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Fantasy draft: What might the NRL look like with the introduction of a rookie player draft?

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Expert
4th May, 2021
53

The salary cap was designed to bring parity to the National Rugby League.

By limiting the amount of money clubs could spent on their roster, the playing talent was to be evenly distributed across the competition. No more haves and have nots.

Many point to the maiden premiership victories by the Wests Tigers (2005) and the North Queensland Cowboys (2015) as evidence that the cap is working.

However, a closer inspection reveals that this is clearly not the case.

Since the inception of the NRL in 1998, 13 of the 23 premierships have been won by only three clubs – the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and Sydney Roosters.

More worrying still is that 19 of the 23 grand finals since 1998 have had representation by one or more of these same three clubs.

It’s no coincidence that the most successful clubs of the modern era are also the wealthiest and most well-resourced.

Each can afford the very best when it comes to coaching, medical and team facilities, which in turn attracts the best players.

James Tedesco of the Roosters celebrates with Roosters Club Chairman Nick Politis

(AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

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One method to address this imbalance is the introduction of a rookie draft.

Now, before you scream “restraint of trade” or “Terry Hill” at your screen, let me first clarify that I am not advocating for the introduction of such a draft.

But it’s interesting to wonder what the NRL might look like if one existed.

In this hypothetical:
• A rookie draft is introduced at the start of the 2016 season
• The team that finished 16th in the previous season is awarded the first draft selection, the 15th on the ladder the second selection and so on
• The definition of a ‘rookie’ is a player’s first true taste of first grade (i.e. not just a one-off game)
• A drafted rookie is only able to sign a modest first contract with the team that drafted him – no more million-dollar teenagers.

What would the last five years have looked like in the world of this rookie draft? Who would have been the top three picks by the bottom three teams? My predictions are below.

2016

Newcastle Knights – Nathan Cleary
After being awarded the wooden spoon for the 2015 season, new coach Nathan Brown selects halfback Nathan Cleary to begin the biggest rebuild in Newcastle since the earthquake.

The prodigiously talented No.7 fills a critical need and allows the Knights to allocate significant funds to filling other holes.

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Nathan Cleary of the Panthers runs the ball

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Wests Tigers – Latrell Mitchell
The Tigers, who annually douse themselves in marquee signing repellent, finally have the opportunity to sign a game-changing prospect in Latrell Mitchell.

With the versatility to play at any position along the backline, plus the bonus of being an accomplished goal kicker, Mitchell is the sort of player who can alter the course of an entire organisation.

Gold Coast Titans – Cody Walker
The Gold Coast circle back on a player who debuted for the club’s NYC team way back in 2009. Cody Walker may be the rugby league equivalent of a mature-aged student, but his creativity and spontaneity have the potential to ignite a stagnant Titans attack.

2017

Newcastle Knights – Kalyn Ponga
It’s good to be bad when you’re the Newcastle Knights.

A year after securing their halfback, Newcastle double down by taking the most talked about teenager since Greta Thunberg. Pairing Cleary with Kalyn Ponga and watching them develop together is a mouth-watering proposition, for Newcastle fans, at least.

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Sydney Roosters – Cameron Murray
After a rare season spent at the wrong end of the ladder, the Roosters are rewarded with the services of Cameron Murray.

The diminutive middleman represents a new breed of NRL forward – fast, enduring and skilful. Murray will slide seamlessly into the Chooks’ pack.

Parramatta Eels – Viliame Kikau
Fijian wrecking ball Viliame Kikau joins fresh recruits Nathan Brown and Mitchell Moses in a new look Parramatta side. Along with Clint Gutherson, this new fry of Eels allows the club to finally move on from the Jarryd Hayne era.

2018

Newcastle Knights – David Fifita
David Fifita becomes the final jewel in Newcastle’s crown. After a wretched run of outs, the Knights emerge from three straight wooden spoons with three generational prospects. Not a bad trade off.

Fifita is regarded as the best forward prospect since Bradley Clyde, and he went alright.

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Gold Coast Titans – AJ Brimson
After the Hayne Plane crashed and burned, new coach Garth Brennan is quick to source Jarryd’s replacement. And he didn’t need to look very far.

Alex Brimson of the Titans

AJ Brimson (Getty Images)

Local sensation Alexander Brimson will join Cody Walker and Ash Taylor to provide the Gold Coast with an attacking arsenal not seen since the halcyon days of Scott Prince.

Wests Tigers – Payne Haas
The Wests Tigers don’t walk, they run to select Payne Haas.

The Paddington colossus looks as though he was created in a rugby league laboratory, showcasing a dizzying blend of speed, footwork, endurance and eye-popping size.

With Mitchell at the back and Haas up front, the Tigers suddenly become a destination club for other available players.

2019

Parramatta Eels – Ryan Papenhuyzen
Being awarded the wooden spoon a year after running fourth might seem disastrous for Parramatta, but their ineptitude is rewarded with the signature of Ryan Papenhuyzen.

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The mullet with wings will make fans forget about Jarryd Hayne (again) while finally permitting the Parramatta marketing department to make good on the ‘electric Eel’ pun.

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Manly Sea Eagles – Dylan Brown
It’s taken the Sea Eagles four years to replace Kieran Foran, but finally Daly Cherry-Evans has a worthy halves partner.

Dylan Brown brings with him a strong running game and an air of creativity which will complement the more structured game of Cherry-Evans. Together with Tom Trbojevic and Api Koroisau, Manly’s spine is set for years to come.

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Gold Coast Titans – Tino Fa’asuamaleaui
After spending previous draft picks addressing the spine, coach Garth Brennan turns his attention to the pack.

And Titans fans will be glad he did, as it allows them to sign man-mountain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui.

Surprisingly quick and agile despite his monstrous dimensions, big Tino will partner other high character workhorses Ryan James, Kevin Proctor and Jai Arrow in one of the strongest forward packs in the competition.

2020

Gold Coast Titans – Matt Burton
With the Ash Taylor experiment failing to yield results, the Titans decide to move in another playmaking direction.

Matt Burton of the Panthers.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Popped straight out of the Brad Fittler mould, bruising five-eighth Matt Burton is the antithesis of Taylor – big, robust and boasting an equally strong kicking and running game. His combination with Cody Walker and AJ Brimson will transform the Gold Coast into contenders.

St George Illawarra Dragons – Harry Grant
Although hooker may not be a position of need, you just don’t pass on a player like Harry Grant.

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Boasting rugged defence and creativity out of dummy half, signing the nuggety Queenslander allows the Dragons to shift Cameron McInnes to lock to cover for the unavailable Jack de Bellin.

North Queensland Cowboys – Bradman Best
North Queensland’s attack has looked sluggish since the retirement of Johnathan Thurston, and the glacial outside backs are largely responsible.

The introduction of Bradman Best gives the backline an instant injection of class. The hulking young centre joins new recruit Valentine Holmes in a rejuvenated Cowboys attack.

2021

Brisbane Broncos – Sam Walker
Mercifully, the Anthony Milford era is over at Red Hill.

New coach Kevin Walters immediately dispatches Milford and Brodie Croft, turning the team over to Ipswich junior Sam Walker.

The son of Queensland royalty, Walker has bigger raps on him than Ice Cube. He has the potential to be the next Broncos great.

Canterbury Bulldogs – Joseph Suaalii
For some reason, Joseph Suaalii to Canterbury just feels right. The Bulldogs are at their best when they strut around with an arrogant swagger that makes their fans unbearable.

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And while Suaalii is a very humble kid by all reports, his ridiculous talent and deadpan demeanour will demand the kind of casual hatred not seen since Sonny Bill Williams.

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Joseph Suaalii (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

North Queensland Cowboys – Jake Simpkin
As the first pupil to graduate from the Damien Cook school of dummy half play, Simpkin represents the new face of the hooker position.

Equally adept at scoring tries and making tackles, the Toowoomba junior has a rare combination of blistering pace and a tireless work ethic. He could be just the attacking spark needed to drag the Cowboys back into contention.

Key takeaways
The rookie draft isn’t perfect. It rips young players away from families and actively disincentives teams from investing in junior development. But it does break the vicious cycle of rugby league mediocrity.

This cycle – or business as usual, as the Wests Tigers call it – usually begins with a struggling side unable to attract marquee players. Club management panic, knowing that another losing season might cost them their jobs.

They agree to pay above market rates to secure the best available players.

But they quickly discover that these players were available for good reason. Their performances don’t match their pay packets, but due to the long-term contracts required to lure them in the first place, the clubs are stuck with them.

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A rookie draft could help these teams.

Let’s first look at the Tigers.

The club has been in a state of free fall since James Tedesco left. Unable to sign big name recruits, they overspent on Moses Mbye, Russell Packer and Josh Reynolds, and their salary cap is still recovering.

The hypothetical draft allowed them to sign Latrell Mitchell and Payne Haas – both representative players within their first three years in the league and both currently rated as top-three players at their respective positions.

Their inclusion on the Tigers roster would not only provide an immediate on-field boost, but also help with future recruitment.

The Gold Coast are another struggling side lifted by the draft.

Instead of paying top dollar for an unproven Ash Taylor or an unworthy Jarryd Hayne, the draft provided them with the opportunity to sign the likes of Cody Walker, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Matt Burton on manageable salaries.

Cody Walker celebrates scoring a try

Cody Walker. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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And thanks to three straight wooden spoons, Newcastle completely transform their roster with the selections of Nathan Cleary, Kalyn Ponga and David Fifita.

Not even the return of Coach Rick Stone could keep a side featuring those three blokes out of the finals.

The one thing the draft doesn’t provide is a crystal ball.

Clubs often struggle due to poor recruitment and retention decisions, and those same people will be making draft selections.

Would the Tigers have selected Latrell Mitchell, or would he have slipped through the cracks and been snapped up by the Roosters or Storm?

At the end of the day, rugby league is about the fans.

Their willingness to support their team and engage with the code is what pays the bills.

The spate of recent blow-out scores and lopsided contests is toxic to the casual fan, who may instead be tempted to watch the AFL or, as horrifying as it sounds, engage with their loved ones.

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If nothing else, the rookie player draft would bring hope to hopeless teams.

It would give frustrated fans some light at the end of the tunnel. And if you think that’s not important for our game, just go and spend a Saturday afternoon with a Tigers supporter.

So, why not give the draft another crack?

What have we got to lose?