Off the Wall

i thinThere are any number of messages to emerge from Sunday's grand final and the victory the St George Illawarra Dragons deserved, and secured.

Let me deal with just three - and I will focus on the positive first of all.

Today the debate continues about whether Wayne Bennett is now entitled to replace Jack Gibson as the best ever coach in the game.

It is a futile debate - different eras, different coaching conditions, the impact of the salary cap and so on - make comparisons between one generation and another difficult and probably meaningless.

Bennett's record of seven grand final victories is never going to be equalled. Gibson's teams won five - in a similar time frame. Both have been outstanding coaches - and over long periods...Gibson 20 years, Bennett 23 years (and continuing).

Coaching a second team to a grand final victory puts to rest the claim Bennett was only successful because he coached a star studded team...which at one stage comprised  more than half the Maroons side.

The second positive is that the Dragons have a massive fan base that is surely a benchmark for the game in the future. The crowd numbers at the post-match celebrations at Kogarah Jubilee Oval and at WIN Stadium in the Illawarra were outstanding.

The Dragons are a well run club, with an outstanding history - but this premiership was a long time coming, and the patience of fans has been rewarded, and they deserve to celebrate it.

The Dragons have a huge fan base in Brisbane, and right across the nation - largely an historic one that predates the entry of the Broncos into the premiership in 1988.

Their success on Sunday does the game no harm at all.

Now for the negative, and what a negative it is.

The game is in desperate trouble in Melbourne.

The grand final ratings were very poor, some would argue alarming...and the state of the game in Melbourne is principally responsible.

The fact that the Sydney viewing audience was lower than last year even though it was a grand final between two Sydney teams is a concern.  The Brisbane audience was up on last year - reflecting the Bennett factor and the popularity of the Dragons in Brisbane.

But what a disaster in Melbourne - a factor which dragged the NRL grand final well below the AFL grand final replay in the all important capital city markets!

The AFL's one sided replay drew a capital city audience of 2.6 million - the NRL grand final drew 2.1 million.  Pity about that as the total season viewing figure is good news for the NRL and bad news for the AFL.

In Melbourne just 221,000 tuned in...down from 682,000 last year when of course the Storm "won" the premiership...and barely a quarter of the audience when the Broncos beat the Storm in 2006.

The message for the NRL is simple - the game is not just in crisis on the field in Melbourne, it is in an even bigger crisis off the field.

Whether we like it or not, the game is going to be more dependent than ever on TV revenue flows - and so will be the clubs. I foresee massive problems for NRL teams dependent on their licensed clubs - the anti poker machine mob in Canberra are on the rampage.

And whether we like it or not, Melbourne is a factor when television rights agreements are being negotiated. Melbourne is a black hole for the NRL - and we need to recognise it.

It is partly due to the Storm salary cap fiasco - and how it was handled, or mishandled, by the NRL.

But it was also due to Nine's contempt of Melbourne fans and viewers. How can you get a good grand final audience when you show the whole of the premiership season, and the finals, at midnight or later?

If the grand final had attracted a reasonable audience in Melbourne the NRL would have been able to get close to the AFL's numbers - and have something to crow about.

Australia will play England in Melbourne on 31 October, smack bang in the middle of the Melbourne Cup Carnival.  The ARL/NRL will have to hope race goers from Sydney and Brisbane, and country areas, turn up, otherwise the "crowd" will be embarrassing.

The grand final was a fitting culmination to a great NRL season - good crowds, excellent ratings (in the premiership rounds but not the finals), worthy premiers, and fewer off field incidents.

But the debacle that is the consequence of the Storm being sent to the bottom of the table and no chance of rising above it has had greater consequences than the NRL could have anticipated.

The game in Melbourne is in intensive care - perhaps the first task of the "independent commission" is to revive it?

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