With 5 rounds of the 2020 NRL Premiership now played, there’s one blatantly obvious question that needs asking: where exactly did all the talent go?
Fear not, this is not another whinge about the game, for I’ll leave that to the overqualified experts in the field of negativity, like Kent, Rothfield, etc.
Nor is this an observation that the quality of play has been down and that the players are lacking match fitness. We should expect a little bit of rust considering the layoff in playing and training due to a global pandemic. And personally, I’ve been impressed that a number of teams look as sharp as they do.
No, this has more to do with looking at the bottom of the ladder, and seriously pondering why there are so many subpar teams in the competition.
Of course, in a competition of sixteen teams, there are always going to be some cellar-dwellers fighting for the wooden spoon. It’s simple mathematics that someone has to finish at the bottom of the ladder.
What’s troubling is just how many teams feel like they’ll be in contention for that booby prize.
Gazing at the ladder, it’s entirely feasible that the current bottom eight teams will be the bottom eight teams come the end of the season. Not only would it not shock me if that happens, I believe it will. You could probably substitute in Souths for the Cowboys, but otherwise I’ll confidently go ahead and predict it right now.
The bottom teams aren’t just playing bad, they are bad. Such a predicament gives the impression that the NRL is currently spreading the talent it has a little too thin.
Full transparency: the original premise of this piece was that the NRL should cull at least two teams to bolster the overall depth and talent in the competition. However I quickly realised this was short-sighted and nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction. So after cooling off on that hot take, I instead asked myself if this is a genuine problem.
In previous years, I’ve looked at the clubs that have missed out on finals play and thought the competition must be deep and cut-throat, because some very good footy teams have been on the outside looking in at the business end of the season.
Yet in 2020, I peer at the bottom of the ladder and am thankful eight truly dreadful teams will not be qualifying for the finals, such is the unattractiveness and poor standard of play they would bring to the table.
If – for example – the Titans, Warriors and Bulldogs all merged to form one team, are we confident that squad would even make the finals? I’m deadly serious.
Try the exercise at home, and tell me if any possible team you can construct from those three clubs is an absolute guarantee to make the top eight. I certainly couldn’t do it with any degree of confidence.
That’s, um, not ideal.
Talent concerns are certainly not new in rugby league. When I was younger, much was made of the exodus of the number of older stars who, year after year, would leave for England for one last big pay cheque. Big names like Allan Langer and Bradley Clyde would earn themselves a nice little retirement kicker by playing out their twilight years for teams like Warrington and Leeds.
Newspapers at the time would always lament the number of talented players plying their trade overseas, and create imaginary teams made up of the UK exports. It made for entertaining reading, and you couldn’t help but imagine how good the league would be if all those individuals were still in Australia.
Yet the honest truth is that it didn’t harm the local product all that much. The league was still deep and talented.
Moving forward an era, and the next ‘talent issue’ for rugby league was rugby union poaching their brightest stars. Mat Rogers, Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri headlined a number of code-hoppers, and rugby almost pulled off the biggest coup of all, when they went within a whisker of signing Andrew Johns, arguably the greatest rugby league player of all time.
Remarkably, although the doomsayers were out in full force, rugby league was just fine, and continued to churn out quality football and quality players.
Fast forward to 2020, and can we even really blame the English Super League or rugby union for the talent dearth? Sure, in order to bolster the teams struggling to pester the wins column, it would be nice to get a few ex-pats home, or to poach a couple of rah-rah’s best, but I’m not convinced they’re really the problem.
Rugby league has a talent issue, just not where you think. Rather than looking on the playing field, we should turn our attention to off the field. Specifically, to management, where the majority of the bottom clubs are simply not very well run.
Whoever has final saying on recruitment and handling the player contracts at the Dragons should lose their job well before Paul McGregor does.
Likewise, the Bulldogs are still paying the price for poor salary cap management and back-ended contracts from years ago.
The Tigers brass seem completely incapable of signing the one marquee player that will push them over the top. Or at least out of ninth spot.
The Broncos gambled in punting popular and legendary coach Wayne Bennett for Anthony Seibold, and have been a basket case ever since.
Cronulla decided it was a good idea to give Shaun Johnson a massive contract, and that’s before we even mention the litany of other management concerns at that club.
It’s always easy to blame the players or coaches, because they’re the most visible example to focus on, yet if you look at the struggling teams, there’s a consistent thread: they’re not very well run and have made some very questionable decisions.
Sure, the rosters aren’t all that good, but maybe the heat should be hotter on who, or whom, put them together in the first place?