Super League in Oz

Super League in Oz

Post by d.m.fis.. » Wed, 08 Nov 1995 04:00:00

FROM: The Electronic Telegraph  Tuesday 15 August 1995    Other Sports

Rugby League: Supporters vote with their feet as media tycoons pursue
personal vendetta

Michael Calvin in Australia


IT IS an everyday story of rugby folk, a sequence of betrayal and
bitterness punctuated by death threats, bomb hoaxes and hate mail.
Reputations have been ruined, friendships forgotten.

The struggle for the soul of Newcastle Wests Rugby League Club, which
resumed at the weekend with a public meeting controlled by 40 security
guards and an elite team of undercover officers, is a microcosm of a sport
tearing itself apart.

The Wests board wanted to take up Rupert Murdoch's offer of a Super League
franchise in the steel-producing town in New South Wales. Supporters,
outraged at the challenge to the Kerry Packer-allied Australian Rugby
League, mutinied. "This is tantamount to war," promised Kevin ***, their
leader. A guerrilla campaign looks like succeeding.

Club president Kevin McDougall, though suspicious of protesters suddenly
finding the money to fund daily full-page newspaper adverti***ts
extolling the virtue of the ARL, hinted yesterday that Super League plans
would be dropped within a fortnight.

In such situations there are no winners. Everyone denies the reality that
the game is the thing. This has yet to dawn on two sporting tribes divided
by greed, excessive ambition and habitual duplicity. Two fleas might as
well be arguing over which of them owns the dog on which they co-exist.

Rugby league will continue to commit suicide in the Sydney courts on Sept
25 when Murdoch's Super League, scheduled to start next season, and
Packer's ARL, facing the loss of half their clubs, renew hostilities.

League has always been efficiently marketed in Australia but times are
changing and television ratings are down

By then rugby union, conducting an equally unedifying version of Star Wars
commanded by identical generals, might also have decided its destiny. It
would benefit from taking stock of the lessons of the rival code, down
under. It offers the chance to peer into the abyss, wearing the safety
harness of hindsight.

League has always been efficiently marketed in Australia but times are
changing and television ratings are down. Patrick Furlong, head of sport at
ABC TV, says the existing contract will have to be renegotiated if the game
splits down the middle. Gates are dropping as rapidly as circulations of
magazines devoted to the sport. Sales of club merchandise have plummeted by
up to 80 per cent.

In effect the public have followed the lead of their North American
counterparts, whose boycott of major league baseball continues to amplify
their contempt for last year's strike. They are wishing a plague on both
the houses which shelter squabbling factions.

Australian league players are being enmeshed in webs of conflicting
loyalties. Some, having already spent their extravagant Super League
signing-on bonuses, are wailing about the perils of insecurity. Equally,
clubs cannot plan confidently for a future they cannot predict.

League leaders Manly held a supposedly light-hearted golf day for their
squad last week. Matthew Ridge and Ian Roberts, players taking legal action
to free themselves from what is an AFL-sanctioned club, were not invited.

Mal Meninga, one of the game's modern icons, has been pointedly refused
admission by his peers to a unique gathering of Australian captains,
earmarked for the eve of next month's Grand Final.

Meninga is still clouded by controversy, the equivalent of a wholesome
character such as Gary Lineker finding himself ostracised for abject

He has not been forgiven for asking: "What has the game ever done for me?"
at the height of league's civil war. Like the Australian rugby union
captain, Phil Kearns, he has been damned for abandoning traditional
responsibilities and railing against the status quo.

Those who would deny him access to the celebratory occasion point out that
the game has made him a millionaire. The AFL offered unstinting support
during the trying time of his 1992 visit to Britain, when he was confronted
with a paternity suit.

He is still clouded by controversy, the equivalent of a wholesome character
such as Gary Lineker finding himself ostracised for abject disloyalty. In
keeping with the prevailing mood, Meninga remains bitter.

He stresses, in a book published in Sydney today, that a long-term role in
Murdoch's media empire represents long-term security. He offers no
apologies for attacking the establishment but accepts: "I reckoned without
the passions of some of rugby league's founding clubs and their ability to
spread dis- information."

He alleges fellow inter- nationals were "virtually blackmailed" into
signing loyalty agreements to the AFL, but conveniently ignores the wider
issues raised by other casualties of the split.

Awen Guttenbeil, an outstanding ***age prospect, arrived from New Zealand
in 1992. Manly now refuse to play him in even the most junior team because
he has the honesty to admit he had signed a Super League contract. His
manager refuses to speak to him other than to confirm that he will be held
to his AFL deal.

Guttenbeil's career is threatened by warped values, in which the roles are
casually swapped. Packer, demon of the union code through his WRC concept,
is depicted as tradition's white knight in official RL circles.

Murdoch, the Super League bad boy, is simultaneously underwriting union in
the southern hemisphere as the impact of deferred professionalism becomes

It's a funny old world. But no-one is laughing.


Australian RL -has exclusive TV contract with Kerry Packer until the year
2000. Clubs who have declared or are expected to remain in the competition
(which is 20 clubs this season) are: Manly, Sydney City Roosters, Norths,
Souths, St George, Sydney Tigers, Newcastle, South Queensland, Gold Coast,
Illawarra, Easts and Wests.

Murdoch's Super League - deal believed to be worth 150 million to clubs.
Declared or expected to join are: Canberra, Brisbane Broncos, Auckland
Warriors, Sydney Bulldogs, Western Reds (Perth), North Queensland,
Cronulla, Parramatta. There are plans for other clubs in Adelaide and
Newcastle within two years.


Dave Fisher


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