A Malcolm Knox article in SMH about salary cap and how entrenched the inequalities of the NRL are (and why no one wants to change this).
The more agitated people are, the less the fundamentals change. When everyone seems angry, the underlying order – who’s on top, who’s underneath – entrenches itself. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. It was a Frenchman, Alphonse Karr, who coined the phrase in 1862, and, rugby league being to us what philosophy is to the French, it’s true of the NRL in 2021.
The more the game enters uncharted new bubbles, the more deeply it reinforces the status quo. The 2021 season is about to end with virtually the same top, middle and bottom groupings as last year. And, with some small variations, the year before, and the year before that. Fourteen of the 16 NRL clubs are stuck in Groundhog Year.
In the modern game, every gut feeling has to stand up to statistical analysis. Is it actually true?
The NRL is clearly segmented into three divisions, which were quite predictable from the outset given the uneven spread of talent. Some clubs can afford to play representative stars off the bench, in positions where other clubs select reserve-graders. Whether the better clubs have poached or developed their talent matters little; the roster differences are vast. The top six at the outset of 2021 were Melbourne, Penrith, the Roosters, Parramatta, South Sydney and Canberra. The bottom five were Canterbury, Brisbane, North Queensland, Manly and the Wests Tigers. The inconsistent swill bogged in the middle were Newcastle, St George Illawarra, Cronulla, the Gold Coast and the Warriors.
What’s the point?
What’s the point?CREDIT:SIMON LETCH
There have been just two divisional changes this season: Manly (assuming Tom Trbojevic is playing) have risen from third division to first, while Canberra have slipped from first to second. Trbojevic has saved not only the Sea Eagles; he has saved the entire league from the embarrassment of a top-to-bottom repeat set.
For a lockdown project, I broke down the 172 matches played up to this weekend’s round into divisional contests. Forty-eight matches were within the divisions. Of the remaining 124 matches, 91 ran completely as predicted: three in four matches were won by the team in the higher division. Of the 33 that went against the flow, nine featured Trbojevic. Take him out, and five out of six NRL games produced the same result they would have produced in the previous two years.
The Origin period should upset this kind of runaway apple cart. To a degree, it did, with the Tigers beating the Origin-gutted Panthers. But even during that mid-year flux, of 29 matches played between teams from different divisions, 20 were won by this year’s (ie, last year’s, and the year before’s) higher team.
Who’s saved the NRL from complete predictability in 2021? Tom Trbojevic says hi.
Who’s saved the NRL from complete predictability in 2021? Tom Trbojevic says hi.CREDIT:GETTY
Such results might be just what you’d expect at the top and bottom, but they are similarly repetitive for the water-treading middle teams. The Knights, the Sharks, the Warriors, the Titans and the Dragons are all having virtually the same season they had last year and the year before. Their fans must be dying from déjà vu all over again.
Why should this be worthy of commentary? The strong dominate the weak, duh. Better clubs win more matches. Isn’t this the way of the world, the entrenched interests using a crisis to dig themselves in?
Rugby league is meant to have a salary cap that stops this being the way of the NRL world. The salary cap, aside from saving clubs from spending themselves into insolvency, is supposed to offer the game’s supporters a version of hope: a competition that constantly recirculates its winners and losers, generating new leaders, a game in which everybody can start the season feeling they have a chance. Otherwise, you get the dreaded social Darwinism of the European football leagues.
Juventus won nine Serie A titles in a row before their run was ended by Inter Milan last season.
Juventus won nine Serie A titles in a row before their run was ended by Inter Milan last season.CREDIT:AP
The evidence is clear, to everyone except the governing body, that the salary cap is a failed model. When Canterbury or Brisbane or the Tigers have to pay second-rate spine players first-rate money to convince them to serve under their coaches, while clubs led by Craig Bellamy or Trent Robinson or Ivan Cleary can get away with securing quality individuals for “unders” - a beautiful euphemism for market manipulation - then the economic measurement of player value is no longer valid. Lower clubs overspend out of desperation and, to confirm the injustice, those clubs are usually the ones who get caught breaching their salary cap. For what, their fans ask – for those players?
The NRL has proposed a salary cap review, but its stomach to take on vested interests has been weakened by the challenges of COVID. Never waste a crisis, say those in prime position. The ruling junta are pretty happy to leave things the way they are, and if the Roosters hadn’t suffered the misfortune of an injury crisis, they would be even happier.
I feel like I’ve made this argument before (plus c’est la meme chose). Plenty of other frustrated observers have. Measuring rugby league players by what they are paid might have been valid if the difference was between a $60,000 contract and a $150,000 one. But in a world where they are certainly happier to take $500,000 and a premiership than $700,000 and a wooden spoon, the rugby league salary is not only an obsolete way to assess value, it’s a sure formula for prolonging the existing order. Alternatives are available – fantasy competitions use non-financial values every week – but few in the NRL are interested in developing them. Why upset the old men’s way of doing business when it is those old men who speak in support of every NRL decision? You scratch my back …
Nathan Cleary will need to alter his kicking game under the rule change.
The rule change set to transform the NRL kicking game forever
Perhaps the NRL has faith that we will be distracted by the dazzle. Every week, the game produces such astonishing acts of talent that even a lot of the blowouts can entertain for the virtuosity on display. Ten times a week, you will see tries scored which, if, say, the Wallabies did something like that once a year, it would be preserved and paraded like the shroud of Turin. That’s how superior the NRL is right now in terms of skill.
The only thing is, when the excitement wears off, the end result is too often the same as it was. Next year, when fans have more choices over how to spend their leisure time, they will decide how long they can keep on taking it.