Bullets and death threats: Super League’s untold story
John Ribot knew he had become the most hated man in Australian sport.
Nothing, though, prepared him for this.
Bullet casings arriving in the mail, along with envelopes full of toenails in between death threats sent by people he simply called "nutters".
In an explosive interview, the former Super League CEO reveals for the first time, the level of anger towards him from fans loyal to the Australian Rugby League in the bitter dispute over control of the game.
In 1997, the game was split in two as eight disenfranchised clubs joined a 10-team Super League breakaway, while 12 clubs remained loyal to the ARL competition.
It divided fans and Ribot, the face of Super League, wore the brunt of their fury.
The outrage got so bad it forced his employer, News Ltd - now News Corp, publisher of The Daily Telegraph - to place two security guards inside his Brisbane home and post a further two out front in a car.
Ribot, now 66, also reveals the conversation he shared with Rupert Murdoch where the News Corp executive chairman expressed concerns over ARL-aligned Kerry Packer's powerful influence in Sydney.
Murdoch told Ribot, "If we had Kerry off shore we could fix this up very quickly."
Ribot also details how he believed Channel 9 sabotaged him during his infamous on-air spat with Sydney radio's Ray Hadley during a segment on The Footy Show in September, 1995.
BULLET CASINGS AND TOENAILS
Ribot and his then young family lived at The Gap in Brisbane, when four security guards appeared at the front door. Two walked inside, the other two took up positions out front. It was a frightening moment when Ribot realised just how much some fans hated him and Super League.
Although under siege from multiple sides, Ribot remained resilient. He never worried about himself, but did have concerns for his family's safety.
"News (Ltd) was very good, they protected me really well," Ribot said.
"At its peak, we had security people - a few of them - in my house in Brisbane and in cars out the front. Half of the time I didn't know what was going on but I knew News had my back.
"I remember my daughter saying 'There's people inside our house, Dad, what's going on?'
"The security guards had their moments but they were very respectful. They didn't expect to sit down and have dinner with us.
"The only thing that frightened me was more around my family. The last thing I wanted was for them to get embroiled in it. My daughters were very young then and they didn't totally know what was going on. They just knew there was someone in the house. It just wasn't pleasant."
The security guards were seen as a necessary measure, given the worrying lengths people were going to in order to get at Ribot.
"I had a few death threats, they came through the mail," Ribot said.
"There was this bloke who used to send me toe nails. I don't know what that was all about.
"Another bloke used to send me bullet shells. It was a bit crazy. That used to come through to our offices in Elizabeth Street (in Sydney).
"I also had a few phone calls but they were just nutters on the other end.
"My skin is thick and I knew that once I did something I believed was right then the only thing that was going to cure it was time."
Even his Wikipedia profile says Ribot is "generally regarded as the most hated man in Australian Rugby League fraternity due to his involvement in the Super League war, which almost destroyed the game."
"Luckily there was never a close call where I thought, 'Jesus, thank God that didn't happen'," he said.
"The closest call was when we were playing a game at QEII Stadium and I was sitting next to the Brisbane Lord Mayor, Jim Soorley. A security call came through that they had just found footage where a bloke had come through the gates with a rifle.
"I thought, 'Bloody hell'. It was a guy who went to the rifle club - would you believe this - and just thought it was normal to carry a gun into the ground. It was a little unsettling.
"I knew (I wasn't liked) and understood that. I understand their dislike because you're taking something away from a family that has probably sat there for two or three generations. Then they see things decimated in front of them and then they think, 'Wow, what's going on here'. I get all that."
He knew the battle to defeat Packer's ARL would be intense but Murdoch relished the challenge.
"I always remember the day we agreed to do the deal - I had a meeting with Rupert Murdoch, Ken Cowley (former News Ltd chairman) and Peter Jourdain (ex-News Ltd executive)," Ribot said.
"We were at Holt Street (in Surry Hills, News Ltd headquarters) and the discussion was only supposed to go for 20 minutes but two hours later and Rupert was still there.
"I was told Rupert wouldn't make a decision on that day but he got up, shook my hand and said 'You know, this is going to be very interesting because Kerry Packer owns Sydney and he will be very hard to beat here. This will be tough.'
"He said 'if we had Kerry off shore we could fix this up very quickly' and it wouldn't be a problem because he doesn't have enough (overseas) presence, given the size of News.
"But Kerry was in Sydney, all the clubs were there, we had to try and break that up. That was our biggest challenge. I remember Rupert said 'This is going to be very exciting - I wish you all the best, good luck'.
"He then walked out."
Asked whether he thought Murdoch enjoyed the battle, Ribot said "Oh yeah, I have no doubt about that at all. I could see it in his face when he said 'This is going to be exciting'.
"I remember getting phone calls from Rupert saying 'We have to finish this off as quickly as possible'.
"I didn't have a lot to do with him but Rupert was always really good to me. He would ring up and ask 'How are things going? Love what you're doing. Keep up the good work'. That was a nice tonic to get from someone like him.
"Lachlan was also a great asset for me, to be able to take him out and around with me to talk to people. He was representing the family. I remember thinking, 'This bloke's got some steel about him - he knows what he's about'."
HADLEY AMBUSHED ME
During a 1995 Footy Show episode Ribot agreed to appear to explain the Super League vision. That was when Hadley famously attacked Ribot and the breakaway concept in front of a largely pro-ARL audience at Nine's Willoughby studios.
"That was an ambush," Ribot said. "I still don't know exactly how that happened. Everything that happened that night wasn't agreed to.
"We were supposed to do a talkback show. There was Chris Johns (Broncos official) and myself, and as I understood, Ken Arthurson and John Quayle (from the ARL). There was going to be a mediator who was going to ask the questions with some balance.
"We wanted to know what the questions were but they didn't want to entertain that. Rebecca Wilson (Super League media manager) organised it.
"I remember walking in and Gary Burns (Nine sports producer) was there and I asked if they were cutting another program there that night.
"I said it sounded like there was some excitement outside (in the audience). He said, 'No, that's the show you're on tonight'. I told him we were doing talkback and he said, 'No, not talkback, it's a full Footy Show.'
"I remember my last words to Chris Johns were - he was a good man to have by my side - 'Now I know how the Christians felt when they were going out to meet the lions.'
"Out we went, and to this day, I don't think I got to answer the first question. Hadley just hopped into me. If I didn't go on, I would never have lived it down. We went and copped our medicine and wanted to find out how it happened so we weren't exposed like that again.
"Hadley had a job to do. He is a shock jock. That's what he's paid to do. I actually think he calls a good game of footy. I don't have a problem with him, he may have a problem with me. I'm way past that. If I saw him, I'd say hi and be polite but don't think I'd have a beer with him."
With Super League poised to break away, Packer called all ARL clubs bosses to a meeting inside the NSWRL and told them the ramifications they faced if they defected.
"He called us all together and I will never forget the day." Ribot said.
"Kerry pointed at everybody in the room - 100 of us - and said 'If anyone thinks they're going to walk away from this competition then I'll come after you personally'.
"It was game on.
"I must admit, I look back now and think 'Wow, to see Kerry perform well, there was a real presence with that man.' You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him. Kerry spoke for only 20, 30 minutes. It was to the point and he was saying 'this is what we're going to do'.
"I remember thinking 'Hang on, what he's saying isn't right'. You can't let a broadcaster own a sporting product."
Was it an intimidation tactic from Packer to scare clubs into line?
"Oh yeah, I think so," Ribot said.
"It certainly worked with a lot of people.
"After that meeting, I went back to News (in Surry Hills) and Ken Cowley (then News Ltd chairman) asked if anyone had anything to say. I told him Kerry was such a serious contender. They all laughed and said it was his personality, it is just the way he is.
"I told them back at News that we're in for a fight here because this bloke's not going to roll over. I told them that Kerry meant what he said. That was the environment back then, it was hostile and both parties were to blame.
"I have the utmost respect for Kerry and James (Packer) as businessmen. I have read their books. I find them great, colourful characters of our time. But they are no longer in our game. They were there to get and make a buck. That's business."
Packer's Nine eventually stunned the ARL by rolling over and broadcasting Super League games.
"Kerry was a very smart businessman so he read the tea leaves, he knew it was going to happen," Ribot said. "It was about TV and he was very good at that. He saw the landscape changing and had to make his move. He could smell a good deal."
SUPER LEAGUE HAD TO HAPPEN
It could have been handled differently, but there was no stopping the revolution which controversially began 26 years ago on Thursday. For that reason, Ribot is unrepentant about his role in kickstarting what turned into a war.
"I have no regrets about doing what we did. I have regrets about the way we went about doing it," Ribot said. "It would have been nice to think we could have all sat around the table and come up with a better solution rather than going to war with each other.
"Get everyone together and say it will be very unpleasant but we're big enough to come out of it. But with the personalities in our game, that was never going to happen.
"But we paid a big price for it.
"The facts are that if we didn't do it rugby union would have done it. They went professional anyway. And it was certain the AFL would have done. The big clubs in the AFL were discussing a breakaway and realigning their game.
"It was the power of the dollar and it's been maintained now. The amount of money for players, they are the athletes and they are creating the product and should be paid accordingly. Back then, they weren't.
"There was a lot of angst among the clubs. I keep saying when someone offers you a million dollars for the pay-per-view rights for 10 years, and then we go into an environment where we get $55m in the year, against $1m, I think there was an imbalance of payments going to the clubs. People don't see that.
"I know it frustrated fans but to make those changes, someone had to stand up. It wasn't just me - it was a group of people who said 'We can do better than this'. This was a game of politics, one was red, one was blue, and away we went.
"People forget some of the upsides. Super League was something that was always going to happen.
"The Tina Turner era in 1992 and 1993, I think, was magic but the numbers (money) didn't seem to be filtering down to the clubs.
"The punter on the street didn't realise the landscape from a TV point of view, when pay-TV came in, whether it be through Optus or Fox, there was always going to be just one winner. But they were big stakes. I'm very grateful to News Ltd, they believed in it.
"Who was the real winner? I still think News was the winner because they stuck to what said they were going to do."
Originally published as Toenails, bullets, death threats: Super League's untold story