Sonny Days


"The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun!"

Ah, sweet, innocent Annie, with her youthful optimism and naivety led us to believe that even in times of great distress, something better will come. Alas, things aren’t looking quite so Sonny for the NRL, as the departure of the game’s most recognisable initials has left it scrambling to salvage its place in the Australian sporting landscape. And the whole affair has produced the finest Australian drama since Maggie left Blue Heelers.

It has been nearly three weeks since Sonny Bill Williams hopped on a plane with a baguette, beret, pencil moustache, and every other French stereotype in tow to leave the land downunder for the home of Gerard Depardieu, and in that time we’ve learnt that the NRL has more issues than Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan put together.

So it’s time for David Gallop and co. to go to rehab and work out how to revive the game in what should be its celebratory centenary year.

Money doesn’t just talk, it plays rugby union, and it’s been the moolah that’s been the major factor in the Sonny Bill circus. The NRL has been left to play the sad clown, wondering how it can relive the heady days of Super League when it had cash coming out of every orifice.

Williams was lured to Toulon with a tasty $3 million over two years – a pretty lofty step up from the $2 million he was getting over five years at the Bulldogs. Merci beaucoup, Toulon. There’s no way the NRL can match the cash the European rugby clubs are prepared to stuff down the throats of players, and it’s this issue which is the biggest, and most challenging confronting the code. SBW is the highest profile name to climb the stairway to the game they play in heaven, but he’s merely the poster boy of a blossoming problem.

Former Penrith captain Craig Gower was the first real big name to take the money and run to rugby when he joined French club Bayonne in 2007. Since then, St George Illawarra’s Mark Gasnier, and Penrith’s Luke Rooney have also joined le French brigade, and there’s no doubt many more will follow. In fact, one of the most endearing moments from this whole saga came from the well-loved Sharks captain, Paul Gallen. The people’s champion declared "I’ve never played rugby but for that sort of money I’d dance for them if they wanted me to". Ah, now wouldn’t that be a great sight: Gallen standing outside the Stade de France with a sign reading "will dance for contract". Sarcasm aside, it’s undeniable that the salary cap has turned into a balaclava, stifling NRL clubs’ opportunities to retain top class players, and attract new ones.

SBW has spoken out against the salary cap, arguing that it’s a restraint of trade, adding that NRL player earnings have not risen in line with the rest of the sporting world. On the latter point, our main man has a fair argument. Out of all the footy codes in Australia (rugby, AFL, league, and soccer), NRL player wages are the only ones to have decreased over the past 10 years. The Super League days of 1997 saw average player earnings of more than $600,000, but under the salary cap of $4.1 million for each club, the most any single player can earn is up to half a million bucks – and that’s only if you’re a Darren Lockyer or Greg Inglis. For the Ray Cashmeres and Kirk Reynoldsons of the world, $100-200 thousand is more likely.

But does this mean a salary cap should be abolished? Well that depends on what type of game you want for the future. SMH columnist and rugby-phile Peter FitzSimons, thinks the salary cap should be given the boot, and the clubs who are financially viable left to fight it out. If this were to happen, clubs like Souths and the Sharks would simply waste away and die, while many others like the Dragons, Sea Eagles, and Eels would seriously struggle to stay alive.

The NRL itself isn’t in great financial shape either. Despite being a hugely popular TV sport, it sold the broadcast rights for peanuts, and it can’t attract decent crowds to games away from the suburban heartlands. So no salary cap effectively equals no NRL.

But let’s say the money was suddenly to magically materialise, then what alternative could the NRL produce?

If you look to the English Premier League, then you get a fair idea of where it could all end up. The EPL has no cap and clubs have exorbitant amounts of money to acquire whomever they want to effectively buy the premiership. Sounds great, and it is for the few mega-rich clubs in Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool, but the other 16 clubs have no hope. Players might be fanning themselves with thousand dollar bills, but the competition they’re part of is grossly lopsided, and genuine contests are a mere pipe dream.

At least the NRL has managed to produce seven different premiers since its formation in 1998, and every team has a realistic shot at the premiership. This isn’t to say the current structure should remain untouched. There’s some merit in the argument for an AFL-style draft, or even a relaxation in third-party sponsorship arrangements, but to completely abolish the cap will only exacerbate the NRL’s already precarious financial state.

Of course, let’s not forget rugby union’s role in all of this, as the code is laughing at its fallen former big brother. For nearly 100 years it was league that poached rugby’s finest, including the man whom the NRL’s greatest individual honour is named after: Dally Messenger. Rugby only turned professional very late in the piece, in 1995, so it could do little to stem that flow. But the brains trust in Australian rugby land got its act together, and returned the favour when it claimed the likes of Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri, Mat Rogers and Timana Tahu.

But it has now been taken to a new, extreme level, where even the Super 14 clubs can’t compete with the money on offer in Europe.

This is the most fascinating aspect of the whole affair. While European rugby could potentially cripple the NRL, it also has the capacity to do the same to its southern hemisphere counterparts. New Zealand fly-half and demi-god Dan Carter has fled to French side Perpignan for a one season sabbatical, and will earn more than a million dollars for his efforts. This has provided a stern warning to the Australian Rugby Union, as it’s not in the healthiest financial state.

The ARU is slowly running out of the money that it’s been living off since the 2003 World Cup, and last year it recorded a deficit of nearly $8.5 million. It has struggled to penetrate the notoriously competitive Sydney market, exemplified by its inability to sell out ANZ Stadium in two test matches played there this year. If the ARU continues to struggle financially, it could see even more top line players go to Europe in the prime of their careers, and subsequently weaken the position of rugby in this country. Ironic, isn’t it?

Despite the gloomy news that has emerged since SBW left our shores, there is reason for some optimism. It has acted as a catalyst in forcing the NRL’s powerbrokers to address the core problems facing the code, while the huge interest generated by the story proves the importance of the game to so many people. And the ARU will face its own battles in ensuring its survival in the short-term.

So don’t despair just yet ye loyal and disillusioned footy fans, while the sun might not come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar there’ll be sun.

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