With the likes of Todd Carney, Dave Taylor, Chris Sandow and Frank Pritchard all leaving Super League clubs for Australia we ask whether the Super League remains a top draw for the world's finest rugby league talent, and if not, how can it turn things around to start attracting the best once more?
In isolation, the loss of four antipodeans to the NRL isn't indicative of a major problem with the premier rugby league competition in Europe. However, when you add to the equation the relatively poor effort from the English national side in the recent Four Nations and the 3-0 drubbing that the NRL clubs inflicted on Super League clubs during the World Club Series in February, it all points to somewhat of a crisis. A chasm of quality is opening up, making it incredibly difficult for the Super League clubs to retain key players - both imports and locally grown players.
While the Super League will welcome a large number of players from the NRL to the competition in 2017, they are, with respect, not of the calibre that will transform the fortunes of the competition. Nor are they likely to encourage an influx of players wanting to follow suit.
The likes of Greg Bird, Thomas Leuluai, Luke Douglas and Sam Moa are all, or have been, quality ball players. But they're all at the stages of their careers that suggest their time in the Super League represents a final opportunity; a chance to extend their playing days that might not have existed in Australia.
In contrast, the names heading to the NRL from the Super League are high quality players that will be missed - Dan Sargison (Titans) and Jordan Turner (Raiders).
The reasons for the differing type and quality of player transfers are multiple. From pure rugby league factors like the quality of the coaching and the money on offer, all the way through to the temperature. Here's a look at some of the primary contributing factors, along with a few points about how these can be overcome to improve the player retention of the Super League.
At a modest £1.85m, the annual Super League salary cap, a figure which has risen only slightly since its introduction in 1999, pales in comparison to the £4.2m (AU$7m) NRL clubs can spend next year. And while the figure is understandable given the amount host broadcasters are prepared to pay to own the rights to each competition, it is an imbalance that will continue to make it difficult for clubs to attract and retain the superstars of rugby league. There is little incentive to remain in the UK making £150,000 a year when the wages on offer in Australia could go as high as £200,000 - £400,000 a year.
The salary cap question was posed directly after the World Club Series this year. Former Doncaster owner and current player agent, Craig Harrison noted that the result was purely salary cap related and helped to explain the loss of Gareth Widdop, Josh Hodgson and Elliot Whitehead over the past few seasons.
That said, in 2015, all the participating Super League clubs were unanimous that the salary cap should not be changed. Moreover, the television audiences and gate takings simply aren't conducive to an increased spend on player wages; a move that could jeopardise the very existence of the clubs.
So, what's the solution? There is, of course, already an exception to the salary cap for a ‘marquee player’, which allows clubs to have one of their squad outside of the salary cap. Perhaps this could be increased to two or three players in order to let teams build squads around a focal point of two or three stars. In a similar way to how the Melbourne Storm have used Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater for the bulk of their salary cap.
This model could encourage a private ownership/investment mentality that has worked well for European rugby clubs and privately owned Twenty20 cricket franchises. Similar to the Salford Red Devils approach where mega rich owner Marwan Koukash has invested heavily into the infrastructure of his club and tried his hand (usually unsuccessfully) at tempting premier talent.
Competitiveness and Depth
The NRL is often cited as one of the most competitive tournaments in global sport. On any given day in the NRL the lower rung teams can surprise (save for Newcastle Knights); the top eight teams change regularly - just look at the Sydney Roosters who won the minor premiership in 2015 but finished second to last on the ladder in 2016. The perfect illustration of this is the blanket that you can throw over the short priced contenders for 2017. Sun Bets odds suggest a plethora of teams can challenge for the Provan-Summons trophy.
Conversely in the Super League, three of four teams have traditionally dominated. The likes of Hull, Wigan and Warrington have enjoyed consistent success while the Hull KR, Huddersfield and Salford get thumped most weeks.
The upshot of the overall competitiveness of the two leagues is that the more competitive Australian competition is obviously a better breeding ground for talent and a better place to nurture and develop that talent.
Additionally, thumping wins each week are only likely to lead to boredom not confidence or skill development. Instead, investment in training facilities is required to promote skill development, including the use of specialist coaches in every facet of the game (even wrestling so the national team can compete at ruck time in international matches). Likewise, a savvier approach to recruitment is required. Players from the NRL come to the UK at the start or end of their careers. Scouts and coaches should therefore target that first category with long term deals. Discover the talent before the Australian scouts and take some risks - this would go some way to improving the overall competitiveness of the Super League.
It may sound trivial, but the temperature, and weather generally, is likely at fault for a number of hasty exits from Australian based players. The training facilities in Bondi on a warm and sunny day are a far cry from the frost bitten training pitches of Canalside. It's a nominal factor that you would think could be put to the back of a professional athlete's mind, but often it is used as a reason to claim homesickness and to terminate a contract early.
There isn't a lot the Super League can do about this. But, investment in indoor training facilities, pre-season skills sessions and practice games in Australia could help.
As an aside, Thomas Leuluai is returning to Wigan to finish off his playing career and make a start on his coaching development. A possible incentive to attract players in the 27+ category could be assistance with coaching certificates. It's a way to retain top coaching talent too - something the Super League has also struggled with.
The likes of Todd Carney, Dave Taylor, Chris Sandow and Frank Pritchard aren't massive losses to the Super League. The four are erratic and, Pritchard aside, troublemakers. The bigger concern to the Super League is the loss of top talent like Hodgson, Whitehead and Sargison to the NRL, and the failures of Tomkins, Hardaker and Cooper (this is a little harsh on Cooper as he was good for St George in his first season) to truly assert themselves on the competition.
Players are leaving to test themselves in the best competition in the world, on higher wages and in better conditions. Yet only some of the Super League's best are having an impact. Hardaker, the Super League's 2015 Man of Steel was terrible in Australia. He was tempted by the money, but spat out almost immediately.
His story shows the challenge faced by the Super League to rectify it; difficult for sure but not insurmountable with an innovation think tank to privatise the game further, encourage investment and increase the salary cap.