|The Storm's Cameron Smith is one of the sport's stars [GALLO/GETTY]
One of the biggest punishments in the history of sport has been meted out to Australian Rugby League champions Melbourne Storm – stripping them of two championship titles and all the points earned on the field this season.
The National Rugby League (NRL) champions will have nothing to play for but pride in the remaining six months of the season.
It is the harshest treatment administered in Australian sport and trumps punishments such as points docking and fines in other sports, such as European football leagues.
But with no relegation from the NRL, they at least escape the fate of Italian Serie A clubs like Juventus who were relegated with several others over match-fixing in 2006.
NRL chief executive David Gallop announced that the World Club champions had been found cheating the league's salary cap by at least 1.7 million Australian dollars ($1.5 million) over five years.
The NRL cracked down heavily on the three-time champions, nullifying their 2007 and 2009 titles, docking them of all the points they have earned and will earn for the rest of the 2010 season, and imposing a $1.4 million fine.
Gallop described as "extraordinary" the level of deception the club engaged to retain three of Australian rugby league biggest stars – Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith.
He said the league's investigations had revealed the Storm had maintained a dual contract system, with the club confirming on Wednesday that letters promising extra payments were stored in a secret file.
"They (Storm) had a long-term system of effectively two sets of books and the elaborate lengths they have gone through to cover this up has been extraordinary," he said on Thursday.
"Today is a most unbelievable blow and this is the lowest day in the club's history"
Rob Moodie, Melbourne Storm chairman
"The most damning indictment is the systematic attempt by persons within the club to conceal payments from the (NRL) salary cap auditor and, it would now seem certain from the club's board and from its owners, on an ongoing basis.
"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."
Gallop said the buck stopped with the club and not the players.
Two officials, one of them acting chief executive Matt Hanson, have been stood down, while others who have previously left the club could also be investigated.
John Hartigan, chairman and chief executive of the Storm's owner News Limited, said the company had referred the matter to police and installed experienced rugby league administrator Frank Stanton as Storm's caretaker chief executive.
"This club has had a couple of rats in its ranks," Hartigan said, adding the deception had been concealed from News Ltd.
Storm chairman Rob Moodie said the club's board had become aware of the salary cap indiscretions only on April 13 this year and had initiated its own full investigation.
"Melbourne Storm has today accepted the findings and outcomes of an NRL investigation in to the club's salary cap accounts," Moodie said in a club statement.
"The rules are very clear and some former members of management have wrongly decided to break them.
"Today is a most unbelievable blow and this is the lowest day in the club's history."
Neither Manly nor Parramatta, the beaten Grand Finalists in 2007 and 2009 respectively, will assume the Storm's stripped titles, meaning those championships will remain blank in the league's history books.