What’s worse than being stripped of a title?
Two titles. Okay, thanks Melbourne fans. And alongside their dudded grand final opponents, surely the emptiness of a premiership marked with an asterisk cuts deeper than a drunk barber.
Hobby competitions and token premierships. Fans don’t miss.
Paul Harragon carried the weight of Newcastle in 1997, but it meant little to those beyond the Hunter until Joey Johns schooled the Eels four years later in a reunited competition decider.
And what about the Super League Sharkies? Imagine the two decades of torment if Andrew Ettingshausen had hoisted the trophy as the club’s first. Flickering porch lights and a snubbed Paul Gallen would’ve tarnished a stunning 2016 finale.
And so too the 2002 Roosters. Freddie Fittler proved a Nick Politis masterstroke in breaking the club’s 27-year drought, but nonetheless the salary cap-cheating Bulldogs were the competition’s best by the length of the Canterbury straight.
And even though the Dogs rightly copped the wooden spoon, for Ricky Stuart’s Roosters, the shallowness must be an uncomfortable bur.
Throw in the hiccups since 2010 by the salary cap-busting Storm and Eels and it’s no surprise the biggest asterisk right now is against the NRL’s widespread crumbling foundations.
With the stars of the show on ice, the race to preserve dwindling cash now runs a close second to the push to self-isolate. And as Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys haggle over a resumption and eventual finish date, how will history treat the eventual winner?
Ridicule and heartless wit are sure to accompany any champion should the final schedule feature anything less than 15 rounds with each team playing every other once.
For the Titans and Warriors, this isn’t the year to win. A maiden title this season would rank alongside the Broncos midweek title in 1989. Same goes for Parramatta – the only upside in a token title post-1986 will be the celebratory coat of gloss smeared across the statue of Ray Price.
Talk of a best-of-three grand final series could add substance to a diluted season, as could a first-time victory lap in Queensland.
A tri-series would surely include a match in Queensland. Whether it’s Suncorp, a tropical hideaway or cutting through the smell of burnt snags in the Gladstone backblocks, a first-time gong beyond the borders of New South Wales will be long remembered.
But the asterisk will remain.
Even with the NRL on its knees the show must go on, even if it’s a shadow of its former self.
Right now process is everything. Athletes primed for action, action on the big screen, raising catch-up coin and the gift of future seasons.
And right now the fans have to ride it out and bite their tongue from a distance as their favourites dig deep overcoming their own adversity.
And that premiership asterisk, it’ll be there until the very end. Growing larger with every round the fans are locked away and the care factor fades.