$3.17 million. This is the extraordinary figure that the Melbourne Storm rugby league club is said to have breached the NRL salary cap by since 2006. According to News Limited chairman John Hartigan, speaking on behalf of the company that owns the club, and, in a novel twist, half of the competition they compete in, “We had some rats in our ranks”. Judging by the numbers, they were greedy rats that possessed cunning, but no sense of proportion.
What would motivate a group of senior club officials to not just fiddle with player contracts in order to attract and keep the best playing talent, but to completely disregard notions of acceptable conduct? Rather than take the easy way out by blaming a few “bad eggs” operating behind closed doors in the club offices, which is the usual way that business deals with scandal, it’s important to look at the club’s history and culture.
The Melbourne Storm is an exceptional club. Their performances over the years show that all opposition, on field and off, are to be confronted head-on. This is a club born amidst conflict and the ruins of the Super League war of the late 1990s, which is more accurately described as a battle for control over the pay television market in Australia. The Melbourne Storm’s owners, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, won the fight.
Comprised initially of spare-parts players drawn from a range of inter-state clubs, Melbourne’s rugby league team was launched into the most hostile of all possible markets, the Australian-rules obsessed Victorian capital. Seeming to appear almost overnight in late 1997, the Storm became the only team that gave the “national” in the National Rugby League real meaning.
Making any impact in the Melbourne market meant failure was not an option. The Storm needed to win and win regularly if it was to attract fans and sponsors, meaning the fostering of a culture that had absolutely no tolerance for losing. It was no coincidence that the coach of the club’s first (and now only) premiership team in 1999, Chris Anderson, was as hard-nosed and uncompromising as any in the code. Unrivalled discipline, sacrifice and aggression are the qualities upon which the Storm’s culture is built.
Those running the Storm intuitively understood the Australian sporting psyche. While people like to mouth platitudes about “having a go” and “fair play”, winning is the only achievement that really counts for many, which helps to explain the obscene levels of abuse and criticism heaped on failing coaches and teams by so-called fans. Donald Horne identified this feature of the Australian character in 1964 when he wrote in The Lucky Country, “Competitive sport in Australia can be a ruthless, quasi-military operation”.
The Storm increased their crowds and popularity by accepting and intensifying the characteristic pinpointed by Horne. Despite platitudes about supporting the underdog, usually offered by the unattached or casual observers, getting Victorians to part with cash for club merchandise and season tickets required enduring success and premierships, especially given that there was no glorious past or sepia-toned club mythology to be massaged into an appealing brand.
The mentality described here has been on display both on the field and in the news media. It is fascinating to compare the Storm’s public defence of an outlawed and ugly on-field tactic, the grapple tackle, and select responses to the blatant breaching of rugby league’s salary cap. In both cases, an excuse has been “we’re not the only one doing it”, accompanied by a discernable outrage that outsiders have dared question their integrity.
Paradoxically, this is the flint-hard, uncompromising mentality from which both winning cultures and perverse organisational practices can sprout. In recent weeks, it is this mindset that has allowed the Storm to remain competitive on the field in the midst of adversity and with little incentive to win. Judging by the comments made by some Storm personnel in the media, many in the club genuinely believe that the integrity of their team is intact even when the practices that put it together are revealed as entirely corrupt.
The irony of the entire situation is that those charged with running the Storm have achieved everything they wanted. They claimed premierships and saw off all challengers. No compromise, no apologies, and, most tellingly, no questions asked.