With rumours of a major salary cap breach by the North Queensland Cowboys circulating rugby league circles on Tuesday I can’t help thinking the whole salary cap concept needs a major overhaul.
I have no idea whether there is any truth to the whispers about potential breaches in Townsville and it doesn’t really change my opinion in any case. The salary cap, in its current form, is not working.
Is the Cowboys roster any better than that of the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Bulldogs or Broncos? Yes, they have Thurston and Scott and they were able to keep Taumalolo. But is that roster any better than what other clubs have been able to assemble? We know the Eels have been operating just over the wrong side of the line – yes, with that roster that has them languishing at the bottom end of the ladder. The Wests Tigers have openly explained that they have no room to move under the cap for the next couple of seasons yet they are stone-cold, motherless last.
The whole point of having a salary cap in the first place was to spread the rugby league talent as evenly as possible across the 16 clubs. Anecdotal evidence would suggest over the past five years or so there has become haves and have-nots within this competition. The big clubs – Roosters, Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Manly and Broncos on one side with the likes of Canberra, Gold Coast, Cronulla, Parramatta and Newcastle on the other. Teams will go through periods of success and failure – that has been well documented looking through the record books of the NRL since the turn of the century. But in recent seasons the gap between top to bottom appears to be widening at an alarming rate.
I think this correlates directly to the relaxing of the salary cap rules around third party deals. The bigger, more powerful clubs have more scope to get their players third party deals while the smaller ones can’t compete. Their best bet is to pay overs from the salary cap to compensate but all that does is weaken their overall position to form a strong squad. To highlight what I mean let’s use the name Joe Bloggs, who is deemed to be one of the best players in the world. He commands a salary of around $1m a season. The Roosters can attribute $500K of that to their salary cap if they can find $500K worth of third party money. The Raiders on the other hand might not be able to get a third party deal and therefore have to attribute all $1m of his salary to their cap. The Roosters essentially have an extra $500K to play with despite signing the same player. If they can do that with two or three players, it will have quite a big effect on the overall strength of the roster. Third party deals need to be scrapped altogether or simply counted as part of a team’s cap.
I understand that to be competitive with rival codes rugby league has to allow players to earn their true worth rather than capping it to ensure an even spread of talent and that balancing act is becoming harder to keep at an equilibrium. Therefore perhaps the time has come to scrap the existing cap altogether and find another way of spreading the talent. One option would be to introduce a soft cap whereby the cap limit is reduced to a lower level, the teams are free to spend beyond that figure but for every dollar they go over they must also pay another dollar into a pot that gets split evenly by the sides that don’t spend their entire cap. I’m not convinced that is the best option for the NRL but it has worked successfully in other codes.
Maybe the best option is to give players a value out of 10 and come up with a cap that way. As players come off contract, their value is adjusted so that you continue to have a very even competition. Players can still earn essentially via a free market where there are no salary restrictions but the teams assemble sides that are of equal ability. There will be flaws in this system as well no doubt but it is food for thought.
The bottom line is the NRL needs to find a way to allow players to earn what they are worth whilst still protecting the concept of a level playing field amongst the 16 clubs for the 16 fan bases. That is clearly not happening anymore.
Discuss and interact with the author via the Twitter handle @playtheballnz