On the weekend, I had some conversations. The sort of conversations where, if you are a reporter, people point to your voice recorder and say “that’s not on, is it?” or jokingly pat you down for “a wire”.
These conversations were about the salary cap, the Melbourne Storm legal action and where it could all lead. The people involved, I won’t identify even by their jobs.
But if you are a rugby league fan, you’ve heard of them.
And the consensus was that the National Rugby League is in a fragile, dangerous place right now.
There are people in the know who think NRL management is smacking a hornets’ nest with a very big stick — and that there are a lot more hornets in there than they think.
Let’s start with the Supreme Court action taken by the independent Melbourne Storm directors.
We’ve said over the past three weeks that the scandal does not rank with the Super League war as a story, notwithstanding the terrible toll of two premierships being stripped from a team.
But it has now taken on the capacity to challenge the Super League war in terms of an all-encompassing disaster.
What if the independent directors get an injunction forcing the Storm to be allowed to play for points this season and the premierships to be restored, pending a full decision of the Supreme Court?
Melbourne would be back in second place. And what if myriad legal wrangling takes so long that the Storm make the finals — and even the grand final?
Would the NRL consider suspending the competition?
One influential person said to me on Monday he feared the cap would be completely defeated in the medium term as a result of this imbroglio, leading to clubs going broke, the value of television rights falling and the sport going back to its dark ages.
At the very least, some players previously looked upon as heroes are going to be implicated in some very — to quote John Hartigan — “unsatisfactory” behaviour.
Now, away from the legal action.
Brian Waldron may have been accused of “a schoolyard defence” when he said “everyone is doing it” but he is far from the only bloke making that allegation.
Four Corners is presently investigating allegations surrounding the Gold Coast Titans. I was told a couple of days ago that every club would welcome a benefactor who could be relied upon to hand over a few grand in cash where necessary to tempt a recruit or encourage a good player to stay.
If you deal in cash, they say, salary cap auditor Ian Schubert will never catch you. The implication is clear: some clubs have such benefactors.
Assuming there is some sort of code of silence at work, what if the court action (sorry, we’re back on that again for a sec) breaks it? What if every dirty dealing anyone can think of is suddenly exposed?
The Storm directors and their allies now have every motivation in the world to dob in everyone else. And if the directors are sacked by News, they will become martyrs in the eyes of fans and players. The scrutiny on a company that owns half the game will become searing.
Is that enough to make you worry? No? How about this? What if, somewhere along the line over the next few weeks and months, we get compelling proof that rugby league is simply rotten to the core?
I hasten to add I don’t have any tips or even suspicions in this area — I would wager it is not the case — but that doesn’t make it impossible that one revelation or another will leave the game’s integrity in an irreparable state.
“They’ve got to shut it down,” one “type” said to me at the weekend. “Look, the people are coming. They love it.
“Somehow we need to just draw a line in the sand now.”
This may all seem a bit of an about-face for me. I have said I don’t know of any specific rorts. I still don’t. I have said the cap works, given that it has given us eight premiers in 12 years. I still say that.
But if it works despite the fact it is being flouted, that makes turning a blind eye to the flouting dangerously tempting to a lot of people.
So … the question we all need to ask ourselves is: does “right” have a price?
What if eight clubs lost their points for salary cap abuse and have to play out the season for nothing? What if the competition was suspended, either because everyone was cheating or the courts ruled those that were should continue to earn points? What if your club went broke in the pursuit of absolute transparency?
Are those prices too high? Is there a point where our heads really are best left in the sand?
I’ve thought about it. I could easily see it through the eyes of those who want to “shut it down” before it gets out of control, before so much that is good is utterly destroyed.
Then I took a deep breath. It’s a price I am ready to pay. Rugby league has purged itself many times.
We may be about to see the biggest purge of all.
*This was first published on Back Page Lead, a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.