The Parramatta Eels systematic 36-6 demolition of the Canberra Raiders this weekend may end up being an exercise in futility. The Eels on-field excellence is being matched by their off-field self-destruction, with a Board described by one former member as “toxic and stupid”, and the impending threat of the loss of up to ten competition points.
The Eels have run afoul of the salary cap for the fifth time in six seasons. The NRL will almost have no other recourse but to take action that will involve the docking of competition points, given that Parramatta have failed to declare, and then have had discovered, breaches to the problematic third party agreements (TPA) that bolster player salaries outside of the cap.
In effect, the Eels have been caught dabbling in a form of money laundering. It concerns a company called Zibara, who own two TPAs as part of player payments. Zibara is a clothing supplier and landscaping business and invoiced the Eels for 40 custom-made suits at the beginning of the season, presumably for the players to wear pre-game. The Eels paid the invoice but there are no suits.
However, the money paid to Zibara ended up topping up player salaries as part of the TPA. The Eels were also invoiced for landscaping work around the Leagues Club – work which never occurred. But again, the invoice was paid and the money was used for Zibara’s second TPA. These are two examples among others and have, to quote Roy Masters in the Sydney Morning Herald, have taken the case “out of the court of incompetence into one of wilful disregard for the rules”.
The question is – why?
While the Melbourne Storm systematically cheated the system with hidden payments and two sets of books, Parramatta’s breaches have not been terribly hard to uncover. The Parramatta Board has been involved in a bunkhouse brawl with itself seemingly for decades but are these breaches a case of being very naïve, very arrogant or very, very stupid? The board has been described as all three and Chairman Steve Sharp, a former premiership winner with the club in the 1980s, the club’s golden period, must feel like a firefighter given his tenure has been spent putting them out.
The truth is, Parramatta are a club under tremendous pressure to succeed.
They haven’t won a premiership since 1986, when club legends Peter Sterling, Mick Cronin and Ray Price bowed out after a 4-2 Grand Final triumph against the Canterbury Bulldogs, the only tryless Grand Final in NSWRL/ARL/NRL history. None of the current squad were born when that last premiership was won.
They have made two deciders in the ensuing 30 years, losing to the Newcastle Knights in 2001 and the Melbourne Storm in 2009, although the latter Grand Final was later declared null and void when the Storm were stripped of the title for their own salary cap rort.
They are also under pressure from outside forces.
The AFL have eyed off Sydney’s west with the inclusion in their competition of the Greater Western Sydney Giants, and while that has been barely a whimper thus far, the AFL plays a long and patient game when it comes to expansion. The bigger and more immediate issue is the tremendous success of football’s Western Sydney Wanderers, who are co-tenants with the Eels at Parramatta (Pirtek) Stadium.
While the Eels have struggled to find on-field success for their long-suffering fans, the Wanderers have appeared in two A-League Grand Finals and won the prestigious Asian Champions League, which in turn qualified them for the World Club Cup. All this in the space of four seasons.
They have more members and draw bigger crowds than the Eels and have arguably captured the mood and heartbeat of the fans of the region. The one advantage for the Eels is that the existence of the Wanderers (who play in summer at the same ground, only overlapping with the Eels in March and April) ensured that government funding would be provided for the upgrade of Parramatta Stadium, due to begin at the end of the current NRL season.
The NRL themselves want the Eels to succeed. Parramatta are a TV ratings winner when they are winning, and this has been borne out by better pay TV figures this season for Eels games. They have the potential to draw the blue and gold army back through the turnstiles and Eels fans are known to travel when their team is climbing the ladder. But now the NRL is forced to kill their own potential golden egg-laying goose.
Add to the drama the big-money signing of Keiren Foran from arch rivals the Manly Sea Eagles this season. Foran’s on-field performances have been a major reason for the Eels early season form. However, Foran sought a get-out clause in his contract where he would be free to leave the club if there were more dramas at board level. There is some confusion as to whether this clause was ratified (according to the NRL it was refused). If the Eels are issued a breach notice, and made to shed players to return under the cap, Foran’s Eels tenure may be shorter than expected.