Why A Draft Will Not Work For Rugby League

I always find it very interesting when someone within Rugby League tosses up an idea that is used in another sport, when it is clear they have no idea how that idea is applied in that sport, let alone how it would be applied to Rugby League.

The latest idea is the draft, and internal draft of an external draft.

Where did all of this come from anyway?

Well last week we got news that Beau Scott was the latest in a long line of St George/Illawarra Dragons players, coaches and backroom staff to ditch the club. Scott will head to Newcastle next year to team up with Wayne Bennett, and the fact that the move was announced in March, and he was ANOTHER player that has ditched the Dragons, understandably, upset a lot of people.

I have said many times, I would be disgusted if I was a Dragons fan at the way so many people won the Grand Final, then ditched the club, cold, and didn’t give a second thought to the fan base or the support the club gave them over many years.

Now, this reaction was picked up by the media and once again we saw the idea of a draft being pushed, even though it didn’t actually address the problem at hand. I think sometimes people within the sport think they are being clever when they bring up something another sport is doing to be honest.

So lets just say we had a draft in the NRL for off contract players who have made the decision to leave their clubs. We have this draft in November. Normally this draft would be used to even out the competition, but the NRL doesn’t actually need it for that purpose, the competition is more even than any other sporting competition on the planet.

No, we are using the draft as a control mechanism.

So we would know the players coming off contract well ahead of the draft, and we would just about know the majority of the draft order when the NRL Finals kicked off.

Heading into an internal draft for current NRL players that are off contract….it doesn’t work as smoothly as most people think. You don’t just select a player and then negotiate a contract with them, this isn’t a video game after all. Player have demands they want met.

So before the draft has even started, team are negotiating with players. Some will have salary demands, others will simply want to live and play in a certain city. If a club can not come to an agreement with a player, they will be forced to either select someone else, or draft that player and then trade him to a club that will give him what he wants in exchange for another player or future draft picks.

Make no mistake, the real power players in an internal draft would be the player agents. They would simply go to the club that a player wants to play for, say Beau Scott and the Newcastle Knights, and then when the team that has say the Number 1 pick in the draft goes to Scotts manager and says they would like to select Scott steps up, the manager will just put huge demands on that club they can never meet, and then say “Look, Beau wants to play for the Knights, we have a deal in place, he doesn’t want to play for your club, so do a deal with Newcastle so you at least get something out of this situation”.

Right there, one move, your entire draft becomes completely ineffective as far as a talent equalization tool goes. It also is completely as a way to stop players signing with clubs ahead of time because NONE of these negotiations would be done in private, there would be even more media speculation that would come from these moves and the vast majority of it would come during the NRL finals series!

Now, onto another issue, the external draft, which is for players that are not already part of the NRL. So into this draft would go young players, Super League players that wanted to play in the NRL and any Rugby Union players that wanted to play in the NRL (The last two groups by the way have been completely overlooked in this whole process).

Right now all NRL clubs (Apart from the Sydney Roosters) run and fund junior Rugby League competitions of various sizes. Together these 15 NRL clubs spend many millions of dollars on player development.

When you look at clubs such as the Penrith Panthers, Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, New Zealand Warriors and the like, all of whom have huge junior bases to service, these clubs all go above and beyond their own needs to get the cream of the crop from their junior bases. Their contributions to junior Rugby League help bring sign up costs down, improve facilities and get as many youngsters playing the game as possible in those areas.

If return though, these clubs do get the best young juniors in their area. Other clubs can still come in and sign their best youngsters if they wish, but these clubs at least get a shot at these youngsters.

So ask yourself this question….

If tomorrow these teams were told that all the work they were doing on junior development no longer had any benefit to them because a draft was now in place…..why would these clubs spend another cent on their player bases?

Sure, it is a selfish way to look at things, but this is Rugby League. Self interest rules EVERYTHING.

If you’re running a club that is struggling financially, and you are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a junior base that is now of no benefit to you what so ever, how difficult is the decision to at the very least slash your junior development budget?

It would be a pretty simple and quick decision for most clubs.

Then there is the young players point of view.

If the age limit is set that you have to be at least 20 years old to enter the draft, what are you doing to that player?

First of all, you have cut them off from playing in the top grade even if they were ready at a younger age. Do you think a 17 year old superstar is going to sit around for three years playing junior football while the likes of Super League, Rugby Union and AFL are circling and offering them big money?

You then have to look at the effect on every single young player that is drafted. We have seen that some grown men in Rugby League simply can not handle moving away from their family and friends. How many times have we seen a great player of a mature age make a big money move to a different city, only to see them become miserable, and move back to their previous city when their contract runs out?

Many older players can no handle that move away from “home”, and yet an external draft would force that move on very young players whether they wanted it to happen or not. Anyone that thinks that is a good idea is simply has no connection to what happens in the real world where clubs spend a lot of time on man management over football as it is.

Imagine telling a youngster like Shaun Johnson from New Zealand that at 20 years old, he now has to move to Perth or North Queensland. Oh, and, the amount of money he will be earning on the contract he signs with that club will be set, he will just have to accept it whether he likes it or not.

On top of that, you have to look at what happens in the NBA and NFL.

When you get a great young player who is going to be a star….if a team drafts them and they don’t want to play for that team, they simply force a trade to a club they want to play for.

In the NFL Eli Manning is the best example. He wanted to play for one of the big market clubs, so he forced a trade to the New York Giants. That worked out for him and New York, the team that drafted him….no so much.

In the NBA the Vancouver Grizzlies drafted young point guard Steve Francis, and Francis simply didn’t want to play there. He forced a trade to the Houston Rockets. A few years later, the Grizzles were struggling so much that they moved from Vancouver all together!

At the end of all of these draft processes, players normally end up where they want to end up. Clubs, fueled by self interest and greed, undermine the draft process at every chance they get.

A draft, if anything, increases talk of player moves and speculation. You get teams tanking their season for high draft picks, throwing games so they can be the worst team in the competition and get the first pick of the best players.

You get teams that get stuck in the middle of the draft. In no mans land. Too good to get high draft picks, too bad to make any impact on the competition.

You also have teams that never have to worry about any of this because they simply make the best deals and get the best talent anyway, no matter where they finish, no matter where they are in the draft.

In modern day sport, things such as media exposure, money and faster and cheaper travel have changed what players want from their careers.

Many players are now lucky enough to pick and chose where they want to play. Some will chose to play “at home” where they grew up with family or friends. Some choose their team based on wanting a change of environment. Some want to live where the weather is good, other want to live away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Some players chose a certain club because they know there is an opportunity to further their career their, while others, well, they just really like playing under a certain coach.

Rugby League was a game that was formed so that players could get a cut of the money that was being made. You can glamorize it all you want, but that’s what it came down to. Because of these beginnings, open professionalism and allowing players to move between clubs has always been held as a very important fundamental of the sport.

The reason why we remember the refusal of the QRL to allow Wally Lewis to play for Manly, or John Raper starting his career at Newtown because of boundary restrictions, if because in this day and age, these restrictive practices are archaic. We see these restrictions places on players in the past as detrimental to not only the player, but the enterprising spirit of the game itself.

The system we have in place right now is there for a reason. We tried just about every other way to restrict the movement of players ahead of time. None of the way we have tried in the past worked.

Sure the current system that allows Beau Scott to sign with the Newcastle Knights for the 2013 season in March 2012 isn’t ideal, but bringing in a draft, and the mess that comes with a draft, will only cause more problems than we have right now.

What would I like to see in place?

I would like to see clubs having the ability to trade players mid season right up until August. If Beau Scott signs with the Knights for 2013, he obviously wants to leave the Dragons and head north. The Dragons should be able to have the option to negotiate a deal with the Knights where they send Scott to the Knights straight away in exchange for either one of the Knights players or even a few of their better juniors.

As a Panthers fan, I’ve seen many of our players sign with other clubs a season ahead of time. The idea that a player will not be at the club next season isn’t the thing that grinds away at me. I honestly don’t care. If they are with the Panthers this season and they help us win a title, I honestly couldn’t care less what they do after that.

What grinds away at me is, the Panthers won’t have that player next year, and we could be using his place in the squad to blood a junior player who we will have next year.

Right now NRL coaches don’t feel they have the security to drop an established player that is leaving a club to blood a youngster. Imagine if the Dragons got to a point where it was clear they were not going to make the finals. They drop Beau Scott to reserve grade in round 16, never to play first grade for the club again. They then use the remainder of the season to blood young players in first grade who will hopefully replace Scott next season.

That won’t happen for two reasons.

First of all, everyone would whinge that the club had given up. That would build pressure and that pressure would be felt by the club and the coach. Many clubs could not handle that pressure, and most coaches know it. No coach wants to be the one that flicks the switch from trying to win a title to trying to develop players from the medium to long term future.

No coach wants to develop a great side for the bloke that replaces them. Just ask Ivan Henjak…

When it comes down to it and you read through all of this chaos, you get to the point where you realize that hey, what we have in place isn’t all that bad really.

It’s simple, it’s straight forward, it’s honest, it’s upfront. Everyone knows where they stand well ahead of time.

If a player signs elsewhere and then decides to phone it in for the rest of the season, drop him! If you don’t drop him, that’s not his fault, that is on the coach.

The last thing we need in Rugby League is to start treating players like that are interchangeable commodities. The last thing we need is to open up a world where teenagers are treated like they are part of a meat market.

A draft will not work in a sport that has so many options around the world that are so open to every single player. Anyone in Rugby League that wants to make it harder to play the game at the elite level, at a time when other sports are rolling out the red carpet for our stars and breaking their own rules to get them across, is mad.

We don’t need a draft in Rugby League. It wouldn’t work. It is a horrible process.

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