The Super League war - 10 years

I have been in two minds about whether to comment on the 10th anniversary of Super League. But I am doing so because I doubt if anyone will be commenting on the 20th, 50th or 100th anniversary of the day rugby league this opportunity may never pass my way again.

The argument in sections of the media about whether or not the game is ?better? as a result of Super League is meaningless, for we are not to know what it would have been like without it.

But there is one thing we do know for sure and certain. And it is the real reason Super League happened, and deeply divided the game, is that greed and overindulgence prevailed as they generally do. And the greed and overindulgence were on BOTH sides, a fact that must never be overlooked.

Perhaps the most poignant comment made by any of the participants is one attributed to a key architect of Super League, John Ribot. Commenting on the signing up of the Canterbury Bulldogs, an event which shook the foundations of the ARL/NSWRL, he had this to say:

?I spoke to him (Chris Anderson, coach of the Bulldogs) first and his finances were negotiated and the ball started rolling very quickly. Chris was easy as his motivation has always been the money.?

News Limited no doubt genuinely believed it was about pay television rights, and the capacity to influence the destiny of a very marketable product, but the sad reality is that the events subsequent to the launch of Super League reflected a ?feeding frenzy? which many would regard as an obscenity.

And what galls me is that some of the most robust critics of Super League benefited most handsomely from it. Most readers will know who I am referring to!

And this feeding frenzy extended from players to coaches, and officials...and media ?personalities?. Many of the contracts that were offered grossly over-paid and unjustly rewarded the recipients, and, again, that occurred on both sides of the divide.

And it is surely ironic that one club where the overindulgence was obvious and obscene (on the ARL side) is today struggling to survive financially ? the Newcastle Knights. So much so that the long serving Chairman, Michael Hill, is being forced out of office, and the club is reportedly planning to approach the NRL for a cash bailout.

And the overindulgence was even greater on the other side and that is why the financial position of clubs like the Raiders and Storm remains a concern, and, in the case of the latter, heavily dependent on the enduring goodwill of New Limited.

The reality is that too much was paid to too many...and the price for that indulgence is still being paid by the game.

At the time of the outbreak of the Super League War I decided not to support either side because I found the feeding frenzy a real worry from the outset. And while it started on one side (the Super League side) it very rapidly spread to the ARL side in almost equal proportion.

Some players got increases they deserved ? many, sadly, got contracts they did not deserve and have done precious little to justify ever since. And that extends top coaches and officials as well. And, appallingly, some of the officials who benefited without merit continue to do so, ten years on.

So I will always regard the Super League War as an indulgence. But it was an indulgence those who backed the ARL participated in with the same enthusiasm as those who were aligned with Super League.

The game continues to pay a heavy price for ways that are not always obvious.

And, in the meantime, in rural and regional communities, largely neglected by both sides during the Super League War, there can be no question whatsoever that the game is worse off. Now it might have been so even if there had been no war, but the millions upon millions poured into the pockets of players, coaches and officials in the Super League and ARL competitions limited the funding available for the survival of the game in rural and regional communities.

And the game is surely the poorer in the other States, notably Western Australia and South Australia. The demise of the Western Reds in particular in the settlement at the end of the war (and that of the Gold Coast Chargers) was an appalling mistake.

And it is most assuredly the poorer in the South Pacific where Super League poured in millions to wrest control of the regional from the ARL.

In the case of Papua New Guinea, where rugby league is the national game, the millions went to the very undeserving few, and today the PNG Kumuls have been relegated to the second wrung and compete against teams like the ?Junior Kangaroos? and not the Kangaroos as they once did.

And as for the boast that Super League would see kids playing league in the parks of Shanghai, or Manila, or Tokyo, or Cairo, or wherever the mind could wander, the less said the better.

The ?international? game is most assuredly in no better shape than it was ten years ago. It may be being played in Russia...but not at a level that would justify its entry into international competition against Australia or England. And the game continues to struggle in France, where it was once relatively strong.

In the NRL competition, the game remains a very attractive marketing and viewing commodity. Probably more so than it was a decade ago, but is that because of, despite, or of no relevance to, the Super League War? I suspect more the latter than anything else.

But the great worry for me is that the financial health of the game remains precarious and that should not be so given excellent television ratings, record sponsorship, and higher attendances.

But it is so because many clubs continue to live beyond their real means, as too many players are on incomes and other conditions that either are hard to justify or are unaffordable.

That is why the NRL will simply have to extract a much better ?deal? when it negotiates free-to-air television rights in the next year or so...and hope that Foxtel agrees to extend the existing not unreasonable fee it pays for pay television rights.

Even though the Super League War cost News Limited untold millions (much of it wasted in the view of many), it got the pay television access it wanted ? and rugby league rates extremely well on pay television.

And, importantly, it got at least a 50 per cent say in the control of the game ? and who gets free and pay rights in the future.

But, surprise, surprise, the real winner (apart from the aforementioned players etc) has been Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer.

PBL backed the ARL in the War, and tipped in to the fund that the Goulds, Harrigans (Paul) and others benefited from, but, when peace was declared, walked away with the free to air television rights for probably half their real worth...and that was SIX years ago!

And when the free to air rights are renegotiated for the period beyond 2007, PBL remains in the box seat to retain them. But surely its Kerry?s turn to shout?

This in an anniversary many will view with mixed feelings, and many crikey readers (judging by the emails I get) with enduring anger!

But despite the War, and all the divisions it created, the NRL premiership remains in good shape, perhaps better shape than ever.

But two of the adverse consequences (direct or indirect) of the War - the decline in the game in rural and regional centres, and its future in state such as Victoria and WA ? are in most urgent need of attention. In that regard surely it is time to end the bureaucratic duplication of the game?s administration by putting the ARL to rest, and expanding the role of the NRL.

Regardless of my concerns about the NRL?s operations, I have significantly more faith in the NRL than in the existing ARL administration. And that would not be hard!

This is an anniversary hardly to be celebrated, except for the fact even though the game has been poked more times than an old pub dart board, it continues to demonstrate a remarkable resilience, and, at least at the level of the NRL premiership, has a strong future.

And the free and pay to air television ratings confirm that, despite all the divisions, and sharper challenges from both rules and union, the game?s key support base is stronger than ever.

Jeff Wall can be contacted at [email protected]

Thanks to Jeff and for a great article.