Australian Rugby League contracted players were reportedly having second thoughts about staying with the ‘Establishment’, after England and New Zealand confirmed they would be siding with the rebel Super League, which was backed by the deep pockets of News Ltd.
Super League’s Sydney office claimed to have fielded phone calls from players worried that the door had now been closed on their dreams of playing international football, one of the ‘advantages’ which the ARL said they had over their rivals, when the ‘war’ broke out the previous month.
News Ltd. chairman, Ken Cowley said the ARL players were now entitled to cancel or rescind their contracts.
ARL chief executive, John Quayle had called a meeting of the 20 clubs, at Souths Leagues, and 16 rolled up, with Canterbury, Canberra, Auckland and Perth’s Western Reds absent (all of them aligned with Super League). The Broncos were represented by new chief executive, Shane Edwards and director, Steve Williams, a former Queensland five eighth. Edwards had replaced John Ribot, who had taken on the role of CEO of Super League.
The night before the meeting at Souths, Ribot had appeared on Channel 9’s ‘Footy Show’, with Arthurson.
A hostile panel tore into ‘Ribes’. Solicitor, Chris Murphy twice told Ribot he was owned by Rupert Murdoch (the head of News Ltd), and he was talking through his pocket, when defending the rebel organisation.
As Ribot tried to explain ‘the vision’ of taking Super League to the world, radio commentator, Ray Hadley interjected: ‘What a load of crap. It’s all about pay television, John. It’s all about lining people’s pockets.’
I spent most of that week in Sydney, covering developments, for ‘The Courier-Mail’ in Brisbane.
What a week!
It started with an ARL press conference at the site of the old Sydney hotel, where the code started in 1908.
The ARL hoped to reinforce the message of ‘loyalty’, as they paraded some of the players they had signed, alongside juniors wearing Balmain and Gold Coast Seagulls jerseys.
As I walked into the press conference, I bumped into former News Ltd sports journalist, turned player/manager, Steve ‘Chimes’ Gillis, who had clients on both sides of the fence. ‘Chimes’ was someone the players could trust, and he spoke their language.
The photograph published by ‘The Courier-Mail’ featured Arthurson with 14 players around him (one was obscured). Those in view were Adam Ritson, Matt Seers, Geoff Toovey, Luke Ricketson, Scott Gourley, Mark Coyne, Jason Taylor, Billy Moore, Greg Florimo, Steve Menzies, Terry Hill, Tim Brasher, Mark Carroll and Brad Fittler. (Just two Queenslanders – Coyne and Moore).
Teenage prop, Ritson, described by the legendary Arthur Beetson as the best front row prospect he had seen, was the centre of attention, because he had turned his back on Super League, even though his club, Cronulla had aligned themselves with the rebel comp.
The press conference was heated, and at one stage co-MC, Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin, who had just been appointed Queensland State of Origin coach, called News Ltd journalist, Piers Akerman “a fat heap of shit”. (‘Fatty was assisted as MC, by former Test halfback, Peter Sterling, who quickly defused things, after his fellow Channel 9 commentator’s outburst).
Arthurson made no secret of the fact the ARL could not have taken the fight to News Ltd without the help of Kerry Packer’s PBL, which owned a controlling interest in Channel 9.
I worked from News Limited’s Holt Street, Surry Hills offices that afternoon, and I was there, alongside Peter Frilingos, when Akerman stormed into the office, declaring in front of all and sundry, that he had just been insulted by someone called ‘Fatso Vaughan’.
The ARL people had left the press conference feeling happy about the way things went, but the next day they were trumped by Super League, which announced England and New Zealand had come on side. Rupert Murdoch was claiming victory.
A summer competition was planned for Britain. In France, former national rugby union coach, Jacques Fouroux was linked with new rugby league clubs in Paris and Toulouse.
Arthurson was particularly upset at the Kiwis’ decision to jump ship, and he refused to accept, at first, that England had turned their back on the ARL.
NZRFL president, Graham Carden said the Kiwis would only play against Super League backed international sides.
“I’ve seen some treacherous and dishonorable acts in my time, but the act of that Graham Carden…is that his name?…I thought it was Cardiff. I don’t even know the man, and I don’t particularly want to know him after this. He says he has been negotiating for 10 days, yet he didn’t have the decency to contact me, or anyone from the ARL.”
It could be said the the ARL had taken New Zealand and England for granted.
The ARL said they had not heard anything from British boss, Maurice Lindsay.
Arthurson said he had received a denial of the English deal, and brandished a document signed by the ERL’s lawyers.
Queensland Newspapers’ general manager, Lachlan Murdoch, one of Super League’s negotiators, said $100 million over five years had been committed to put Super League on the world stage, through satellite TV.
Murdoch said rugby league was world sport’s best kept secret and players such as Broncos, Allan Langer and Willie Carne would become world sports stars.
Super League recruitment officer, Queenslander, Shane Richardson boasted that people all over the world would want to be identified with rugby league.
“It’s a great vision, and that’s what won these people over, not the money,” said the former Brisbane Easts’ chief executive.
Richardson’s role in signing Cronulla players to Super League brought with it death threats from irate ‘supporters’.
Fellow Brisbane Easts’ stalwart, John Lang was coach of Cronulla and had been earmarked by Super League as coach of a Sydney South’ team, which, in effect, would replace South Sydney, the Roosters and St George.
Richardson said if Cronulla hadn’t signed with Super League, they would have lost all their promising youngsters to the big spending Roosters and Manly.
“They (The Roosters and Manly) were sitting back laughing at us, saying, ‘You produce ’em, we take ’em’,” Richardson said.
1 ARL Press conference 1995 Ken Arthurson flanked by ‘loyal’ players
2 Peter Sterling
3 Super League press conference 1995. Lachlan Murdoch on the left, with Ken Cowley
4 Allan Langer.