Should rugby league introduce a transfer window?

James Gordon
Viliame Kikau move prompted talk of the NRL transfer window

Photo: Craig Thomas/News Images

Talks over a possible transfer window in the NRL have stalled, but maybe it’s time both they and Super League get one implemented.

The NRL Player Association is against the introduction of a transfer window, with the current system providing maximum freedom for players to move around.

But clubs have grown frustrated at losing some of their star names to deals announced almost a year in advance.

Currently, from November 1, out of contract NRL players can agree moves elsewhere. Penrith and Fiji star Viliame Kikau secured a second successive NRL Grand Final winners medal, but already knew this time last year that he would be playing for Canterbury Bulldogs in 2023. Him being spotted wearing a Bulldogs jersey before the 2022 season even started for some promo, did not go down well. And nor should it.

Kikau’s team-mate Api Koroisau was announced as a marquee signing by Wests Tigers for 2023, barely weeks after he had won the 2021 Grand Final with Penrith, and some 16 months before he’ll pull on a Tigers jersey.

The feeling is somewhat different for fans of struggling clubs, when they perceive players to have their mind elsewhere when they’ve already agreed to move to a rival at the season’s end.

Transfer deadline day

The current state of play in Super League is a little less controversial. The anti-tampering deadline is May 1, having previously been September 1. This means that from that date, players out of contract at the end of the season can speak to other clubs.

Their existing clubs also have a deadline to make clear whether they intend to offer a deal for the new season or not.

The closest we have to “transfer deadline day” currently is the registration deadline, after which no clubs can add further players to their squad. This is usually around the end of July.

It largely passes without a great deal of movement or interest, given squads are relatively settled and focused on the end of season run-in by then. And of course, the majority of player movement happens at the end of contracts, typically in the winter.

In theory, in a salary cap sport, introducing specific windows for player movement could well make that side of it easier to manage. It could add greater attention to the movement of players, with football in particular boasting a seismic interest in transfer activity both in and out of their transfer window.

Of course, the player pool in rugby league is minute in comparison, as are the finances to create transfer fees; meaning paid for deals are less likely to happen. But maybe that would add greater value to player contracts; players might be more inclined to sign shorter deals, or demand more for committing long-term, knowing that they would always have options to move on.

Key points of NRL transfer window proposal

  • Players have to be in final year of contract to negotiate
  • Window opens after Grand Final and closes Monday before Round 1
  • Mid-season window opens from Monday after Round 10 to Monday after Origin IIII
  • Clubs can re-sign players at any time

The proposal Down Under is for there to be a transfer window from the day after the Grand Final until the next season kicks off – with then a month-long window in the middle of the season.

Players aren’t happy with those suggestions, with Australia hooker Harry Grant arguing that players shouldn’t be in a situation where they have to wait until October each year to find out where they will play the following year.

But others, including coaching legend Wayne Bennett, say the current system is a joke.

Former Australia international Billy Moore said last year: “Anyone who looks into the fish bowl that is rugby league sees that contracts have become meaningless. The system is a disgrace.

“The biggest losers are the fans and sponsors and the only person who benefits from it is the player’s manager.

“It’s a fallacy to say when the (contract’s final) season ends you can’t go find a new club and move your family if you need to.

“You look at the AFL and the English Premier League and the amount of publicity they generate is extraordinary.”

Another suggestion is that clubs should receive further salary cap discounts for their homegrown players. Australian journalist Paul Sutter said: “The NRL should introduce a system where the salary for any player who made their NRL debut at the club should get a 5% discount for every year of continuous service at that team.

CEOs would be less reluctant to punt a club stalwart to take a risk on a younger recruit from another team and players would be less inclined to think the grass is greener elsewhere if they know they’ll be of more value to their club if they stick around long term.”

Could a transfer window work in the UK?

The contract situation in the UK is somewhat impacted by promotion and relegation. One of the arguments for removing relegation is to avoid the situation where players are left without a job when their team drops out of Super League. There are also some who say that it creates a cycle where players simply move around clubs who go up and down.

Wakefield admitted that recruitment for 2023 for them had been tough due to uncertainty over their Super League future, as they battled against relegation before ultimately prevailing over Toulouse.

Not being able to offer cast-iron guarantees over deals saw them lose some key players, and also puts them behind the eight-ball when it comes to recruiting new ones.

A winter transfer window in the UK might offer protection against that sort of situation, but the finances (or lack of) involved in the average player salary probably makes it less feasible for players to enter this period where by if they don’t get a new deal, they are only a month away from unemployment.

That being said, sport is a cut-throat business and perhaps that’s a side of it that it will never truly be able to get away from – it’s the risk you take for the reward it can present.

There are no suggestions at present that Super League will follow the NRL in proposing a transfer window. They may well wait to see just how much it will impact on Super League clubs to recruit from Down Under.

In football, the Bosman ruling allows players with less six months left to run on their contract to freely negotiate with overseas clubs.

Will the NRL transfer window happen?

With the World Cup ongoing, public talk around the transfer window has subsided a little, though it is expected to go through in some form at least.

The RLPA and the NRL are locked in negotiations around a new collective bargaining agreement, which will cover the next five years.

However, it would appear an agreement is still some way away – based on Clint Newton’s assessment of the proposals.

He said: “It’s not about trade and transfers, it’s about restraints and restrictions that the game is looking to put on players.

“Where are the trades? It’s restricting free agency at the end of their contracts and mutual terminations.

“This proposal just limits what already exists. It’s being discussed but anything that we’ve seen so far certainly falls well short of the expectations and doesn’t respect the risk players take in such a high speed, high collision and high-risk sport.

“Theoretically, players aren’t even given free full agency. They will still be under restrictions on when they can sign. And we’re operating under a salary cap model already, so that restricts their ability to maximise their earnings.”