The Gallop dream has been realised, after a 2nd Rd of the NRL season filled with dramatic form reversals leading to a nightmare for tipsters and gamblers alike, NRL parity is a reality. By Monday night it was clear that 2010 was not an aberration, that this is the new NRL, this is Gallops NRL. Parity is king now, but it is a parity born of mediocrity.
With approx 100 former NRL players now plying their trade in the UK Super League, European Rugby, Super Rugby and even the AFL, the competition is unquestionably watered down. The big names are well known and obvious, Sonny Bill, Falou and Hunt all attracted huge headlines when they left the completion for more money and even though others such as Gasnier, Sailor and Tuqiri have returned, these are merely the tip of the iceberg. The bigger issue for the NRL is the number of so called 2nd tier players leaving in their prime.
The Roosters are a case in point. When it was clear by 2006 that the team that went to 3 Grand Finals needed to be re-built the Roosters tried to develop what they hoped would become one of the dominant Centre Pairings in the NRL. Iosea Soliola and Setemata Sa both came into First Grade a bit before they had truly earned it and had some rough performances that certainly hurt their team, but as far as the Roosters were concerned any short term pain, in a season where they were never going to contend anyway, was worth it for the long term pay-off when these two players matured into the players the hierarchy at the club felt they could become. Sa in particular was seen as a star of the future, ironically considering what was to happen, the player he was most often compared to as a youngster was Sonny Bill Williams and with his size and speed he had moments that did conjure up images of Sonny Bill during his time at the Roosters. By 2009, he was starting to display more consistent performances, and with Soliola by this time an established Kiwi test star the future for the Roosters at Outside Back looked bright, but then came contract time. The Roosters were now in a bind, Soliola and Sa had shown plenty of promise, but were not yet the finished article so the club could not justify offering them mega-deals, plus with Pearce and Anasta to lock up to long term deals and a restrictive cap, even a rich club like the Roosters was prevented from being able to lock up their services (not to mention the money wasted on the Masons and O’Meley’s of the world).
Now, if these players had gone to other clubs within the NRL, then Gallops claim that he has bought parity to the sport would have some merit, if the cap had caused these players who had been the beneficiaries of a massive investment of time and effort, as well as money, to leave the Roosters for the Knights or the Bulldogs, then yeah it would have sucked for the Roosters to lose them, and many of the arguments that are now made against the Cap, such as offering concessions for players developed at the club etc, would still be made, but at least Gallop could claim that his management had led to parity and spread the talent around the league. However, they did not go to the Knights or the Bulldogs, these players, who were not even well known stars, ended up in the UK Super League. Sa, Soliola and the dozens of others like them, along with the Buderus’s and Hodgson’s of the world show us that the so called parity of Gallop is really mediocrity, that his system does not spread the talent around, it pushes it away.
Now Gallop would argue, and in fact often does, that there are always other stars coming through and the departure of stars does not hurt the league. He would look at the above story of the Roosters and point out that they just signed Kenny-Dowall to a 1.4 million dollar deal to play in the Centres, but this is where the problem lies. Remember when I said that if Sa or Soliola move to the Knights is sucks for the Roosters but at least they are in the NRL, this is what I was thinking of. If the Cap was not so ridiculously low, either the Knights would have Sa and the Roosters would still have Kenny-Dowall, or maybe the Roosters kept Sa and Kenny-Dowall ended up at the Knights (but hopefully he would have been outside Sa on the Wing for the Roosters) the point is that NRL fans would still have been able to enjoy the talents of both players facing each other, rather than the current system where the overall talent pool of the league is being constantly diluted and blockbuster position duels are extremely rare.
The Salary Cap works in the NFL and AFL because these are sports with very specific skill sets that really don’t translate to other codes. The Cap works in the NBA because even though it restricts LeBron James salary, he can still earn more in the US than he can in Europe and even the 7th guy in a NBA rotation has a bigger contract than all but the top dozen or so European players so there is no risk of losing their players. Football (soccer) does not have a cap for the same reason that the cap is a bad idea in the NRL, if the English Premier League applied a cap, then my beloved Stoke City would finally have a chance to beat Chelsea and maybe even contend for a title, but it would not be by Stoke improving, it would be by Chelsea losing Drogba, Lampard, Terry and Cole to other leagues and the standard of the league would just dive and the level of entertainment would drop with it robbing fans of the product they now enjoy.
Well this is what is happening in the current NRL, the fans are being robbed every week. When Danny Buderus left we were told he was at the end of his career, but he is still going strong in the UK today, Pat Richards scored one of the great Grand Final Trys in 2005, was in the UK by 2007 and is still going strong now, Chris Flannery one of my favourite ever players, gone to the UK in his prime. The issue is that in the past we missed the tail end of stars careers to the UK, Sterling went over to get a taste of it when he was washed up, but Aussie fans saw all the best Sterling had to offer, now we don’t, now we miss the primes of some of our best players, this is why I cringe every time that Gallop brags about 9 premiers in 10 years or whatever it is, and when Rd 2 happens and the media says this is the great thing about Rugby League, that every team has a chance, I think of the 3 or 4 clubs that don’t have anything resembling an NRL quality halfback, and how they can still upset better teams because in Gallops NRL every team has a glaring weakness, the playing pool is too thin, there are barely 32 NRL standard Centres to go round, nowhere near 64 props (2 starters plus 2 bench for each team) and most depressingly as mentioned, there are nowhere near 16 true NRL Half-Backs.... please don’t even mention Five-Eighths.
Finally, there is the impact that these moves have on Rugby Leagues showpiece, State of Origin. Back at the start of this millennium NSW had its most successful continuous run of success at State of Origin level. Left unsaid during this era of success however, was that it coincided perfectly with Matt Rogers, Lote Tuqiri & Wendell Sailor (all Queenslanders) leaving to join Rugby Union. The mass exodus to Europe had not yet really kicked in so NSW had a massive advantage, 3 of Queensland’s best and most experienced Origin Representatives were playing another sport and a look at some of the no-names to play in the outside backs for QLD (Steve Bell anyone) during that time shows the damage this had on their prospects. For the last 4 years it has been Queensland’s turn to inflict crushing defeats upon NSW, and NSW have not been helped by the loss of former Origin stars Matt King, Brett Hodgson, Jason Ryles, Mark Gasnier and Danny Buderus, as well as others I can not now remember. Remember this is the showpiece of Australian Rugby League, after 25 years of Origin the amazing stat was revealed that after seventy off game just 2 points separated the sides, but since then the glimmering jewel of the Rugby League Crown has been tarnished by the loss of stars overseas. Gallops NRL parity obsession, one that has led to a mediocre watered down NRL where parity is a debateable goal anyway (really, what’s wrong with a bunch of strong teams and weekly blockbusters when they meet each other) has had the unintended consequence of destroying parity in the place it was most needed, the games showpiece, State of Origin.