ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm heads for the try line to score during the round 15 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Melbourne Storm at Adelaide Oval on June 28, 2019 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Rugby League is the most entertaining sport in the world, however, there is a deep flaw in the game right now.  This problem cannot be solved with more crowds, a better broadcast deal or even administrative intervention.

There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening.  And this leads people who run NRL teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams.

People who run football clubs, they think in terms of buying players. The goal shouldn’t be to buy players, the goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy tries.

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The Brisbane Broncos are trying to replace David Fifita (as you can see by their pursuit of Kurt Capewell and their desperate re-signing of Brandon Piakura).  The Titans see David Fifita and they see a star who is worth $1.2 million-a-year.

NRL Rd 2 - Titans v Broncos
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 19: David Fifita of the Titans celebrates during the round two NRL match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Brisbane Broncos at Cbus Super Stadium on March 19, 2021, in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

When I see David Fifita, I see an imperfect understanding of where wins come from. The guy’s an exceptional ball runner, an explosive tackle breaker and is tough to stop close to the line.

But is he worth the $1.2 million-per-season that the Titans are paying him? No. Rugby League thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions.

If that all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is. It’s lifted – almost word for word – from the movie Moneyball, a movie about maths wrapped in a sports metaphor.

My point is that the same thing that happened to baseball in the early 00’s should be happening now in the NRL. Unfortunately there hasn’t been that lightbulb moment provided by a guy like Paul DePodesta.

The 2010’s in the NRL were dominated completely by two clubs – the Roosters and the Storm. They combined for six of the 10 premierships between 2011-2020. You would think the league would have taken a step back, analysed what had led to those successes and implemented the changes to make themselves more competitive.

Judging by what has happened the first few months into this decade, it’s fair to assume that is not the case.

The Roosters and Storm will remain the top dogs of the competition, until the other clubs catch up. The Panthers could also potentially join them when the bill comes due for their young squad.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 28: Cameron Munster of the Storm feeds the scrum during the round 15 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and the Melbourne Storm at Adelaide Oval on June 28, 2019 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

The key is simple – the spine.  Everything else is expendable.

It’s shocking that nobody has seemed to be able to figure this out, but you can see it at play every year in the NRL.

The Broncos busted their butts to keep edge-forward Brandon Piakura, but allowed super talented fullback Reece Walsh to go with barely a whimper.

James Maloney was a key figure in three Grand Final squads for three different teams (Warriors, Roosters, Sharks) and led the league in try assists four times during that period. Yet he remained unsigned at the end of 2019 and went to Europe.

Benji Marshall, who has just finished a dominant display against the Titans, was let go by the Tigers and signed as an afterthought with the Rabbitohs.

Finally, Adam Reynolds, a premiership winning halfback and probably the best boot in the competition will walk straight out the door at Redfern.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 10: Adam Reynolds of the Rabbitohs chips the ball during the round one NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the New Zealand Warriors at Optus Stadium on March 10, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

If you follow the NFL, then you know that the skill of a team’s quarterback has an outsize effect on the performance of the team (as opposed to, say, a guard). That’s why the teams with good quarterbacks will do almost anything to keep them.

The NRL’s complete misunderstanding of player value is the reason the Storm and Roosters look like geniuses every year. Their approach to roster management is very simple – pay market rate to keep your spine intact, and fill in the roster with whoever you can get.

If you think that sounds simple, it’s because it is. Look at the rosters of those two teams and you’ll see the proof. Both of those teams have said goodbye to very talented players because they were unwilling to disrupt their roster for a player who wasn’t a spine player.

Latrell Mitchell for the Roosters is the most recent example – his switch to fullback came after and wouldn’t happen while Tedesco was on the Roosters roster.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 08: Latrell Mitchell of the Roosters watches on during the NRL Qualifying Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the Cronulla Sharks at Allianz Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Which brings me back to Adam Reynolds. This guy should be the highest paid player in the league when season 2022 starts. This shouldn’t even be a discussion.

Instead, the Rabbitohs are sticking to their one-year, 800k offer and several teams that would see dramatic improvements by having Reynolds on their roster are all twiddling their collective thumbs.

Meanwhile, Fifita received an enormous contract because he looks awesome for seven-minutes every game. This isn’t a knock on Fifita, the fact that he was able to secure such an obscene contract is a credit to him and his manager.

The Titans, however, have managed to upgrade from ‘terrible’ to ‘mediocre’ because of this signing. I have to ask, was that the plan?

The signing of David Fifita on such an enormous contract is an announcement to the competition that the Titans are for real. This isn’t a building block, this is the icing on the cake that is the Gold Coast Titans football roster.

Yet, nobody who understands football at the most fundamental level will take the Titans seriously as a premiership contender. Why?  Because the spine of Brimson, Taylor, Fogarty and Rein doesn’t do anything to move the needle.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – JULY 27: Alexander Brimson of the Titans looks on during the round 19 match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Brisbane Broncos at Cbus Super Stadium on July 27, 2019 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Despite the presence of two of the best young forwards in the competition – Fifita and Fa’asuamaleaui – the Titans have no chance of finishing higher than about 7th.  That should never be the goal.

Why is that important?

No team in the history of the NRL (since the unification in 1998) has won a premiership without an international representative (Australia or New Zealand), and another representative player, in the spine. That’s 23 years of history. 23 years of a trend that hasn’t broken.

It shouldn’t take much thought to see that the teams with the best spines are the best teams, period.

Occasionally, a team will come along with depth and talent across the board that leads to them winning the premiership (2010 Dragons, 2016 Sharks) but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Right now, you need an internationally recognised player in your spine if you want to win the premiership.

By that rule, there are only four teams that can win this year: Raiders, Rabbitohs, Storm and Sea Eagles. Not the four you’d expect to see, is it?

I will be watching with great interest to see if the trend will continue, or if it will be broken.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article and goes hand in glove with the paper I wrote about salary cap payments and bonuses some time ago

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