The recent news that David Fifita is re-considering his future at the Broncos post 2020 has set the rugby league world buzzing. Clubs are suddenly crunching their numbers to determine whether they have the capacity to offer the type of coin necessary to secure this potentially generational player for next season.
This got me thinking – a dangerous outcome at the best of times!
During the Brad Arthur era, the only true marquee signing for the Eels has been Kieran Foran. Forget about the issues faced by Foran. Though I can assure readers that Brad Arthur went above and beyond to support Kieran during difficult times (acknowledged by Foran in the media), the Eels were an off-field basket case and the 2016 salary cap dramas emphasised that the club was not ready for such a high profile, highly salaried recruit.
Let me also be clear. I’m not suggesting that other recruits or other players on the Eels roster aren’t quality players. I’m defining a marquee recruit as a player who would attract interest from most clubs, along with a top of the market salary commensurate with the demand for his services.
Over the past 18 months, Parra has assembled a roster which is arguably amongst the best in the NRL. Through quality, targeted recruitment, Arthur has ensured that positions of weakness have become areas of strength and the club has transformed from wooden spoon holders to a Premiership heavyweight in a remarkably short period of time.
In 2020, the Eels will field a very balanced top 17. There might be a few players on relatively high incomes, but there’s not the type of unhinged expenditure on select individuals that creates salary cap pressure and the need to offload players. Parra would undoubtedly express their gratitude to Penrith for subsidising a couple of key recruits.
As things stand, there are 14 players in the Eels top 30 who are off contract at the end of the current season. Of those, Stefano Utoikamanu has agreed to terms with the Tigers for 2021, whilst the high profile signatures of Shaun Lane and Reed Mahoney are yet to be secured. Kane Evans is now in the final year of his deal and Brad Takairangi remains unsigned having extended for just one season. Outside of the 14 players, Nathan Brown holds a player option for 2021, and is yet to indicate his intentions.
Depending on the result of negotiations, along with the decisions about the remaining off-contract players, the Eels could be left with a significant “war chest” to make a decent play for a marquee player such as Fifita.
But is that the way to go?
Locking in Mahoney and Lane would ensure that the Eels top 17 remains relatively unchanged moving into 2021. That level of stability is almost unheard of for an NRL club. But would stability take the club to the next level if the current team falls short in its Premiership campaign this season?
Every team should add new personnel to their roster each year in order to avoid stagnation, so we can therefore expect departures from the current top 30. The option, based on cap space created, is to either spend up on a marquee addition or to add depth to specific positions.
It’s hard to deny the impact that a David Fifita could provide for any team. The Broncos back rower is already the ultimate game-breaker. His power, mobility and pace out wide creates havoc at both club and representative level footy. Such is this 20 year old’s current standing in the game, it’s unfair to compare any edge player of similar age to him.
Wherever Fifita plays, he won’t come cheap. Therein lies the problem for any club looking to add him, or someone of a similar ilk, to their roster. The cost is not just in the money spent on him, it’s the money not spent on others. It might mean releasing a valued player or two. It might mean losing talented pathways players. It might mean sacrificing depth.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. A club might sign a marquee player with the hope of attracting other quality players, but this doesn’t always work.
For many seasons, the Eels boasted one of the NRL’s most elite athletes – Jarryd Hayne. He was home grown, but that didn’t mean that his continued retention didn’t come with significant costs. Without being disrespectful, from 2010 onwards Hayne had to take the field alongside some players who would have struggled to get an NRL gig at another club. His talent alone couldn’t lift the Eels to finals football, and the Blue and Golds continued to struggle to attract better players.
Similarly, unrealistic expectations should not be made if Fifita were to sign with a struggling club. Look no further than Kalyn Ponga for further evidence on that front. Without question, Fifita’s management would take such factors into consideration.
But the Eels are no longer a struggling club. They are not the 2010 – 2016 version which firstly competed with inferior personnel, then imploded administratively courtesy of the salary cap scandal. So are they ready or suited to add a marquee recruit?
Under the administration of Bernie Gurr and the merit selected Football Board of Directors, the Eels have become a salary cap role model. The processes in place provide complete transparency about all contracts registered with the NRL. Without question, those high standards will remain under new CEO, Jim Sarantinos and Head of Football Mark O’ Neill.
Then there’s the new Kellyville training facilities, a world class Bankwest Stadium, and a membership base which competes with the Rabbitohs to be the leading club in Sydney.
Off-field, the club is therefore ready to be a viable destination for the game’s elite.
On-field, there’s a strength in the roster to ensure that a marquee recruit wouldn’t be waging a solo war on a weekly basis.
The Eels have a top heavy squad. Like most genuine Premiership contenders, though there’s potential in the depth, the money is spent at the top end of the roster, and few “names” sit outside the top 17. Unless a highly salaried player is released, a player of Fifita’s caliber could only be secured by sacrificing club depth.
Nothing is certain in rugby league, but with the likes of Mahoney and Lane reportedly close to extending their time at the club, and the option sitting in Nathan Brown’s favour, it seems that a top 17 player is unlikely to be on their way out.
So would you sacrifice overall depth to secure a superstar?
As CEO, if Fifita’s agent told you that his client wants to pull on your club’s jersey, surely only insanity or an absurd asking price would stop you from setting a new speed record for signing a cheque. But, if you were the Eels CEO, would you enter a competitive marketplace, knowing the price will be high in many respects.
I don’t have an answer. I think chasing someone like Fifita is incongruous to the Eels current recruitment policies, but you’d surely consider dipping your toe in the water for someone like him. Or would you?
So whether it’s Fifita, or any other potential marquee recruit, do the Eels possess the type of roster or perhaps culture that would suit paying big coin to one player above all others?
If only real life roster building was as easy as NRL SuperCoach.
Credit to Eels media and Broncos media for the images used.