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This was going to be the year the NRL was going to fight back.
Over the past decade there has been a steady shift in the game, mainly due to circumstances beyond the governing body?s control. The game of Rugby League has changed dramatically and perminantly due to three major shifts in local and international sport: Rugby Union?s switch to professionalism, UK Rugby League?s switch to a summer season and the NRL?s stricter policing of the salary cap.
Previously Rugby Union used a quasi-amateur structure to pay their players, making it extremely difficult to make offers to players outside of the code. Meanwhile the UK Rugby League was played in the northern hemisphere?s winter ensuring it didn?t clash with the Australian season. Australian based players could play a season at home and duck over to the UK and earn some extra cash playing a guest role at a wealthy club.
About a decade ago however this all changed. The ARU finally went professional, and after taking a few years to comprehend the ramifications of their move, entered the market for Rugby League converts. While the UK Rugby League?s summer ?Superleague? has been a great success. Much of this success has been for smaller clubs who, due to higher crowds and more media exposure, have been able to gain in wealth, often due to the UK tradition of being bankrolled by a rich teamowner. Meanwhile in Australia the NRL were trying to do the opposite by limiting spending by clubs after re-introducing a heavily policed salary cap.
These developments have created a modern day problem. With Four Super 14 clubs and twelve UK Superleague clubs now in the mix, the market for an NRL player has doubled. Rugby Union is no longer ?the other game?, and the UK is not just a place for semi-retired players to earn some extra superannuation. Some have blamed player agents for encouraging the UK and Super 14 clubs, some blame the NRL for what they describe as a restrictive salary cap, while others believe it?s all a storm in a teacup and the NRL with continue to thrive no matter who leaves.
Whoever is to blame, it seemed that 2006 was going to be the year the tide would turn. As we know in 2005 the NRL decided to allow the Gold Coast to enter the competition in 2007, injecting $3-4 million into the player payment pool. Also last week the NRL decided to increase the 2007 salary cap by around $500,000 per club (once the adjustment to third party payments is considered). This cap rise, coupled with the inclusion of a new team equates to approximately $12 million of new money in the player payment pool - surely enough extra funding to keep all NRL team?s key players.
Yet it has emerged this week that the NRL is set to lose more young players to the UK Superleague. Phil Bailey has announced that he will leave the Sharks to join Wigan next year on a three year deal. The Eels Glenn Morrison has also been linked with Bradford this week, while Willie Tonga, Ryan Cross and of course Mark Gasnier have all been linked to Rugby this month.
These players are all relatively young, arguably at the peak of their strengths, and all potential representative prospects. They would surely be a great signing for the Gold Coast Titans, or any other team looking for a quality purchase. But some of them may be lost.
Perhaps the signing of players such as Bailey highlight where the problem lies- the anti-tampering deadline. While I acknowledge it fulfils an important role in the game, maybe it is still too late in the season. By June 30th the Super 14 season is well and truly over and next seasons rosters are sorted out. Many UK Superleague teams are also out of the running for a finals berth and are thinking of next season. NRL players who are unsigned by June 30th are either determined to go on the free market, or are extremely nervous.
By bringing the deadline forward a month, players may be more willing to wait to see what their value is on the open market, without feeling like they?ve missed the boat on a potential move to the UK or Union. In the case of Bailey, it would lessen the limbo period where he is still unsigned but unable to talk officially to any NRL club and compare their offers to Wigan?s deal.
Detractors will argue it?s destabalising having players signed so early in the season, however thanks to Union and UK clubs this is happening already, and seems to matter little to the player (Bryan Fletcher is a recent example of this). Others will claim a May deadline detracts from the State of Origin. What is certain is not date seems perfect, but the retention of players must be one of the NRLs highest priorities.