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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 15:04 GMT 16:04 UK
Australia's game of shame
Six months ago the Australian rugby league team were crowned world champions but now the country's favourite sport must hang its head in shame
How the mighty have fallen...
By the BBC's Phil Mercer reports from Sydney

These are tough times for Australia's National Rugby League.

Drug scandals, bizarre assaults on players and now an upsurge in hooliganism is threatening a game that lays claim to be Australia's national sport.

At the recent clash between Sydney rivals Canterbury and Parramatta police officers were attacked as fans fought running battles with riot squads

One officer was hit in the back by a pair of pliers while another needed surgery after being hit in the face by an unopened can of soft drink.

It is the third time this season supporters of the Canterbury Bulldogs have gone on the rampage.

The club have since banned 15 violent fans from attending home games in an attempt to curb crowd misbehaviour.

Television pictures of rival groups clashing on trains and hurling missiles at the police were broadcast around Australia.

Canterbury's Steve Reardon nurses a sore head
Rugby league is nursing a sore head
It is another hammer blow to the NRL, as its horror year got worse.

The violence may force rugby league officials down a path most of its followers consider unthinkable - crowd segregation.

The chief executive of the NRL, David Moffett, has said he may be forced to act.

If he does he will face opposition from many of the league's 14 clubs.

The boss of the Canterbury Bulldogs, Bob Hagan, said separating rival fans was not the solution; "I think it's an impossibility really and it's not the Australian way of life."

Denis Fitzgerald from Parramatta said he didn't think forcing rival supporters to sit apart would stop the troublemakers.

"I think it is a bit over the top and it could prove very difficult.

"It does happen in English soccer but I'm yet to be convinced it would be a good idea."

 Wests Tigers wimger John Hopoate has been forced out of the game in disgrace
Hopoate: Forced out of the game in disgrace
Rugby League has taken a battering in recent weeks.

Two players from another troubled Sydney team, Wests Tigers, were suspended and heavily fined for taking recreational drugs.

Craig Field and Kevin McGuinness will now miss the rest of the season.

For a sport that has prided itself on its family-friendly image it was a fierce blow.

The severity of the financial and professional penalties handed down by both the club and the league's disciplinary panel was an attempt to repair some of the damage.

Worse was still to come.

The John Hopoate scandal dragged rugby league down to even greater depths.

The talented winger was found guilty of 'unsportsmanlike behaviour' after being caught sticking his fingers up the backsides of opposing players.

Brisbane Broncos' Australian international Shane Webcke  believes the game is being dragged into the gutter
Webcke: "We want kids to aspire to be like us"
It truly shocked the nation.

Hopoate, a former Australian international, was forced to resign and his career is almost certainly over.

Rugby league fans are among the most loyal in a country obsessed with sport.

But attendances at the Wests Tigers slumped by almost a quarter after these recent scandals.

Some expressed their anger in local newspapers. "Hopoate shouldn't only be out of the team, he should be out of the game," wrote one angry fan.

It would seem nothing is going right for league Down Under.

Six of its biggest clubs seem certain to end up in court in a row over a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with communication giant Cable & Wireless Optus.

Malicious minority

It's even enraged the Church after a game between the Broncos and the Sydney Roosters was planned for Good Friday.

Brisbane's Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, Australia's newly appointed Governor-General, dubbed it "deeply offensive".

He said the church should be consulted over the scheduling of major sports events on important Christian festival days.

The Australians are unrivalled in international rugby league.

In November, the Kangaroos were crowned World Cup champions for the sixth successive time.

Two of the team's best players have considered the situation to be so dire they have written an open letter to all their playing colleagues appealing to them to help rescue the game from the gutter.

The Brisbane Broncos' Gorden Tallis and Shane Webcke said it was being dragged down by "the tiny minority that seems hell bent on ruining rugby league".

The letter added; "We want the thousands of young kids who sit up on Friday nights to watch us play, to aspire to be like us one day."

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