Brad Walter at the Sydney Morning Herald is among the premier rugby league writers in Australia. In addition to his regular reporting Walter also produces a weekly opinion piece titled “Winning Starts Monday”. I’ll let you guess what day of the week it runs (surprise – it’s Tuesday).
The premise of this week’s column (http://www.canberratimes.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/cutting-players-down-to-size-pays-dividends-for-blues-and-clubs-20140707-zsyp1.html) was that so-called player power is on the wane in the NRL.
For examples Walter cited the success of the NSW Blues post the exclusion of Mitchell Pearce, the turnaround in fortunes of the Cronulla Sharks after sacking Todd Carney and the success of the Penrith Panthers this year after moving on star players like Luke Lewis, Michael Gordon and Michael Jennings.
The proposition that cutting badly behaved players and stars who are too big for their boots will lead to success is certainly appealing. We like to believe that virtuous actions will lead to positive outcomes. However even if some clubs have had success after removing a trouble-maker or an over-inflated ego to extrapolate from the recent success of the Panthers, Sharks and NSW to conclude that player power is waning seems like too long a bow to draw.
The reality is that concerns about player behaviour, whether in terms of discipline or ego, go exactly as far as that player’s level of talent.
Rugby League ‘bad boys’ are invariably given multiple chances to redeem themselves if they are talented enough. Todd Carney was on club number three when sacked last week. Albert Kelly has settled at the Titans after repeated violations at the Sharks. Robert Lui was signed by the Cowboys whilst awaiting a court date on charges of domestic violence – and then was allowed to re-join the league after pleading guilty to those charges. Even Arana Taumata is reportedly again getting looks from NRL clubs despite repeated sackings
An over-inflated ego is also no barrier to player power. Daly Cherry-Evans is reportedly unpopular with some teammates due in part to his sense of self-importance yet the Sea Eagles, and a half a dozen more clubs, are desperately trying to sign him when his contract expires next year.
Player power can also be seen in the naked pursuit of football mercenaries like Sonny Bill Williams, Isreal Folau and Karmichael Hunt. The NRL even went so far as to develop a regime to allow the NRL CEO to offer top up payments to secure players of that ilk. Again hardly evident of a league in which players have lost influence.
Of course the best examples of the ongoing strength of player power are the (more recent) Canberra bad boys. Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson engineered their way out of Canberra by showing contempt for the club and their teammates. For punishment Josh Dugan was allowed to join a new club later that season and actually played State of Origin. Ferguson had a slightly longer wait, but only because of the pace of the Court system. Within hours of his final Court date his new club was urgently petitioning the NRL to get him added to their squad for this season.
Because it happened to the Raiders nobody much cares but the NRL essentially signed off on allowing those two players to simply stop showing up to work until the club had no choice but to fire them. Then it allowed them to join new clubs and profit from that behaviour (albeit in Ferguson’s case in a thin façade of a development role). There could be no clearer example of individual players dictating terms at the expense of a club.
It would be nice to think that taking a firm stance against anti-social behaviour and putting team interests ahead of individual egos will lead to success. But the reality is that winning is the only thing that really matters and talented “bad boys” will almost always get a second,(and third fourth and fifth) chance.
Player power is far from exhausted in the modern NRL.
Read Lachlan’s work regularly on the Roar and follow him on twitter @mrsports83