Off the Wall

Unfair though it doubtless is, today's news that rugby league's aggregate television audience has exceeded that of the AFL for the first time ever is being swamped by the continuing fallout from the serious drugs charges laid against the Newcastle Knights forward, Danny Wicks.

It is truly historic for the NRL, and the game, for our total television audience (128.5 million) to exceed that of the AFL (124.3 million), which has teams in every mainland state.

The really good news is that total audience numbers in Sydney for the NRL rose by 12 per cent (undoubtedly helped by the success of the Eels and the Dragons) whereas those of the AFL in Sydney slump by an alarming 19.5 per cent.

The fact that this good news is having to share media coverage with another off field catastrophe is appalling, but reflects this simple reality - every time a player behaves badly, and it does not really matter how badly, there will be front page coverage and a prominent spot on the evening television news.

The issues surrounding the charging of Danny Wicks have escalated over the weekend.

Sadly, the Knights administration has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled - or mishandled - the issue. The messages have been inconsistent at best and troubling at worst.

The worst was a statement that Wicks was being offered "counselling" and "legal help" by the club - but "at a distance". Fortunately that message seems to have been dumped. Given the seriousness of the allegations against him, the club is under no obligation whatsoever to offer him anything, at least at this stage.

The way the issue has been handled by the club simply confirms my view that the NRL's new strategy for handling off-field issues is hopelessly inadequate. This is an issue so serious in its possible implications for the Knights, and the game, that the NRL should have taken control from the outset.

Any doubts about its seriousness were surely dispelled by yesterday's Sunday Herald story which the Knights administration should have seen coming - and should have been more cautious in its declaration that the clubs has "no problems" apart from the serious charges against a star player.

The limited details of the allegations contained one chilling message that cannot have been lost on the Knights bosses - the charges follow extensive "surveillance" of Wicks by police over a period of time. Yesterday's obviously well sourced story that the surveillance brought other Knights players to the notice of police is, to say the least, truly troubling.

But it is not just troubling for the Knights - it is troubling for the NRL and the game.

To his credit, the Knights captain, Kurt Gidley, has today got on the front foot - and called for off season drug testing at any time. The Rugby League Players Association guidelines that players have to grant individual permission for tests to be conducted during holiday periods must be over-ruled by the NRL. The call by Kurt Gidley for testing anywhere, anytime, gives the NRL the opportunity to step in now and allow drug testing - not alcohol testing - anywhere, anytime. And the NRL must take over the "management" of off field issues that have the potential to be wholly destructive for the game. And let's now kid ourselves, this issue can be just that.

It is not that long ago that the then "hands off" policy of the AFL on off field issues proved disastrous when drug related allegations involving a number of high profile players surfaced, and were poorly managed by AFL clubs, notably the West Coast Eagles.

The NRL must learn from that mistake. It needs to assert its authority over the management of the issue by the Knights - and a good start would be to make Kurt Gildey's suggestion of a testing "anywhere, anytime" policy mandatory for all clubs.

We have to hope that story yesterday indicating that the issue might extend beyond allegations and charges against just one player proves to be false. But the NRL, and the Knights, simply cannot operate on that assumption!

Rugby league has largely avoided "hard drug" scandals of the kind the AFL had to confront - and our better testing regime is probably the reason why.

Kurt Gidley has had the courage to suggest it be toughened even further in the wake of last week's developments. The NRL should adopt his proposal across the game, and do so immediately.