Is the Salary Cap the right system for NRL?

The Parramatta Eels were hit with a $525 000 fine by the NRL governing body on Thursday after the club exceeded the salary cap by a significant margin in 2014. All this for a team that landed in the bottom half of the competition at 10th position, and who currently find themselves last on the NRL ladder a year on.

To add further concerns to the Eels plight is the fact they have been threatened with the loss of four competition points to start 2016 if they don’t clean up their clubs administration, the NRL seizing the opportunity to make sure the in fighting at board level is cleaned up.

The swelling salary cap the Parramatta side watched over was largely due to $750 000 worth of payments made to players who had already left the club when former coach Ricky Stuart culled players he believed weren’t performing. This left the Eels on the back foot from the start of the season.

Despite such a large overspend on the salary cap, the Eels were hardly gaining an advantage, a point recognised by NRL CEO David Smith, who said he felt the club wasn’t attempting to cheat. In order to be at least competitive in the season the club almost had no choice but to go over the cap limits, particularly when injury struck. It was not systematic rorting of the system to gain an advantage, as seen in the case of the Melbourne Storm previously.

The fact is the team did break the rules, but in a professional competition, one team losing consistently because they can’t field a competitive team is a turn off for fans and club men alike. It is a turn off for the game. Does this mean the salary cap is the wrong system?

Yes and no.

Parramatta were not being competitive in the competition and so they had issues from the start. Stuart made the hard call to cull players that he believed were a reason for this. The fact that in doing so, the club had to pay the players what was still owed to them from their contracts makes it hard for the club to stay on level footing when they are essentially having a smaller cap due to using some of their salary to pay players that don’t even exist at the club anymore. When the cap is designed to even out the competition, this shows a key fault.

This does reflect on the management of players by the coach and club. It is part of the process of managing effectively. You need to get the best out of the players given to you, and if they aren’t performing, the culling of these players must be managed effectively. The problem here is the change over of coaches and management during these times. The team Ricky Stuart coached was not his own, he inherited the side from former Coach Stephen Kearney. Since he culled players before removing himself from the club, Ricky Stuart’s problems have now been passed down to Brad Arthur.

From the moment he took over the reigns, Arthur was left with a very dire problem when trying to manage the books, particularly when adding in the war above him at board level that has been raging for some time.

The cap in this situation set Stuart up for failure first, before leaving Arthur with no hope. The team itself were a sinking ship through no fault of their own. It wasn’t greed, it was survival.

So is the cap the wrong system? No. It just needs tweaking.

The advantage of the cap is the NRL competition doesn’t become like the EPL, in which realistically, it is a four or five team fight each year with the rest of the teams making up the numbers. The salary cap does keep the competition even, but it can’t remain stagnant. Circumstances such as these need to be considered, and a large amount of player movement allowed for. Stuart was wise to cut the players if he wanted to have a competitive team. You might even say he was wise to run, knowing he had no chance to be competitive without breaking the rules, following this player cull.

Brad Arthur was on a hiding to nothing, and received warnings from the NRL about the salary cap limits he was on the verge of breaking dramatically. At one stage, he had no choice, if he wanted to field a side, with only 16 of his 25 man squad available to play, a squad not up to the value of the other clubs due to the loss of $750 000 of value thanks to departed player’s still on the books.

Under current rules, the Parramatta club had to be punished severely for their actions. But if the NRL is serious about keeping the competition even, they must take in to account circumstances when considering cap breaks, as well as what is best for the game.

For now, the Eels have a chance to start fresh, while the NRL have a chance to learn from others mistakes, and continue to improve the competitive nature of their tournament.

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