Super task to keep the passion for game alive
By KEVIN HEPWORTH
SPORT: Pleasant pastime; amusement; diversion. (Oxford dictionary) LOVE it or loathe it, Super League - polarising rugby league in its Australian heartland - cannot be ignored.
Born of rejection, Rupert Murdoch's grand vision of a global rugby league community structured for the lucrative free-to-air and cable television market has grown from a worrying spectre to an invader with all the irresistible charm of an aggressive melanoma.
When Murdoch's original proposal to the Australian Rugby League - traditional keepers of the game - was dismissed, almost out-of-hand in the apparent belief that the incumbent administration's iron, if somewhat narrow, powerbase had the game well in hand, few envisaged the carnage to follow.
Suggestions that anybody - even an organisation with the international financial clout of the News group - could buy out the sport in a hostile takeover were given little credence.
But that, in essence, is what happened.
News bought eight - it has claimed at varying times up to 10 - rugby league clubs, some en masse and others as individual players, from the top end of the Australian market and will set them against each other in a Super League competition next year.
Far more importantly from Murdoch's global viewpoint was the acquiescence of the major international rugby leagues.
For decades the ARL had ruled the game largely unchallenged as a rarely benevolent despot. The ARL was, as they were only too happy to tell anyone who cared to listen, the centre of the rugby league universe.
It was not altogether surprising that national bodies ridden roughshod over by the ARL - Great Britain and New Zealand chief among them - saw benefits, not the least of them financial, in courting Super League.
The ARL may still think of themselves as the centre of the universe, but Super League is the new landlord.
Taciturn Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, never one to pull verbal punches, summed up the ARL's attitude to their present dilemma: 'Whenever we [the Broncos] complained about some aspect of the ARL competition they told us we could go and find another competition to play in. Well, now we have and they are still whingeing.' With court proceedings pending for September over 'loyalty' contracts the ARL contends were signed by all clubs in the Winfield Cup there seems little hope of an early reconciliation.
While the Super League players have suffered in silence through their exclusion from the State Of Origin and Australian representative matches this season - there seems little weakening of their resolve to push ahead with the new competition.
'It was disappointing that we couldn't be involved in the rep season, but we have been guaranteed that it will only be for the one season,' former Australian Test half-back and Canberra star Ricky Stuart explained. 'There is going to be a rep season with Super League next year.
'This year it was just a matter of sitting tight and enjoying the games. I went to the first game [State Of Origin] but the standard just wasn't the same as previous years.' Stuart, who was at the centre of a heated bidding war between Super League and the ARL when the initial scramble was on to sign players to the competing leagues, said he was comfortable with his decision to go with the new organisation and was confident there would be a future.
'It wasn't the money [I went for] - I was offered more money by the ARL,' said Stuart. 'Really, I didn't want to live anywhere but in Canberra and I wanted to stay involved with the Raiders. It is not very often that any team sportsman has the opportunity to be involved with the number of quality players there are at Canberra.' Cash may not have been the deciding factor in choosing a Super League future - but it certainly didn't hurt.
The money that Stuart and the other Super League players have signed for is little less than staggering by the standards of six months ago. 'We have players who were on A$60,000 who will now be pulling A$200,000,' explained one club official who wanted to remain anonymous. 'From that it is not too hard to figure out how much the top players who were on A$200,000-plus will be earning.' A large part of the attraction for clubs like Canberra and Brisbane - with five of the past six ARL premierships between them and key Super League signings - was the ability to keep championship sides intact.
'The first teams to stick their necks out and sign up were ones like the Canberra Raiders and Brisbane who had been struggling under the ARL salary cap to keep their sides together - sides they had built up mainly from developing players themselves or signing young players before their value soared,' said Stuart.
'With Super League there was finally money there [a A$4.5 million salary cap] to pay all the players what they were worth on an open market.
'At Canberra we have nine internationals from various countries and the ARL salary cap [A$1.6 million] couldn't stand for that many internationals in one club. 'Now, with a salary cap of A$4.5 million it is a lot more realistic to think you can keep a side like that together.' It is, however, the amount of money being splashed around which puts the greatest question mark over the viability of Super League clubs.
The ARL's original salary cap concept was put in place in an effort - not wholly successful - to prevent clubs from committing financial suicide with rampant player payments.
With the ARL certain to continue a parallel competition, rugby league has become an environment in which the available product has doubled in a stagnant, or - if recent figures are a true indication of the disillusionment fans are feeling - falling market.
However, Stuart, while acknowledging that the once loyal club fans are voting with their feet on the ruction which is tearing their sport apart, is confident the new product will sell.
'Initially Murdoch will be throwing money in, but what they are saying is that the product will be bigger and better - the clubs will attract bigger sponsorships, they think there will be more people going to the games and they believe the finance and the capital will be there to support the increased running costs,' he explained.
'That will not be proven for something like five years, but Murdoch has guaranteed the clubs a certain amount of money for the next three years to give them the opportunity to get the competition up and running. It is not going to be an overnight thing.' Whether or not the game can survive as a bottom-line entity is a question which only time can answer.
Much of the charm and attraction of sport, and the passions it engenders both on and off the field, come from a sense of history and tradition in the competition.
Like a soaring glass office tower thrust into a row of turn-of-the-century terraces, Super League has none of the historical and traditional emotional triggers.
'They had no history in 1908 when they first started out the ARL,' Stuart countered.
'I can only speak for myself, but I know that I can play with just as much passion [in a new competition].
'It is still competition and there will be a shield and a grand final so you are going to make your own passion.' Still, much of the success of Super League is going to depend on whether the players and the clubs can engender that same passion in the fans.
If the new competition can become a pleasant and amusing diversion - albeit a profitable one - then the sport could still have meaning.