Talking RL: Central contracts are great, but don’t ignore development

George Williams is one of the favourites for the Man of Steel
George Williams is one of the favourites for the Man of Steel

There’s no shortage of sports fans who grow up in Wigan thinking: ‘I’d love to be in charge of Super League one day...’

Well, Roger Draper is such a man.

A former Winstanley College student with roots in Orrell, he has taken over as executive director of the competition after cutting his sporting teeth with big roles at Sport England, Lawn Tennis Association and with Warrington Wolves.

He used the Super League launch at Leigh last Thursday to, quite candidly, give his assessment of the sport.

“As a fan, I went to too many dull and boring games last year,” he said.

He went on to say retaining and attracting the best players was one of his top priorities.

I just hope the focus at the top-end isn’t papering over the cracks at the bottom end

“I don’t want to be running a mediocre league, I want to be running Super League,” said Draper, who used the example that he couldn’t sell tickets to a major tennis event without A-listers like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Of course, the NRL’s salary cap is double that of Super League while rugby union has an even higher wage ceiling, making attracting the best players a ridiculously-hard task.

Clubs already have the option of using the marquee player allowance – only Wigan do so – and Draper floated the idea of central contracts.

So far, so good.

But within hours, it emerged the RFL had an ‘ambassador programme’ in which a select few players are being paid for carrying out commercial work for them.

Senior sources at the RFL insisted all clubs knew about the payments.

Wakefield’s Michael Carter said on Twitter he was only made aware of their existence two weeks ago.

Either way, journalists and fans certainly weren’t told. And that’s the problem.

I have no issue at all with the RFL paying some players for work they do.

But it needs to be done in a transparent way.

It was an embarrassing bloody nose the RFL could easily have avoided and, if they do go forward with central contracts, they need to ensure they aren’t done as secretively.

Back to Draper’s point, we would all love more talent in Super League, and the growing gulf in wages puts the English game at a major disadvantage when it comes to retaining top talent.

But the reality is there are only a handful of English players in the NRL who are ‘bums-on-seats stars’.

Burgess and his siblings. James Graham. Josh Hodgson, too, now (though, in truth, I hardly remember him playing for Hull KR!).

But Wigan haven’t lost any season-ticket sales because Dan Sarginson has left.

Jordan Turner’s move to Canberra has hardly weakened Super League.

And I actually don’t mind having a few players over there – it strengthens the national team, and gives us someone to cheer in the NRL games, the same way we did when Adrian Morley and Gareth Ellis did so well.

Whisper it quietly, but there are even fewer players who have left Super League for union. Charnley, Solomona... who else? Kyle Eastmond ages ago, and Chris Ashton before that.

Hardly an exodus.

No. The real problem with the difference in the salary caps is in recruiting stars – quite simply, we used to get some of the best from the NRL.

Now we increasingly don’t.

Sure, there are some gems across the league, some of whom – it must be pointed out – weren’t stars in the NRL (code-hopper Denny Solomona, for a start).

But the fact there are only six ‘new faces’ from the NRL this season tells you the number of players arriving here is receding.

Now, some people may welcome that.

After all, it surely provides more opportunities for young English players to come through.

But that’s where the problem is.

Because just a day after the Super League launch last week, Wigan issued a press release announcing they had extended a dual-registration agreement with Swinton Lions because they had been handed only nine reserve fixtures for 2017.

Nine.

Rugby manager Kris Radlinski suggested the deal was done begrudgingly, admitting it “isn’t ideal.... we would prefer a strong reserves”.

This, remember, is a reserve league which is not compulsory.

A reserve league labelled “a shambles” by Ian Lenagan a year ago.

A reserve league many clubs choose not to be involved in.

On top of that, two Super League clubs won’t be running academy sides this year.

I know, on this subject, the RFL gets some misdirected blame.

It was, remember, the clubs themselves which voted to change to an Under-19s league to save money (with players too old sent on loan, or dual-reg, to lower-league outfits). It’s the clubs as well, by the way, who decide on the salary cap.

But when the RFL meets to decide how much they can afford to reward a select few stars with central contracts, I’d love it if some of that money could be funnelled towards development.

If clubs can’t be compelled to produce their own players, perhaps they can be incentivised to do it. With cash ring-fenced for the reserves, perhaps, or (transparent) salary-cap breaks for hoemgrown players.

After all, is it fair to shout too loudly about a few – and only a few – stars leaving and being unable to replace like-for-like, when our own production line of talent is in such a mess?

Yes, of course Draper is right to want to retain and recruit the best players. The stronger the league, the more fans will watch, the more money it will attract. And it will feed itself.

I just hope the focus on the top-end isn’t papering over the cracks at the bottom end, at a time when there is a golden chance to fill that void with homegrown stars.

Wigan’s John Bateman and George Williams are among the top-four favourites for the Man of Steel.

They have been developed, by Bradford and Wigan respectively, and been given a chance in Super League (and of all the things Shaun Wane has done and all the trophies he has won, it was his decision to give a young Williams the No.6 shirt – and stick with him in the face of some fierce criticism – which I respect him most for).

Presumably, they are attracting NRL interest and, presumably, they are two of the players who Draper has in mind for central contracts.

Which I would welcome.

But I dare say they, and other Super League players attracting NRL interest, would be more inclined to stay put if they felt they were in a strong, healthy league – from the top branches, all the way down to the roots.