On the Road: Round 7

SO Melbourne have slipped a rung down the Bailey Ladder and we are left with the cities of Sydney (south), Wollongong and Brisbane heading the NRL after seven weeks.

At first glance, that may not seem to be all that much of a shock: the Dragons (6-1) and Broncos (6-1) have been good performers over the course of the last 15 years and are blessed with large populations, membership bases and sponsorship portfolios.

But everyone seems to be forgetting something – or make that someone.

Greg Inglis – former Golden Boot winner – departed Brisbane during the summer because of a number of off-field issues and, we can only assume, left the Red Hill mob unable to replace him and significantly under the salary cap!

Yet they took six weeks to even concede a second half try and after losing the youngster widely acknowledged as their best, Matt Gillett, to injury, still beat Wests Tigers (3-4) comfortably, 31-18, at Sydney Football Stadium on Friday night.

Dragons coach Wayne Bennett is the master of being ahead under the cap, with little rules like - supposedly – unofficial ceilings on how much front rowers are paid.

But if Brisbane continues their ascent, will they revolutionise the way NRL fulltime squads are constructed in future? Is it possible, in 2011, to have TOO MANY State of Origin and international players?

Certainly, recruitment managers at other clubs must be asking themselves as May bears down on us: “Why are we spending all that money when you can just build a team around Sam Thaiday, Justin Hodges, Corey Parker plus Darren Lockyer and you’ll lead the comp?”

Melbourne (5-2), likewise, seemed until their thrilling 18-14 loss to the Warriors (3-4) in Monday Night Football, to have lost precious little with the departure of Inglis, Brett Finch, Ryan Hoffman, Jeff Lima, Aiden Tolman and the rest.

Willie Mason and Luke O’Donnell were decorated representative players but North Queensland (5-2) have coped just fine without them in 2011.

Compare these rosters – led by a “Big Three” or “Big Four” – with the likes of South Sydney’s (2-5). Every second player is a representative star while Sydney Roosters (2-5) players are so famous they can’t even have a quiet drink in peace at a John Ibrahim-owned establishment.

Just spending under the salary cap is not the key to success, of course, or else Cronulla (2-5) would be up with the Dragons and Broncos.

But as much as Gold Coast (2-5) want to prove wrong those who say their squad of seasoned professionals is too old, they’ve not managed to do it yet this year.

The Toyota Cup was supposed to give us a better progression plan for youngsters but maybe – Ben Barba, anyone? – it has exceeded expectations and actually shortened the career life expectancies of our biggest names.

Soon, there may only be room for two of them at each club – old heads in creative positions moulding the pliable footy minds around them. Only some of the rest of each team - the Jharal Yow Yehs and Matt Duffies – will survive past their professional middle age without being replaced by younger foot soldiers.

The salary cap has made it harder to fill your team with superstars.

By the end of the season, we may well be saying the Brisbane Broncos proved conclusively it’s a dumb idea anyway.