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Revisiting the proposal for an NRL draft

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23rd September, 2020

During COVID-19 we have reset all the known perimeters – the regular season, finals, State of Origin and a considerable number of the rules. I’m sure it’s not on the commissioner’s table, but the draft is certainly a debatable topic.

The NFL, NBL and AFL all have endorsed a draft. It’s an important strategy while still complying with the salary cap. It certainly is a big event embraced by the players, their families, club members and fans as well as the general public.

The Federal Court case brought by Phillip Adamson and others against New South Wales Rugby League in 1991 found that an implementation of a draft in rugby league was a ‘restraint of free trade’.

The salary cap for 2020 is $9.5 million for an elite squad of 30 players.

The twice current premiership-winning Sydney Roosters team is looking strong for a three-peat. How would the cap work for the Tricolours? Would the Roosters and their massive salary sombrero have had the room to sign Sonny Bill Williams, arguably one of the best internationally acclaimed athletes to have ever pulled on a jersey?

The data is in. Weaker clubs in the NRL become increasingly weaker in their roster as marquee players look for the opportunity to advance their short career in the market. Some players will take unders to play in a team that consistently is a top-four competitor.

NRL generic

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Benefits of the draft

1. Sharing talent
At the end of the season the 16 teams are graded for the draft in reverse order. If the Brisbane Broncos finish last, they get the first draft pick. That sounds fair.


If the No. 1 draft pick were a halfback and they were not in the market for a halfback, they would be able to trade with a rival club for different picks that better suited their needs. Perhaps Picks 7 and 21 might work for their current roster. It’s a trading market.

2. The thrill of the contest
Every draft process has a thrill of anticipation. It is well celebrated and a real drawcard for fans, enthusiasts and general punters alike.

3. A national talent pool
If the NRL subsidised junior player development, they would create a situation where clubs did not corral junior players and the catchment was nationwide rather then local. A lowly team would therefore have the opportunity to sign the best player in the nation, not just whoever they could scout locally. The best player in the country could build up the lowest-ranked team.

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Drawbacks of the draft

1. Recruitment and retention
Currently teams put a lot of money and resource into the local player nursery. All clubs have their junior player development pathways. To develop a junior player and bring them through the ranks costs a lot of money. Scouting, scholarships and skill development.

To lose a local junior to a rival club is not a good outcome. This already happens to a degree – for example, the Titans often lose their backyard talent to neighbouring big brother Brisbane Broncos.

2. Player professional preference
Some players don’t want to play for rival clubs. If you were a Roosters junior, would you want to go to the Bulldogs? As with most jobs in life, you often need to go where the employment is, but some players will currently take less to stay local with family, friends and locality.

3. Roster management
Managing an NRL roster is a delicate balancing act. Given there is only so much money to go around, it would be prudent to engage the market to build your best roster through strategy. A draft could negate a club’s transfers.


It’s also recently been stated by a respected commentator that there is a ‘dark art’ in the player market. The Titans are fighting hard to be the best club in Queensland. The signing of David Fifita for 2021 was a massive coup.

Further, as the game progresses it is becoming increasingly money orientated. Players of the modern generation are wise to the way of the money game. For example, teenage sensation Joseph Suaalii had an enormous number of clauses and upgrades factored into his contract with the Rabbitohs, causing them to walk away. “Okay,” you say. “He’s looking after his future.” But he has never played first-grade in the NRL.

Currently player management is a joke. Contracts are not manageable. Half of the Broncos have the same manager. Third-party agreements should be transparent.

Having looked into the matter and identified significant facts, I am uncomfortable with a draft in principle as it would be as damaging as Super League. In this time of pandemic, having to manage bubbles, the coaching merry-go-round and rule changes as well as fresh NRL executives, it is a time to hunker down.