Why the NRL’s image is in a bind

We can now safely assume the NRL has learnt nothing from the events of last week.

Yet again on the weekend, a blatant act of thuggery went unpunished. This time Kenny Edwards was the perpetrator; Jonus Pearson the victim.

Seriously, how far does it need to go before the NRL steps in and puts a stop to the violence that is driving young fans – and perhaps more importantly, their parents – away from the game in their droves.

Last week I wrote two articles outlining what needs to change if the NRL are to get on top of this issue and repair the game’s image. The crux of my argument was that any forceful contact to the head that results in injury, be it a deliberate act like Edwards’ or a late high shot like Soliola’s, should be made a send-off offence, with the player receiving a lengthy stint on the sideline as further punishment.

This is the only way we’ll bear witness to change and stamp out what is an ugly look for our game.

The fact remains, though, that the NRL have let another one slip through their grasp this week.

Where is Archer’s confession of the referee’s mistake?

Unless they are content with the laughable $1500 dollar fine handed out to Kenny Edwards, the referee’s boss must set the record straight for the second time in two weeks.

Without sounding like a broken record, his job is to make clear to the public in layman’s terms what they see to be a send-off offence and how they are going to deal with players who cross the line on the field.

The silence from the critics who slammed Soliola’s hit on Slater but have opted out of commenting on Edwards’ pathetic display is deafening. There are differences in the two cases, but both caused harm to the opposition player and have brought the game into disrepute. Those who heaped blame on Soliola last week, but have gone into hiding this week, are part of the problem. We need consistency in order to achieve a cleaner image.

This starts with Archer; he must set the tone. Nothing will get done if we continue to treat each case using a different set of rules. Edwards’ cowardly hit on Pearson and Soliola’s late hit on Slater are one and the same – both could have resulted in serious injury. Yet Soliola gets suspended for five weeks and Edwards receives a minor blow to the bank balance and is allowed to take the field next weekend?

I’ll say it again: what image does this game want to uphold? One of thuggery and violence where cowardly acts are rife and accepted? Or one that takes a tough stance on contact that puts the players in harm’s way?

Outside of reform, consistency and standardising the rulings around high contact is required. If a player gets banned for a high shot one week, a swinging arm or a deliberate elbow to the head after a tackle is completed should receive the same penalty the next.

But this game has long struggled with getting consecutive rulings right, both on and off the field.

Melbourne Storm were stripped of their premierships back in 2010 and forced to play close to an entire season without accruing points. Yet the Parramatta Eels are told in 2016 that if they cut a few players and become cap compliant, they can continue earning premiership points and potentially make the top eight.

Seems fair enough.

And what about Todd Carney being ousted from the NRL over his boozy antics at a pub, while Mitchell Pearce simulates a lude act with a dog and is banned for just eight weeks.

Sure, Todd Carney was on his third and final chance, but when you put the two acts into context it is clear that there are many similarities; foremost, that they both caused irreparable damage to the game’s image.

Then there are the disparities in the length of bans between codes for the use of both recreational and performance enhancing substances over the past few years.

In 2014, a few Cronulla players received backdated suspensions that saw them miss just three matches following an investigation by WADA into an illegal supplement regime implemented at the club in 2011. Meanwhile, in the AFL, Essendon were made to play the entire 2016 season with the majority of their squad missing for the same offence.

Again, there are differences in the two cases, but how can the NRL come up with such a different ruling to the AFL?

All of this smacks of double standards. And a game cannot clean up its image if it continues to treat similar cases differently.

Todd Greenberg is doing a fine job in charge of the NRL, but his biggest problem, after reading his responses to the questions posed by journalist Phil Rothfield on Tuesday, is that he cannot accept there are problems with the game.

Allow me to let you in on a secret, Todd: the game is completely lost at the moment. Not only are we incapable of getting something as simple as a ruling on high shots correct, but crowd numbers have decreased dramatically across the last five years and refereeing has hit an all-time low despite the millions of dollars that have been poured into improving the way the game is officiated.

The game’s image is as scrambled as your morning eggs. One day it’s a sport filled with skill and heroism, unrivalled by anything else on this planet – think the 2015 Grand Final. The next it has a drug problem, can’t control what its players are doing, and is allowing acts that belong in the UFC pentagon to take place without punishment – think rep round, NSW Origin camp and either Soliola’s or Edwards’ brutal and cowardly displays of violence.

Other sports are sitting back in their cane chairs and waiting for the NRL to implode so they can take up its share of the market.

The way it’s going, this could happen within the next two decades.

Who’d let their son or daughter play a game as poorly managed and seemingly dangerous as rugby league when there are safer alternatives that aren’t likely to cause their child’s face to be sprawled over the front page of the newspaper for drug possession in 10 years’ time?

Who’d even bother attending when the NRL are making decisions that are quite obviously causing the competition to become less attractive for viewers and harder to follow?

The proof is in the pudding – crowds are down 2% on last year and participation rates are declining at an alarming rate.

Some will say bring back the good old days of suburban venues, mid-game brawls and contested scrums.

Those days are sadly behind us. But with the game as out of whack as it is, it could do worse than to follow the old-school mantra – with a modern twist, of course.

Manly allegations set to reignite conversation around salary cap

If allegations of salary cap breaches at Manly, or any other club currently being probed, are substantiated in the future, they might just become the dumbest club in the history of the game.

In every case of systematic salary cap rorting over the last decade – whether it be Parramatta last year, Melbourne in 2010, or the Bulldogs in 2002 – front office stupidity has been to blame for the loss of competition points, premierships and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the administrators at Lottoland will be front and centre once again if the alleged $300,000 third-party offer made to an unnamed Manly player in a car park is proven by the NRL’s integrity unit.

The most boneheaded move in NRL administrative history came last year when it was revealed that Parramatta had been offering its players third-party payments since 2013.

The infamous five, who were shown the door shortly after Todd Greenberg handed down his findings in May 2016, breached the cap year after year despite knowing full well that the integrity unit were tracking their every move like a stalker and had the ability to search e-mails, confidential documents and phone conversations at will.

Yet still, they continued their deception.

The most staggering statement to come out of Todd Greenberg’s announcement of Parramatta’s breach last year was this – “As we sit here today, our preliminary findings suggest that the club is again over the salary cap for 2016.”

Really? How moronic can you get?

Was the NRL’s sanction in May of 2015, where Parramatta were fined half a million dollars and handed a suspended four-point penalty if they didn’t get their house in order by the start of the new season, not enough of a deterrent for Steve Sharp and company to reconsider their approach to governance?

‘The NRL are onto us but, hey, look, what are the chances we’ll get busted again?’

That’s the mindset of a gambler who doesn’t know when to walk away and will risk it all in the knowledge that they might one day hit the jackpot.

No such luck for Parramatta, who left the casino with an empty wallet and facing the reality of having to rebuild a broken club.

What followed was the outcome of the administrator’s sheer stupidity and downright contempt for the rules of operation under the banner of the NRL – points stripped, millions of dollars lost, and the need to move club favourite Nathan Peats on to what has turned out to be greener pastures.

The fans, who can do nothing in these situations but sit back and wait for the chaos to blow over, are the ones who are punished despite being completely innocent in the whole state of affairs.

Just ask those Melbourne fans who had to watch their side play for peanuts back in 2010. Not to mention the pain they went through when the NRL took back two premierships.

Could you ever forgive the administrators who were responsible for deliberately manipulating the books to gain an advantage, particularly given Melbourne have played just as well without having to exceed the cap?

Surely not – many Parramatta fans haven’t.

That is why if the integrity unit find that there is some truth to claims that one of Manly’s players has received paper bag payments, the administrators should be hung out to dry and made an example of.

Of course, it is all alleged at this stage and there are strong rumours that other clubs are following suit.

But giving players third-party payments after what has happened previously is inexcusable and an insult to the paying supporter, who is the most severely impacted in these situations, closely followed by innocent members of the playing group.

Administrators must learn their lesson; in an age where a dedicated integrity unit with a mandate to search and seize documents is in operation, tampering with the books like a tax fraud will land you in hot water.

If they haven’t learnt that yet, then they simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the administrative tree.

Sure, it is the salary cap making third party, under the table deals a more attractive option for club administrators. But to change the current system would be to give rich clubs like Brisbane and the Roosters a significant advantage, and lead to a lopsided and uncompetitive competition that will ultimately lose an already dwindling viewership.

The Australian Government wouldn’t reform its tax laws because instances of evasion have increased in the last decade. So why should the NRL be forced to change the way the competition is run just because cases of systematic salary cap breaches are continuing unabated?

Put simply, they mustn’t give in.

Many will argue that, with the salary cap increasing to around $9 – $10 million next year under the new television rights deal, clubs will have more space to keep their high-profile players on the list without having to tempt fate by breaching the cap.

In truth, and we’ve seen cases of this already, player salaries will increase accordingly as clubs look to outlay more money on their stars to keep them on-side.

The AFL haven’t been required to deal with any major salary cap breaches because, up until this year, the cap has been manipulated to suit the financial needs and situational circumstances of certain clubs.

Brisbane, for example, were given a retention allowance which happened to coincide with their premiership three-peat in the early 2000’s.

New club GWS were also given a greater cap allowance due to their list size and the need to keep them afloat and competitive in their early years.

All this has done is given a group of clubs a significant advantage over the remainder of the competition.

So it is no surprise then that Hawthorn was able to win three flags across three years, while clubs like North Melbourne and Melbourne have been forced to linger at the bottom of the competition ladder for several seasons.

This system is not an out for the NRL, and they certainly shouldn’t be tempted into adopting it simply because the integrity unit are stubbing their toes on salary cap scandal after salary cap scandal.

Contempt for the integrity of the game and corrupt administrative decision making born of a desire to gain the edge, despite the inherent risks demonstrated through past indiscretions, are the key issues.

What we have currently is a system that clubs hate, but is leading to a more balanced competition where most teams are a chance of winning the premiership.

Stick with it.

NRL need to set a precedent for gambling within the game

Todd Greenberg has done much in his time as NRL CEO to confirm that he is the right man for the job. But with just one statement in last week’s press conference to announce the fate of troubled West Tigers star Tim Simona, he immediately undid all his good work.

“Based on the evidence we’ve identified, it is very hard to imagine that Tim Simona will be registered with the NRL at any time in the future”.

Simona deserved a life-ban. His crimes are inexcusable and are in breach of more than just the NRL’s policies. He has broken the law, betrayed his team and should have been rubbed out of the game with not even the slightest chance of ever being allowed back; if for nothing else than preserving the game’s image.

But the wishy-washy nature of Greenberg’s statement, and the penalty, is hard to overlook.

The NRL haven’t taken a tough stance on any indiscretions other than salary cap breaches in recent times. Even the illicit drug policy has come into question by the players during the last week.

Back in 2002, the Bulldogs were fined $500,000 and docked premiership points when they were found to be cheating the cap.

Melbourne followed in 2010 for the same misdeed, but were also stripped of their premiership titles.

When it came time for Todd Greenberg to hand down his decision on Parramatta in July last year, he had a precedent, set by previous administrations, by which to follow.

As far as match fixing, or dealing with breaches in the games gambling code is concerned, the NRL is yet to establish a benchmark. It remains a grey area.

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Todd Greenberg needed to make an example of Simona to rid the game of gambling issues. Photo Source: Bein Sports

When news first broke that Tim Simona was placing bets on himself and opposition players to score tries against the West Tigers, the length of his ban in the eyes of the public was heavily dependent on an individuals moral compass.

What did and didn’t come under the banner of breaching the game’s ‘integrity’, and to what degree Simona’s actions could be seen as doing so when opposed to something like doping, was up for debate.

But that was before details of his contemptible charity scams and drug habit were brought to light, turning a tale of addiction into something more sinister.

At this point, the NRL had a golden opportunity to deter other players from even thinking of committing the same abhorrent crimes, by handing down a penalty that would force them to risk their careers if they wanted to follow in Simona’s footsteps. But in just one statement, Greenberg left the door open for future occurrences to take place.

A disappointing and undesirable result for the game’s image and culture, which is already under heavy scrutiny from the outsiders looking in.

Greenberg would have done well to express more than simply his personal feelings towards Simona’s actions. They were well considered, meaningful even, but didn’t fulfill their purpose.

Instead of using terms such as ‘hard to imagine’, which are open to interpretation by a future CEO who may wish to re-register Simona if he feels he has served his time, he needed to make an example of the former Tigers winger by banning him for life.

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Simona’s contract has been torn up by the NRL. Photo Source: Geelong Advertiser – 

If the NRL isn’t willing to play hardball then we shouldn’t expect gambling issues within the game to disappear automatically.

The same goes for the current protocols in place to deal with players who engage in recreational drug use. The punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime.

We must even question the effectiveness of the education forums administered by the NRL. Clearly, if these issues are systemic, their messages are failing to sink in.

Simona knew the consequences of his actions but still chose to feed his addiction in the most heinous way imaginable, by selling jersey’s and keeping the proceeds, promised to charity, for himself.

He had been through the NRL’s programs, presumably a number of times, but failed to heed their warnings.

The Wests Tigers missed the eight by one point in 2016. An issue that went largely unaddressed while the case was under the microscope.

It should have been the wake up call that kicked the NRL into gear, but it was barely considered.

This very point demonstrates the kind of influence match-fixing and gambling violations can have on the premiership at large.

What must the fan, that forks out thousands of dollars to watch their side play each year, be thinking when the NRL fails to take a tough stance on players making a mockery of their allegiance.

Does he or she still believe in the integrity of a contest?

There will always be question marks over the result of a game until the NRL brings in stringent rules to rub out those who attempt to manipulate them.