The NSW Rugby League’s failure to follow its election processes in excluding Cronulla’s CEO from the board did not invalidate this year’s election results, a court has found.
Both the NSWRL and the Australian Rugby League Commission have claimed victory because of Friday’s decision, delivered in a lawsuit over the exclusion of Dino Mezzatesta from becoming a director in February this year.
Mezzatesta was excluded from the NSWRL’s board because of an apparent conflict of interest created by payments he received as the CEO of the Cronulla-Sutherland club.
In response, the ARLC withdrew funding from the state body and threatened to terminate a services agreement under which the NSWRL was given the exclusive right to manage the NSW State of Origin team unless the board election was held again.
On Friday, Justice Michael Ball found Mezzatesta was wrongly excluded from becoming a metropolitan director because any conflicts as CEO were the same as those he had because of his directorship role at Cronulla.
“Any possible conflict arose because of the duties Mr Mezzatesta owed to Cronulla. But he owed those duties as a director. It is unclear how the nature and scope of those duties relevantly differed because he was also an employee of the club,” the NSW Supreme Court judge wrote.
Despite this irregularity, the court rejected the ARLC’s arguments that the election was invalid and needed to be reheld.
ALRC chairman Peter V’landys criticised the lawsuit as a waste of money, and said the result vindicated the commission’s position that Mezzatesta’s exclusion was a “serious error”.
“The Commission received a complaint from multiple clubs that Dino should not have been disqualified from the board elections. We acted on that complaint and the court has found today that Dino should not have been disqualified,” he said in a statement.
The ARLC is now considering its options.
Acting NSWRL board chairman John Anderson welcomed the decision, saying the organisation was forced to file the lawsuit because of a direct threat from the ARLC.
“We can now continue our State of Origin preparations in earnest without the threat of removal from the contest hanging over our heads,” he said.
The first State of Origin game is scheduled to be played on June 8.
In his decision, Justice Ball pointed out that two other directors Geoff Gerard and Nick Politis were validly elected and the state rugby body had a functioning board that seemed to be fulfilling its duties.
The ARLC had not challenged the election of Gerard and Politis, and could not point to any way in which the NSWRL had failed to meet its obligations.
Politis resigned from his position as director at the conclusion of the February board meeting. NSWRL has said it will move to fill this vacancy and will also move to appoint a chairman.
Because of the court’s findings, the ARLC cannot invalidate the services agreement between the national and state entities.
The court declined to determine whether or not the ARLC had breached its contractual obligations to NSWRL by withholding funding since the board meeting.
The state organisation is still able to file future legal proceedings seeking damages against the national organisation if the dispute over payments cannot be resolved.