The National Rugby League must be wondering why it bothered to schedule the centenary Grand Final of rugby league for this Sunday such as been the absolute dominance of players (and officials) behaving badly on and off the field since the finals series started four weeks ago.

It began just before the finals when leading Cronulla Sharks player, Greg Bird, was charged with a serious criminal offence arising from the alleged serious assault of his American girlfriend. He has been in the headlines almost daily ever since — with an orchestrated campaign from family and Sharks sponsors demanding his reinstatement.

It got a whole lot worse after the first round of the finals when three leading Brisbane Broncos players were accused of the s-xual assault of a woman in a Brisbane nightclub. The police investigation is dragging on, and the PR damage for the Broncos (and the NRL) not only continues it has got worse with the Broncos, Queensland and Australian captain, Darren Lockyer, having to belatedly admit he was involved in a minor incident with staff in a bar near Lang Park. Even in Broncos mad Brisbane, the publicity has been damaging for the game.

Then on field drama with off field consequences grabbed the headlines. The Melbourne Storm captain, Cameron Smith, was ruled out of the preliminary finals, and Sunday’s grand final after being found guilty of a “grapple” tackle in the Storm’s last minute win over the Broncos.

After the Storm won through to the grand final last weekend (without Smith), coach, Craig Bellamy, and CEO, Brian “Wally” Waldron, held one of the most extraordinary press conferences in the 100 year history of the game in Australia. They attacked the NRL Judiciary (which is headed by a NSW District Court Judge, Greg Woods), made vague allegations about betting agencies taking wagers on the judiciary outcome and generally accusing everyone of having an “anti-Storm” agenda.

Within hours the News Limited owned Storm was hit with a record $50,000 fine by the 50 per cent News Limited owned NRL! Ever since Bellamy has refused to apologise, Smith has daily claimed to be a “scapegoat”, and the judiciary panel members (all former players) have threatened to sue Bellamy.

This morning’s grand final breakfast was supposed to highlight Sunday’s Manly Sea Eagles v Melbourne Storm grand final. Not much chance of that with the NRL CEO saying the grand final breakfast was Bellamy’s last chance to apologise!

And now Mark Latham — a St George Dragons tragic along with John Howard and Morris Iemma — has weighed into the debate in his column in today’s Financial Review, calling on the Melbourne Storm to be thrown out of the premiership, and the News Limited to be “divested” of its half ownership of the NRL. And his solution to fill the game in the game’s administration — grass roots community control!

He comments on the Storm, and the News Limited influence on the NRL, won’t be without support. And he is on the mark in his observations about the challenges rugby league is facing in Western Sydney, and beyond.

A casual reader of the sports pages could be excused for thinking the Grand Final has already been played, or abandoned because of the rugby league equivalent of equine flu!

But there is a game on Sunday — shifted to 5pm Eastern Daylight Saving time as part of a compromise with Channel Nine which wanted the night grand final to continue — and if the off field drama does not get in the way it ought to be a good, if not great, match.

The Storm are the reigning premiers, and until the last six weeks or so, looked good things for a second premiership. But the Sea Eagles are the form team of the finals. They were trounced in the 2007 grand final. That is unlikely to happen again.

For a generation or more the Manly Sea Eagles were the team most Sydneysiders loved to hate. There was a saying that “you followed your own local team, and whoever played Manly”.

On Sunday, most of Sydney (and maybe even Brisbane) will be supporting the Sea Eagles, with the Storm comprehensively assuming the “team we love to hate” mantle! And it is all being driven by a massive media campaign by the News Limited flagship, the Daily Telegraph!

Confused? Then join a very long queue!

Peter Fray

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