NRL rich list makes mockery of this Eels call

NRL great PAUL GALLEN will appear on Nine’s 100% FOOTY every Monday night of the NRL season, debating rugby league’s hottest topics alongside Phil Gould and James Bracey. Tune in tonight at 9:45pm (AEST) as the panel looks back at round 22!

The list of the 100 best-paid players in the NRL made for very interesting reading over the weekend, and highlighted just how tricky juggling the salary cap is for each club.

Penrith had one player in the top 30 (Nathan Cleary at No.1) which is not bad for a club that’s six points clear and heavy favorites to win a second successive title. I’ll come back to the Panthers shortly.

At the other end of the scale, Manly have two of the top six (Daly Cherry-Evans at No.2 and Tom Trbojevic at No.6) but will miss the finals for the fifth time in eight seasons.

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That doesn’t mean DCE or Turbo are overpaid, far from it.

DCE signed that 10-year deal many years ago, leaving aside the shocker he had against the Titans he’s been a great halfback, and I can’t place any blame for Manly’s struggles at his feet.

But as soon as Turbo went down injured this year you knew the Sea Eagles were gone. No Turbo, no luck. They’re a one-man band. They were last year, and they are this year.

Along with the Titans, Manly are probably the most disappointing team of the season in my opinion. They’ll finish 10th or 11th, but I can’t knock either DCE or Turbo for what they’re earning, because they’re two great players.

When Turbo plays, he’s one of the best in the competition, that’s not even up for question. Unfortunately over the last few years he’s missed a fair amount of football, and that’s where clubs have to think closely about their salary cap. If a player is on a three or four-year deal, but only plays 50 per cent of matches, how do you quantify what he’s actually worth?

It’s a really hard question, and the problem for Manly is simple. If they hadn’t signed Trbojevic on a big money deal, someone else would have.

Joey’s top-five players in the NRL

It’s a huge balancing act. The coach and the management have to decide which path they want to go down.

It’s the same at the Dragons.

Ben Hunt is always under the microscope but I think he’s been great. I feel sorry for him that the amount he earns is a constant source of criticism, because it’s just not warranted.

It comes down to cap management, including what sort of demand there is at the time you sign the player. If a player is in demand then sometimes you need to give them an extra year on the contract, or an extra $100,000.

The club then has to work out whether it’s worth the extra length on the deal, or the extra money, and balance that with what it costs to replace a player. Often it costs more to get a replacement, or it might cost you the same to get a replacement who’s not quite as good as the player you’re losing. That’s where the clubs have to make the tough decisions.

There are times when those decisions don’t pay off, but you don’t know that until 2-3 years later. It’s a professional sport, the players have to earn as much money as they can, but sometimes the big-money, long-term deal doesn’t work out, and that’s when the clubs find themselves under fire.

The single scenario that highlights this perfectly is at Parramatta, where they’ve signed Josh Hodgson to replace Reed Mahoney. That’s the exact situation where a club might have been better off spending a bit more to keep their current player, or maybe going the extra year on the deal.

In my opinion, Hodgson will be paid roughly what Mahoney is being paid, but Mahoney is 24-years-old and Hodgson is about to turn 33, and has missed this season after doing his ACL.

Hodgson has been a terrific player, but if you’re thinking long-term, if they’re earning similar amounts then Mahoney is the better value bet. We won’t know for a few years, but I suspect if we look back in 2025 we might see that the Eels would have been better meeting Mahoney’s demands.

The problem for clubs is if they screw up the cap, it can ruin you for years. It’s not something that can be fixed in 12 months. It generally takes about three years to get it back on track. And the problem is, during that time, unless you can somehow manage to have some on-field success, or you have a coach or player who can attract talent, you’re going to struggle to get other big names to come to the club .

Then you’ve got to pay overs to get a big name to allow you to sign other big names, and the whole process ends up dragging on for five years.

The Wests Tigers have been in disarray for 10 years. It’s been a massive problem for them. If you stuff it up, you’re looking at three years to fix the mess on the money side of things, then another three years to fix the on-field problems and get the playing group right.

It’s a massive challenge, and the Tigers are the perfect example of how long you can be in exile for if you get it wrong. They haven’t played finals since 2011, and right now they’re sitting in last place.

They’ve got a junior nursey at Campbelltown that should rival Penrith and Parramatta, so don’t get me started on the fact they’ve just established their center of excellence at Concord.

They should be ensconced at Campbelltown. I’m sure they’ve got a plan as to why they’re at Concord, but it really doesn’t make sense.

It’s really important their best juniors don’t get poached because that’s where Penrith has done so well, the good juniors want to stay at the club.

Penrith are going so well on the field, and the facilities are so good, the kids don’t want to leave. You look at the Tigers, what’s the gun 16 or 17-year-old from Campbelltown got to look forward to? They’ve done nothing for a decade, and their amazing new center of excellence is at Concord.

The Penrith approach has been to get the marquee player right – Nathan Cleary – and surround him with young talent who are not necessarily earning massive amounts. But there comes a time when that’s not going to work, because as the other players around Cleary develop into stars in their own right, they come off contract and they need to start putting themselves first.

They’re now premiership-winners and State of Origin players, and at market value it becomes tricky for Penrith to keep them all. That’s where you’ve got to regenerate, and fortunately for them the Panthers have the largest nursey in the game.

There comes a time when you come off contract, and you put your hand out for more money, but it all depends on what you want out of your career. If you’re just there for the money, it’s all about you. But at the end of the day, rugby league is a team sport and you shouldn’t have that attitude.

It’s the reason some clubs are better than others, despite having the same salary cap to spend. They have a better culture, a winning feeling, and that means players want to play there, and they’ll take less money to do so.

To win premierships and have long-term success you need at least six or seven players willing to stay for less money than they could earn elsewhere. If you get that, you’re in business.

Playing rugby league when you’re losing week-in, week-out is no fun at all. When you sign your contract, you might think the money is great, but you’d give up at least $50,000 a year to be in a winning side.

To be at Penrith, you’d sign for $500,000, when you might be worth $600,000.

It’s a totally different situation. You turn up to training and you’re having fun. The last four or five years of my career, we had success at Cronulla, we won a comp, played in preliminary finals, and it was so enjoyable.

There’s no worries in the world, the game is fun, training is enjoyable. Early in my career we were struggling and it was a real grind to get going. It wasn’t enjoyable.

Everyone trains so hard in pre-season, you’re getting flogged. If you’re doing the pre-season thinking that if you have a great year you might just sneak into the semis, it’s hard.

There’s pros and cons to every approach to the salary cap, and there’s no correct answer. It’s what works best for each club.

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