Early on in season 2014, the National Rugby League has achieved substantial parity of playing talent among clubs.
I have been following rugby league since 1965 and I have never seen a more even competition, where each week all teams have a chance of winning.
The entire concept of player parity has been championed by the National Football League (NFL). Since 1960, when Pete Rozelle became Commissioner and took the NFL willingly into the television era, one of the fundamental philosophies of the NFL has been the objective of player parity across all teams.
The belief is that, at the beginning of every season, a healthy league provides hope to fans of all teams that their team can compete each week and possibly make the play-offs.
The NFL uses the player draft and the salary cap to attempt to achieve equality of playing talent. It has been said that the NFL Commissioner’s perfect season would be every team emerging with eight wins and eight losses from the 16-game regular season.
Look at the improvement in the first five rounds of 2014 of certain clubs that did not make the play-offs in 2013. There is no question the Gold Coast Titans, Canberra Raiders, Penrith Panthers, Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra Dragons are better teams than they were last year. I am not saying they will all make the play-offs this year – although some surely will – but they are definitely providing more hope for their fans.
I know there are tweaks that can be made to the much-criticised salary cap but, at a macro level, it contributes to a more even competition. The reality is the richer clubs would dominate playing talent if there was not a strictly-enforced cap.
The other significant factor is the diminished gap in professionalism between the clubs. Even going back to the mid-to-late-1990’s there was a monumental gap between the management abilities and financial positions of the top clubs and the bottom clubs – consider the vastly different circumstances of the Brisbane Broncos and the Western Suburbs Magpies.
The more money there is in a sport, the more resources are spent in the pursuit of victory. While clubs can become even more professional, there has been a quantum leap forward in professionalism over the last 15 years. There are larger numbers of qualified management and administrative staff, as well as more coaching and training staff. The result is more intelligence in the coaching and preparation of the players.
This is the real area of improvement across the NRL. While some of the 2014 head coaches are clearly better than others, most are good operators and they have the support of a team of qualified assistant coaches, training staff, and medical and rehabilitation staff.
The gap has narrowed substantially between the clubs from the perspective of the resources, both coaching staff and training facilities, dedicated to the football programs. All the teams these days are reasonably well prepared, with the level of intelligence and analysis by coaches far greater than past eras.
With the player talents reasonably even, the difference between winning and losing is very fine these days – significant factors include the mental attitude of a team that week, injuries to key players and the key players themselves. Just look at the impact on Souths when they lose Greg Inglis. That is why the game-changing players deservedly receive a disproportionate share of the salary cap – they win games.
We have the Gold Coast Titans sitting in first place after five rounds, with a negative for-and-against, while pre-season favourites, the Roosters and Rabbitohs, are in 10th and 12th respectively, with a positive for-and-against – a wacky, unpredictable competition.
I really like the Wests Tigers’ chances of playing semi-final football, based on the improved physicality of their forwards, their focus on less-risky attack (but still with good ball movement at appropriate times), plus their genuine speed.
Which team will be your surprise packet to make the 2014 play-offs?
Bernie Gurr is a former Sydney Roosters player (1978-1983) and Chief Executive Officer (1994-2003), presiding over eight straight playoff appearances, three grand finals and the 2002 NRL Premiership. A lifelong league fan, his first memory is being taken to the 1965 grand final by his grandfather. Prior to CEO role at the Roosters, Bernie was a Senior Executive for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He joins as a regular columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league check out his website and follow him on Twitter @BernieGurr.