2In what is perhaps the most sensational development in rugby league since the Super League War fifteen years ago, the NRL today stripped the Melbourne Storm of two premierships - and effectively ended its 2010 premiership campaign.
The Storm is wholly owned by News Limited, which is a 50 per cent shareholder in the NRL. This is a momentous decision by David Gallop and the NRL...but it is horrendous news for the NRL and the greatest game of all.
This story will generate from page headlines even in Melbourne...and none of it will be positive.
The NRL has uncovered salary cap breaches of at least $1.7 million over the last five years, including a projected breach of $700,000 this season.
The penalty imposed on the Storm is significantly greater than that imposed on the Bulldogs seven or eight years ago.
Apart from losing two premierships, the club has lost the points it has gained this season (8 points from 4 wins), and the right to accumulate points going forward in 2010.
The Storm has been found guilty of misleading the NRL over a five year period by effectively maintaining two sets of books - one kept at the clubs offices, and "one stored in a secret file at the home of the Chief Executive (of the Storm)". The documents kept by the Club CEO at his home included letters promising extra payments to players - payments not declared under the salary cap.
The club has also been fined $500,000 and forced to return $1.1 million in prize money.
The revelation is a massive embarrassment for News Limited, the club's sole owner, and could not come at a worse time for the club or the NRL.
The club's new stadium (funded by the Victorian Government) is due to open with the Australia-New Zealand Test match in two weeks time. The club will struggle to attract crowds when it has nothing to play for in the 2010 competition.
What this means for the future of rugby league in Melbourne is uncertain. The 2010 season is cactus; the club will clearly have to cut a number of highly paid players; current and former officials face possible criminal and other investigations...and there may be even wider consequences.
The outcome also casts serious doubt over the whole integrity of the salary cap. But more on that later
The NRL must now launch a full scale investigation into who was involved in the rort (and not just officials) and who was aware of it. And they must be dealt with as well.
Today betting agencies suspended taking bets on the wooden spoon after a number of bets were placed on The Storm at 250/1! Who placed those bets, and on what basis needs urgent investigation as well. As I warned just yesterday - getting involved with betting on the game is not without its hazards!
The other troubling aspect is that today's full revelation might not have been forthcoming for some time if Storm officials had not handed over incriminating documents to the NRL today. And one wonders if the full extent would have ever been revealed?
The whole salary cap monitoring process must be investigated as well. The rorts have been going on since 2007 (at least), yet they have only been uncovered now - and only then after the club handed over what was obviously incriminating material.
But for now, this is dreadful news for rugby league.
And my fear is that it may get worse - and possibly much worse.