Thoughts on a Midseason NRL Transfer System

Filed in Other by on December 10, 2010

Australians have always prized loyalty far more in their sports than those in other areas of the world. It is equal part values, history, the role of sports in relation to community and the perception of the athlete that has led to loyalty being treated as the most noble of personal characteristics. Even winning, at times, has taken a back seat to loyalty.

It has certainly been an accepted Australian tradition that you stick strong through good times and bad with those you care about. Your friends, your family. Your footy club. Where athletes have always been viewed as professionals in places like the United Kingdom and the United States, Australians have always strongly believed in the notion, no matter how fabricated, that athletes play for the love of the game and they play for a particular team because of an emotional attachment to it. Athletes who shifted teams for money or opportunity in the British and American markets were regarded as the norm while in Australia those who engaged in such behaviour have been viewed as mercenaries.

This has led to the view that the athlete, in Australia, is not revered as superhuman but as a human with exceptional sporting ability. The difference is subtle but it is important as it has shaped our view of sport and the men who play it. In Australia we closely link sport with personal identity. Combined with the prizing of loyalty, we see athletes owing us as much as we owe them. We support a particular club with unbridled passion and we expect those who represent our club to hold a similar zeal for the jersey and the club. Athletes are not viewed as being above us, like they often are in the US and UK, but as one of us. As such we revere them for their deeds but have few problems in criticising them if they don’t uphold their end of the bargain and stay loyal. In essence, sport is much more personal in Australia. The “betrayal” of a particular player is taken as a personal slight.

This has led to a unique structure in Australian football codes and in particular rugby league where there is little formalisation designed to promote trading or the transferring of talent between teams. During a season there is virtually no formal structure for teams to acquire or trade talent. In the AFL there is no transferring of clubs midseason. In the NRL it is allowed before June 30 but only if a player is released. This is an absolute rarity. There is no transfer window and formalised rules for trading as in world soccer. There is no centralised waiver wire or formal process for trading as is the case in all US sports.

As such there is no tradition of in players being traded between clubs midseason. The structures aren’t in place and it has never really been part of Australian sport.

In rugby league the residency rule was strictly enforced and heavily adhered to for the first half century of the game. Players were allowed to play for the club that represented the area they lived in. It was that simple. Then a transfer system was put in place but it was one that still held players in the bondage of the clubs. Players could apply for a transfer but it was left to club bosses to determine whether the player would stay or go. That was until 1968 when Dennis Tutty took the New South Wales Rugby League to court and after three years of litigation the transfer system that allowed clubs to own players was deemed illegal. Tutty was Balmain’s star player of the sixties but was paid virtually nothing by Balmain. When he attempted to move to Penrith, Balmain boss Kevin Humphreys told Tutty that he would play for the Tigers for whatever they wished to pay him. The days of serfdom were over after the Tutty case total free agency was essentially granted. The free market operated unhampered until 1991 when the New South Wales Rugby League instituted a player draft. It lasted only a year when the internal player draft was challenged by Terry Hill. The courts deemed it illegal and by 1992 free agency was again the name of the game. The nature of the contracting system meant that there were virtually no player movement midseason outside the odd Rod Silva move to the Bulldogs or Brett Finch to the Storm.

The questioned that has to be asked: Why has a system developed where player movement is virtually non-existent? Wouldn’t nearly everyone in rugby league benefit from the introduction of a system that promoted midseason transfers? Clubs would benefit through being able to fill holes in their playing roster. Players would benefit as many would receive opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have been afforded. Fans would be excited by the prospect of player movement and how it would impact on their club. And the NRL would benefit from the publicity and stimulation that would come at a time during the regular midseason malaise.

When the trade deadline approaches in the MLB or NBA, everyone is on edge to see which team will make a move. When the transfer window opens in the English Premier League, soccer fans are hanging to see which players their club will make a play for.

Midseason moves act as a kind of rejuvenation to the humdrum of midseason play as well as providing the more tangible benefits of allowing teams to improve and allowing players to get an opportunity to play at the highest level.

The NRL should move to formalise some form of midseason trading/transfer period. There will be the inevitable cries of despair from those bemoaning the death of loyalty in rugby league but the truth of the matter is that loyalty, for the most part, has been dead for years and at any rate, it won’t be 200-game, one club players who will be effected. There will be insufferable rants decrying how disruptive such a system would be. There will be the expected inertia that always occurs when systemic change is proposed. These screeds should all be treated with the disdain they deserve as they don’t offer one logical argument against the promotion of midseason transfers.

The ability of Brett Finch to revive the Melbourne Storm’s attack is the perfect example of the benefits that can be garnered.

If there was some form of formal structure that showed flexibility with salary cap space and actually encouraged clubs and players to become involved, any number of players could move. They would mostly be fringe first graders or those on the outer with their clubs but they could play a major role for a different team.

Nathan Fien would be a perfect fit for Parramatta this season. The Eels have no halves while the Warriors have a plethora of them and have told Fien he is no longer wanted. Daniel Holdsworth would be another player the Eels would chase hard due to their dearth of playmakers while the Tigers would also enjoy having a genuine five-eighth to take the pressure off Benji Marshall. He has spent most of the season playing NSW Cup for Bankstown City. Matt Utai would be one of the first outside backs chosen at the Roosters but, quite rightly, has played little NRL football this season. Cooper Vuna would play first grade at as many as ten NRL clubs yet can’t break into the Knights crack three-quarter line. Cronulla are clearly in need of speed out wide. A player like Michael Bani would much prefer to be at Cronulla than playing in the Queensland Cup while the Sharks would benefit by upgrading the slowest backline in the league.

The NRL has a number of options. They can attempt to return to the days of servitude, much like the AFL system, and allow clubs to trade players against their will at any point throughout the trade window. If a player wants out, they can request the club trade or release them but that is it. The NRL can allow clubs to trade players anywhere during their contracted period with players. The NRL can institute a midseason draft where clubs receive salary cap concessions for the following year for partaking in it.

Few of those options are likely to be backed by the players association, however, and the last thing the NRL needs is a fresh court case.

A midseason transfer market does not need to be dictatorial, however, and it does not have to impinge on the free agent rights of the players. The NRL can simply open a two-week window in the middle of the year where, through salary cap concessions for the following year, players and clubs are encouraged to negotiate. Clubs with holes can fill them. Good clubs in the premiership hunt can perhaps upgrade their top grade roster while a team out of contention can get some promising young players in return. Clubs with an excess of a particular position can get something in return for freeing up a player or two to play elsewhere. It would help teams win, help others build for the future and help fringe players who should be playing first grade get a game.

It makes perfect sense and it would be beneficial to all involved. David Gallop should show some leadership and encourage a midseason transfer market.

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