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The lie of the Storm

Nick Bryant | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

Only the other day I was thinking how quiet and relatively uncontroversial the start of the new rugby league season had been. Now comes a bombshell: what is being described as the football code's biggest scandal in its 103 year history. To give an indication of how big the Australian media is treating this story, all the main news websites here have gone into emergency redesign mode. You get the idea.

The Melbourne Storm, the reigning league champions and the dominant side for the past four years, has admitted to massive breaches of the salary cap, the device which prevents the richest clubs recruiting too many of the most highly-renumerated players.

For the past five years, the Storm has been able to field a side packed with superstars. During that time, it has won the title twice, in 2007 and 2009, and come runner-up twice.

Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith (L) holding the National Rugby League (NRL) trophy aloft with coach Craig Bellamy (R) on 30 September 2007

Now we know how it managed to do it. Off the field, the club pulled off the most audacious of dummies, effectively running two sets of books which hid from view prohibited payments of over $A1.7m. There has been systematic cheating for five years.

The punishment has been severe and unprecedented. Its two premiership titles have been taken away, it has been fined $A500,000, all its points have been taken away from this season and it will not be able to earn any more for the rest of the season. Every game will be a dead-rubber, and the side has plummeted from fourth place in league to bottom, an ignominious position which it will occupy for the rest of the season.

The club is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, and its chairman and chief executive, John Hartigan, said he was sick to the stomach when he found out. He says there were "rats in the ranks", and has promised to root out all those responsible.

One Storm fan has already delivered his verdict. He dumped all his shirts and memorabilia outside the club's headquarters in a couple of black bin-liners.

At a time when rugby league is facing a challenge from Aussie Rules in its traditional strongholds of New South Wales and Queensland, the code needs to maintain a franchise in Melbourne, Australia's sporting capital.

But will fans in Victoria, where Aussie Rules has always dominated, want to support a club that has cheated for the past five years? For the foreseeable future, what is the point of turning up to see a team that may be able to win games but cannot win any points?

The Storm is about to move to a fabulous new space-station-like stadium in Melbourne. Again, will anyone want to turn up to watch them in their bubbly new home?

Should the losing grand finalists in 2009 and 2007, the Parramatta Eels and the Manly Sea Eagles, now be handed the trophy? The league says no. But many fans will feel aggrieved.

Instead, there will be two blanks in the league history books - blanks that will speak of the stain left on the game.

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