Rugby League\'s chance

Rugby league has a unique opportunity to drive a giant stake right through the heart of rugby union's plans to recruit key rugby league players.

But this opportunity will pass by unless the NRL, and the sixteen clubs, are prepared to take an innovative approach to the limitations imposed by the salary cap.

Rugby union, and the Wallabies in particular, are in turmoil. Matt Rogers has gone, Lote Tuqiri would leave the Wallabies and return to rugby league tomorrow if he could, and now the star All Black, yes All Black, Ma'a Nonu, is seriously considering a switch to rugby league after next year's rugby World Cup.

And rugby union has hardly delivered on its commitment to code witching players. When the 47 member training squad for the 2007 World Cup was named by the ARU last week the two rugby league converts, Clinton Schifcofske and Ryan Cross, were not included.

You would think both now have only a remote chance of making the final World Cup squad. If you can't make the initial 47 you are surely not much chance of making the final team or squad?

Tuqiri has openly canvassed the possibility of returning to rugby league once the World Cup is over. I have not the slightest doubt he would switch now if he could secure a release, but the ARU simply don't do that.

Tuqiri is too valuable in a team already under the pump from critics.

He will hold talks with the Brisbane Broncos, clearly his preferred team, in the coming weeks. But other NRL clubs are interested.

And, significantly, he wants to make a decision about his post-World Cup future sooner rather than later. If Tuqiri returns to rugby league it will be a massive blow to the ARU, and its boasting about recruiting key rugby league players. If you can't hold the player who has most successfully made the switch what hope is there of recruiting genuinely outstanding league recruits.

But there is one obstacle to any effort by rugby league to drive a stake through the heart of rugby union. And that is the salary cap.

Because rugby union does not have a salary cap, rugby league clubs are not competing on a level playing field when it comes to recruiting players such as Tuqiri, or retaining those rugby union targets.

The Gold Coast Titans, for example, have already pulled out of negotiations with Tuqiri because of salary cap restrictions. Just about every other club will face the same problem.

The progressive increases in the salary cap, made possible by the new television rights deal, are nowhere near substantial enough to compete against a salary cap free code.

The answer is for the NRL, and the clubs, top develop a protocol that enables the retention of key players - or getting top players like Tuqiri back - without the restrictions imposed by the salary cap.

Perhaps the best way to do so is to appoint an independent advisory body, made up of respected former coaches, players and administrators to recommend to the NRL which players the ARU targets must be retained - and, if need be, which disaffected rugby union players (and they are in abundance today) should be encouraged to switch codes.

The players recommended by the committee should then be given significant salary cap exemptions - such as half their annual payment might be salary cap exempt, or the third party sponsorship arrangements might be liberalised.

A part of the protocol will need to ensure all NRL clubs have a reasonable chance of securing a player such as Tuqiri, and care will need to be exercised that the retention of current players does not favour one or two clubs.

This can all be done without unduly unsettling the so called ?integrity" of the salary cap.

The best form of defence against rugby union's desire to recruit league players needs to be attack. The parlous state of rugby union today might not last for long. The code is not without significant financial resources.

Now is the time to strike back hard...and intervention by the NRL to ensure there is maximum opportunity to secure the return of Lote Tuqiri to rugby league is a good place to start.

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