Almanac Rugby League – Why should the salary cap strangle homegrown stars?

Melbourne Storm’s hanging has concentrated my mind. Try this proposal on for size:

To preserve a competitive AFL, drafted players should be subject to their club’s salary cap for their first three seasons, as should established players acquired from other AFL clubs. To preserve club loyalties, I don’t see why clubs should be restricted from paying established players whom the club developed whatever their supporter base deems appropriate. And if acquired players show that they’re prepared to stay on beyond their first medium-term contract, eventually the same relaxation should apply to them, too.

What would draw Gary Ablett from Geelong to the Gold Coast? Reunion with his brother Nathan, or the new club’s exploitation of the AFL’s salary cap to offer him money that the Cats can’t match? If it’s the second reason (which it almost certainly would be), why isn’t Geelong free to put together the money to keep a player who has been on their books since he was 18?

‘Football socialism’ (pace John Elliot) has always had an uneasy co-existence with the basic imperative to win a sporting contest.

Some clubs (notably Carlton and the NRL’s Canterbury) have previously incurred the wrath of administrators for salary cap breaches, but it’s hard to imagine that a club could ever have been hit so hard – quite possibly, fatally – as Melbourne Storm was this week by the NRL: $1.1 million in fines; all premiership points gained so far in 2010 revoked, and none more to be awarded over 20 further matches; and two premierships annulled, with all attendant trophies and medals confiscated.

I’m in favour of salary caps – to stop the poaching of star players like Wayne Rooney that has reduced the world’s major soccer leagues to tedious cartels and threatens to turn US major league baseball into a narcissistic face-off between New York and Boston. But if ever forced to choose between strutting zillionaires, give me Derek Jeter – who developed with the Yankees – over the overblown mercenary A Rod, and give me Man United – which nurtured Beckham, Giggs and Scholes – over Chelski, who’d just rather buy up whatever the stolen gas wealth of Siberia can accommodate.

But I don’t like one-size-fits-all salary caps when they leave players who necessarily move long distances to play for clubs set up in a sport’s ‘frontier’ territory vulnerable to tugs at their heart strings (and wallets). And I resent the use of salary caps to prise away star players from clubs that developed them from barely known juniors into rolled-gold flag magnets – particularly megabuck offers from rich clubs that would only too gladly jettison the whole salary cap and make the AFL or the NRL their own private EPLs.

As far as I can make out, Melbourne Storm’s punishment stems from a salary cap breach of around 10 per cent – maybe Storm was hung for more than a sheep, but that’s a pretty small sheep station.

As a Brisbane Lions fan, I wonder if the facts of the Storm case have set any ideas running in the fertile mind of a certain Melbourne breakfast radio host and Collingwood FC president.

During Brisbane’s AFL premiership hat trick, Eddie liked to rain on the Lions’ parade by insinuating that we had stolen premierships from Collingwood. Why? Because, till about 2005, the AFL allowed a salary cap margin of – wait for it…10 per cent! – to Brisbane and Sydney (a bit more there, supposedly because of Emerald City property prices).

As Mr Millionaire and his minions had it, this ‘corrupted’ salary cap allowed the Lions to keep the core of its premiership unit together and tilt the AFL’s level playing field. Or to put it my way, the concession made it harder for Collingwood and Essendon to poach our players. The fact that the Lions’ two grand final victims just happened to be amongst the biggest hypocrites on these issues only made our premierships taste sweeter.

There was a reason for Brisbane and Sydney’s salary cap concession: the ‘go home’ factor. The AFL clearly recognised that Lions and Swans players, who mostly had to move hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from their family and friends in southern and western states after being drafted, were much more vulnerable to rival clubs’ predations than those playing in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

In some cases, money won’t matter – Des Headland returned to Perth while the Lions were still dominant (we managed…); Darren Jolly recently joined Collingwood from Sydney and Israel Folau left Storm for the Brisbane Broncos for similar family reasons. In other cases, Luke Power and Jonathan Brown resisted approaches from Carlton and Collingwood, respectively – but you’d be naïve to assume that their childhood Fitzroy loyalties alone kept them in Brisbane.

Besides Folau, most of Melbourne Storm’s biggest stars – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk – are Queenslanders. (Greg Inglis too, according to State of Origin rules that declare him a Queenslander even though he grew up at Macksville, south of Coffs Harbour!) Anyway, like Brown, Black, Power and countless others, they all ply their sporting trade a long way from home. So what’s wrong with their competition’s ruling body varying some of its rules – the rules on monetary compensation  – to acknowledge that they will be more vulnerable to trade raids than other NRL players, and try to reduce that vulnerability?

Because there’s another thing here. Who developed Brown, Black, Power, Voss, Lappin, Leppa, Aker  – hell, just about every man jack of the Lions’ dynasty – as AFL stars? The Lions, that’s who. And who wanted to pinch them? People like Eddie.

And did Storm poach Smith, Slater, Inglis, Folau etc. as established NRL superstars from Manly or Parra or the Broncos? Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’d say that they all became big names playing with Storm.

About Tony Roberts

Favourites list: Food: whatever I cook; Drink: whatever my doctor allows; Music: refer 'Soul Time' (pres. Vince 'The Prince' Peach 3PBS-FM, plus Soul Au Go Go at The Laundry, first Saturday each month); Movie: love that Cinema Nova discount card!; TV show: call me Don Draper, if you like (or David Brent, if not); Footy teams: Melbourne Victory (summer), Coolangatta, AFLQ (hols), Brisbane Lions (forever), Western Bulldogs (for now); Player: refer 2009 Footy Almanac Round 18 (WB V Freo); Pet: Ferdy (JRT - as per previous reference)


  1. Tony – very interesting stuff. This issue has also concentrated my mind somewhat as well. Try this for size:

    Every player contributes $X to a fund each week out of their pay (a sort of superannuation pool), and they get to collect on that pool of money if they remain a one team player throughout their career. This, I believe, would be agreat foil for the free agency rules which will eventaually tilt things towards the rich clubs with an Eddy behind them. Players can chase the dollars at another club, or remain loyal and collect their “super”.

    Whadaya reckon?

  2. Tony Roberts says

    Glad to see another positive proposal (obviously very relevant to Geelong supporters at the moment). I would suggest that players of long standing with their original club (say, over 10 years) who leave in circumstances clearly not of their own making, should be eligible to claim their own share of your pot. In relation to the Lions, I clearly have Bradshaw in mind here, not Fev.

    Obviously a salary cap-based system beats the hell out of open slather, but it annoys me that it virtually compels the best-operating ships to jettison some of their most precious cargo to the mercies of the sharks below.

  3. Dave Nadel says

    Before we get into the specific issues of the Lions or the Storm let us first look at a few general questions.

    The Salary Cap is probably the best sports management idea to come out of America. If you want to compare it to the “rich club takes all” philosophy of European Soccer compare three clubs called the Saints. The New Orleans (NFL) Saints after years of failure won the Superbowl last year. The St Kilda Saints had a solid record of failure from 1896 to the early 1960s and were back to their losing record for most of the seventies and eighties. Since the Salary Cap has been AFL policy the Saints have played in two Grand Finals in two separate decades. Can anyone imagine the EPL Saints (Southhampton) winning the Premier League. The answer is that one can’t because only Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and maybe Liverpool can afford the playing list necessary to win the EPL!

    The Salary Cap has been a resounding success, since its implementation every club in the AFL has played in the final four (Richmond and Freo only once, all other clubs on multiple occasions).

    While Eddie’s comments that “rained on Brisbane’s parade” may have been a bit over the top, he did have a point. Either you have a completely even salary cap or you do not. I have always believed that if you are going to compensate clubs playing in difficult environments you do so via the draft rather than the salary cap. Draft concessions can build the competition, salary cap concessions only build individual clubs.

    The AFL should have helped Sydney and Brisbane by continuing to give them first refusal on local players. That builds the competition. Nick Reiwoldt should not be playing for St Kilda, David Hale should not be playing for North, Dayne Beams should not be playing for Collingwood (although I am glad that he is). That sort of concession wouldn’t have helped Melbourne Storm because there are no Victorian Rugby League junior players the way there are Queensland junior Aussie Rules players. After twelve years in Melbourne that probably tells
    you something about the viability of the “Storm” project.

    The go home factor, which also affects Western Australians in Victoria and Victorians in Western Australia is a product of the draft, not the salary cap. When Justice Crockett threw out zoning in the Foschini case because it was in restraint of trade the then VFL moved to the draft. Zoning as implemented between 1915 and 1983 was in restraint of trade. It gave all power to the clubs and none at all to the players. If you lived in Reservoir, you played for Collingwood and you could only play for someone else if Collingwood didn’t want you and was prepared to grant the other club permission to interview you. As then Collingwood President, Tom Sherrin said to Len Thompson in 1970 “We own you!”

    It wouldn’t have taken much to fix zoning so that it wasn’t in restraint of trade. All it would have needed was to give clubs first offer to players in their zone. If players weren’t interested they could then go into a draft along with players from Tasmania and Northern Territory for clubs to add to players from thier zone. This would stop rich clubs paying players to refuse their local club in the hope of getting more money from another specific club.

    The West Coast Eagles were formed to retain good local players in WA. 23 years later it drafts Victorians while WA players till end up at interstate clubs and some of the Victorians “go home” – mostly to Carlton (Judd, Warnock). If the Lions had been able to fill their club with Queenslanders Tony might not be complaining about the go home factor.

    The other problem I have with Tony’s Salary Cap concessions is his assumption that Brisbane would have lost Brown or Power if they had not received “pioneers concessions” in 2001-3. In fact, if you look at clubs that had to live within salary cap conditions they did not lose their superstars after their premierships. Essendon did not get rid of Hird, Fletcher and Lloyd after the 2000 flag, they cleared Blumfield, Caracello, Hardwick and Heffernan when they had salary cap problems. (I would have thought Tony would have remembered that given that Caracello played in a Brisbane Premiership) Geelong did not clear Ablett, Bartel and Ottens after the 2007 flag. They cleared King and some players who had not actually been in their premiership line-up.

    Brisbane may have used its salary cap concessions to hold players that it had imported from interstate as young players. Sydney used them, at least in part, to recruit ready made players from the South and West. I don’t have a problem with this but it is hard to see how it is building the game in NSW.

    To sum up. I agree with Tony that expansion clubs need help, but that should come from assistance in developing local players, not by allowing them salary cap concession and certainly not in turning a blind eye to the blatant cheating that the Storm engaged in!

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