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Rebels can see out the Storm
Brett Taylor
April 28, 2010

The difference between success and failure in sport is so often a matter of timing. A quality that defines the great players is their ability to be in the right place at the right moment.

Timing can be equally as important off the pitch too and that theory is set to be thoroughly tested by the Melbourne Rebels given the circumstances under which they will enter the Super 15 next year. What was looking like a typical tale of team-meets-city has suddenly been engulfed by one of Australian sport's most controversial stories. The ways in which Melbourne Storm's salary cap scandal affect the Rebels will be numerous and far-reaching. So far the implications of the Storm's rort on the Rebels project have been direct and negative, but with a look to the long-term, their timing may prove to be impeccable.

Let's backtrack for a moment and go over what we know for sure. Melbourne's only National Rugby League club, the Storm, were stripped last week of two Premierships and handed down massive fines from rugby league's governing body for long-term, systematic breaches of the salary cap. The team was relieved of all points earned so far in the early stages of the 2010 season, and any victories they achieve in the rest of the campaign will be rewarded with no points.

The revelations are so shocking because several seasons of one of Australia's most popular sports have effectively been declared null and void. Storm fans have been shattered, but rugby league supporters in general must face the sobering reality that the whole balance and fairness of their entire competition has been thrown out by the actions of a few. League could have opened a Pandora's box that blows its own credibility out the door.

But back to the Rebels. The first person to call for a full-throttle NRL-wide salary cap audit in the wake of the Storm disaster was Brian Waldron. Waldron spent around five years at the Storm before jumping ship to become chief executive of the new Rebels franchise in January this year. Waldron has been named as the "chief rat" in the salary cap scandal by John Hartigan, the head of media giant News Ltd, Storm's owners. The morning after the story broke, Waldron resigned from his Rebels post with immediate effect.

So the first implication for the Rebels is that they lost their boss. Salary cap fraud aside, Waldron was most likely a superior candidate for the Rebels post. He has recent, first-hand experience of leading a successful rugby club in a city dominated by AFL - Aussie Rules - and swimming with other sporting competitors such as A-League, the Australian Open, the Australian Grand Prix, and Test cricket.

Some of that success was earned by assembling a criminally good playing roster, but knowledge of attracting talent south, dealing with media and sponsors while living in AFL's shadow and generally making an impact in a market where his code was foreign were all assets that the Rebels could have benefited from.

If losing Waldron was a setback, keeping him would have been a disaster. Waldron's name is now mud and any ongoing association between he and the Rebels would have soured the franchise's image. If cracking the Melbourne market looked like a challenge for the Rebels already, it would have been mission impossible with public enemy number one at the helm.

By the time the Rebels run onto the field in 2011, Waldron will be a distant memory. But the Storm's salary cap episode might not be. A bumper crowd attended Melbourne's home game on Sunday, a resounding win over New Zealand's Warriors, many with signs and banners of support for the team, if not the club. But whether that defiance will remain over a long season of literally pointless games is another question. The big issue will be whether the Storm coach and players get stuck in the web of lies - if they do, the fan betrayal goes to a new level, and more will turn their backs.

How convenient then that a representative of rugby league's nearest neighbour, rugby union, should drop in like a beautiful new romantic interest after a nasty break-up. Former Storm fans might not convert to Rebels members overnight, but you can bet the last dollar of your salary cap that they'll head down to a Super 15 match out of curiosity.

The onus will be on the Rebels to get their product right on and off the field, but if they do, one code's loss could well be another's gain. In other areas, too, opportunities arise for the Rebels. NRL boss David Gallop is adamant that the Storm's star-studded roster must be disassembled to a legal level before next season. There aren't many other teams with big room to move under the salary cap, so top players may be forced onto the open market. Storm's sponsors have dropped their support for the tarnished club, and could seek alternative exposure.

So far the Rebels have appeared to distance themselves from the role of scavengers. They have hosed down rumours they are interested in one of the NRL's leading lights, Storm fullback Billy Slater, and chairman Harold Mitchell played a straight bat to suggestions the Rebels would open negotiations with companies who have dropped their relationship with the Storm. They have even agreed to pay out the first six months of Waldron's hefty contract, a reported A$275,000 he will not work for. The indications are that the Rebels aren't looking for shortcuts and don't want any favours.

So long as Waldron's departure doesn't derail recruitment plans, the club's positive beginnings shouldn't be hampered. Taking advantage of Storm's misery certainly won't be written into the business plan - and nor should it be. This is a club who wanted to be a success under their own steam and they will continue to operate that way. But through sheer timing and coincidence, the Rebels are rising up as the fresh new alternative to an embattled competitor and that should prove to be a boon for rugby union.

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