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Opinion

Getting value for money from stars is the biggest competitive advantage in the NRL - and the flip side can be devastating

2nd April, 2024
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2nd April, 2024
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The salary cap at all clubs is equal, it’s just that some are more equal than others.

All the animals in the NRL farm get the same funding from head office and have the same salary cap amount of $12 million plus to spend on players but there will never be parity. 

Coaching, sports science and administration are areas where some teams can gain a competitive advantage on the stragglers but the main one is getting value for money from players. 

Of the 510 senior roster slots available across the 17 clubs, the vast majority of players are filling a role that is important but not essential to their club’s chances of being in the finals. 

Clubs need their nucleus of, for want of a better term, average first-graders to be available as much as possible by avoiding injury or suspension, get their game prep spot on each week and do their job to the best of their ability.

But ultimately, whether it’s finishing attacking moves on the wing, carting the ball up in the middle or tackling whatever comes their way, they are there to hold their own or gain a slight edge on their opponents.

What swings the needle for NRL teams, and pretty much any side in a salary-capped league, is the value that clubs extract from their highest earners and their young prospects. 

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Some of the league’s biggest names are not living up to their contract value, mainly due to injuries, but sometimes through a lack of production. 

And the flow-on effect is huge for a club when a player who is sometimes being paid the equivalent of three of his teammates isn’t delivering bang for their megabucks.

Tom Trbojevic is easily one of the most talented players in the NRL and when he’s on song, Manly are usually singing Eagle Rock soon after full-time. 

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17: Tom Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles runs the ball during the round two NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and Sydney Roosters at 4 Pines Park, on March 17, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Tom Trbojevic. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Manly signed him to a six-year extension late in 2019 which didn’t kick in until 2021 so he is only just entering the second half of that contract reportedly worth $1.1 million annually.

Unfortunately for “Tommy Turbo”, and the Sea Eagles, he has played only 43 matches over the past four seasons – the one year where he stayed injury free was 2021 when he peeled off a stunning haul of 28 tries in just 18 appearances to claim the Dally M Medal.

It is no coincidence that his purple patch in maroon and white was the only time Manly have made the finals this decade. 

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Forget about the “inclusivity jersey” debacle, Des Hasler could still be coaching the Sea Eagles if Trbojevic had avoided long-term hamstring and shoulder problems. 

Latrell Mitchell cops a lot of unfair criticism due to his outspoken nature but looking at the raw data of his impact and availability for the Rabbitohs in recent years, he is falling short of the expected return from such a sizeable investment. 

He has played just 14, 17, 17 and 16 matches in his four seasons at Souths due mainly to injuries and a couple of suspensions. In the first four years of his NRL career at the Roosters he played no fewer than 23 and averaged 24 per season.

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Some long-term contracts deliver pros and cons for a club. Jason Taumalolo created history when he inked a 10-year, $10m deal with the Cowboys in early 2017, fresh off his Dally M Medal-winning season.

For the first half of that deal the Cowboys have probably been getting a bargain – his impact and metre-eating ability has consistently rated him among the best forwards in the NRL. 

He averaged a mammoth 207 metres per game in 2020 but that number has steadily decreased over the past few seasons to the point where it was 143 last year and is a not so nice 69 from his four matches this campaign 

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Cowboys coach Todd Payten recently revealed the 31-year-old has “some degenerative cartilage in his knee” which is why he has restricted his minutes to just 35 per game. 

But even when he got two stints totalling 49 minutes last Friday against the Broncos, his output of eight runs for 94 metres with 25 tackles is not what clubs would consider worthy of a seven-figure salary.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 15: Jason Taumalolo of the Cowboys charges forward during the round seven NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and North Queensland Cowboys at Mt Smart Stadium on April 15, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

Jason Taumalolo. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

Josh Schuster’s ongoing fitness struggles should be a cause for concern at Manly – they re-signed him midway through last year on a deal valued at $800,000 a season until the end of 2027 and he has been mired in the NSW Cup after an off-season inopportunely interrupted by time away from the training paddock.

And none of this is to say that these players have done anything wrong. Quite the opposite – they earned their huge deals by being elite players, game-changers who have CEOs clamouring for their signature.

As has been the case since 1908 and will be forever more, some star players will have that slice of luck which keeps them on the park more often than not while others, for myriad reasons, will be showered with riches but not always turn out to be sound investments.

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One of the many complicating factors of the salary cap set-up in the NRL which makes roster management so difficult is that teams need to forecast how much a player will be worth at least a year if not two in advance.

And when they do get it right or sign someone on a figure that their performance exceeds, the player’s manager is always quick to tell the club their client needs an upgraded deal. 

This explains why you see so many stories that are leaked to the media about a player being keen to “test the market”. 

What they’re usually really testing is the resolve of their current club to pay them more than their current deal.

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