Off the Wall

The decision by the Dragons to reject a six figure incentive from the NRL to shift their home semi final this Sunday is to be applauded.

What the decision does is re-enforce the right of the clubs making the top four to have a home semi final. And that is a right that needs to be available to all four clubs - or none of them.

Critics of the decision by the Dragons overlook history, and also ignore the rights of "stakeholders" at home grounds such as caterers, corporate box holders, those who pay for ground signage, and local staff such as security guards, gate keepers and so on.

The "history" aspect of the issue should not be lightly dismissed.

It is not that long ago that the semi finals were basically shared between the SFS, Olympic Stadium, and Lang Park. The decision to allow the top four teams to have a home semi final was not just about giving them a bonus for their place on the table.

It was very much driven by some truly embarrassing crowds at semi-finals played at the SFS and Olympic Stadium. Semi finals being played before crowds of less than 20,000 in stadiums seating between 45,000 and 80,000 were not a good look.

But having decided to introduce a home semi finals system, at least for the first weekend, the NRL needs to ensure that it is a one in, all in process.

That is why it backed off quickly when the Dragons made it clear they were not interested in the admittedly generous "incentive" on offer to shift next Sunday's game to the SFS.

The Dragons hierarchy should not be pilloried for protecting the rights of their stakeholders, and home ground fans.

But there is another reason why the NRL needs to tread very carefully on this issue.

Kogarah Jubilee Oval has been substantially upgraded partly thanks to funding from the NSW Government. Energy Stadium in Newcastle is being massively upgraded with government funding. The Melbourne Storm is getting a new state of the art stadium thanks to the Victorian Government.

Other clubs - such as the Manly Sea Eagles - are seeking government funding to upgrade their home grounds.

What kind of a message would we be sending to federal, state and local governments if one the one hand we are lobbying them for funds to upgrade suburban g rounds, while at the same time we deny clubs with improved, taxpayer funded, facilities the right to host home semi finals?

While it is true that 20,000 fans, or more, won't be able to attend next Sunday's match between the Dragons and the Eels, it will be shown live on Channel Nine.

Last night the NRL was able to announce the highest total regular season attendance in the game's history.

That was not achieved by the numbers at the Olympic Stadium or the was achieved by the capacity and near capacity attendances week in, week out, at the home grounds of the Dragons, the Tigers, the Knights and the Titans.

Even given that some of the attendance figures released are suspect, the fact that crowd numbers have held up very well is a good sign. And it is an even better sign when you look at the woeful crowd numbers at A League soccer matches so far this season!

The first weekend of the finals looks like being as good as any as we have seen since the NRL was formed over a decade ago. Capacity home crowds at Kogarah Oval and the Titans Skilled Park will add to its undoubted success.

The Dragons were entitled to make the call they made. The Eels should butt out of the debate - they don't have a say in the matter.

And if they want to have a say then they need to finish much better than eighth in 2010!