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Why a draft makes sense as NRL eyes off rapid expansion with nowhere near enough players to fill rosters

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4 days ago
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Amid the tributes following the recent untimely death of Terry Hill, one of the long-forgotten aspects of a life well lived was his role in the abolition of the player draft after just one season. 

It was a bold attempt by the NSWRL executives in the early 1990s to even out the competition in concert with this new fangle-dangled thing called a salary cap that they had also instituted. 

And while the salary cap has remained ever since, the possibility of bringing back the draft has never seriously been floated again due to the Industrial Relations Commission ruling that it was a restraint of trade. 

Hill, who had broken into first grade at his junior club South Sydney in 1990, wanted to head west to join the Magpies under Warren Ryan who had recruited heavily – mainly from his old club Canterbury – to make them a force. 

But he was picked up by the Roosters and spent the following season plying his geographically restrained trade at Bondi Junction while also spending plenty of time in the courtroom to decide his own contractual fate. 

It goes without saying that the elite competition of the land was much different kettle of fish more than three decades ago. 

Players were not yet fully fledged professionals with a large proportion of them also holding down full-time jobs. 

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It was #toosoon at a time when the hashtag was just a button on one of those new-age phones that you didn’t have to dial. 

Even though the players are now paid astronomical figures compared to Hill’s early contemporaries and are all full-time professionals pretty much as soon as they are “in the system” at a club, it would still be a near impossible task for the NRL to institute a draft.

There were all sorts of threats and counter-threats last year during the drawn-out CBA negotiations when the NRL just tried to bring in designated trade windows in the season and after it. 

In true rugby league fashion, the ultimate result was much ado about nothing and the players kept their current set-up where they can virtually switch teams at the drop of a hat nearly year round and the news cycle moved onto the next “crisis gripping the game”. 

Players are right to be concerned that if a draft was brought in, a player could be forced to move interstate or even to another country if they put themselves on the market and have no option but to be sent to a team that was not their choicd. 

Terry Hill of the Kangaroos poses for a photo during the Australian Kangaroos Rugby League photocall for the upcoming tour of Great Britain held in England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Terry Hill. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Perhaps the NRL could look at a system where only players earning more than a certain salary would be placed in the draft at the end of a season. 

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That would safeguard younger players on minimum contracts from having to face the prospect of relocating, particularly if they have family support structures or are also studying in their spare time. 

With all the talk coming from the ARL Commission about expansion plans, now is the perfect time to fix the system in which talent is distributed. 

If you believe the spin from Rugby League Central, there could be three new teams as early as 2030 with the Federal Government-funded PNG bid the first cab off the ranks in three years time. 

This ambitious, yet not necessarily well thought-out, plan can only be successful if the expansion franchises are given some sort of leg-up unlike the Dolphins before their first season last year where they had little more than 12 months to get up and runnings. 

Their only benefit was a clean slate for their salary cap but they were unable to fill it with star talent and despite a feelgood early start, they were never in the finals hunt to finish with an 8-16 record. 

They did extremely well to defy the dire predictions that they would be wooden spooners and have clearly improved this year with the addition of some top-line talent in Herbie Farnworth, Tom Flegler and Jake Averillo. 

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But does anyone honestly think three more teams coming into the big league in the space of four or five years will be competitive? 

There is not enough depth across the 17 clubs now to fill the sides with first-grade talent. 

Anyone who saw South Sydney winger Taane Milne’s inept performance against Melbourne a few weeks ago needs no further evidence to be convinced that there are some players who are in first grade in 2024 but they’re not first-graders. 

Granted there has been a glut of injuries and a club like the Bunnies have been hit hard but there is simply not enough quality players for expansion. 

And if you don’t have the quantity and no mechanism to spread out the talent, the new sides will be on a hiding to nothing in their early years when they are trying to prove they belong and also set themselves up as a destination for free agents in the future. 

Greg Florimo of the North Sydney Bears

Greg Florimo and North Sydney Bears fans at North Sydney Oval. (Photo by Getty Images)

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NRL clubs love to stockpile their best talent by signing them to long-term deals in the knowledge that they should be able to offload them to a club at the bottom of the ladder if a high-paid star is not performing. 

It is not a foolproof formula as we have seen recently with Manly punting Josh Schuster from his four-year deal during the early rounds of what was supposed to be the final season of his previous contract before his multimillion-dollar extension kicked in. 

But when a club has a Schuster style overpaid, underperforming albatross on their books in the near future it will probably be much easier to find a landing spot for them at Port Moresby, Perth or whichever other wannabe NRL city gets the nod for the 20-team competition that is looming on the horizon.

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