In Ancient Rome, a general that won a great victory in the service of the State would be rewarded with a Triumph.
For one day, the general would essentially be treated like the emperor. Dressed in purple robes, paraded through the city in a chariot and celebrated for his achievements.
That type of adulation and celebration could easily go to a man’s head. So to combat that, following the general around would be a slave or assistant, constantly reminding him that he was human and he would die one day – a memento mori.
Peter V’landys would likely have been well-suited to the world of Roman politics, brinkmanship and war.
He barrelled his way through the COVID crisis, earning himself plenty of plaudits and in many ways, the modern version of a Triumph – being celebrated by the notoriously fickle rugby league media.
No previous head of the NRL or ARL had been celebrated quite like V’landys was during the 2020 season.
Perhaps the NRL should have used one of the staff they dismissed last year to follow V’landys around, reminding him that this too shall end.
That all this pomp and ceremony, all of this goodwill, will end as quickly as it arrived.
And it will end because V’landys believes it never will.
From the moment the game was shut down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pretty obvious who was running the show.
The joint press conference fronted by V’landys and former CEO Todd Greenberg was pretty clearly run by the new ARL Commission chairman.
V’landys saw this as his opportunity to shine and it didn’t take him long to ensure Greenberg was out of his picture.
In a bloodless move that would make Roman Senators proud, it was quickly reported that Greenberg had overseen irresponsible spending at the NRL, putting the game in a perilous financial position.
Within days Greenberg was gone. V’landys had seized control.
His next step was to appoint Andrew Abdo to CEO from within. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with promoting from within but the NRL is starting to make this a habit.
Abdo didn’t have much of a profile outside of the NRL, whereas Greenberg was the face of the NRL for his entire tenure.
In Abdo, V’landys had someone who wouldn’t outshine him.
Throughout the shut down V’landys was bullish on restarting the game. He challenged the state governments and constantly pushed for the game to resume.
His persistence saw the NRL become one of the first competitions worldwide to restart. It was also one of the very few competitions that managed to have some semblance of a proper home and away season without a single positive COVID case.
It was a great triumph for the NRL.
This was V’landys’ Veni. Vidi. Vici moment. He came. He saw. He conquered.
But the seeds of trouble were already planted.
During the shut down, with the game suspended and broadcasters left with nothing but Lethal Weapon re-runs, Channel Nine decided to try and renegotiate its very expensive broadcast deal.
By the end of negotiations, they had talked V’landys down by a reported $55 million over the ensuing two years. 2021 and 2022 would most likely not be impacted by COVID, but the game would be receiving less money than it did in 2019 for the exact same product.
There was also a discount for the new 2020 season.
At the time this was lauded as a fantastic achievement by the NRL. That V’landys had managed to swindle the broadcasters. Any cursory look at the numbers would find that it was V’landys who was swindled.
Now, remember that $55 million figure because we’re going to come back to it later on.
Rule changes MKI
With the NRL shut down but a restart imminent, V’landys decided the game needed to become more exciting.
How do you make one of the most non-stop games in the world more exciting? Apparently you take away rest periods such as penalties and replace them with set restarts.
Sounds like there is some logic there. Until we get to the details.
The set restarts would be used for ruck infringements only and, to simply complicate matters, the two referee system was axed, reverting back to the one referee system.
Those two alterations drastically changed the 2020 NRL season. It also got the match officials offside and saw referees who were once coming through the NRL pathways booted.
With no lower grades to referee, those who were sacked had nowhere to go to keep refining their skills and all the time and effort the NRL had put into educating those referees was effectively thrown down the drain.
V’landys though remained popular. He’d fashioned an image for himself as a tough negotiator, willing to make the tough decisions to benefit the game.
Aiding his cause was the mainstream media who insisted the game had become “faster”.
First off, it’s pretty hard to determine what “faster” means.
Play-the-ball speed is completely irrelevant. Time in play means nothing more than fewer stoppages, not faster game speed. And increased fatigue doesn’t mean the game is faster, it just means more running is being done by players due to increased ball in play.
Secondly, it was assumed the set restarts would harm teams that gave them away. Well it turned out the top four teams were happy to give them away and defend them.
After all, it’s easier to defend an extra tackle or two, than give up 30 metres and a full set from a penalty.
But V’landys survived all of this with his reputation intact.
No one with a platform confronted him with these issues and he became effective at twisting any narrative into a positive for himself.
When Caesar was busy conquering Gaul and then moving onto the British Isles, he continuously wrote of his conquests, bearing out his victories but not so much his defeats.
His victories were always epic battles, won at the last by his brave Roman Legions due to Caesar’s brilliance.
The reality was often a different story: Gallic tribes massacred convincingly by a professional Roman army led by a still brilliant General in Caesar, but not exactly facing the tribulations he often reported.
When it came to his defeats? Well, they weren’t defeats. Like his first trip to Britain. Caesar wasn’t beaten. It was a successful reconnaissance mission according to him.
In a similar way, V’landys approached COVID like this.
It was the boogeyman, only mere days away from killing the NRL until V’landys swooped in to save the game.
And everyone lapped it up.
That TV deal that lost the NRL $55 million? Pure genius. A successful negotiation in a time of pandemic. Most definitely not a backdown on a deal struck by his predecessors.
The removal of the second referee and the instituting of more technical rules? Groundbreaking.
And whenever even a whiff of discontent was sensed, V’landys waved the red herring of the AFL.
He gambled, and he was mostly right, that NRL fans like an administrator who picks a fight with the AFL.
Keep in mind these attacks were unprovoked with the AFL just going about its business.
V’landys saw it fit to lambast them over having to move their grand final to Brisbane due to a devastating COVID outbreak in Melbourne.
For some it was strong leadership by V’landys. For others it demonstrated his insecurity at the AFL playing its showpiece in what is a traditional rugby league stronghold.
Gillon McLachlan was, as some say, living rent free in V’landys’ head.
It was a play taken out of the Caesar handbook of propaganda. Whenever Caesar decided he wanted some more land, it was never about Rome flexing its muscle.
It was Rome protecting itself from those “Barbarians” by marching onto their land, murdering them and setting up another Roman settlement to establish a buffer zone.
Rule Changes MKII
With the dust hardly settled on the 2020 season, V’landys decided we needed yet more rule changes for 2021.
Set restarts now needed to include offside defenders. Two point field goals. All tries need to be reviewed by The Bunker.
If you want my thoughts on the rule changes when they were announced, they’re available here.
V’landys saw himself as cashing in here. Everyone seemed to love the last set of rule changes, why not add some more?
Now, not only have the new rules resulted in what V’landys would call unintended consequences that those with half a brain saw coming from a mile away, he’s doubled down on them.
From the moment he said offside was now a set restart, plenty predicted it would result in teams being deliberately offside, happy to concede a restart because they no longer gave up a kick for touch.
While V’landys and many expert commentators and journalists claim the new rules have made the game faster and more unpredictable, the stats bear out the complete opposite.
Teams are becoming more conservative and are taking fewer risks. In fact, teams are focussing more now on one-out hitups than they have across the past four years. Dummy half runs are down, passing is down.
The top sides play most of the game in the opposition half. Winning teams are vastly outsourcing losing teams.
Fatigue has increased, although the NRL has tried to contradict that with cherry-picked stats.
Why did the game backflip on its fatigue stance? Because a causal link was being drawn between increased fatigue and a marked increase in injuries and head injury assessments.
The NRL’s terrible attempt at data manipulation was not only laughed at, but riled up the RLPA which took offence at the head office basically waving away player concerns.
So, either the new rules were brought in to increase fatigue and open the game up and successfully did so, but also increased the rate of injuries and HIAs.
Or, the new rules didn’t work and we don’t have any extra fatigue.
You can’t have both if you believe the NRL.
With the NRL season about to hit Magic Round, V’landys decided now was as good as any to engage in the traditional rules crackdown. The period of the season when the administration picks a certain rule, or area of rules it’s going to have the referees focus on. This crackdown usually lasts a maximum of six weeks, or until State of Origin hits when it is forgotten and we go back to business as normal.
This time, V’landys decided we were focussing on head high tackles. On field punishments became more severe with a large spike in both sin binnings and send offs.
Protecting players is what V’landys claimed he was doing. But the crackdown was not adequately discussed with the players, nor with the referees.
The game’s two most important stakeholders were left out in the cold.
There is nothing wrong with trying to reduce the rate of concussion in the sport. It’s a serious problem that can lead to brain damage later in life.
However, such a change needs to happen over time, with all stakeholders informed and the changes supported by independent research and data – like rugby union did as it gradually lowered tackling heights.
So far V’landys has offered three different justifications for the crackdown:
- Player safety
- Wanting to prove to mothers that their sons are playing a safe game
- Getting ahead of the threat of litigation
Compounding the concussion issue, is the NRL’s own tackling rules, which benefits tackling the ball carrier around the chest, and disadvantages players who tackle below the waist.
V’landys didn’t seem to understand this, or didn’t care.
He decided he had to make a tough decision, so he did it. Consequences be damned.
A further unexpected result of the crackdown was The Bunker becoming more and more involved in the game than ever before.
Games are being stopped two minutes later, after an incident everybody watching has missed, because The Bunker has reviewed a specific tackle and decided a player needed to be put on report and/or sin binned.
In the case of a sin bin, the referees are now going back to where the incident occurred to award a penalty, effectively wiping out the two minutes of game time that has elapsed.
So far, these penalties have not had a massive impact on a game. But could you imagine this happening in Origin or the finals?
Imagine the fall out of a grand final try being called back because something the referee missed two minutes ago and no one else knows about has been brought up by The Bunker.
The NRL won’t fix this until something actually happens and it blows up in its face.
And this is all after V’landys said, on record, in 2020 that he wanted to reduce the amount of incidents that were being sent to The Bunker.
It was a mark of his own hubris that he believed he’d just be able to ram through these changes the week of Magic Round.
But as the crackdown continued V’landys began to lose support. Elements of the media began to question his decisions before the players began uniting against him.
In a shot across the bow of the NRL, the players vetoed a documentary series about to be filmed during State of Origin.
The Rugby League Players’ Association felt it hadn’t been consulted adequately and the players themselves felt they had been ignored.
The players weren’t asking to have final say over the rules, they weren’t asking to dictate the game to the NRL. They were asking to be consulted.
Wade Graham, a board member of the RLPA, suggested on Triple M’s Saturday afternoon show on June 5th that players could have been consulted to stress test the rules.
That they could have provided scenarios V’landys didn’t think of that he would need to consider.
Graham gave the example of players staying down if they have been clipped around the head to play for a penalty.
Players staying down quickly escalated with some accused of “milking” penalties for minor contact with the head. But these issues were not the fault of the players.
They and the coaches are paid to win and will do whatever it takes to win.
The NRL responded by saying it was considering mandatory HIAs or ordering players from the field. Yet more rules for a situation the governing body caused itself because V’landys was too keen to ram through rule changes and crackdowns without properly considering other scenarios.
In many ways, this period could be seen as the beginning of the end for V’landys. The sharks appear to be circling.
Like the Roman senators involved in the plot to kill Caesar, V’landys is now being seen as consumed by his power, a threat to the long term viability of the game and incapable of being properly reasoned with.
Remember that $55 million he handed back to Channel Nine? Well, Nine, the NRL’s free-to-air broadcaster took that money and an additional $40 million and purchased the rights to Australian Rugby Union.
One of the NRL’s major competitors now has a home on rugby league’s own channel, even if it is on Stan. That money was used by the ARU to prop up its struggling competition which was desperate for a broadcast partner.
V’landys is the only NRL administrator to effectively give rugby union a leg up in the past 20 years.
Compounding this has been a gradual drop off in free-to-air viewership as more fans flock to streaming services. Free-to-air provides the backbone of the broadcast deal.
And the pool of available free-to-air broadcasters is shrinking. Channel Ten has signed an exclusive deal with the A-League, which prevents it from broadcasting any of the NRL, AFL and ARU.
Channel Seven is the long-time broadcaster of the AFL and there is no indication they will be breaking up. Their deal will go through until the end of 2024.
Meanwhile the NRL’s deal with Nine is up at the end of 2022 with negotiations likely starting soon for an extension.
But the last time V’landys was at the deal table with Nine, he gave them a $55 million discount, devaluing the game and reducing the NRL’s most important revenue stream.
He has said he’d be happy if, when he leaves the game, players are in a better place physically and mentally when they retire.
It’s an admirable look, but once again it’s all about him, and his impact, and the changes he made.
V’landys may also be the first administrator in the NRL era to leave the game with a worse broadcast deal than his predecessor.
Beware the Ides of Rugba Leeg, Peter.