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Page last updated at 07:17 GMT, Thursday, 22 April 2010 08:17 UK

Melbourne Storm stripped of two NRL titles

Melbourne captain Cameron Smith holds aloft the NRL trophy
Melbourne won the NRL's 2009 Grand Final after beating the Parramatta Eels

Melbourne Storm have been stripped of two championships in Australia's National Rugby League for breaching the competition's strict salary cap rules.

The Victoria club were found to have spent A$1.6m (£960,541) above the set limit over the course of five years.

The Storm have been fined A$500,000 (£300,000) and ordered to return the A$1.1m (£660,200) prize money they took for winning the 2007 and 2009 titles.

The club will also accumulate no points for the entire 2010 NRL season.

The Australian Rugby League also removed three minor premierships - the titles for finishing top of the lucrative NRL after the end of the regular season - between 2006 and 2008.

The returned prize money will then be distributed evenly among the other 15 clubs in the NRL.

But, because the NRL does not operate a promotion-relegation system, Melbourne will still be able to participate in next season's competition.

The ruling was the severest punishment administered in NRL history.

Each of the 16 teams in the NRL must not exceed a A$4.4m (£2.645m) salary cap set by the league, which employs a special audit team to monitor the finances of each club.

This is the lowest day in the club's history

Storm chairman Rod Moodie

The investigations into Storm's accounts revealed the club maintained a dual contract system whereby promises of extra payments were kept separate and clandestine from the club's owners, News Ltd, and its board members.

"While the amount itself is cause for concern, the most damning indictment is the systematic attempt by persons within the club to conceal payments from the salary cap auditor and, it would now seem certain from the club's board and from its owners, on an ongoing basis," said NRL chief executive David Gallop.

"It was through this system that they were able to attract and retain some of the biggest names in rugby league.

"In doing so they have let down the game, the players and the fans of the Melbourne Storm.

"Clearly there were some individuals who knew what was going on and perhaps many who did not.

606: DEBATE
oldcoastroad

"By nature, that means innocent parties will suffer as a result of this punishment but the persons responsible are those who constructed the scheme and anyone who knowingly signed a false statutory declaration to deceive the game.

"It would be unfair now on the players and fans of every other club in the competition to allow the Storm to enter this year's finals series or to retain the titles they won.

"As a game we will do all we can to restore the faith of each of those parties but there is no alternative now but to deal with the situation that has been so deliberately engineered."

News Limited chief executive John Hartigan said the company had referred the matter to police. "This club has had a couple of rats in its ranks," he added.

Melbourne joined the NRL in 1998 and quickly became a force outside of the game's traditional heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland, winning their first Grand Final in 1999.

They won their second Grand Final in 2007 before following that up with their third title last season. And they defeated Super League champions Leeds 18-10 in the World Club Challenge at Elland Road in February.

Melbourne Storm centre Greg Inglis
Inglis is one of the biggest stars in Australian sport

The club boast a host of top players including Australia stars Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, while young English player Gareth Widdop has also broken into their first-team squad.

They had been in fourth place in this season's ladder with four victory and two defeats after six matches before the NRL's unprecedented ruling.

"Today is a most unbelievable blow and this is the lowest day in the club's history," said Storm chairman Rod Moodie.

"On behalf of the Melbourne Storm I would like to sincerely apologise to our players, our staff, our sponsors, our members and our supporters, and we will continue to assist the NRL with their investigation.

"We will absolutely endeavour to return this club back to the great heights where it deserves to be."

Storm coach Craig Bellamy said the judgement was an "absolute shock" to all the players and back-room staff.

"Personally I am heartbroken. But this football club has great character and values," he said.

"We will not walk away from this challenge. We will stick tight together as a group and fight our way back from this."

NICK BRYANT'S BLOG

Neither Manly nor Parramatta, who were beaten by Melbourne in the 2007 and 2009 Grand Finals respectively, will assume the Storm's stripped titles.

Instead, those years will remain blank in the NRL's history books.

Canterbury Bulldogs were docked 37 points and fined A$500,000 in 2002 for salary cap breaches, while New Zealand Warriors had four points removed for a similar offence in 2006.

Melbourne have also been ordered to repay the £50,000 prize money for winning the World Club Challenge, funds which could be diverted to beaten finalists Leeds.

Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington said the matter was for governing body, the Rugby Football League, to take up.

But he said Leeds had no desire to claim the world title following Melbourne's sanctions.

An RFL spokesman said: "The board of directors are aware of today's developments and will be considering the consequences."



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see also
Leeds 10-18 Melbourne
28 Feb 10 |  Leeds
Rule breach costs Warriors points
27 Feb 06 |  International
Bulldogs break rules
19 Aug 02 |  Rugby League
Bulldogs admit defeat
03 Sep 02 |  Rugby League


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