The Cumberland Throw

The Spotlight – Reduced NRL Squad Sizes


Last week, News Corp reported that the NRL was in negotiations with the RLPA to reduce full time NRL squads to 26 players in 2021, with the number of development contracted players also likely to be cut. It’s a move that’s been mooted for some time, so it didn’t make too many headlines.

Nonetheless, this is a significant step for the game and one that should not pass without examination.

With the process currently in the negotiation phase, it’s likely that the outcome will not be as severe as suggested, and will probably see NRL clubs working with 28 NRL players and 4 development contracted players next season.

Naturally, the goal with any player cuts will be a reduction in costs. Therefore, the salary cap is tipped to be trimmed by between five to ten percent. After the parlous state of the code’s finances was exposed this season, it was obvious that the game needed to rein in expenses. Accordingly, removing the salary of two players per club is a much easier process than asking all players to renegotiate their contracts.

Where will such a change take the NRL?

Every year, players are pushed out of rosters via recruitment and internal upgrades. Coming into 2021, this number will swell as at least 32 players boasting NRL experience, and a further 32 from development lists, will be left looking for a new home.

At the end of this season, somewhere in the vicinity of 120 NRL players will be off contract. Clubs such as the Raiders, Titans, Sea Eagles, Cowboys, Panthers, Dragons and Roosters have the fewest players at the end of their current deals, each listing six players currently unsigned. The Eels, Warriors and the Storm have the most, at 10, 12 and 13 respectively.

Logic would dictate that the cuts will be met by clubs not re-signing players on their off-contract list. But will contract status be the only determining factor?

Should the salary cap be cut by up to 10 percent, some rosters may require a stronger review. And clubs with fewer players off contract might need to enter into unexpected negotiations with contracted players – most likely expedited before they begin talks with any new recruits. After all, their previous planning would have been based on a 30 man roster, and a six player, development contract list.

Sam Hughes was recently upgraded from the development list to a top 30 contract.

Of course, the unknown will involve the decisions regarding planned internal upgrades of young players, many of whom usually transition into the lower (read lower salary) end of the top 30. Simply cutting such players impacts the future planning usually associated with such individuals and probably does not address the required cut in the salary cap.

In all likelihood, this all adds up to an unprecedented number of experienced and/or talented players hitting the open market.

The result? In any market, the oversupply of goods and services coupled with a fall in disposable income pushes prices down.

Potentially, an influx of experienced players and a reduction in available roster places could see a fall in player salaries.

Previously, debate about the standard of the NRL usually focussed on inflated salaries and the dearth of quality players. In economic terms this is classic inflation – too much money chasing too few goods.

Consequently, this action by the NRL might facilitate a change in both the prices and the power base within the player market. Previously, player agents have held some clubs to ransom. Clubs had to spend their cap and experienced players were in demand. Those days could be numbered, and given recent actions taken against agents, it’s unlikely that any move which diminishes their influence will prove unpopular with punters.

Manu Ma’u is currently in the Super League but this option may become limited in the future

Some agents will be competing to obtain any contract for their clients, as opposed to the best contract. The Super League option has been impacted as British clubs struggle through the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. NRL clubs with strong rosters and well managed salary caps will be in a position to dictate terms to agents. Even struggling clubs who might normally be expected to pay above market price for average players will be in a better position during negotiations.

The domino effect might prove to be just as interesting, as players are forced to accept second tier contracts to continue their rugby league ambitions.

The standard of competitions such as the Canterbury Cup could be lifted.

This scenario should see the standard of the Canterbury Cup and Intrust Super Cup competitions raised as talented youngsters and NRL quality players are forced to ply their trade under contract to clubs at that level. Additionally, this influx at the second tier could result in players at every tier squeezed into the level below, with the Ron Massey Cup, Sydney Shield and other semi-professional and community competitions benefiting.

With fewer development contract spots available, clubs with strong pathways will possibly make the decision to fast track younger players into their top 30. Given that the lower roster spots are often occupied by players who spend much of the season playing second tier rugby league, and development contract players are either playing alongside them or in Jersey Flegg and on similar money, it makes financial sense that the top two development players would now be contracted in the top squad. After all, such players are usually the best of the pathways players.

If clubs decide to allocate a couple of NRL roster places to fast tracked pathways graduates, the value of development systems will be raised. This can only be beneficial for the game.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the implementation of a reduced roster. In the macro picture, this change could prove to be one of the most astute decisions made by the NRL, with implications that extend well beyond simple cost cutting.

If the result is a football world where agents wield less power, the clubs have greater control in shaping their destiny, and investment in developing players is rewarded, then it’s a step which should be applauded.

Eels forever!



Credit to NRL, Eels media and NSWRL for images used.

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Colin Hussey

Certainly interesting times ahead for the RL futures. I have no doubt there will need to be some sort of reduction in player numbers possibly for each different grade. The aspect of having a 30 man roster basically means we have two first grade teams available each week, 13+4 for the primary team with 13 left for the 2nd/reserve grade side, ideally there needs to be more to cover the 4 bench spots with the 2nds which basically makes a club of 34 players for two teams. How then do we fit those numbers into a team especially for CC… Read more »


All backward steps for mine col ,anyway the majority of games are played at to many different venues for any of it to work , the old concept was under a much different structure with everything being on a home and away system in what was primarily a Sydney based competition , even when comp was expanded it was a still a compact scenario , now it’s 5 teams out of state with one being overseas , it’s unworkable 2020 Colin, also col development players in cc , are you kidding , the only thing they’ll learn their is thuggery… Read more »

John Eel

Sixties I think that talk of Covid eradication is unrealistic in the short term.

You can’t achieve elimination with lock downs. The only way to achieve eradication is with a vaccine.

That said the most wildly optimistic prediction for an effective vaccine is middle of 2021. Based on that we will be starting the 2021 season in a bubble.

Colin Hussey

Thanks for your nothing post Mr School Principle, says a lot from hiding behind a desk with cane in hand and door shut, treating your post with the disdain and nil respect as it deserves.

Colin Hussey

Sixties I suspect that there will be a lot of changes made for season 2021 and beyond. While I accept that not every match could not have curtain raiser games, I do believe having more than a couple would be an overall beneficial addition to the game day experience.

Peter Johnson

Sixties, Good read. What impact do you think the intended expansion of the game with a couple of extra teams in the mix.
Maybe there maybe more players to go around.


I wonder if this would lead to expansion. Another team in QLD without the NRL having to find funding for the team. Cutting sqaud numbers to the current team so less funding needed. Also could players maybe head to the bush to ply their trade. Even though I don’t think to many would.


The covid certainly exposed the bungling and wastage and financial mismanagement thats going on at most sporting organisations and whilst im not a fan of vlandys interference in the actual game of rugby league i think we are lucky to have him to fix the financial situation of the nrl itself , The games never going to be the way it was ,better or worse it will be whatever is financially sustainable but at least the game will survive,, as ive stated i wont be surprised to see squads eventually become a sensible 25 financially safe sporting organisation backed with… Read more »


Unfortunately col some decisions regarding lead up games are in the hands of the stadium managements not the club , groundstaff ,security and ancillary staff all cost money , at cumberland oval in old days a volunteer just carried a bucket of dirt that he got from the pile behind goalposts ,


Good read mate. Love the idea of development clubs maybe being rewarded. The promotion of top juniors faster appeals to me. Regarding juniors, do we have any hot young centers coming through ?


I’m too lazy to do the research but isn’t it only 5 clubs that say they’re profitable, and even then the components of that profit are not necessarily pure football income. And another coach just gets north of $1million to go away. The saying that ‘its a business’ has some truth, just not business that I’d invest in because I don’t have millions for yachts,jets, mansions and football teams. Anything that is workable and faces reality is worth considering. Covid is spotlighting false economies all around us. Well summarised sixties, my best shot is that 32 players sounds workable.


I’m actually in favor of reduced squads with the belief that it will eventually strengthen and improve the quality of the game and maybe even out the distribution of talent , I believe our top squad finishes at marata on 14 , Oregon , Stone , Evans ( going ) Davey ( could be going ? ) at the moment there back ups nothing more , before we get ahead of ourselves you need a top 17 at least with preferably 19 being the magic number for a title challenging squad , the bench of your top squads don’t just… Read more »


Well aware of that colin and happy to acknowledge mate , rate the kid highly , theres a lot more pieces missing though colin

Achilles' Eel

Plenty of new coaches will seek to build their ‘own’ teams – and time is of the essence. So expect players to go to market whose contracts are yet to expire.

Also, Parra will have to consider the promotion of juniors as a cost-effective option to offset big money offers when its own players come up for renewal over the next two years. How long can this current, strongly-balanced starting lineup be kept together?

Colin Hussey

I would be looking to Christian Welch, unless he is upset that the eels did not go ahead with signing him following last years injury he would be the ideal fit for the club, he may be a bit dearer now but with the forwards that will be lost, he would be the one I would be targeting.

Achilles' Eel

He’s a good player – and playing very well. But I’m out of my depth on such matters and would rather leave it to the professionals.


Well if last night hasn’t brought home to roost the clubs lack of depth nothing will and there’s possibly 1 to 2 leaving as well with no sign of any recruitment by football dept other than a few juniors, backwards 2021 , my fear is the clubs priority’s now is money first football team second .

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