In rugby league’s Game of Thrones, Winterfell has fallen. Again.
Now picture the NRL warlords feasting on roasted carcasses and swilling wine from silver goblets as they celebrate their conquest.
Or, more likely, having a schooner and a chicken schnitzel at a leagues club with the poker machines that still fund a substantial portion of their operations jingling reassuringly in the background.
There is nothing more the NRL warlords like than a fresh kill.
Winning a big game or a premiership is good for the ego when they run into the other prominent used car dealers and property developers at the race track.
But the head of an NRL boss — now that’s something to be savoured. If only they could mount it on the wall in the chairman’s box.
The scalp of Australian Rugby League Commission chairman John Grant was prized.
Grant’s demise brings to an end the rein of a sometimes obstinate protagonist and blunts the authority of a new commission that was supposed to nullify the clubs’ influence.
First the warlords had connived to remove NRL chief executive David ‘Call Me Dave’ Smith, whose cards were marked the day he uttered the name “Benji” Barba at the 2013 season launch.
As NRL chief executive you can attempt to improve the governance of clubs, build relationships with governments and try to polish the image of a game eternally mired in controversy.
But get the name of a Dally M Medallist wrong in public and you are a dead man walking.
In truth, Smith stumbled into his own trap. He blinked during TV rights negotiations and felt the wrath of Rupert Murdoch, who punished the NRL for “disloyalty” by showering the AFL with more affection than he does Jerry Hall.
But if Smith had his failings, his treatment by the warlords spoke volumes.
Former NRL chief Dave Smith’s days were numbered the minute he made his ‘Benji’ Barba gaffe. (AAP Image: Dean Lewins)
Smith’s laudable objectives of modern sports administration and corporate enterprise were nothing in the face of old school rugby league bosses enraged by their sudden feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy.
For a newly constituted commission trying to bring about much needed change, the problem was not that rugby league was on its knees. Rather, upon the commission’s inception, it had entered a period of relative prosperity.
But the extra media rights revenue that flowed when the game extracted itself from News Corp’s clutches proved a mixed blessing.
Newfound wealth covered big cracks in the game’s revenue streams, provided camouflage for loss-making clubs and meant the NRL executive had few levers to pull when demanding the clubs lift their games.
Only the complete train wrecks — Wests Tigers, Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle Knights — were beholden to headquarters. The others could ignore the memos from head office and boldly hold their hands out for a greater share of the TV billions.
No wonder former AFL commissioner Graeme Samuel walked away from the ARL Commission when it displayed neither the strength nor the will to make the changes necessary to modernise club management and maximise the game’s potential.
Samuel had helped turn the AFL into a domestic powerhouse by taking a hard — sometimes, he admits, even too hard — line on underperforming clubs.
NRL chief Todd Greenberg’s sparring with John Grant could be seen as positive signs of his leadership abilities. (AAP Image: Dan Himbrechts)
But Samuel looked on as the warlords manipulated the NRL through backroom channels and media mates — and as Grant constantly capitulated to ensure his own survival — and left frustrated and bemused.
The fall of Smith, then Grant, will not diminish the warlords’ lust for power and control.
The clubs are now demanding a seat at the table — two club representatives on the notionally independent ARLC.
It is unclear what part of ‘independent’ the clubs don’t understand, but as ever they will justify their interference on the basis that the governing body needs “real rugby league people” and claim the current commission “doesn’t understand our problems”.
They will fail to mention that the same “real rugby league people” who make these claims have failed to solve these problems after decades running their clubs — sometimes into the ground.
Of course, the real answer to the ARLC’s problem is to improve the calibre of the independent commissioners, not to dilute the gene pool with the hand puppets of self-interested club bosses.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Offsiders panellist Roy Masters goes as far as to suggest the clubs could effectively return the game to News Corp’s control if they unravel $150 million in digital technology intended to “future proof” the game against a collapse in TV rights revenue.
With Grant’s head effectively on the warlords’ spike, Todd Greenberg — the restless prince who served under the fallen king Grant — now inherits a position of far greater influence, at least until a new chairman has his or her feet under the table.
That Grant accused Greenberg of back-flipping on the funding agreement he had made with the NRL clubs to retain his position might be considered an encouraging sign of the chief executive’s leadership.
Assuming Greenberg was indeed willing to confront the warlords with a harsh economic truth, and Grant wasn’t simply covering his own tracks.
In rugby league’s Game of Thrones only the very brave or the very stupid put their necks on the line.