Court urged to stay out of league stoush

·3-min read

Warring Australian and NSW rugby league bodies have urged a court not to interfere in their own decisions that have resulted in funding being withheld from NSW because of a controversial election result.

NSW Rugby League has sued the Australian Rugby League Commission for pulling the plug on funding and threatening to terminate a contract between them after disagreeing with the state body's decision to bar the CEO of the Cronulla Sharks from an election to the board in February.

In a court hearing on Thursday, NSWRL's barrister Robert Newlinds SC rejected claims the decision to block a nomination by Cronulla CEO Dino Mezzatesta to be elected as a metropolitan director meant the way the state body then managed the State of Origin series was defective.

Mr Newlinds defended the way NSWRL had conducted the election, which barred Mr Mezzatesta because of a conflict of interest, and said the result should not be changed by the NSW Supreme Court.

"We say it's an evaluative judgment to be made by the board but if properly exercised, i.e. honestly and reasonably, then it's been properly discharged and the court wouldn't interfere," Mr Newlinds said.

Mr Mezzatesta could not put his hand up for the election because he was also receiving a salary from his job as CEO of Cronulla and still had to fulfil his duties in that role.

NSWRL launched the court case in April, contesting a decision by the ARLC to withhold funding from March this year until the state body held a fresh election. It is seeking declarations that the election decision was not a breach and damages for an unpaid $1.75 million per month.

The ALRC has defended its choice to halt funding, claiming NSWRL's board was deficient and that the state rugby league had breached its contract by failing to hold a new election.

In court, Mr Newlinds denied any breach, saying his client still had directors who were properly fulfilling their role in managing and overseeing the game in NSW and that the ARLC's real complaint was that it did not like who had been appointed to the board.

The ARLC has itself been accused of a breach of contract by failing to pay the funding because of an "irrelevant" matter such as the election.

Representing the ARLC, Bret Walker SC said NSWRL was not entitled to funding, arguing that the Australian body had not approved any budget for 2022. The organisation could cut off the supply of money at any time, the barrister said.

Mr Walker argued the court could not direct the ARLC to pay any amount of money to the state body, and could not interfere in a dispute which would normally have been resolved in a commercial negotiation.

Bitter or fierce disputes in areas such as politics, religion or sport were not normally dealt with through the courts, Mr Walker said.

Under contracts between NSWRL and the ARLC, both bodies are required to act in the best interests of rugby league. The contracts govern NSWRL's grassroots rugby campaigns within the state as well as its management of the State of Origin.

After Justice Michael Ball pointed out that the ARLC had not described how NSW's board had failed to meet its obligations, Mr Walker said his client could raise concerns without waiting for something to go wrong such as poorly printed flyers, unattractive jerseys or an incompetent fullback.

The judge said NSWRL's claims the budget had been approved and that funds were owed were likely to fail. In response, Mr Newlinds said his client could still sue the Australian rugby body over the failure to pay.

"If that means that we have to start another case down the track, and say there's another breach, we're going to do that," he said.

Justice Ball will deliver his judgment at a later date.

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