Focus needs to return to the pitch

Australian rugby league has found itself embroiled in a series of unpleasant, headline-grabbing off-the-field issues, says James Schwier.

Despite having the best domestic competition and players in the world, Australian rugby league has found itself embroiled in a series of unpleasant, headline-grabbing off-the-field issues, says James Schwier. As the Australian rugby league season neared its opening weekend in March last year, Manly Sea Eagles full-back Brett Stewart's profile could not have been higher. The Sea Eagles were the National Rugby League (NRL) champions, he was a try-scorer as his team were crowned World Club Champions and he was the face of the NRL, appearing in television adverts as the clean-cut answer to the game's well-documented off-field woes. But on the evening of March 6 it all came crashing down.

After drinking all day with teammates and sponsors at the club's season launch in Manly, Sydney, Stewart was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl close to his home. Following police investigations, he was charged and faced a court earlier this month, where his alleged victim claimed that after chatting in the street she was assaulted. Stewart's trial has been adjourned until March 22 -10 days after the new season begins. At the same event, fellow Australia international Anthony Watmough was accused of slapping a sponsor after the sponsor's daughter was verbally abused by the second-rower. Watmough was fined Aus$10,000 (Dh32,803) and given an official reprimand for his behaviour.

Unfortunately, these incidents proved to be the shape of things to come in a year that proved to be somewhat of an annus horribilis for Australian rugby league, containing a number of body blows for the once all-conquering game. From allegations of drug usage and extreme public drunkenness to sex scandals and even defecating in public - the antics of some of Australia's highest profile sportsmen frequently disgust. The top players live in a goldfish bowl, particularly in rugby league-mad Sydney, their every move pored over by a fan base and media just waiting for the next slip-up. Sadly, it seems that some players are only too happy to oblige. Just about all the clubs in the league have history when it comes to bad off-field behaviour, and it seems that some players never learn their lesson, no matter what the consequences.

Todd Carney is the poster boy for what many people think is wrong with the NRL. Sacked by the Canberra Raiders for repeated alcohol-related off-field indiscretions, he was denied a British visa because of his criminal record and had to forfeit a lucrative contract with the Huddersfield Giants. He has even been banned for 12 months from his home town of Goulburn in New South Wales because they were so fed up with his trouble making. His crime sheet includes drink-driving, for which he had his licence suspended for five years; driving while disqualified and failing to stop when directed to by police; and property damage.

Photos of him naked were also found on a second hand mobile phone in Canberra last April, before being published online and in newspapers - not illegal but certainly highly embarrassing. However, the most infamous incident among his catalogue of notorious off-field exploits came when he was accused of urinating on a man in a Canberra nightclub in July 2008. The allegations were investigated by police and though no charges were laid, it proved to be the final straw for the Raiders. Carney was de-registered by the NRL for the 2009 season, but was controversially snapped up by the Sydney Roosters for 2010, a move that did not sit well with a number of fans. So, after being given another shot at the big time, how has he repaid the faith shown in him?

Carney is alleged to have set a man's trousers on fire while celebrating New Year in Queensland, leaving the alleged victim with burns on several parts of his body. One of the most bizarre cases that dominated the headlines last year involved Australia international Greg Bird. In August 2008, Bird, then of the Cronulla Sharks, was accused of recklessly wounding his American girlfriend, Katie Milligan, following an early-morning drunken argument. She sustained a fractured eye-socket and damage to her eye but when the pair arrived at hospital they pointed the finger of blame at Bird's flat-mate, Brent Watson. They claimed he had thrown a glass at Milligan - despite the fact Watson was actually out playing golf at the time. The pair refused to give statements to police at the time of the attack or in court when it came to trial, and Bird was found guilty last June and sentenced to a maximum of 16 months in jail.

He immediately appealed and was eventually cleared of all charges after convincing the court that Milligan's drug usage had caused her to behave erratically and that he was only defending himself. The presiding judge labelled their web of lies "extremely foolish". The Sharks had already cut their losses and released him in January 2009. Another former Australian international, Matthew Johns, lost his job as a TV presenter last year after it was revealed that he and several other then-Sharks players took part in a group sex session with a 19-year-old woman in Christchurch in 2002. NRL CEO David Gallop was strong in his condemnation. "Violence against women is abhorrent and sexual assault and the degradation of women is just that," he said. "If anyone in the game today is ignoring the importance of that message, then frankly they will need to find another career." The legendary New South Wales coach Phil Gould was almost in tears as he admitted: "This to me was the sledgehammer to the back of the head that the game deserved and that we needed. "That, for so long, we've been sitting on panels like this and having incidents whether it was drugs, or alcohol, or abuse of women, and we all walk away and say: 'Well, that was a wake-up call', but no one wakes up." Last year proved to be a bad one all round for the Cronulla Sharks - on and off the field. They came second from bottom of the competition, picking up just five wins out of a possible 24, but this paled into insignificance in the face of the Bird and Johns revelations, as well as other off-field issues. However, no one could come close to the Sydney Roosters in terms of off-field implosions. Not only did they sit rock bottom of the table at the end of the season, their players had numerous run-ins with the law and even their then coach, former Kangaroos captain Brad Fittler, was forced to fine himself for his drunken behaviour after trying to get into the wrong hotel room half-naked at 3am when the team were in Townsville to play the North Queensland Cowboys. Then along came Nate Myles. A State of Origin star for Queensland, Myles was banned for six weeks after defecating in the corridor of a luxury Central Coast hotel while attending a fund raising event with fellow Roosters Mitchell Pearce, Willie Mason and Mark O'Meley. Complaints were made about noise in the players' rooms at around 4am and, four hours later, Myles somehow found himself naked in the corridor and locked out of his room. "I had been asleep for about four hours and I got up to go to the toilet," said Myles, who claimed he had a stomach bug. "It was dark and I was a bit dazed. The door to the toilet was right next to the entry door and I went through the wrong one. The door locked behind me and I was stranded." He then attempted to get into the room of a family nearby but they refused him entry, so Myles defecated in the hallway. "I am very embarrassed and sorry - I paid for the cleaning straight away," he said. David Gallop was understandably furious. "Saying sorry simply isn't enough," he said. "There are many inspirational people in our game from the grassroots to the NRL and they do not deserve to be associated with this sort of behaviour." The NRL's on-field product has arguably never been better, with TV ratings at their highest level and with the TV deal set to be renegotiated again soon, player behaviour will be even more closely watched than normal. This money is crucial in keeping players from the clutches of the AFL and rugby union. Everyone who loves the game must be praying that things improve and that good performances on the pitch grab the headlines for once, rather than the disgraceful performances off it.