In a lifetime of watching rugby league I cannot recall a more catastrophic lead in to the start of a premiership season.

The media coverage the NRL, and especially the reigning premiers, the Manly Sea Eagles, have received in recent days simply could not have been any worse. It has been a public relations disaster for the club, the NRL, and the game.

While the focus should be on Friday night’s two opening games, the Queensland derby with the Broncos playing the Cowboys, and the now Wayne Bennett coached St George Dragons against last season’s runners-up, the Melbourne Storm, the coverage has been all about the Sea Eagles’ season launch that turned into a PR disaster.

It appears the launch, at a Manly hotel, featured lashings of grog and very little food. One of the club’s star players, Brett Stewart, left the function apparently drunk, and after a police investigation, he was charged by police overnight with the s-xual assault of a 17-year-old girl near his residence.

Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the incident has severely embarrassed the NRL. Stewart featured in its million dollar television advertising campaign launched just 48 hours before the Manly season launch debacle. As a result, the whole campaign has been pulled, and will have to be remade taking Stewart out of it.

Manly are insisting on playing Stewart in the opening match this weekend. Doubts exist whether the NRL can intervene and prevent him from doing so. If he plays, the score line will be irrelevant, the total focus will be on the star fullback!

But it got even worse back at the season launch. Another high profile player, Anthony Watmough, who represented Australia last year, is alleged to have punched, yes punched, one of the Manly sponsors!

Even though he made a telephone apology the day, the sponsor is now considering lodging a complaint with the police. That leaves Manly officials highly embarrassed as their claims that the matter was minor, and had been settled, now look dodgy indeed.

The Manly Sea Eagles have been in disarray for weeks. The two owners, Max Delmege and Scott Penn, have been at war, officials have been taking sides with one part owner or the other, and the club’s finances are in poor shape.

To make matters worse, the morning after the Manly season launch debacle, the NRL/ARL took part in a media event in which the game undertook to take a strong stand against domestic violence. How about non-domestic violence?

Today the ARL/NRL will “launch” the State of Origin series in Melbourne. If they hope this will draw media attention away from the Manly debacle, they are even worse “crisis management” strategists than even I had believed.

The economic downturn, and higher poker machine taxes, is starting to hit NRL clubs. The Parramatta Eels’ licensed club last week reported a $7 million loss — and the club underpins the football team’s survival. Others are in not much less dire straits.

The NRL desperately needs a positive start to what will be a challenging season revenue wise. The reigning premiers have ensured it could not possibly be more negative!

Peter Fray

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