Geoff Toovey ... has waged a season-long war against officials. Photo: Getty Images
'They obviously want an all-Sydney club grand final,'' one NRL club official texted immediately after the Sea Eagles' controversial victory against the Cowboys a week ago.
''They'', of course, are the NRL but, despite a new commission running the game, conspiracy theories about Sydney's rule of the game persist, particularly outside the NSW capital.
Canberra's subsequent exit fuelled the belief of the ''they sayers'' and, if Melbourne lose tonight's match against Manly on dubious decisions by the video referees, an all-Sydney grand final will excite the conspiracy theorists. Perhaps Oliver Stone, the three-time Oscar winner of films such as JFK, could make a movie of it.
The truth is the top four teams at the end of the home-and-away season made the final four positions in the play-offs. The Sea Eagles were certainly advantaged by one potentially match-turning decision but you can't claim former Manly boss Ken Arthurson still pulls the strings at headquarters.
Sure, the NRL has looked benevolently on Manly lately, including a generous grade two suspension to centre Steve Matai. If the conspiracy theorists want a puppet master, look in the direction of Manly coach Geoff Toovey, who has waged a season-long war against officials.
Coach of the Century Jack Gibson was fond of saying ''the squeaky door gets the most oil'' in reference to coaches' complaints against referees and the judiciary. It is a source of frustration to other NRL coaches that they go through ''the proper channels'' when protesting decisions, yet Toovey vents his fury in press conferences and wins a better deal.
There would be no pro-Sydney-club strategy by the ARLC, now run by John Grant, a Queenslander. There is no Queensland team in the play-offs in either the Telstra or Toyota Cups. None of their three under-20s teams made the top eight: the Titans came last; the Cowboys 13th and the Broncos 12th.
Nor is there a New Zealand team in the play-offs, with the Warriors under-20 team, once a permanent fixture at the top of the Toyota Cup table, beaten in successive semi-finals. However, the Bulldogs' Toyota Cup team was also beaten, meaning no club can equal St George's 1963 record of winning all three grades.
The semi-finalists in the Toyota Cup - Roosters, Wests Tigers, Dragons and Raiders - do support the notion Sydney still runs the league but this is as ridiculous as the pre-Super League war belief that John Quayle rigged the draw so the Broncos and Raiders couldn't meet in the grand final. If the conspiracy theorists have a case, it exists with the Storm and the old administration of ex-NRL chief executive David Gallop.
Gallop wanted a turnover of teams in the grand final to demonstrate the salary cap was working.
If he was still there, he wouldn't have relished the prospect of coming to Melbourne tonight.
OK, apart from the possibility of confronting the Stewart brothers again on a grand final dais, there are the Storm's salary cap breaches.
Melbourne have made two successive preliminary finals after being forced to play a season for no points. If they win tonight, surely this is a victory for forces other than the salary cap, unless you accept the argument privately owned Souths and Manly also are cheating and the Bulldogs and Storm have learnt nothing from savage penalties for breaches.
How about superior coaching as a factor more powerful than an equalising player-payment system?
Melbourne's Craig Bellamy and Canterbury's Des Hasler, formerly with Manly, have appeared in five of the past six preliminary finals.
Should the Bulldogs defeat South Sydney tomorrow night, the NRL will have Hasler against either his old club or his old opponent in the grand final.
Hasler and Bellamy were head coaches to Toovey and Souths' Michael Maguire, respectively.
Doesn't this imply trophies are won as much by coaching systems as financial subterfuge? More by hard work than cold cash?
A Storm victory would question whether stripping the club of two premierships was justified. Fuelling the fire this week, Max Krilich's view that Storm players should have been forced to return their premiership rings was not well received in Melbourne.
Before that, Melbourne simply sought to expunge the foul taste of last year's preliminary final loss to the Warriors. Why a former Manly premiership captain would seemingly give more motivation to Melbourne should fuel another conspiracy theory.