Penrith are set to lose a player they saw fit for six first-grade matches over the past two seasons. And they are furious about it.
Last week, the Bulldogs signed Matt Burton and the Panthers reckon they should be compensated for the time they put in developing the young man.
“It’s disappointing for our fans when we’ve brought [Burton] up from 17 years of age and had coaches coaching him to get his skills where they are, and to have him snatched out of your hands and get no reward for the efforts we’ve put in to promoting the game [is hard to take],” Panthers CEO Brian Fletcher was quoted as saying in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“There’s something wrong with the system. It doesn’t encourage anybody to have a pathway system and development system like we’ve got.
“Why would you have one when they get to the potential of playing NRL, someone comes and grabs them?”
As for a workaround, Fletcher told Nine in a separate interview, “If he’s paid X amount of dollars to go there, part of that to the first year should go back to the club that developed him.”
It’s an issue worthy of discussion and one that the league has not paid sufficient respect to over the years.
But my question is: why should another club pay you for developing a guy you only consider worthy of your reserves?
My headline is admittedly facetious because Burton is considered up there with the best emerging talent in the NRL.
But it’s still the case that since making his debut for the Riff in August 2019, he’s played a total of six games.
This despite the fact Tyrone May, one of Burton’s main positional competitors, was ineligible to play for the entirety of 2019 and the first eight matches of 2020.
You want to hold on to your best players? The way I see it, there are two options.
You either pay them commensurate money to what they will receive elsewhere or, if that’s not really on the cards, you ensure they are enjoying their football so much that they are happy to take unders and stay.
What did Penrith do? Neither.
In the midst of this year’s 17-match winning streak, the club surely understood that they had a hell of a job ahead of them in keeping their squad together and big money wasn’t going to be available for Burton.
So why not give the youngster some game time in a team that was scoring tries for fun? Maybe he’d get in on the act and decide it’s worth staying and playing with your mates for a bit less.
Instead, Burton played in Rounds 3 and 4 – when Nathan Cleary was suspended over the TikTok incident – moved to the bench for Round 5, was named at 14 in Round 6 but didn’t get a run, then played one minute against Souths in Round 7 before being dropped from the 17 altogether.
He got a final game, scoring a try in a 20-minute cameo off the bench in the Panthers’ Round 20 romp over the Dogs, by which stage the club had already secured the minor premiership.
As for why he was not sighted between Rounds 7 and 20? The primary reason would be because May was back on board and was Ivan Cleary’s preferred 14 (or centre, who knows what they’re doing with that bloke).
So Burton isn’t the club’s dominant half, because they’ve got the reigning Players’ Champion in that role. And he’s not their second-choice half, because they’ve got a NSW Origin squad member in Jarome Luai there.
But he’s not even their third choice and therefore logical bench utility, because a bloke who hadn’t played footy for almost two full years was considered the better option the minute he was eligible to play again.
Panthers fans, you want to know why you lost Matt Burton? Because he hasn’t played any footy! More to the point, with three men in their early 20s established at the club, he isn’t likely to ever play in his preferred position.
As for compensation, Fletcher’s going to have to use a better argument than “we developed him from the age of 17” on a 20-year-old.
What’s more, where do we draw the line? If the Titans snare Cameron Smith for 2021, should they pay the Storm for developing him?
How many seasons of first grade is long enough to decide if you want to keep a player on your books or not and therefore do something about it?
Surely it has to be ‘use it or lose it’ and in Burton’s case, Penrith lost it. So why should his future employer be forced to pay extra for someone Penrith considers to have “the potential of playing NRL” when the Dogs clearly see Burton as ready now?
Furthermore, making another club pay to sign a young player would surely be considered a restraint of trade, as it hampers Burton’s ability to earn his worth – clubs would be far less willing to pay him the money he deserves if a percentage of that amount goes to a competitor.
Finally, how about Penrith decide once and for all whether they’re going to crow or complain about their juniors.
Credit where credit is due, the Panthers have done an outstanding job creating development pathways, as evidenced by the fact their 2020 grand final team consisted of 13 players who had never featured in first grade for another club.
But while their development systems are said to be the bees’ knees, they’ve also got a bit of a John West situation: it’s the players Penrith reject…
See, they make a big song and dance about the work they do in developing talent all over the state, but that also means they have access to talent all over the state.
According to the club’s website, “Penrith District Junior Rugby League consists of 24 clubs and over 9500 registered players.”
They also lay claim to a significant chunk of the 99 junior and senior clubs that are part of the Western Region Rams program.
“We have so many clubs to look after,” is a fair whinge, but only if you don’t then turn around and boast, “We’ve got so many Penrith-developed juniors in our first-grade team.”
You can have one, you don’t get both.
And you definitely don’t get to ask for financial compensation when one of your close-to 10,000 local juniors ends up at a different club if the circumstances leading to his departure were that you didn’t pay him or play him.
Matt Burton just ended up being a good headache to have: a potential rep player who you can’t keep because of all the current rep players you’ve got.
At the end of the day, maybe all clubs should chip in an equal amount to a development fund or perhaps the annual grant should be decreased to finance it.
But if we centralise talent development, we have to centralise talent distribution, and all of a sudden Penrith’s 13 juniors in a grand final team will be a thing of the past – as will, I suspect, Penrith actually making a grand final.
Ultimately, just because this is a tough topic to solve, doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
However, Penrith would do well to pick their battles when it comes to the issue of developing talent – as with the battle for players’ signatures, you can’t win them all.