Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

How much the marquee player will be an inexact science was illustrated this weekend.

Imagine the principle already existed; Catalans can’t seem to win without Todd Carney, absent again, Salford have apparently already dispensed with Kevin Locke, a new deal for Kevin Brown at Widnes sees him leave the field early with concussion – all three sides defeated.

As Wakefield’s marquee capture, coach Brian Smith, perspicaciously noted – graciously doing a round of interviews and reintroductions despite jet lag – when assessing his task with the players at the fragile Wildcats, “They’ve got to pass the test as a man first.”

Much of the debate surrounding the marquee announcement for 2016 centred on which clubs might sign a stellar name and who that would be and no doubt there will be some; good, we are in the entertainment industry.

But, too little was made of the ability for clubs to also potentially retain some of our up and coming thrillers, more of whom – from across all clubs – are destined for the NRL or, heaven help us, with a World Cup here and Rio Olympics on the horizon, rugby union.

There will always be a lifestyle choice that transcends money, as there will be with some Antipodeans who genuinely do want to sample the culture here, but the likes of Alex Walmsley and Brett Ferres have spurned NRL advances recently and the ruling gives Super League clubs the chance to at least compete with an offer.

Understandably, the clubs who voted against cited the likelihood of the have’s having more and the have not’s sitting further away from the top table feasting (we are only talking about one player) but the top sides are the ones that have also invested in, been patient with and given an opportunity to talented youngsters – that’s a major reason why they are the top sides.

Sean O’Loughlin celebrated his 350th game for Wigan in victory at Huddersfield, Kevin Sinfield’s weekly milestone was to become the leading SL appearance maker with 440, edging Paul Wellens – who it is hoped has not played his last with a degenerative hip injury; all products of the academy.

Signings, marquee or not, have always involved risk and balance, when the competition was born in 1996, huge sums of money were given to players of middling ability and so we shall again.

Castleford have just announced that they have secured the future of one of their hottest young players after prop Will Maher penned a four-year contract extension, the first graduate of the Cumbrian regional Academy. Who is to say that he will not become their marquee over that time; potential extra space is now there that doesn’t count on the salary cap, it doesn’t have to spent on a ‘big name’.

Maybe, as part of one of the conditions for bringing in the marquee ruling, any club outside an A or B academy rating should not be eligible to go large.

As part of the restructure, the RFL was at pains to point out that it was not there to micro-manage clubs and this is not suddenly a pool of money being found from the centre that could otherwise be spent on a reserve team structure, necessary though that is.

If benevolent owners want to make a gesture of largesse – and others might be attracted as a result – Dr Koukash has friends – how can rugby league afford not to let them? Like it or not, sport is business, if the tail continually wags the dog we remain a corner shop that needs a lick of paint.

The issue, first and foremost, is not whether we can attract a Cooper Cronk, who will put bums on seats wherever he goes, but getting every club in the Super League up to spending the full salary cap, that would seriously level the field.

And, as has been rightly pointed out, aspiring middle 8 Championship clubs need something similar if the Qualifiers are to have meaning, without being left with an expensive, unaffordable luxury if they don’t get promoted.

It was just a shame that most of the publicity surrounding the marquee ruling was interviews with and loud comment from the four who voted against the principle. Not like rugby league to give the impression of shooting itself in the foot before the ink on the agreement was dry.

Back to Brian Smith and his undoubted aura who witnessed another, not unexpected, second half capitulation from his new side. He’ll be concerned about the ease with which their structure melted away but not too disheartened as he has six weeks to implement his own before, as he says, the second dance comes around.

He pointed out that everyone going in to the middle 8s is equal. “It’s a unique thing so while I’ve just dropped in, everyone is in the same boat. I’m not frightened by the new structure but probably encouraged that we have a second chance.”

Hull have shown what patience, confidence and steadfast belief can do, now on the cusp of the top four, Lee Radford another disciple of the ‘Smith’ performance-led school.

Joe Cobb, who appeared younger than Leeds debutant Jordan Lilley at Belle Vue, looks like being the next marquee referee and, although Wildcats stand in coach Stuart Dickens noted that he had given the Rhinos two seven-tackle sets, it was again heartening to see his controlled, authoritative, well-signalled display.

Almost unheralded, the decision to allow Catalans U19s formally into the Academy ranks is highly significant, not only for getting their youngsters the opportunity to test themselves at the highest level but to increase the potential talent pool for the French national side.

The likes of transfer-requested Theo Fages, Kevin Larroyer, Mickael Simon, Louis Jouffret and the luckless William Barthau already plying their trade out of the country, shows the greater depth of talent out there.

“It’s a great news and reward after all the efforts done by the club over the last few years,” said Dragons chief executive Christophe Jouffret. “The other Super League clubs understand the necessity for us to launch our Academy team to provide homegrown players to the first team squad, to meet both the quota player obligations and to increase the number of French players that will benefit not only the Catalans Dragons, but also French Rugby League.”

On the back of France U18s win over England Academy, look out for more Fouad Yaha’s and Gadwin Springer’s, all of which has nothing to do with marquees.

The biggest result of the weekend was the end of Leigh’s club-record 27 game winning run, in London. Paul Rowley couldn’t even blame the ‘Yorkshire conspiracy’ for the defeat. The first three tries for the Broncos came from Oscar Thomas and an Iliess Macani brace, more evidence of Academy-nurtured, new talent.

That is even more encouraging, long-term than the thought of Sam Burgess returning or Billy Slater arriving.

The broadest smiles are at the Hive the morning after.

 

PHIL CAPLAN

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