O'Neill's got his tits in a tangle
over Lote.

Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill blasted the National Rugby League for its "hysterical" reaction to the rival code's potential signing of Test winger Lote Tuqiri.

The NRL board, acting in response to the ARU's attempt to lure Tuqiri to rugby union, announced it would provide salary cap exemptions to its clubs for signing young union players.

The details of the plan were not released by the NRL, save to say that the exemptions would apply to rugby union players under the age of 21.

That prompted O'Neill to launch a blistering attack on the NRL in which he claimed the clubs had been given second prize when what they really wanted was a lifting of the salary cap.

"This is a triumph of hysteria over sound policy making," O'Neill said.

"It appears to be a policy drafted by the NRL's public relations department as opposed to a clear thinking approach to the game's future.

"It's even more ridiculous when you consider this hysteria is being generated by the potential signing of one footballer, who may or may not sign up with rugby union."

The NRL chief executives at a meeting earlier this week opposed a proposal that would have seen extra funds diverted to player payments in order to counter bids from the ARU for rugby league's elite players.

The plan, based on a similar model in England where the Rugby Football League tops up player payments to ward off union, was mooted after the ARU's audacious bid for Tuqiri.

News the Fijian flyer was considering an offer from the ARU followed the rival code's smash-and-grab raid last year on Test stars Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers.

NRL chairman John Chalk said the plan to target rugby union's younger players was designed to take advantage of those disillusioned by the ARU's desire to recruit rugby league players rather than promote from within.

"Clearly, if they are not going to provide opportunities for their young stars then we will encourage our clubs to do just that," Chalk said.

"Union in recent times has sought to make mileage and publicity over offers to our players, to the extent that the most talked about people in the sport (of rugby) are in fact rugby league players.

"Our clubs have been bound by salary caps while union has been content to inflate the player market to attract rugby league talent and then cry foul when anyone retaliates.

"It is an attitude that must be discouraging to union's own junior ranks and these measures will simply provide those players with an alternative option."

Parramatta chief executive Denis Fitzgerald, a vocal opponent to more exemptions under the salary cap, admitted he was surprised by Thursday's decision.

"I am opposed to any more concessions with the salary cap and I am most surprised by the decision," Fitzgerald said.

But NRL chief executive David Gallop said the board had recognised the views of the club chief executives in reaching the decision.

"Quite sensibly, our clubs do not want to see an escalation of elite player payments and the board has respected that view," Gallop said.

"This move is not going to change the focus of the clubs enormously, we already have the best development programs.

"But it is important we protect those programs and at the same time give clubs some extra scope in the recruitment area."

However, O'Neill warned that extra scope would put more pressure on the salary cap.

"The other unavoidable consequence of this policy will be the wealthy clubs will be advantaged over the weaker clubs, the one thing the salary cap is designed to avoid."

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