The inside story of exposing cap cheats
Facing the media ... Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy reads a statement in 2010 regarding the future of the club in light of the penalties handed out by the NRL for systematic cheating of the salary cap. Photo: Paul Rovere
Sitting on Brian Waldron's bookshelf is the unpublished manuscript of what really happened.
All the revelations - the dodgy deals, the cover-ups, the multifaceted roles of News Ltd in the saga and, the most important one of all, who knew. When he said in April 2010, in his only public interview since the rorting was exposed, that ''I am … prepared to give the entire background to Rupert Murdoch so that he has a full understanding of how his company has managed … the Melbourne Storm'', those fearing they would be named and shamed assumed the foetal position.
Those close to the man fingered as ''the chief rat'', having witnessed his professional life unravel, believe he reconsidered for fear of inflicting the same professional and personal pain on the culpable. Call it honour among thieves, if you will. But, while he wouldn't comment when contacted by The Sun-Herald during the week, it's understood there will be a day when his story is laid bare.
Regeneration ... Storm players celebrate last weekend's preliminary final win over Manly. Photo: Getty Images
The fact that the story, of a News-owned club rorting the system in a competition half-owned by the media company, came to light at all is extraordinary in itself. On Monday, January 18, 2010, Fairfax received an anonymous email titled ''Melbourne Storm exclusive'' from an insider promising to deliver the scoop on financial irregularities, issues regarding Waldron's tenure and, of most interest, claims of ''salary cap rorting''.
Given that journalists receive bogus tip-offs semi-regularly, usually agenda-driven campaigns from rival clubs, this was not out of the ordinary. However, it soon became apparent the information, while difficult to prove, was credible.
Another source provided a vital clue that something was amiss, which led to headlines almost two months later - that salary cap auditor Ian Schubert was concerned about several Storm contracts, including one struck between Fox Sports and star player Cameron Smith. Although it was the back-page lead of this paper on March 28, few knew how the story would snowball.
Waldron continually denied anything was amiss and most of the media attention at the time was on the Gold Coast Titans and claims their co-captain Scott Prince had a house built by a former sponsor for free. Those allegations were denied and subsequently disproved. As one insider said: ''If the NRL want to find a salary cap cheat, they're looking in the wrong place.'
Of course, everything - well, at least most of the story - came out on April 22. Waldron, having initially denied any wrongdoing to myself and countless others, finally came clean as the walls closed in.
That date could well have sounded the death knell of the club. Years of toil by the players, coaching staff and officials proved literally pointless as premierships minor and major were stripped away. There were fears that rugby league's Victorian experiment would be abandoned altogether.
''The Emperor'', former Parramatta chief exercutive Denis Fitzgerald, had long railed against the Storm and already called for the club to fold. He almost got his wish.
The NRL was strongly condemned for allowing News to commission the final investigation and then only releasing some of the detail publicly. The Sun-Herald published the names of seven of the players who had received illegal payments, based on information from the initial source, well before Deloitte handed down its findings.
The former Herald Sun editor Bruce Guthrie, who famously took News to court and won, described the cap scandal as a direct result of the media company's win-at-all-costs culture.
The NRL's then chief executive, David Gallop, was in an impossible position. His hardline punishments erased fears the game's conflicted interests would result in a light punishment. The penalties were swift and brutal - those involved in Melbourne claim overly so.
''It's been well documented, we have,'' forward Ryan Hoffman said, when asked if the players felt they were still the premiers of the 2007 and 2009 seasons. ''We feel that way and we're allowed to feel that way.''
The cost paid by some is far greater than many know. The pregnant partner of one of the sacked officials lost their unborn child as a result of the stress. Others who have never spoken about their involvement are considering telling their side of the story.
Sacked independent director Peter Maher, a radio host in Melbourne, believes public perceptions will change when the full details come to light.
''At some point or other the way those decisions were determined will be made public,'' he said. ''Some of the people involved are starting to talk quite openly about how those decisions were made and how wrong those decisions were. That will all come to the forefront. When that occurs, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if those decisions were reversed. Due process was not adhered to.''
Whether they are now the beneficiaries or the victims of being over the cap for so many years is still a point of debate. In his brilliant ''Stormland'' column last week, the Sun-Herald's Malcolm Knox described the Storm as ''cap clean now as an athlete who uses drugs to build his strength but is clean on competition day''. However, due credit must be given to the club's ability to rebuild. Their Fab Four have become the Big Three, with a team of discards and journeymen assembled to fit alongside Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
Other vital cogs in the Storm machine have taken considerably less money to remain under the tutelage of Craig Bellamy. There is no better example than Ryan Hinchcliffe. Parramatta offered the Storm forward, who was on $180,000 at the time, a starting spot and a four-year contract that would have netted him about $1.6 million with third-party payments. The Storm's revised deal didn't come close, but he took it anyway.
''I haven't heard of a player stopping for the amount of money he could have earned elsewhere,'' Bellamy said when Hinchcliffe recommitted in June. ''It shows the character of Hinch.''
When asked whether today's grand final appearance vindicated his decision to stay put, Hinchcliffe replied: ''When I think about that decision now I know I've made the right decision. It's something I looked very seriously at. It was very tempting but in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted to be a Melbourne Stormer. I have a great love for this club and this team.''
That love also extends to Bellamy. One of his closest confidants, football manager Frank Ponissi, spoke about the coach's disappointment after being bundled out of last year's competition by the Warriors. There were even concerns the crushing defeat could send the club backwards.
''They were my immediate thoughts last year,'' he said. ''He was shattered. We went on a trip, myself and a few other staff, to the US in October. That's when he got his spring back. Talking about different ideas we were going to bring back to the club. I saw quickly how that fire came back in the belly.''
Petra Fawcett, another of the sacked independent directors, also spoke of ''Bellyache'' when asked for her reflection on the club's journey to ANZ Stadium today.
''I think the big story is in the coach,'' she said. ''He's inspirational in my eyes. He is fundamentally the reason they are where they are today.
''They have a strong leadership group within the team and they have moved on.''