Australian sport is truly in a golden era. Rugby union, long the poorer cousin of the 13-man code and Australian Rules football, has received a shot of life with the arrival of the British and Irish Lions this month.
Aussie Rules, the national favourite, is continuing to grow and flourish. Last year, the Australian Football League (AFL) was the fourth-best attended professional sports league on the planet, ranking above the likes of Spain’s La Liga and Major League baseball in the US. Only the powerhouse trio of the English Premier League, the NFL and Germany’s Bundesliga boasted more fan support last season.
Australia’s national rugby league competition, the NRL, is growing exponentially as a commercial brand. In 2012, the sport’s flagship series, the State of Origin — a competition where the best players from Queensland and New South Wales slug it out over three high-octane matches — broke a new TV audience record for a rugby league match in Australia.
However, with all this great success, comes great problems. All three codes have achieved enormous commercial success, but all three have one common theme: off-field scandals.
Australia’s most high-profile off-field offenders in recent times have been the hugely talented, but flawed trio of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale.
The trio labelled the “three amigos” by former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones have provided an endless stream of scandal over the last few years.
Cooper courted controversy in late 2009 after allegedly trying to break into a house in Brisbane’s Surfers Paradise, while O’Connor has had his fair share of curfew-breaking incidents in Robbie Deans’ Australia set-up.
But Beale is unquestionably the worst delinquent in this troubled triumvirate. The wondrously gifted full-back has had a horrendous year and has undergone intensive therapy and alcohol counselling after some bizarre off-field incidents which included starting a brawl with several of his Melbourne Rebels team-mates on the team bus after a Super Rugby game in Durban last March.
But the code is littered with controversial incidents.
Former Ulster player Justin Harrison resigned from Bath after refusing to take a drugs test. He later confessed he had taken cocaine at the club’s end-of-season party.
Wendall Sailor’s career took a similar turn when he was found guilty of taking cocaine. The dual-code star was handed a two-year-suspension which effectively ended his professional career.
Australian League has long been known for its culture of “booze and biff”. Dual-code legend and former Lions star Jason Robinson spoke in his autobiography of the massive culture of drinking during his time in the game and the NRL has a long and chequered history of alcoholism and anti-social behaviour.
The NRL has sought to curb this image and introduced the “alcohol management strategy” in 2009. There have been massive improvements since its implementation, with off-field incidents plummeting by 75%, but problems still remain.
New South Wales full-back Blake Ferguson was dropped from the State of Origin squad two weeks ago after a booze-fuelled night out in south Sydney turned sour.
The 23-year-old winger was alleged to have groped a young woman on a night out and he has been charged with indecent assault.
In fact, surveying the Queensland and New South Wales teams that faced each in the second Origin match during the week reveals a collection of players who have brought shame to their chosen sport in recent times.
New South Wales forward James Tamou was charged with drink-driving on June 12, while star Queensland forward Ben Te’o is currently facing assault allegations. South Sydney Rabbitohs star George Burgess also made headlines when he was banned for two games and fined AUS$10,000 (€7,000) after being charged with vandalising a car in Cairns.
Canberra Raiders player Joel Monaghan joined the NRL “hall of shame” in late 2010; the player quit the club and fled to the UK after becoming embroiled in a lewd photo scandal involving a team-mate’s dog.
Despite all the salacious controversy that has embroiled the rugby codes Down Under, it is Aussie Rules which has arguably taken the biggest hit to its integrity.
The sport has been rocked this season with allegations that several clubs have been supplying their players with performance-enhancing drugs.
High-profile clubs such as Essendon and Port Adelaide are currently under investigation. But worse was to come. Earlier this month one of the game’s stars, Stephen Milne, who plays for the St Kilda club in Melbourne, was charged with four counts of rape over an alleged incident dating from 2004.
Milne has taken an indefinite leave of absence pending the investigation. It’s not the first time that St Kilda have had disciplinary issues with their players; Zac Dawson, Rhys Stanley Paul Cahill and Jack Steven were suspended for six weeks during the club’s 2011 pre-season programme after the four were found to have misused prescription medication and drank alcohol during a training camp in New Zealand.
Shocking off-field behaviour isn’t just confined to the players in Aussie Rules, however.
Recently, Adam Goodes — a star forward for the Sydney Swans — left the field during a match visibly upset after abuse from a young Collingwood fan, who allegedly racially taunted the player.
Goodes, who is of indigenous Australian origin, was apparently called a “monkey” by the 13-year-old.