If you’re a winger in Rugby League and you want to command super star money, you’d better be a bloody good player.
While Akuila Uate is a damaging ball runner, the 2012 season started to show the flaws that come up when the best in the game start to put you under the greatest of examinations.
His performance at State Of Origin level verged on catastrophic. Under the high ball he was unsure of himself, defensively he was confused fairly easily, and it got to the point where New South Wales simply couldn’t risk playing him any more.
The fiscal responcibility forced upon Rugby League in Australia over the last decade saw the game make some very tough decisions. No other sporting competition in the world has as many competing sports looking on so enviously at the talent it runs out onto the sporting arena. The NRL found itself losing players to Boxing, the Australian Rugby Union, French Rugby Union, New Zealand Rugby Union, AFL…and that is not even to mention Super League.
Some great players were offered huge sums of money that NRL clubs simply could not afford to match. Amazingly, many of our games stars chose to stick with the NRL and earn far less money then they were being offered elsewhere. For some players though, the other offers were too tempting. They went elsewhere, they took the money, and many of them become millionares as a result.
It was a difficult time for the game for no other reason than it saw some great players spend their best years elsewhere. The NRL and Rugby League in this part of the world had to cop the tough times with the hope that down the track all the losses would be worth it.
In 2013, we now know it was the right thing to do. It was right to let those great players go while the game in Australia kept itself financially viable and built a strong base for which it would cash in with a $1.2 billion dollar broadcasting deal.
With the broadcasting deal now in place, our game has the opportunity to pay our stars what they are worth to Rugby League. It will now take massive offers elsewhere to pry a star player from the NRL. That is not to say that everyone will stay though.
Competitions overseas run on a completely different financial set up to the NRL. Many clubs are bankrolled by rich backers that see their clubs as entertainement. They spend huge amounts of money to buy star players for these teams, and while that sounds great, when these rich owners go broke or even get bored with their commitment, they leave a club to crumble into obscurity with massive debts.
NRL clubs will continue to make the smart financial decisions, but they will also make decisions that will not see them sink massive chunks of their salary cap into players that have less of an impact than the key positional players in the game.
Halves will rise in value simply because a top class half has a massive impact on a teams results. Hookers too will get massive sums if they are considered elite. Super star fullbacks can change the game, and they will be rewarded as such, but good forwards are plentiful and we won’t see their salaries rise anywhere near as much as players in other positions will.
That is where we come to wingers.
A great winger is a great compliment to any club. The pertformance you see from wingers these days is as varied as any other position in the game. You have the high flyers, the athletes and the hard ball runners. You have players that inject themselves into a game when ever they can, they almost have a utility value they bring to their club. You also have the craftsmen, the ones that never get caught out of position, that finish a try without being dragged over the sideline, who back up their fullback and who posess all the skills a great winger should have.
This all brings us back to Akuila Uate. A damaging ball runner, a finisher, and in a pretty average Newcastle Knights team, he is a player that people turn up to watch. When it comes to the big games though Uate has been found wanting when put under pressure. You simply can not pay a player like that super star money without it having a detrimental effect to your clubs on field performance.
There might be NRL clubs out there willing to take the bad with the good, and some clubs might decide that to roll the dice and just hope that an investment in Uate won’t one day come back to bite them on the arse in a big game. In an era though that will see NRL clubs cast their net far and wide to recuit players, and with clubs looking to reconfigure the way they spend money across their lineups, I can’t see any clubs willing to spend so much money on a winger.
Michael Gordon showed us a glimps of the future of the Rugby League winger. As a winger, he is a very good player. However he knew that with his ability to play fullback at a high level, he would be much more valuable to any team as a fullback rather than as a winger.
I don’t think we will see the death of the specialist winger. I think what we see now is what we will see for some times. You’ll have specialist wingers who get paid a reasonable amount of money. You’ll see players who star their careers on the wing but who move to fullback or into the centers to boost their value. I do however think that will will not see any winger, no matter how good they are, being paid anywhere near the type of money Akuila Uate’s manager is talking about.
If Akuila Uate really can get close to $1 million per season to play Rugby Union overseas, he should take the money. Uate will be 26 years old when he starts his next contract and he will be entering the best years of his career. If Uate is worth that much money to some rich backer at an overseas club, that is great. The harsh reality is that he simply isn’t worth that much in a talent rich NRL competition.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com
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