRL has an agreement with another gambling entity, the TAB.

The NRL and most of it’s clubs not only have serious financial issues, the game in Australia is being shackled by poor attendances, the salary cap system, star players fleeing the continent for big money in Europe, wrestling on field (otherwise known as the grapple tackle) and, perhaps most significant of all, players’ indiscretions off the field.

This aspect has had the league-loving blogoshpere all revved up.

There is a "boys will be boys" attitude among much of the bovine league commentariat, but blogger David Weiner reminds us that this year has seemed worse than most:

The league boys have ticked all the soap opera boxes in 2008 — not only have we had sexual assault allegations, glassings, assaults and drinkers, but we’ve outdone ourselves this year with our own international fugitive. It’s so exciting I almost forgot that three players almost got shot before the year even started.

The shooting he’s referring to was the 3 March incident outside a Kings Cross nightclub in which shots were fired at star Parramatta player Jarryd Hayne and two teammates after an earlier incident inside. So maybe add "guns" to money and alcohol in that list of league’s problems.

Then there’s the glass problem, in particular the one Cronulla five-eighth Greg Bird allegedly used to glass his girlfriend, before apparently trying to blame it on his mate who was out playing golf. (So that’s another item on the list, unless glasses come under "alcohol".)

While these off-field distractions have provided plenty of fodder for the media, a post on nrlforum.com entitled "More Bird Shit on the NRL’s Centenary Windshield" expresses the widely held view among fans that these events are indicative of a more systemic crisis in the game:

While Hayne bounced back to retain his NSW spot, Bird, Carney and Sonny Bill Williams were meant to be the future of our sport — marquee players at their respective clubs who are now almost certainly lost to the game. David Gallop (CEO of the NRL) must be on the verge of a breakdown wondering how he can fix this cancer on Rugby League — there’s only so many alcohol awareness seminars he can send young players to.

The conflict between fans of the game and those players intoxicated by fame and ego (and perhaps alcohol) is nowhere more evident than at the Broncos. On the eve of their final game, the spotlight of public attention was shifted away from Wayne Bennet, the modest, hard-working coach who has detested alcohol and excess all his career, and towards his own players, who have been accused of sexual assault, intoxication and drug use during another nightclub incident.

To make it even worse, according to allegations repeated by Ray Hadley on his 2GB radio show, one player video-recorded the central incident on his mobile phone, to the distress of the 24-year-old woman involved. The players questioned by police over the affair were Broncos and Origin stars Karmichael Hunt, Darius Boyd and Sam Thaiday.

The suggestion of player involvement in criminal incidents is troubling for libidinous league fans like kiki at the "oherrol" blog, where she has posted her footy observations on morals, speedos and celibacy. By "observations" she means eye candy, and her proposed Sam Thaiday Innocence Project, which she thinks is necessary because "Surely a man who hands out carnations for mothers day couldn’t be involved in (alleged) yucky times?"

The last few weeks of the season were dominated by media coverage of the Melbourne Storm and their coach, Craig Bellamy. Bellamy vehemently rejected a decision made by the NRL Judiciary which saw the Storm’s captain banned for two matches (including the grand final) for the infamous "grapple tackle". Bellamy criticised the decision and the integrity of the judiciary members, resulting in a fine of $50,000 to be paid by the Storm to the NRL.

While judiciary members are considering legal action for defamation, Storm fans, like David Wiseman from theroar.com.au aren’t too impressed either:

We’re currently in the midst of the smear campaign to end all smear campaigns with the latest allegations that the Storm killed Bambi and liked watching Big Brother. The only thing the Storm are guilty of is winning games. Surely it would take something more significant to unite the NRL, News Limited rugby league scribes, and most of the Fairfax journalists?

But Fairfax have not been alone in the popular new sport of Storm-baiting. It’s intriguing that Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd press also seemed to be targeting the Storm, as News Ltd owns the Melbourne team. In fact, because News Ltd owns 50 per cent of the NRL too, Melbourne Storm’s $50,000 fine will be paid by News Ltd to an organisation it co-owns.

Melbourne Storm’s financial losses may be related to the fact that seemingly few Melbournians have any interest in rugby league. The highlights from Melbourne blogs around the whole issue include: "‘Melbourne Storm’ thrashed in stupid sport" and "Bring back the AFL…please!"

This league Centenary year has been a chaotic shambles of poor foresight and knee-jerk reactions to crises. Perhaps in celebrating its history there will be serious changes made to ensure league fans have a future competition to look forward to, otherwise fans, TV audiences and sponsorship dollars may continue to drift towards the other major sporting codes.

On the other hand, people have written off rugby league before, yet it’s still with us. Maybe there’s still enough passion left in league to see it through.

Anyone unsure just how passionate the league blogosphere really is should check out "Hitler is a West Tigers fan", and feel his pain as he decides whether or not to buy 2009 season tickets.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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