Fans were frank when they spoke at a special NRL forum yesterday, writes Glenn Jackson.
Nanjing Night Net

Armed with a Roy Masters article, and admittedly, a slight grudge, Shane Spruce had one topic he wanted to engage NRL bosses in yesterday, as supporters met the suits. As he termed it, "the elephant in the room".

"[The forum] was about getting across what matters to members, things like refereeing," Spruce said afterwards, clutching the cut-out of the Herald article as he pitched his case to it.

"But it doesn’t really go to the heart of the matter, which is the conflict of interest in the game, and the game not reaching its full potential because of it. The CEO can’t even really stand up for the game because he’s trying to serve two masters, and I think we know which side his bread’s buttered on."

And if you haven’t caught up on the news, it’s News. Limited that is, the right hand of the NRL that yields the biggest slap of the partnership group, which it shares with the Australian Rugby League.

And what Spruce was spruiking, at the first fans forum, was that News Ltd’s stake in the game, and its stake in Foxtel, the game’s pay-TV broadcaster, was a conflict of interest. "We just want transparency," he said. "We just want to know we’re getting the best deal."

And so amidst a discussion that ranged from player behaviour to refereeing to the salary cap, the controversial rights deals became a central issue. NRL chief executive David Gallop, for his part, conceded the conflict, but defended the master.

"Without News Ltd, there’d be no Melbourne, there’d be no Townsville, and there’d probably be no Canberra," Gallop said. "They’re not interested in shackling the game. They do have a potential conflict, and we’re not walking away from it, but they want to make the game prosperous."

Spruce is a solicitor who runs one of Newcastle’s supporter groups. As such, he admitted he had a personal motivation, relating to the scars left from Super League.

"We’re not looking for recriminations," he said. "We had guys involved in our club who were involved in Super League – Michael Hagan and Mark Sargent. We’re not looking to look backwards. But we need to acknowledge the scars are there and you can’t pretend everything’s rosy. I’m really positive about the game, but there’s a lot of potential that’s being unrealised."

While some in the game argue the presence of News Ltd among the stakeholders and their role in the rights deals are part of an agenda driven by this newspaper, the view from the hill, clearly on show yesterday, would suggest otherwise.

"I said to my guys, ‘I’m coming here, what do you want me to bring up?"’ Spruce said. "The two things they said were conflict of interest and scheduling. And one comes from the other. The reason we have to bend over backwards to placate Channel Nine is because we don’t get enough from News Ltd."

That brings us to scheduling – which allows supporters to know the where and when of NRL games, sometimes, just five weeks before the round. That will change in 2012 when all the existing broadcasting deals expire, according to Gallop, who added the game would be in a "great position to cut and dice it the way we want to".

"The next move is to move to the AFL system [of scheduling every game in the preseason] and that’s what our plan is to do," Gallop said.

Elsewhere, chief operating officer Graham Annesley conceded the league needed to "drag back" the video referees’ powers "because it’s imposing on the game". Gallop said the league was still a "fair way off" inviting Perth or Adelaide into the premiership.

Asked about disciplining players, Gallop said the NRL would resist the urge to take control of off-field sanctioning in a bid to have more uniformity.

"The days of sweeping things under the carpet are over," Gallop said. As Spruce would say, it’s all about transparency.

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