The Day the Wall Came Crashing Down

Filed in Other by on December 11, 2010

The king is dead. But he may no longer live. And it is doubtful we will see another.

On Monday word reached me that the Melbourne Storm were in a fair amount of strife. The rumour mill that runs through betting circles is rarely wrong but when I was told that the Storm situation was on “the Bulldogs scale” my first instinct was denial. Surely the NRL would protect the Storm. They are owned by News Limited and, if for no other reason, than to protect their investment in rugby league in Victoria.

I alluded to the trouble brewing in a recent piece and I kept my ear to the ground. Even when the money started to come for the Storm to win the wooden spoon and it became apparent that the Storm would be deducted premiership points for a salary cap breach, the money trail once again leading us to the stark reality that awaits us, I did not anticipate the depth of the salary cap rort or the force with which the NRL would act.

When David Gallop detailed the systematic and complex nature of the Storm’s salary cap breach and announced the penalty that the NRL was imposing, like many, I lost all colour in my face and was overcome with an incredible sense of sadness. A nasty tingling sensation took over my body and I was paralysed, temporarily, in front of my computer. The phone quickly started ringing and the emails started flying in and it was at that point I realised the bomb has just been dropped and the mushroom cloud was forming and that it would be weeks and months and years before the dust finally settled and sense could be made of it all. For the meanwhile, we would just have to try to get our heads around the sheer magnitude and complexities of the biggest scandal in the history of the game and quite possibly Australian sport outside of Super League.

Two premierships taken away. Three minor premierships gone. The loss of all competition points. An inability to accrue premiership points for the remainder of 2010. A fine of $500,000. The handing back of $1.1 million in prizemoney. The requirement that the Storm be under the cap in 2010 with no ability to simply reduce player payments across the board. Further investigation. An external forensic audit. The possibility of prison terms.

As the afternoon progressed and it became clear that the penalty would be significant I had flashbacks to 2002 and a great deal of empathy for fans of the Storm filled my body. I knew as well as anybody the hurt and anger and frustration and unfathomable pain they were feeling. For months in late 2002 I was a seething ball of fury ready to eat children and burn buildings and break bones. When the Bulldogs played the Raiders at Bruce Stadium the Sunday after the deal went down (a game in which Brett Finch, somewhat ironically considering recent events, taunted Canterbury fans), I would have killed anyone had they have crossed me.

This time around though, with better perspective being the Storm isn’t my team, there was no anger. Just sadness. Plenty of sadness. A hollowness in the belly and fear in the blood that makes sleep impossible and nausea a given.

I have long held the view that the Melbourne Storm have been the most successful and professional sporting organisation in Australian sport over the last decade. It was not only their amazing run of on-field success, reaching four straight Grand Finals and claiming two premierships and producing a great number of stars including Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis, Dallas Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Matt King and Israel Folau, all of whom were developed and produced in-house. It was the way they went about their business. They have been extraordinarily coached and this salary cap tragedy should not take away from the job Craig Bellamy has done. Making four straight Grand Finals is an exceptional effort even if the club was over the cap. Bellamy built a culture of discipline, player ownership, selflessness and toughness unparalleled in Australian sport. The Storm were rarely off their game. They had the flair to roll teams with attack but usually relied on choking teams into submission. They peaked at the right time and rarely let Origin derail their premiership campaign. They made superstars out of their young kids and they made bit players from other clubs better. The likes of Ben Cross, Antonio Kaufusi, Matt King and Steve Turner went from fringe first graders at other clubs to representative players with the Storm. Just look at how well Antonio Kaufusi has gone since leaving Melbourne. He has played with the intensity of an opium addict and the skill of a crippled mule. The Storm, simply, had no peer in rugby league or in Australian sport. They have been the benchmark.

There are many angles to what has gone on and it will take a long time for the cards to fall and the dust to settle so at the moment it is best not to rush to judgement or form concrete opinions.

At the moment it appears as if the NRL had little option but to penalise the Storm heavily. The salary cap breaches have been found and admitted by the club and they total, at a minimum, $1.7 million over the last five years. The smart money will be on further breaches being found by the external audit being conducted by Deloitte. If the laws of proportionality were to apply, David Gallop had little choice but to impose the unprecedented penalties after he deducted 37 points from the Bulldogs in 2002. When this whole situation blew up, I bitterly hoped that the Storm would be deducted 37 points, a position I have subsequently moved away from when the stark reality of the situation set in and personal vindictiveness made way for sadness. Had Gallop and the NRL acted more reasonably and thoughtfully in 2002 then perhaps the magnitude of this penalty, particularly in terms of the penalty for this season, could have been minimised. The actions of 2002 gave the NRL very little room to manoeuvre.

As a rugby league fan, I have few problems with the severity of the penalty considering the deal that went down in 2002. I do have an issue with the Storm not being able to accrue points this season, however, as it bites at the integrity of the competition as a whole. Essentially what we will get is the Harlem Globetrotters turning up each week. There will be an exhibition game with the caveat that the opposition can actually win points. The Storm have no long-term goals so while they may play hard, no player will play through injury and every Storm player will be ready to go next year. I don’t buy into the fact that the Storm will just fall away. They may but I get the feeling they are going to try and run up scores on everybody, chasing the unofficial title of best team in the competition. With nothing to lose, they are going to play a freewheeling style of football that we have never seen. They are going to have fun and this is all they can really do to get motivated for matches. All of which will be enjoyable to watch but none of which will help maintain the integrity of the NRL. What if the Storm decides that this week they want to break the record for most field goals in a match? Or they want to name Bryan Norrie as their goal-kicker? Or they want to get Billy Slater to break the try scoring record? It will all present a great deal of entertainment but the fact they do not have two points to play for eats at the heart of competition. Betting on Storm games will, as the Chinese might say, be interesting. While I understand the argument put forward by the NRL that they shouldn’t be allowed to surpass another team this year because of their indiscretions, I think from a strategic perspective that the Phil Gould plan of allowing the Storm to compete for points once they bring themselves under the cap deserves more exploration. The general thought behind it is that the Storm would pay the excess and players would go to other clubs for the remainder of the year. The Storm, and I would suggest this would be better off coming from the playing group, would decide which players will go and they will still need to have a 25-man squad. The players leaving would choose a club for the remainder of the season. When this happens, Melbourne can again begin to compete. The response from the NRL is that this simply isn’t fair and won’t happen. While I understand that the NRL is stuck between a rock and Martin Lang’s head, I think this area deserves more exploration.

To me, the most important issue in this whole tragedy is the future of rugby league in Victoria. Great strides have been made in the face of tremendous obstacles since rugby league came to Melbourne in 1998. Melbourne claims to be a great sporting city of the world but the reality is that it is an insular sporting city that is not accepting of outsiders. The fact that rugby league has been able to make the in-roads it has in a little over a decade, particularly considering the lack of assistance from host broadcaster Nine in growing the sport, is a credit to the Melbourne Storm coaches, players and organisation as a whole. The Storm has carved out a sizable niche market with a passionate fanbase made up of not only ex-pats from the northern states or New Zealand but locals as well. It has been a hard nut to crack but the Storm have done very well.

Despite their on-field success and positioning in the Melbourne sporting market, the Storm and rugby league in Victoria are a losing proposition financially and will be for a few years yet. They need all the goodwill and breaks they can get to grow their membership base and ensure News Limited continue to fund the team. Without News, there is no Melbourne Storm and there is no rugby league in Victoria. The major concern is not that the Storm will lose money from a decrease in crowd numbers this season, a loss of major sponsors, a drop in popular support, poor publicity, an erasure of goodwill or even a loss of playing talent, which is inevitable. The major concern is that News decides rugby league in Melbourne is no longer worth the cost and you can be sure and certain that News does not support the Storm for altruistic reasons. News rightfully sees long-term value in having the game played in Melbourne but if the short-term costs outweigh the projected long-term benefits then don’t bank on News sticking around. Pay television advertisers tend to want national exposure and Melbourne provides that but if the damage done is too great then News will flee. News will now likely have to stay on but it will be when they survey the score once all the cards have fallen when the future of the Storm will be determined. They have committed long term and from a selfish perspective I hope they stay true to that commitment as I enjoy being able to see live footy every couple of weeks. I also believe that rugby league needs a national presence and that claim becomes laughable if Melbourne doesn’t have a team.

On the involvement of the possible participants, it is not surprising in the slightest that Brian Waldron and his AFL-bred cronies were involved. Waldron is a grub and always has been. He has no respect for rugby league and he has no interest in anyone other than himself. When he was named as the alleged architect, well, let’s just say the bookies weren’t paying out huge sums on that one. There is now a fair chance a prison term awaits him. This author hopes it is a long and painful one with plenty of home made enemas put to use. He certainly won’t be working in Australian sport again, his reputation in shreds and his name as foul as bile. With regards other administrators, who really knows. Waldron’s successor Matt Hanson seemingly knew the story. His fingerprints were all over the second set of books. Former financial officer and current Kangaroos front office staffer Cameron Vale has been named as the whistleblower, a title he strongly objects too. Financial officers don’t tend to get too many jobs once they are tarred with the brush of squealing so it comes as no surprise at all that he has denied any wrongdoing or informing. Former recruitment manager Peter O’Sullivan has denied any knowledge though he has always been known as a slick operator with few in the game having a better understanding of a player’s worth. I laughed with some irony over his labelling of the Raiders as hypocrites for attacking the Roosters for chasing Josh Dugan this week, only to be named a day later as a key player in the largest salary cap rort in the history of Australian sport.

In terms of the board, it should not matter whether they had prior knowledge of the rorting or not. Ignorance is not an excuse. They all get paid nice sums for the cushy roles and it is their responsibility to oversee the running of the club, ensuring, among other things, they are complying with the rules of the code and the laws of the land. It is quite apparent that they have all failed in their duty.

My initial reaction was that the players and coaches could not have known about any of the rorting. I took the line that I don’t know what my colleagues are on so why should Storm players and, at any rate, the responsibility of salary cap compliance lay with the club. Since that time, however, as evidence has come to hand and rumours swirl like rum and raisin, my position has come and gone. There has been talk that certain elite players signed two contracts, something that would appear to be a clear attempt to deceive the NRL. There have been rumours that players received boats, cars, shopping vouchers and home extensions. They are surely red flags that the players were at least passively complicit. There are also rumours that the playing group left a meeting divided with the mid-tier and lower-tier players who were not receiving any top-ups filthy at the greed of the senior group. Then, on the other side of the coin, there is the clear devastation of all the Storm players and coaches. There is the notion that salary cap compliance is not their responsibility. There is the belief that players have a right to earn what they can and the club must then make sure they are right to roll. At this stage, my inclination is to believe that the senior players may have had an inkling but that they didn’t know for sure. I also strongly believe that it is not the player’s responsibility to keep a team under the cap as long as they are acting legally.

As for Craig Bellamy’s involvement, well, it appears nobody has any idea and this author is no different. I am torn between my understanding of his competitiveness that would never allow him to place his team and his legacy in such an awful position and the knowledge that he has his say on every aspect of the running of the Storm. Bellamy’s knowledge and/or involvement is the most interesting angle of this story that hasn’t really been discussed.

There is no doubt that some big names will be leaving the Storm in 2011. David Gallop has almost promised as much, refusing to allow players to take pay cuts to stay at the club though the legality of that is questionable. Those who have not re-signed will not stay. Aiden Tolman will go and his likely destination is Canterbury with the possible Origin bolter a likely replacement for Ben Hannant. Newcastle is also an option. Cooper Cronk has also been rumoured to be heading to Canterbury though he strikes me as one of the players the Storm will rebuild around along with Cameron Smith. Greg Inglis and Billy Slater are both being targeted by union and AFL. The former may go but I have faith that Billy Slater will stay in the NRL and may well end up at Brisbane. Jeff Lima will be at the Roosters. Brett Finch will be at Newcastle. Luke MacDougall could be anywhere.

The one winner out of this whole sordid tragedy could be the Central Coast Bears. There is a very real chance they will replace Melbourne in 2011. When it appeared as if the Sharks may have been knocking on death’s door, Greg Florimo said the Bears would be ready for the 2011 season. Presumably they are gearing up now in preparation for playing in 2011. I find it hard to believe that one of Australia’s greatest opportunists in John Singleton hasn’t already made the phone calls and had the meetings to get the wheels in motion. They have an idyllic ground, a ready-made identity, a front office, a coach and money. If the worst happens and News Limited pulls the plug on Melbourne and the Storm are allowed to die then the Bears will almost certainly be called upon. The NRL have a deal for eight matches per week and the financial cost of not playing eight matches is not one that will be carried by the League.

Nobody knows where too from here. We are still in the throes of the hurricane and the dust is a long way from settling. I was heartened by the 24,000 who turned out to watch the Storm play the Warriors and I was heartened by News Limited’s commitment to the team and I was heartened by the way the Storm approached their first match playing for no points. This is far from over, however, with news filtering out almost by the hour. The only thing I know for sure though is that I will be writing and talking about this for a long time yet. Buckle down. We have a long ride ahead.

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