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Rugby league's bosses are making the big hits

TREVOR MCKEWEN
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2013
David Smith and Jim Doyle
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COOL HEADS: NRL boss David Smith and his right-hand man, New Zealand’s Jim Doyle, have shown strong leadership this year.

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No sport has been buffeted by more scandal and controversy over the past 15 years than Australian rugby league.

OPINION: Trouble was in the wind before the Super League schism of 1995, and even though the two warring factions eventually came together a couple of years later to form the "National Rugby League", the 13-man code has continued to be plagued by drama, often self-inflicted.

Player behaviour became the emerging problem of the late 1990s and only got worse as the clock ticked into the new millennium. Fifteen years on, we still have the likes of Blake Ferguson and Russell Packer shooting themselves in the foot (or weeing on it in Packer's case).

New evils have also emerged to challenge the NRL's determination to right the ship.

The Ryan Tandy affair, which had tentacles that reached across The Ditch into New Zealand, demonstrated how alert all football authorities will need to be to the insidious threat of match or spot-fixing. Back to that in a moment.

Performance-enhancing drugs - or, more accurately, dodgy sports supplements peddled by dubious sports "gurus" posing as scientists - became the NRL's biggest challenge in 2013.

It has taken almost a year, but in the past week the NRL has finally handed down its punishment to the errant Cronulla Sharks over the ASADA supplements scandal.

In the ensuing months, after the heads of the NRL, Australian Football League (AFL), Football Australia and Cricket Australia were summoned to a press conference where the national Sports Minister revealed "the blackest day in Australian sporting history", the NRL's response was heavily scrutinised.

The league bosses were often strongly criticised and their approach to dealing with the saga was regularly compared unfavourably with that of the AFL, whose feisty boss Andrew Demetriou was well to the forefront of media headlines. In the end, Demetriou threw the book at the Essendon club and officials but was arguably far too heavy-handed.

And, with the benefit of time, it is emerging that the NRL's more measured and inclusive approach has been the more appropriate way to handle a complex problem, where which education and saving people from themselves is more important than clubbing them with over-the-top punishments.

The NRL rightly decided Sharks coach Shane Flanagan had failed in his duty of care to his players and that ignorance was no defence. But the baby hasn't been thrown out with the bathwater. Flanagan has been suspended for nine months only and can actually come back earlier than that if he shows appropriate rehabilitation.

The club was fined $A1 million but $400,000 of that was suspended. The NRL legitimately want the Sharks to survive and understood smashing an already financially struggling franchise helped nobody.

Then there are positive measures like making the CEOs of the 16 clubs personally responsible for any supplement programme. How it has handled ASADA, the recent massive increase in its broadcasting deal and the courage shown in outlawing the shoulder charge (despite fans and players still wanting it) are all indications that the NRL is making strong progress in turning itself from a reactive inward-thinking organisation to an innovate and progressive one.

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For that, new CEO David Smith, in the job now for only about a year, deserves some rich credit. So, too, does the man he appointed as his Chief Operating Officer-cum-troubleshooter, former Kiwi league boss Jim Doyle.

It's been noticeable that Smith has regularly had Doyle at his shoulder when he has fronted the big issues of the year, including last week's ASADA announcements.

Smith is originally from Wales and Doyle hails from Scotland, although he is a fiercely proud New Zealander.

A pragmatic Welshman and a steely Scot plotting the resurgence and continued growth of Australian rugby league. Who would have thought it?

- Sunday News

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