Legal triumph for Australian ruling body

Dave Hadfield looks at the implications for British rugby league after court in Sydney rules against Super League
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The Independent Online
As Maurice Lindsay and the other tribal elders of Super League watched the rain wash out their first showpiece event in Fiji yesterday, they must have thought that everything, including the weather, was against them.

Far worse than the ill-timed monsoon at the World Nines was the deluge released on their heads by the result of the Australian court case upon which Super League in that country hinged. On a day of inaction on the field there was one very big winner off it - the Australian Rugby League, implacable opponents of Rupert Murdoch's attempt to hijack their game.

In Australia, it is game, set and match to the ARL; a testament to the tenacity of an organisation which even its admirers feared would be blown out of the water by Murdoch's bigger battalions.

Defeat in Australia could cost News Corporation as much as pounds 50m in damages on top of their court costs, the ARL was gleefully predicting yesterday. The bill is adding up to the point where even a man with pockets as deep as Murdoch's may seek a way out; and there will be release clauses in the fine print.

That is the silent fear in England - that, deprived of the prize he wanted, Murdoch could quickly lose interest in a British game which knows itself that it has merely been a pawn in his international game.

Both Lindsay, the chief executive of the European Super League, and News Corporation are adamant that this will not be the outcome. They will, they insist, stick together no matter what now transpires in Australia, but it is difficult to see the commercial logic behind this stance.

When the game in Britain was offered riches beyond its wildest dreams in order to sign up with Murdoch, no one was inclined to push the pounds 87m away and take the global overview by asking: "Hang on. Is this legal?"

But, even before the revelation yesterday that, at its crucial Australian end, it was not, disillusionment had already set in.

Clubs which thought that they were set up for life have discovered that it does not quite work like that. When declining revenue during the last winter season and the extra expense to which they are committed are both taken into account, many will claim now to be worse off than they were before.

In its panic to grab the money, British rugby league turns out to have backed the wrong horse. There were those who urged last year that the Rugby League should explore all the angles before leaping into bed with Super League and that counsel turns out to have been correct.

"We were the one club urging caution," Alf Davies, Leeds' chief executive, said. "You wouldn't buy a house without it being surveyed. Now we find ourselves in a very confusing situation."

Super League in Australia is not conceding final defeat yet. It has a number of other cards up its sleeve, starting with an appeal and continuing with all manner of contingency plans that it has been mulling over in preparation for such a result.

Those include playing a Super League competition overseas - outside the jurisdiction of an Australian court - or playing a game so radically different from rugby league that they can no longer stand convicted of stealing the ARL's clothes.

But the court judgement appears to have run so diametrically against Super League that both those possibilities will be precluded.

That leaves them with the option of hiving off their most expensive players - whom even a court is powerless to compel to play for the ARL - to Super League in England. But while the prospect of seeing Bradley Clyde at Castleford, Ricky Stuart at St Helens or most of the Brisbane Broncos' side at their London namesakes is an enticing one in the short term, it does not make up for the loss of a genuinely international dimension.

Without the world play-offs and without international tours, the European Super League will be hollow, its vision and viability chronically impaired. It no longer makes sense; certainly not enough sense to justify jettisoning Ashes tours, switching seasons and generally standing the game on its head.

The sports lawyer, Richard Cramer, who represented Keighley in their unsuccessful battle to be included in Super League, has already asked the ARL whether they would bail out the game here, in the event of Murdoch pulling out.

That, for the moment, is the initiative of one man, but how they must have enjoyed the idea at their celebration party in Sydney.

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