NRL boss' gaffe takes gloss off launch

GLENN JACKSON
Last updated 12:32 28/02/2013

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He was largely forgiven for not knowing who the Australian captain was, but NRL chief executive Dave Smith will have to put up with more jibes after calling Ben Barba ''Benji'' at Wednesday night's season launch.

Smith's unfortunate gaffe took the gloss off an otherwise impressive speech to launch the 2013 season, as he offered his support to the player who was to stand beside him.

''It's why we are attempting to lend a hand to Benji during a difficult time for him and his family,'' Smith said. ''Ben remains a key part of our promotion, and so he should be.

''The rugby league family is proud of him, and he has earned that right. If we are to grow the game, we must stand by and help stars like Ben when they need it most. It's not only the rugby league way - it's the right way.''

It was nothing more than an honest mistake as he delivered a positive message about the future of the game on and off the field. But the problem for Smith is that the gaffe occurred after his inauguration as the NRL chief executive had been marred by his admission that he did not know who the Australian captain was.

Smith's slip of the tongue will underline the message that rugby league has deliberately chosen an outsider for his business acumen rather than his knowledge of the game.

On top of that, Barba had been due to launch the NRL season alongside Smith, before his much-publicised standing down from the Bulldogs. In front of 450 people at the Star casino on Wednesday night, he was replaced by North Queensland's Johnathan Thurston.

Barba was everywhere and nowhere as rugby league's bold new era, powered by a billion-dollar-plus broadcast rights deal, kicked off. Barba did not attend, having previously been chosen as the one player to help cut the ribbon. But there were few who were not discussing the sad plight of the player, whose career has been put on hold as he battles multiple demons.

Thurston could have been talking about Barba without actually naming him.

''On behalf of every player in the game, let me say that you are our inspiration,'' Thurston told those assembled.

''There are times when it is not easy, when the scrutiny can be overwhelming. Times when others question your support and question the integrity of the game we love. But there is no doubt in my mind that rugby league is the greatest game of all.

''I am proud to be a rugby league player. I am proud to play in the toughest competition in the world, where the skills, power and courage of the players amaze fans each and every week.

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"I am proud at the difference rugby league makes to people's lives, the way it brings families and communities together.''

The code has other problems, of course. Another cloud hangs over the game, and others, in the form of the ongoing investigations into performance-enhancing drugs, as well as links with organised crime - the obvious target for Thurston's reference to the game's integrity.

Many hope all the suspicion will be forgotten by round one next Thursday night, but it has been made clear that Barba will not be.

While parts of Barba's involvement in the advertising campaign, fronted by Jessica Mauboy, have been edited out, he is still a focus. NRL officials sought assurances from the Bulldogs that Barba's battle would not ultimately embarrass the game, and having received it, Smith said the fullback deserved the right to be lauded still.

Mauboy performed the Etta James song Something's Got a Hold on Me in front of the invited guests, while actors re-enacted portions of the ad on stage.

''But we do more than launch a season tonight,'' Smith said.

''We are launching a whole new future for our game. Rugby league is on the verge of something special, a time of growth and a time of growing confidence. By working together across every level of the sport, we can enter a period of boundless opportunity.

''The foundations are already in place and much of the heavy lifting has been done. It is now up to us to believe in the game, to believe in ourselves and to be bold in how we go about things ... rugby league is a part of our lives and never has there been so much to look forward to.

''We need to be looking for opportunities - not looking over our shoulder.

''This is a time to think about where we want rugby league to be and about how we want rugby league to be seen.

''Our challenge now is to take the game to a new level.''

- Sydney Morning Herald

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