When Rusty Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court rode into Rabbitohs boardroom on their cash and kudos laden steeds, supporters, not only of South Sydney but of a healthy NRL, felt hope soar in their hearts. Now, a year on, with the Rabbitohs sitting on one from ten starts and losses of $4 million, the South Sydney saviours themselves are looking a little battle-worn.

But it’s only one club’s story of woe. There are other clubs in similarly dire financial positions, and it may be about to get worse.

As part of its push into Western Sydney the AFL has been doing its homework on the problems facing the NRL and its Sydney clubs. It has not taken long for the AFL to work out that the extraordinarily generous deal the owners of Sydney’s ANZ Stadium (formerly Olympic Stadium) offer Sydney NRL clubs would put them on the ropes if it was withdrawn.

Currently five NRL clubs host home games at ANZ Stadium and benefit from a $100,000 a game guarantee, regardless of crowd size, that the stadium owner offers. Apart from the Bulldogs, who regard the stadium as their home ground, the Wests Tigers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, St George Dragons and even the Parramatta Eels now play a number of home games at ANZ thanks to the generous hiring arrangement.

The AFL has worked out that if it acquired the debt laden ANZ Stadium – to be the base for its planned Western Sydney team – it would be able to put even greater pressure on struggling NRL clubs by ending the lucrative deal the current owners offer.

It is now an open secret that four or five of the nine Sydney NRL clubs are in a desperate financial situation, thanks to their leagues clubs slashing grants to the football clubs.

It has now been revealed the AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou spent half a day at ANZ Stadium last month meeting management. While the fact that the ground is to be the home for the new Sydney AFL club was already on the agenda, the AFL is not denying the possible purchase of the stadium is back on the agenda. The AFL early in 2007 made an unsuccessful bid to acquire the stadium, but it might find the owners, and the ANZ Bank, more interested this time.

The latest NRL club to fall into financial difficulty is the South Sydney Rabbitohs (again). In a board room coup yesterday part owner Russell Crowe ousted fellow part owner Peter Holmes a Court as Chairman. The club is wallowing at the bottom of the premiership table, drawing embarrassingly low crowds at ANZ Stadium.

Last week Holmes a Court could not guarantee its survival. Now the Rabbitohs legend who fought their takeover all the way, George Piggins, has offered to buy the club back from Crowe and Holmes a Court and relocate it to Bluetongue Stadium at Gosford, and pick up the $8 million grant the NRL has on offer to any club relocating to a new area, such as the NSW Central Coast.

The Sydney media has wasted no time bagging Holmes a Court, and even Crowe, over the way they have run the club: Armani suits, expensive pre season jaunts to the USA and so on.

With the other cash-strapped Sydney clubs, there is no obvious way out for them. Crowds at ANZ Stadium are poor generally poor, and look even worse in a facility that can seat over 80,000. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the aforementioned subsidy from the stadium owners is saving a couple of NRL clubs from going under.

No wonder the cashed up AFL is again looking at buying ANZ Stadium. Even if it doesn’t go ahead, the mere fact it is sniffing around is giving more than one NRL club a lot to worry about. And the credibility of the NRL claim that Sydney crowd numbers are up (even by 1% or 2%) is not helped by reports from the likes of Ray Hadley that of the 67,000 crowd at the State of Origin game at ANZ last week, around 20,000 were freebies.

Sounds like the NRL are using the same crowd-counting formulas used by the Melbourne Grand Prix.