How often do you hear a fan say three games into the season that they’re going to support another side next year?
Imagine if some poor frustrated Eels fan upped and said “next year it’s the Bulldogs for me.” How passionate would their support for Parramatta be in the long cold winter months ahead?
It just never happens. NRL supporters are more likely to cheat on their spouses than their team. Rugby league is a lifelong monogamous love story, in good times and in bad, as long as we both shall live. Like penguins, we mate for life.
But it’s okay for players to choose their future teams long before they make the switch? No. It’s destabilising, distracting, and it has to be addressed.
Fans don’t like change. We watch because we love our players, we track their careers and we hate to see them go. The only time we love a sale is when we all want to get rid of a bad egg. When Willie Mason slipped off the red, white and blue for the last time, there wasn’t a Chook fan that didn’t rejoice.
But Dave Taylor’s defection is a different story. The 122-kilogram Goliath they call the Coal Train, is stoking his engine, building up a head of steam, and taking the express track direct from South Sydney to the Gold Coast to play for the Titans in 2013.
It’s shattering news for South Sydney, who’d finally had a cracking win, beating Penrith 40 to 24. For once it seemed the Rabbitohs had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But shortly after the win Taylor broke the bad news to his teammates. And the timing, on the back of two dynamic Taylor tries, just rubbed salt into the wound.
I’m not criticising Taylor. Family comes first. He and his wife are homesick for Queensland and who can blame them? There’s also the question of the salary cap. Player careers are shorter than other professions, and often they have to change teams to earn the money they deserve.
The NRL can’t do much about homesickness but it can address the timing, and the salary cap restrictions.
I’m in favour of a month-long trading period at the end of the NRL season. Four weeks are long enough for any negotiation. My only concern is transparency. Competitiveness and high stakes mean clubs will be tempted to discuss transfers in secret, discussions that would be difficult to police. But as we’ve seen, the salary cap also tempts clubs into entering into secret deals and yet it’s still worth having.
A draft is not for us. Players should have some choice about where they live. And I don’t like the way it completely reshuffles the deck each season. Clubs should be able to build year on year.
Keeping players in the one team can only be good for league. The veteran player allowance has gone some way towards recognising that. Can you imagine a Lockyer in any other team but the Broncos? I hate to think of Anthony Minichiello playing for anyone else but the Roosters. It would be weird to see Billy Slater in anything but a Storm jersey, although I’m sure we’ve all fantasised.
Is it out of left field to propose a cascading system of loyalty bonuses? Perhaps clubs could be allowed to exceed the cap by $30,000 to keep one player more than three years? Multiply that by two or three players per team. An extra 60 or 70 grand for a six-years-plus player, and so on, a system that would keep players in teams they love, bring consistency to clubs, and reward fans with a much loved team unity and reliability.
The other day I saw a 1991 match between the Roosters and Dragons. I don’t know which was more amusing, the players’ shorts or the commentary. There was an unidentified flame-haired player pumping his little legs up the field for the Chooks…Paul 'Fatty' Vautin. There’s a man who only belongs in Manly. Maybe time will erase all the wrongly placed players in our memories. How long until we forget there was a period in which Petero Civoniceva wasn’t a Bronco?