Bringing Sonny Bill Williams back to the NRL would be an enormous boon at a time when every extra set of eyeballs on games are precious.
A global superstar, SBW would undoubtedly attract huge attention – from rusted-on leaguies, curious rah-rahs and hopefully some of those newly interested North Americans who are getting to know our game through the coverage Williams generated by signing with the Toronto Wolfpack.
But if we are to believe the NRL has a fair, equitable and workable salary cap, he cannot be allowed to sign with the Roosters – at least not under the circumstances that appear to be unfolding.
Following a meeting last week between Chooks chairman Nick Politis and Williams’ manager, Khoder Nasser, the drums began to beat that SBW was preparing to return to Bondi.
Then the Roosters released Asu Kepaoa to the Tigers and now those drums sound like they’ve been mic’d up for John Bonham in a packed-out stadium.
I’ll admit there is a certain romance in Williams returning to the club he helped win the 2013 premiership. But back then, he was the final piece in the puzzle.
These days? Well, look at the Roosters’ 17 for last weekend’s game against the Warriors – it’s quicker to rattle off the players who aren’t of rep quality or haven’t won a premiership.
Trent Robinson has created the most dominant team the game has seen since the Broncos of the late ‘90s. They’re scary good right across the park.
Despite this, I’ve long argued that their continued reign over the NRL has been a result of club-wide professionalism and smart recruitment. The idea of them having a salary sombrero doesn’t wash with me.
But if they’re allowed to sign Sonny Bill Williams then the Roosters need to shed at least one legit first-grader to square the ledger if the fans are to maintain any faith in the ‘spreads the talent more evenly’ argument behind having a salary-capped competition.
As it stands however, the only loss the Tricolours will have to cop is a kid who has yet to play top-flight footy.
What’s more, if you want to know what the Roosters make of Kepaoa at this stage of his career, have a look at his player profile on their website.
It lists his name, nickname, date of birth and age – which, you may recognise, are four pieces of information that actually only tell you two things – while his height, weight and birthplace are all left blank.
He’s literally an unknown quantity.
Compare that to Williams, who was born on August 3 1985 in Auckland, stands at 194 cm, weighs 108 kg, and has won two NRL grand finals, two Rugby World Cups, is an Olympian, and the former heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand.
Granted SBW is nearly 35 and not the same player he was when we last saw him tearing up the 13-man code on these shores in 2014, but let’s not pretend the Chooks will have sacrificed anything by losing an untested winger in exchange for arguably the greatest forward of the 21st Century, even if the latter is in the twilight of his career.
The kicker? Kepaoa had already signed with the Tigers for next season. Easts didn’t even lose a player who was part of their future!
The NRL cannot let it stand.
While players should be allowed to choose to play for moderate unders to stay loyal to a club, the idea that a representative player can switch clubs – or codes – for middling money undermines the system.
Furthermore, the ability to block a deal based on a player being undervalued is within the salary cap auditor’s remit, with AAP reporting late last year, “NRL auditor Richard Gardham has final discretion to determine market value using a list of comparative players to reach his decision.”
Which is why I take exception to Josh Morris being allowed to go to the Roosters this season for reportedly less than $300,000.
Now, there’s an argument he’s 33 years old and therefore no longer a marquee player. But there’s also an argument that he played State of Origin last year and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to sign with the two-time reigning premiers for a cut-price wage.
Yet we have been led to believe that the Chooks not only had cash in the cap to reunite the Morris boys, they did so at such a low cost that they’re still under the cap for this year.
I’m not oblivious to the fact the club have lost the services of Cooper Cronk and Latrell Mitchell since their 2019 grand final win, which would have freed up a fair chunk of coin. And no, apart from Kyle Flanagan, there hadn’t been any major poachings to replace the multiple-premiership-winning pair prior to the Morris announcement.
But the day before Cronk told the world he was hanging up the boots, the Roosters announced they had extended the contracts of Sitili Tupouniua, Poasa Faamausili and Billy Smith. The trio may not be superstars – although Tupouniua is an international – but are clearly seen as the future of the club and therefore would all have signed upgraded contracts, soaking up a fair whack of the Cronk money.
Then, in the weeks after news broke the Roosters had rescinded their offer to Mitchell, current superstars Joey Manu, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves extended their time at Bondi.
All three are in the conversation for being best in the game in their positions, each have won multiple premierships and are incumbents for their national sides. None would have come cheap and had Mitchell stayed, at least one, probably two of them would have been forced out.
We’re not done.
Sam Verrills was listed as one of the Chooks’ development players in 2019. By the end of the season, he had forced Jake Friend onto the bench and the youngster scored the opening try of the grand final. So it’s no surprise that this year, he’s been moved out of the development squad and therefore is earning a bigger paycheque.
Add Junior Kangaroo Nat Butcher extending his deal at the end of January and all of a sudden there are surely only pennies left in the cap for Robbo to splash.
And that’s how it should be. The salary cap should ensure that a club that wins a premiership, let alone two in a row, has to lose some big names in order to keep others.
So the Chooks lost Cronk and Mitchell – as well as Zane Tetevano, who was a solid first grader but couldn’t crack the 2019 grand final team – but as a result kept internationals Manu, Taukeiaho, Waerea-Hargreaves and Tupouniua; grand final winners Butcher and Verrills; up-and-comers Faamausili and Smith; and they signed Flanagan.
Following that kind of recruitment and retention drive, it seems more than fair that the final spots in the Chooks’ top-30 squad would be taken up by tyros with potential – and, knowing this club, that potential would probably be fulfilled in the near future.
But then in March the Roosters land ten-year Origin rep Josh Morris for a sum so small they still have enough left in the cap to land international icon Sonny Bill Williams in July?
And the fact Smith, Verrills and Radley are all injured has nothing to do with it – they’re all still on the payroll and aren’t attracting cap relief.
Ultimately, I don’t blame the Roosters, I blame the system. The NRL can’t say the salary cap ensures a level playing field and that the auditor has the power to ensure it’s the case, then turn around and let Nick Politis snare match-winning superstars for back-of-the-couch money.
How can auditor Gardham have decided that is fair and equitable?
If fans of the other 15 teams and the game in general are to believe the salary cap actually works to spread the talent, then SBW cannot go to the Roosters on these terms.
He’s a legend of the game and I want to see him back. But it should hurt the Roosters a little bit to make it happen.
If that means it ends up in the too-hard basket for Bondi HQ, then so be it.
Because the integrity of the competition is more important than seeing SBW lace up the boots for four games – and far more important than seeing him play eight games and help the Chooks to a historic threepeat all because the club parted ways with an uncapped 20-year-old whose height and weight they apparently don’t even know.