Sweeping changes to the NRL’s salary cap structure announced this week have been lauded in some quarters, while others have described it as too little, too late. With existing and new threats lurking in the shadows waiting to snare rugby league’s superstars with big dollars, has the NRL done enough to ward off the poachers?
Among the most significant changes to the current salary cap from 2015 are:
- The increasing of the veteran player allowance by up to 50%, and the reducing of that allowance’s eligibility from eight years to six years.
- Giving the NRL CEO the discretion to compete with rival codes’ offers to marquee players in exceptional circumstances.
- Giving clubs the freedom to exclude termination payments made to players in the instance of behavioural issues that have brought the game into disrepute, subject to approval by the NRL.
- An allowance for clubs to introduce a player from outside the salary cap if needed to replace a player sidelined due to concussion.
The AFL has subsided as a major threat to the NRL somewhat. GWS Giants’ recruit Israel Folau was an abject failure, while Gold Coast Suns’ pioneer Karmichael Hunt was only a moderate success and appears certain to return to rugby league at the end of 2014. The former Queensland and Kangaroos duo proved their worth for the respective expansion clubs publicity-wise, but it is highly doubtful any established team would get their money’s worth from an NRL convert on a seven-figure salary.
But where the NRL needs to be wary is staying competitive with the AFL’s salaries to avoid losing young players to its greatest rival. A teenager with a strong background in both codes may opt to chase the Sherrin rather than the Steeden if there is a significant discrepancy in earning potential.
Rugby Union remains the most immediate cross-code danger. Folau’s spectacular success in the 15-a-side game has renewed interest in rugby league stars after unsuccessful and aborted switches by the likes of Timana Tahu. While the ARU’s recent financial woes and the NRL’s stronger position means it is unlikely we will see another exodus like the one that lured rugby league internationals Andrew Walker, Wendell Sailor, Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri across the divide in the early 2000s, the similarity of the games and the lure of almost certain international honours and travel means Union will be an ever-present marauder.
The end-of-season departure of Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Burgess to New Zealand rugby union and England rugby union respectively is bitterly disappointing and deeply concerning for the NRL. While the NZRU and RFU are only likely to chase expatriates, losing a Kieran Foran or a Sam Tomkins to union – where World Cups and Olympics participation are major drawcards – on top of big brand players Williams and Burgess would be a disastrous concession.
French rugby union has also resurfaced as a heavy hitter in the recruitment wars after securing a massive television rights deal. Out-and-out superstars Sonny Bill Williams and Mark Gasnier were lost to the competition in 2008, while former Test players Craig Gower and Luke Rooney also took the big money on offer around that time.
We could see another round of high-profile NRL players take the huge money and attractive lifestyle available in French rugby union, with South Sydney backrow hit-man Ben Te’o – almost certain to leave the Rabbitohs one way or another – a rumoured target. Other NRL clubs have been tipped as potential suitors for Te’o, but they will struggle to compete with the cash available for a code and hemisphere switch. The departure of a current Origin player in the prime of his career will set alarm bells ringing at NRL headquarters – or at least it should.
Super League’s recruitment clout has diminished largely thanks to an unfavourable exchange rate, tax hikes and a comparatively low salary cap. But the recent signing of Warriors and Kiwi World Cup fullback Kevin Locke by the Salford City Reds and filthy rich owner Marwan Koukash is a reminder that European clubs are still very much in the market. Locke, just 25, linked with the Reds despite several Australian clubs desperately seeking a top-class fullback.
Changes to the veteran allowance – increased to a maximum $250,000 per club in 2015 and $300,000 in 2016 – are the most heartening and overdue alterations made this week. The reduction of eligibility from eight to six years opens up the potential for relative newcomers, but nevertheless, loyal young stars, such as Shaun Johnson, Aaron Woods and Dale Finucane come under this arrangement, not just ageing stalwarts.
The loyalty allowance changes have come too late for Manly mainstay Glenn Stewart and Melbourne great Ryan Hoffman, however. Veterans of over a decade at their respective clubs, former Test backrowers Stewart (South Sydney) and Hoffman (Warriors) took up generous deals to finish their careers elsewhere after salary cap constraints prevented their beloved clubs from offering competitive contracts. The Sea Eagles were so hamstrung by cap issues they did not even make an offer for Stewart, a key figure in two premiership triumphs.
Manly and Melbourne have grounds to be dirty about the timing of the announcement, given that if it had been sorted out at the start of the year the clubs would have had some chance of retaining their long-serving stars.
Allowing the NRL CEO to step in to compete with rival codes in exceptional circumstances is perhaps the most intriguing and significant change to the current structure, but by that stage the horse may have already bolted. More shrewd/devious marquee players, agents and clubs could use other codes’ offers as leverage to entice Dave Smith to get involved.
Surely the most proactive course is prevention, rather than reaction – a clear and sizeable upgrade to the marquee player allowance is the only way to cut AFL and Rugby Union off at the pass.
The NRL has long promoted the notion that the salary cap has created a level playing field, and a more exciting and even competition as a result. The high turnover of premiers and small gap between the best and worst teams compared to the AFL is hard evidence of the NRL’s parity.
But it could be argued an even competition is pointless if the premiership is regularly having its greatest players and most lucrative stadium-fillers snatched away. The NRL’s salary cap announcement is certainly welcome and a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether the changes will be enough to stave off the predators.
Will has published two books on Rugby League:
- A History of State of Origin
- A Short History of Rugby League in Australia
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