British game relieved at Murdoch's triumph

Dave Hadfield on the background to yesterday's victory for Super League
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The battle for the soul of Australian rugby league and, by extension, the control of the game throughout the world, has been one of the most bitter in sporting history.

The war has its origins in the struggle between two of the world's biggest media moguls, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, for pay-TV rights to the sport in Australia.

Add to that dissatisfaction of leading Australian clubs like Brisbane Broncos with the Sydney-based administration of the Australian Rugby League, and the ingredients were in place for a bloody coup that splattered the walls of boardrooms on both sides of the globe.

Murdoch's News Corporation financed a dramatic raid that saw eight clubs from the ARL's Winfield Cup competition try to break away, along with over 300 players, all transferring their allegiance to the new Super League organisation.

The plan was that the eight, plus new clubs in Newcastle and Adelaide, would kick off a new competition in March of this year.

By that time, however, the ARL had mounted a counter-attack on two fronts, moving first to sign up many more of Australia's top players - as well as a damaging wedge cut from the British game - to lucrative loyalty contracts using Packer's money and then taking Super League to court over its tactics in attempting to set up the rival competition.

On 23 February, Justice James Burchett handed down a series of judgments which effectively prevented Super League from doing anything that trespassed on the ARL's traditional territory.

If that was a bitter blow to Super League's movers and shakers in Australia, it was also a nightmare for the leagues in Great Britain and New Zealand which had thrown in their lot with Murdoch.

In Britain's case, the game's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, had led clubs into an pounds 87m five-year contract which promised undreamt-of financial stability, but which tied the game here to Sky Television and to only playing Super League opposition in internationals.

When the ARL won the original court case Lindsay appeared to have backed the wrong horse. The pounds 87m was welcome, of course, but the price of losing Test matches against Australia was a heavy one to pay.

Without a parallel competition in Australia, there was also no way of implementing the plan for global play-offs between the top clubs in Britain and Australia.

Worst of all, there was the prospect that, denied his goodies in Australia, Murdoch would lose interest in the European end of the operation, leaving the British game high and dry at the end of the five-year contract, or even earlier.

The victory in Sydney yesterday removes that immediate fear and should enable British administrators to approach the future with a new confidence.

It is a great shame, for instance, that the decision to renege on South Wales' invitation to join Super League was made before the good news from this Sydney court.

Although the spectre of a further appeal still hangs in the air, events in Australia should now make the British game feel bullish and expansionist once more.