Off the Wall

For as long as rugby league is producing players of the talent of the Sharks fullback, Nathan Gardner, the game will have a secure future.

The try he scored last night, in just his fourth first grade game, was as good as any I have seen in the last decade. And he is just 20 years old. He was a star in the Toyota Cup competition - and he will surely be a star in the NRL for years to come.

And he is not alone - week in week out we see young players marking their mark in the NRL premiership who display extraordinary skills that makes watching rugby league second to none.

The future of our game will be secure while we keep producing the Nathan Gardner's.

And that is where the NRL needs to think and act strategically in the face of a deliberate, divisive and costly campaign by the AFL to undermine our game.

The easiest - but not the cheapest - solution would be for the NRL to enter into a cash war with the AFL to keep elite players. The AFL would not win, and the NRL would not win.

What we need is for the NRL to do what David Gallop is now doing - bringing forward the negotiations for the post 2012 television rights, and when the agreement is settled, get the game's friendly banker to help secure the game's long term future.

The game needs to be able to offer its best players incentives to stay in the game, and not be tempted by the AFL, ARU, or UK Super League. But the payment of such incentives needs to be handled carefully - we should not indulge in the wasteful destructive nonsense the AFL is currently doing, and which is rightly being attacked by more and more AFL coaches, players and officials.

The fund to keep players should be administered by the Independent Commission (when it is set up) and be used to make additional payments that are salary cap exempt to the game's best players. Logically, players who have reached test and origin status would be the first priority. But it should not be used for players who are at the fan end of their careers.

There will have to be a "balance" struck in determining recipients so that individual clubs do not receive an unreasonable advantage. That is going to be a challenge - but it has to be met.

But the NRL needs to make an even bigger "investment" in the Nathan Gardner's of the game - because they are its real future!

And that investment needs to be made at the junior levels - where, in South East Queensland, and Western Sydney, the AFL is supposed to be tipping in millions. Or that is at least what AFL coaches such as the Lions Michael Voss thought the game was investing in!

There is evidence other codes are eroding our juniors ranks - principally by paying registration fees, providing gear and so on. That has to be matches right across the code.

We need to plan, but not panic.

Bringing forward the television rights negotiations is a good start - but it must be followed up by a whole of game strategy that involves keeping the best players, but ensuring the breeding grounds for the future of the game are equally secure.