One of the greatest mismatches in rugby league history is expected to play out on Saturday evening.
One of the combatants has a storied rugby league history, a rich junior nursery and a leagues club that helps pay the bills. Yet for all Canterbury’s advantages, opponents Melbourne have been installed as the shortest-priced favourites in NRL history.
How did it come to this?
Dejected Bulldogs players during the defeat to the Broncos in March.Credit:NRL Photos
The Bulldogs have not scored a point in their opening three games of the season, yet somehow they sit above Manly on the ladder. The season isn’t even a month old and already there is a chasm between the strong and struggling clubs.
The Sea Eagles, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Broncos and Wests Tigers have already been written off after a series of blowout losses. After four rounds, the average winning margin is 18.3 points, the highest ever except for the 1935 season when the figure blew out to 19.5.
The lopsided nature of some so-called contests will have catastrophic consequences if the trend continues. The NRL has long marketed itself as one of the most unpredictable sporting competitions in the world, but television ratings, attendances and fan interest will dwindle if most matches are a foregone conclusion.
“The regeneration of the game that happened in the first 10 years after Super League was definitely a period when, by and large, any team could win on any given day,” long-time former NRL chief executive David Gallop said.
“In Australian sport, clubs aren’t just competing against each other, they are competing against other codes and their desire to win fans over.
“The salary cap and the strict enforcement of it was hugely important in that period in the game’s history.
“If you think back to Penrith winning in 2003 and the Wests Tigers in 2005, there was a real romance to those premierships.”
Every year, teams will finish at the top and others at the bottom. But never so early has the divide between them been so distinct.
‘In Australian sport, clubs aren’t just competing against each other, they are competing against other codes and their desire to win fans over.’
“To have nearly a third of the competition in triple-figures odds to win the competition after only four rounds essentially suppresses interest in the game among casual fans, who make up the majority of the fan base,” said Dr Hunter Fujak, a lecturer at Deakin Business School and author of the recently released book Code Wars – the Battle for Fans, Dollars and Survival.
“This results in real diminishment in meaningful fixtures far too early in the season, which suppresses broadcast ratings and attendances.”
NRL powerbrokers are monitoring the situation, but aren’t panicking just yet. Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said perspective was needed given how early it is in the season.
“I’m not overly concerned,” V’landys said. “If it’s like this in round 25, then we’ll do a much deeper dig with all of this. It’s round four.”
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
There are a multitude of theories as to why the weaker teams can’t keep pace with the leading ones. The most popular relates to the tweaking of the rules to speed up the pace of the game. The NRL has brought in several changes, namely the six-again rule, in a bid to increase the fatigue factor. The objective is to provide a more free-flowing spectacle by allowing the smaller, more creative players to take advantage of tiring defences.
However, legendary referee Bill Harrigan has always warned of league’s “carpet-bubble effect”, whereby even the smallest rule alterations can have unexpected consequences. One of those is a huge shift of momentum when one side enjoys an increase in possession. Once a team is starved of the Steeden, points are quickly conceded and the weaker teams are blown off the park.
Put simply, the new rules are said to have exacerbated the gulf between the good and bad teams. The number of 30-plus winning margins this year is 21.9 per cent of games; last year the figure was 14.2 per cent, while a decade ago it was just 8.5 per cent.
The Sea Eagles have struggled during the opening rounds of the season.Credit:Getty
Are there too many six-agains being awarded? The figures to date suggest that’s not the case. Last year’s average was seven per game, while this year the number is 7.1, despite the fact they can now be awarded for offside infringements.
The NRL’s internal data crunching suggests the play-the-ball speed has actually been slower this year compared to last season (3.51s to 3.44s), but ball-in-play time has increased as a percentage of elapsed time, exacerbating fatigue.
“The metrics dispel all the theories that everyone is putting out there,” V’landys said. “I never use any spin, I will let the facts speak for themselves.”
The salary cap has long been hailed as the great leveler of talent. The top clubs would win premierships, the value of their star players would increase and some of them would leave in order to pick up more lucrative deals elsewhere. Thus clubs would rise and fall, a virtuous cycle that would result in most teams having a small premiership window every decade or so.
The Broncos have been well off the pace since Wayne Bennett left.Credit:NRL Photos
Yet despite the introduction of a further cap, on football department spending, the task of rebuilding weaker clubs is becoming more difficult. The Storm side that runs onto Stadium Australia on Saturday is playing under the same $10 million cap limit as the Bulldogs, yet the difference in roster quality is staggering.
The onus must fall onto the clubs to better manage their affairs, according to V’landys.
“If they all have the same amount of money, why can’t they compete against each other?” V’landys said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by former ARL chief executive John Quayle, who presided over the game during its halcyon days.
“People will blame the league and say they need to do this or that,” Quayle said. “The [clubs] are now in such a wonderful position that all of their player payments are paid. They don’t have to raise them, they get a cheque. If you want to spend it the way you want to spend it, take responsibility for it.”
The teams currently at the foot of the ladder are paying for rostering and management sins of the past. The Bulldogs and Tigers in particular have offered lucrative, backended contracts to several players past their prime. Thus begins a vicious cycle; because they are uncompetitive, they need to pay ‘overs’ to attract quality players, throwing their salary cap further into imbalance. Those poor decisions can take years to correct.
There is also a tendency for under-pressure boards to sack coaches, often the most convenient scapegoat for poor results. Their replacements inherit rebuilding jobs, yet few survive long enough to finish the task. Even results sometimes aren’t enough. Less than three years ago, Penrith sacked Anthony Griffin while his team held a share of fourth place.
The NRL’s most experienced club boss, Canberra’s Don Furner, believes it is important to play the long game. When Ricky Stuart was appointed coach in 2014, he missed the finals in the first two years. However, they kept faith in Stuart rather than looking for a short-term fix that would create problems down the track.
“He had to clean out the roster, but at least he knew we had his back,” Furner said.
The Raiders were prepared to play a long game and backed coach Ricky Stuart during an early lean spell.Credit:Getty Images
The Raiders were struggling in the player market at the time. They went for marquee men including James Tedesco, Kevin Proctor, Michael Ennis and Josh Mansour, but couldn’t lure them to the nation’s capital.
“We couldn’t recruit anyone here, we had a lot of high-profile knockbacks,” Furner said. “We had to develop talent, we had no choice. We had to look for another avenue and for us it ended up being the UK. We ended up having some success stories.”
Canberra ended up with some of the best British talent, headlined by the likes of Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead, Ryan Sutton and John Bateman. When the latter was offered a five-year deal at Wigan, the Green Machine refused to enter into a bidding war.
“Sometimes the clubs can be guilty of short-termism,” Furner said. “We haven’t gone out and splashed big money on duds or long-term deals. We’ve never done that, we haven’t been hamstrung in our salary cap with that sort of stuff.
“Some coaches don’t have that luxury. If we don’t make the semis this year, [Stuart] knows we’re not going to sack him.”
There is no doubt some clubs manage their salary caps better than others. Privately, there is also some scepticism in club land about how level the playing field actually is. The last few clubs caught rorting the system – the Eels, Sea Eagles and Sharks – were still able to compete for a finals spot after they were pinged. Some believe the disincentive to cheat isn’t strong enough.
It was a very different story when the Bulldogs were stripped of 37 competition points for undisclosed player payments in 2002.
“You would have to think that sharpened everyone up,” Gallop said. “They thought, ‘wow, we don’t want to be in that position’.”
NRL boss David Gallop answering questions following the release of salary-cap auditor Ian Schubert’s report into the Storm salary-cap scandal of 2010.Credit:Steve Christo
Long-time club administrator Shane Richardson, who enjoyed premiership success at Penrith and South Sydney, is adamant the salary cap works.
“But it is how smart you are with it and how impatient you are,” Richardson said. “Every year, one-third of clubs are never good enough to win it, one-third self implode as the year goes, so really there’s only one-third of clubs any year that can win it. And that group changes around. The bottom clubs have the same resources as any club, they’ve got to get themselves off the bottom.
“If you don’t stick to the plan, you’re no chance of getting out of it.”
Despite so many clubs already struggling, the NRL is considering expanding the competition. A decision will be made in July whether to add a 17th franchise, with a Brisbane team set to be added if a business case stacks up.
“One of the arguments is there’s not enough depth to go around and adding a 17th team will only dilute that, but personally I don’t buy into that,” said Nick Livermore, the boss of one of the prospective franchises, Brisbane Jets.
“It’s not my job to point fingers, but you can see the disparity between those that are delivering and the personnel that are there. That translates then to on the field.”
So are there really enough quality players to go around as it stands? Former premiership-winning coach Warren Ryan doesn’t think so.
“Good halfbacks are as rare as rocking-horse shit,” Ryan said.
Ryan believes blowouts are happening because there aren’t enough good players to spread evenly across the competition. He puts it down to promising playmakers leaving the junior ranks, because they can’t compete with kids who physically develop quicker in their cohort. His solution is to offer more weight-for-age competition options for youngsters.
ARLC chairman Peter V’landys has put the onus back on weaker clubs to become competitive.Credit:Getty
“The best athlete at 14 will choose not to play league if they have to wait until they are 18 to be told where to go,” he said.
“If you have a draft, you’ll have New Zealand players not playing for New Zealand, Newcastle players not playing in Newcastle. You miss out on your local-hero thing where people can make a decision to be a one-club man at 15.
“An Andrew Johns may only want to play his whole career at Newcastle, but that wouldn’t happen.”
Rugby League Players Association CEO Clint Newton agrees.
Moses Leota of the Panthers celebrates with teammates after scoring a try against Manly.Credit:Getty
“A draft is not the silver bullet or the magic pill which is going to all of a sudden generate an equalisation of the competition,” Newton said.
“Looking at Penrith, who have developed a significant amount in junior development, we wouldn’t have a Penrith at the top of the table right now because half of those guys would be gone.”
Another potential remedy is the reintroduction of the National Youth Competition, for players aged under 20.
“The scrapping of the under-20s competition and the role that players play in helping clubs develop players [is worth discussing],” Gallop said.
The NRL may also consider providing clubs with greater flexibility to improve their rosters with measures such as loans and other transfer deals.
There are other on-field levers that can be pulled. One that the innovation committee considered during the off-season was allowing the scoring team to kick off in a bid to equalise possession.
“I certainly think it’s worth considering, but we’re not going to change it for this year,” V’landys said.
Whatever happens next, the NRL needs to remain a genuine contest or interest will dwindle.
“Fans are either switching off altogether because they know their team is a basket case or they switch off halfway through,” said Global Media and Sports boss Colin Smith, who has previously worked with the NRL and AFL on broadcast deals.
“If this disparity continues, the games between the top teams will be really popular, but as for the rest? People will just switch off.”
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