Hero or villain?
As the dust settles on Nathan Tinkler’s reign as Newcastle Knights owner, opinion remains divided on the legacy the one-time billionaire leaves behind.
The 97 per cent of Knights members who endorsed Tinkler’s 2011 takeover could scarcely have imagined that little more than three years later he would be forced to relinquish the club, to widespread relief.
Once the handover was completed on Saturday, NRL chief executive Dave Smith paid tribute to the one-time billionaire.
"Nathan, I think, has handled himself with dignity throughout the negotiations, and has always handled himself with dignity," Smith said.
"He has always had the best interests of the Newcastle Knights at heart.
"I’ve been impressed with that and wish him well for the future.
"He’s done a good job for the club, and the club is where it is, in part, because of Nathan’s input.
"He’s handled himself very well, and most importantly he’s always had the best interests of the Newcastle Knights at heart."
Smith’s kinds words came just a few weeks after the NRL lambasted Tinkler when a host of Knights players and staff were not paid their monthly wages.
"The NRL will take whatever action is necessary to protect the Knights, the game and, most importantly, the players and staff as a result of these actions," Smith said at the time.
The NRL’s head of club services, Tony Crawford, was even more forthright, declaring: "The actions of the Tinkler-controlled Knights towards players and staff are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated ... there is no place in our game for this kind of behaviour."
Speaking to the Newcastle Herald on Saturday, Smith declined to reveal the scope of the liabilities Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group racked up while running the Knights.
Informed sources have maintained the figure was around $20 million, although Tinkler stated on May 23 the debts were ‘‘substantially less’’ than the $10.52 million bank guarantee he forfeited on March 31.
"That’s a matter for HSG," Smith said. "The only comment I would make is that the position we’re in today is very strong and [the Knights] have a very strong asset base."
Smith said the only liability the NRL would "pick up" on behalf of the Knights was a longstanding legal dispute with promoter RockCity.
He was reluctant to offer an opinion about the recent appearances of Tinkler and his right-hand man, HSG chief executive Troy Palmer, at ICAC, and whether that was a "good look" for the game.
"I haven’t got any comment from a Newcastle or a rugby league perspective," he said. "I think it [ICAC] is an independent process that does a good job and should continue."
Knights chairman Paul Harragon described Tinkler as "eternally benevolent to the town" and said he was "generous" during the process of handing back the Knights.
"The intent of Nathan and HSG were to do good, to make the sporting teams of Newcastle the best they could," Harragon said.
"I think everyone should really respect that."
Knights CEO Matt Gidley expressed similar gratitude.
"I don’t think you can deny the level of investment HSG put into our footy club," Gidley said.
"We absolutely need to acknowledge that.
"Particularly into our juniors. Our junior nursery here is our biggest competitive advantage and so precious to us . . . the investment into juniors will continue and we thank HSG for their role in that."
Palmer said HSG had invested "more than $20 million" in the club.
"The Knights now have a stable building platform, which is reflected in the world-class training and coaching structure from the NRL down through the elite junior programs," he said.
"We will continue our involvement as a major sponsor for the next five years and support the Knights from the sidelines."
Crawford, who brokered the deal that removed HSG, denied that the sponsorship Palmer mentioned was a "farewell gift" from Tinkler, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph on May 25.
"HSG, or someone they nominate, will have a five-year sponsorship on the back of the jersey," Crawford said.
"That’s just part of the broader settlement.
"I wouldn’t describe it as a gift, in any sense. Just part of the broader arrangements to bring the deal to a conclusion."