Readers outside of Queensland might be surprised to learn that the biggest news in Brisbane last week wasn’t the Wendell Sailor
debacle, or the Brisbane Broncos hammering by the Cowboys, but the effective
ending of Jason Akermanis’s career with the Brisbane Lions.

NRL clubs should look closely at how Leigh Matthews
handled the affair. It was a lesson in crisis management, and if anyone needs
some pointers in dealing with PR disasters, potential or actual, it’s the NRL.

It has been apparent for months that the Lions and
Akermanis were headed for a split. But one now suspects Matthews decided the
tension was worth it if the end could be managed in a way that ensured
Akermanis was the villain and not the victim.

After a long interview Akermanis last week gave the
Herald Sun
in which he pretty much ruled out being with the Lions next season, Matthews
decided the time was right. Even
though Akermanis had been the star in the Lions’ previous match, he was
suddenly dropped from the team for last Saturday night’s match against
Hawthorn.

The decision to drop Akermanis was not made by the
coach alone. Matthews made certain he had the total support of the club’s
leadership group including respected captain, Michael Voss. Indeed, Voss’s
robust media performances helped ensure the fallout from the Akermanis axing was
minimised to the greatest possible extent. After all, punters are less likely
to criticise a popular player than an authoritarian coach.

But Lethal has also handled the media skilfully. He
went on the evening sports show on Radio 4BC last Thursday and laid out chapter
and verse why the Lions and Akermanis had effectively become “incompatible”.

Since then his media interviews have been carefully
managed, his comments even more carefully constructed. No bagging of Akermanis,
some sadness, but an underlying determination that the current separation will
become permanent at the end of the season. And an absolute determination that
no player is bigger that the whole team.

The next time an NRL club has a major problem with
a high profile player it could do a lot
worse than call on Lethal for a spot of strategic advice.

Peter Fray

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