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NRL News: Player punishment, Bennett's return

NRL boss David Gallop offers his thoughts on expansion, membership growth, Shane Webcke’s criticism… and the burning issue of continued off-field misdemeanours and how to go about managing them.

NRL expansion

When will the comp be ready to take on a 17th team?

We are not putting a date out there – it is as simple as that. The first priority at the moment is the health of the existing competition and the clubs within that competition.

Clearly, we would like to see a team on the Central Coast but we are not looking to add a team to the competition, nor are we hoping for a team to fall over – that is why there are relocation incentives on offer for a team to move there.

Looking further ahead we are of course researching the financial impacts of numbers of teams and of the impacts of new areas on sponsors and broadcasters. But we are not talking short-term horizons. Everyone knows that 2012 is a significant date in terms of television rights for the competition and we will be well and truly ready to handle that – including how it contributes to any expansion questions.

The key lessons learned from the Gold Coast Titans are to wait for the right time in terms of the current competition and in terms of the area looking to enter the competition.

It is the strength of the competition and of the football we provide each week that brings the game national recognition, not simply where teams are located.

Membership growth

This year the focus for the NRL is membership growth. Has it matched expectations and are you impressed by various initiatives aimed at easing the financial burden of fans?

It’s something we have been working on for a number of years with growing success and the fact that we have reached more than 100,000 members for 2009 – the highest number in the game’s history – is very encouraging.

Membership packages offer a range of benefits to the fans and certainly clubs have worked with us to ensure that they are offering extra incentives for people to get along to the footy each week.

Low home crowds

What’s your message to fans at grounds that are “underperforming”; drawing crowds of less than 10,000?

The message to everyone is get out and watch the footy because it is some of the best you’ve ever seen. The balance between using the bigger stadiums and the local grounds is a delicate one, but one we have worked with the clubs to improve in 2009.

Shane Webcke’s book

How did you feel when you heard or read Shane’s inference that you and other top league administrators knew of Andrew Johns’ “lifestyle and problems”? Are you disappointed by his comments?

Shane has obviously struggled to express his views on that issue. Having a go at the administration of the game was a bit of a strange way of going about it, but the fact is that I am not aware of anyone ever being in possession of clear information that would have allowed them to act in terms of the drug use – which is what most people seem to want to refer to.

I think anyone who reads Andrew’s book, which is pretty frank, would find that there was no shortage of support for him in terms of people at club level trying to provide professional support for a range of emotional issues.

And he talks of how difficult it was for him to come to terms with the need to accept that and recognise the issues. I was certainly aware that people at the Knights were working hard to help him but as far as I was aware that was to do with issues other than drug use.

Todd Carney’s return

Would the decision to re-register Todd Carney in the NRL rest solely with the NRL?

It would rest with the NRL. We said at the time that he needed to demonstrate that he had made some inroads into his alcohol problems.

Do you have fears repeat offenders will continue to bring the game into disrepute and offend sponsors?

I think the message to repeat offenders is clear – but that doesn’t mean that the game is simply going to cut people adrift. We work on education rehabilitation and, where appropriate, punishment. It’s a difficult balance and it’s tough to be consistent when dealing with an inconsistent set of circumstances.

We will continue to look at each instance on its merits. People will make mistakes and we will continue to deal with that.

What else can the NRL and the game do to “firewall” themselves from fallout?

It’s not a case of firewalling, it is a case of working to do all we can to educate players and to get them active in planning their own off-field career education and in recognising the positive involvement they have in the community. You can’t necessarily measure how many guys have learnt from those courses and made the right decisions.

The players for the most part are doing an outstanding job – and it’s significant to note that they, too, are losing patience with a few who do the wrong thing.

Rules changes

As a fan, what’s the one change introduced this year you think has made the biggest positive difference?

It’s still early days but the combination of two referees and some minor interpretation changes have certainly made the footy more exciting than ever.

Outside of that, the opportunities to be a part of the game through the new online club network, through membership packages, fantasy leagues and tipping competitions, have grown substantially in 2009.

‘Bad boys’ tribunal

Would the formation of an NRL tribunal – similar to the judiciary – to hear and act on off-field incidents be a good idea?

No, it’s a simple theory but we don’t believe it could work in a satisfactory way in practice. One only has to look at the complexity of a judiciary hearing, where the only real evidence is a piece of video and all relevant parties are bound to the NRL.

The complexity of running a hearing in relation to events involving the public and possibly criminal matters is beyond practicality.

Each circumstance in terms of player behaviour will vary considerably. That is why the clubs remain the best equipped to deal with it in the first instance. The NRL should only come in when the club outcome is manifestly inadequate to protect the image of the game.

The Roosters stood down two players this week; is that a sign of the times?

It’s another sign that our clubs are the ones in the best possible position to act. Clubs have their own internal disciplinary systems and they can – and do – work. I think the Roosters deserve plenty of support for their actions this week.

The future

What are your long-term ambitions as NRL CEO?

I love the game and the challenge of the CEO’s role. I believe that my experience is a benefit to the game. I hope that I can continue to be around as the game has some exciting times ahead of it.

NRL News: Player punishment, Bennett's return

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