The view from the front office: Captivating World Club Challenge

Just on a week has passed since the World Club Challenge and there has been no shortage of pundits, players, fans and coaches tossing up the lopsided results in the NRL clubs favour as nailed on proof that the Super League salary cap needs increasing.

The argument being used is that unless Super League clubs spend the same money on a playing squad as their NRL counterparts, there will always be a gap between the quality of the teams.

I find this bizarre and possibly a reflection of the general mindset in UK rugby league that “we are under-resourced, we need to pay players more, the only way to win is lifting the cap etc etc.”

Let me tell you something, it is this mindset that is contributing far more to results at the World Club Series and international level than any salary cap ever will.

People might not like to hear this, but it’s what the game needs, honesty. Those using the three matches last week as a platform to push for salary cap increases include one of the better player agents and a few coaches. I’ll say this, player agents take from the game and put nothing back in – FACT. An increase in cap will see a player agents income rise by the same percent – FACT.

Did you know that many agents insist on a clause in their star player contracts which dictates a rise in the players contract matching the percentage rise in salary cap should a rise eventuate?

That’s right, plenty of players will just get paid more if the cap rises. Kind of makes a mockery of the argument that a cap increase will increase quality of the playing group doesn’t it?

I’ve said it before – UK Rugby League needs to remember what made it strong during its most successful eras and stop looking for shortcuts. Raising the salary cap is really easy for coaches to point towards as a means to success, it is also very lazy on their behalf.

Australia built its sporting culture around hard work, preparation and character. Australians never had the benefit of being richer than other nations when competing in sport. The relative youth of the nation coupled with a tiny population in comparison to other nations meant corporate and TV money was always small compared to nations with vast populations and consumers to advertise to.

You need to understand that it’s OK to have been run over by the NRL teams. It is not worth hysteria or knee-jerk reactions. In actual fact it has zero relevance to the Super League competition, which is demonstrating this season that the cap is becoming more successful in creating an even competition as the traditional big four are off to varying starts in terms of wins and losses.

Australian basketball made its name with Shane Heal and Luc Longley going to the NBA and matching and mixing it with the American superstars. We were never in the contest when playing at international level but put in some gritty performances against the US Dream Team at the Olympics and whilst beaten soundly, the nation and sport took strength and confidence from the exercise. We did not moan and complain that we needed to spend more money on our players or basketball would continue to struggle.

In football we watched Craig Johnston, Mark Bosnich, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill and a host of others ply their trade in the best league in the world, whilst failing to qualify for a World Cup as a nation in decades. During this time the domestic competition actually began to thrive and our underdog status on the world stage meant that occasional results like beating England in a friendly gave the game a huge boost domestically. The nation stayed up all night to watch our minnows play Italy, not expecting a win but expecting a performance against the odds.

You need to go through the process.

UK Rugby League is starting to again have players rising to stardom in the NRL. This should not worry the domestic game, it should be embraced. Enjoy your underdog status in the WCC and internationally and take pride in playing above your weight. Culture will build. Until you have battled to win you’ll never have the mental strength to be a champion. That is true on an individual basis and in entire sports and their cultures.

I’ll let you in on a little secret…..There are PLENTY of rugby league and rugby union players in Australia and New Zealand for clubs to choose from. Like youth academies here in football, our under-20s competition has a tiny progression rate from that age group to NRL contracted players. Yes, some stars may be poached to play in the NRL from England, but very few and not enough to worry about raising the cap in defence of a potential exodus – it won’t happen.

If you want to try a 30 player elite fund that the RFL manages and signs players to a central contract then fine, I don’t think it is needed but if you really fear stars being poached then that will give you your best shot at retaining them.

As for raising the cap, you need to look at any major change in totality, in a game wide context, not just the Super League club’s cap.

EVERY pound that the cap is raised by will be a pound not spent on junior development, local promotions, coaching development, player welfare, supporter engagement, matchday entertainment, high performance units for rep teams etc.

Last I heard ,the majority of rugby league lovers in this country listed much of the above and more when talking of concerns around the game. I see them as a far greater priority than raising the cap.

Is a regular squad player going to leave the game to go to union or NRL as a result of a cap rise? No, but if, as is the case at one or two clubs now, owners skimp on the real stuff, the hard graft departments that go towards a successful culture, the game has no chance of developing. There is at least one club I know of that has the same person performing the role of assistant coach, youth coach, and player welfare officer. It saves the boss a few quid but does not provide that club with any chance of building success in coming years, mark my words.

Invest in the game, not the cap.

I talked about laziness and shortcuts before. A huge reason for the World Club Series results had nothing to do with cap or players wages, and everything to do with preparation and professionalism. Handling was a major problem for two of the three Super League sides who played and that aint salary cap related!

I think the close season preparation in the NRL generally is far and away stronger and more involved than it is here, that’s why the gap was so big in the World Club Series. Most NRL squads don’t touch a football until after Christmas. Prior to that they are running sand dunes, hitting the gym, dieting for weight gain and health, performing injury prevention exercises in yoga and pilates, swimming, and basically getting ready for the season.

Meanwhile during the World Club Series we have one of the games voice’s, a presenter on the Sky coverage telling viewers that he was worried for the Super League side as they had so much possession they might tire later in the game. If any semblance of that mentality exists in any player or coaches minds here then you really do have it upside down!

One journalist told me that a big reason for the lopsided World Club Series results was that Super League clubs have nowhere to train during the close season as there are too few indoor training facilities. Last time I looked Rugby League was played outdoors! Other clubs are inferring professionalism by taking their squads to Portugal, Spain or southern France for pre-season trials and training camps. What a waste of time and money when they return to the UK to play in a late winter. The one major advantage Super League has over the NRL in the WCC was conditions and English sides’ familiarity with them…..so let’s go and prepare in the sun eh?

Training in the NRL stops only if there is danger from lightning or flooding, heavy downpours. If there’s mud, fantastic. That’s a chance to focus on ball security and a wet weather kicking game.

I shudder to think what NRL strength and conditioning coaches would come up with if they were gifted the chance to do a pre-season in the middle of winter in the Hills of the Lake District or Brecon Beacons. It would be like a candy shop for any pro worth his/her salt and any squad under their care would be the fittest and best prepared in Super League, and not a pool, sun lounge , or golf cart in sight.

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