Heavy Storm could get worse

27 April 2010

Written by: Matt de Neef

The future looks bleak for the Melbourne Storm. The proud history of the most successful NRL club of the past decade is now in tatters and their immediate future seems grim.

Since their inception into the competition in 1999, they have won three premierships and have gained an enormous amount of respect from their rivals. So why do storm clouds hover over Princes Park? Basically, Melbourne have cheated.

Over the past five years, players have been receiving money from club officials outside the allotted NRL salary cap. They were able to maintain a dual-contract system by working out of two books, a fake one that was shown to the NRL board and a real one that was filed in a separate room at the club. The combined total of that illegal money? A whopping $1.7 million.

The punishments faced by the Storm are severe. Perhaps the most significant penalty is the stripping of their 2007 and 2009 premierships, as well as their 2006-2008 minor premierships. To remove the one thing that players work their entire careers for is completely humiliating and it will be mortifying for Storm fans, players and officials to look back in the NRL record book one day and see: ‘2007/2009 Premiers – Melbourne Storm (Stripped)’.

It gets worse. A hefty fine of $500,000 has been imposed on the club and the $1.1 million in prize money earned by the club over the past five years will have to be paid back before being distributed to the 15 other NRL clubs. Furthermore, for the remainder of the 2010 season, Melbourne will not be able to accrue any premiership points. As a result they will finish the season at the bottom of the ladder despite their win-loss ratio.

Full credit must go to NRL CEO David Gallop for being proactive and aggressive in this situation. He is a classy, professional administrator and it is clear that rugby league is safe with him in charge. But the decision to prevent the Storm from accruing premiership points this season is a knee-jerk reaction and one that is way too cruel.

The NRL has given no consideration to the future of the Storm. Gallop says that the Storm still has plenty to play for, like personal pride and an opportunity to restore the faith of Melbourne supporters, but players don’t think that way. Athletes play to win. They play to win premierships, win gold medals or break world records. Now, Melbourne players don’t have anything to play for.

I can already here you saying ‘what about their dominant 40-6 performance against the New Zealand Warriors on Sunday?’ All I can say is that I’d be very surprised if the Storm come out and play with that ruthless intensity and spirit in three or four weeks time when it sinks in that they literally are playing for nothing.

So what should the NRL have done instead? They should have allowed the Storm time to organise a team of players that doesn’t exceed the salary cap. When that team was ready, then they should have been allowed to compete for premiership points.

As a result of this whole debacle, there are now serious concerns about whether the Storm will survive as a rugby league club. They are already on the back foot due to the almost immediate departure of their two major sponsors. Superannuation fund HOSTPLUS and Member’s Equity Bank dumped the club with very little hesitation in a move that will cost the club millions of dollars.

News Limited, the Storm’s owner, are understandably livid with what the club has done but in order for the Storm to survive, they will have to contribute a significant amount of money from their own pocket. If News Limited and the NRL want to keep their game national, they have no choice but to give the Storm a helping hand.

As it stands players will have to take serious wage reductions or vacate the club. Star players such as Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk and the club’s captain Cameron Smith have been key members of this amazing team for the past few years, but it will be a struggle for the Storm to retain all four of those players in fielding a legal team.

What will hurt the Storm even more is the inevitable fact that they will lose fans. Of course there will be supporters who will stand by them no matter what but they are bound to lose disgruntled members. Many supporters will believe that the hard-earned money they have invested into the club has essentially gone to waste. And let’s not forget that the Melbourne Storm were already competing for popularity with the 10 AFL clubs that call Melbourne home.

It’s going to be extremely difficult for Melbourne players to front up for games this season with the knowledge that winning a game essentially means nothing. That said, everyone involved with the club, particularly fans, must be resilient and stick by the club.

If not, the Storm are heading for certain extinction.

Ben Waterworth is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can read more of his work at his blog.