The word rebuild is widely frowned upon and rarely used amongst NRL clubs, no matter how far they are up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Off the back of Newcastle’s recent recruitment drive and predicted resurgence, I thought I would take a look into what contributes to a club rebuild, and why us armchair fans should trust the professionals.
Rebuilds happen, if you are a rugby league fan and you don’t go for the Melbourne Storm, the odds dictate you have experienced a rebuild in the time you have supported your club.
If I had to point the finger at one thing for causing the constant rebuilds, we see as fans, it would be the salary cap.
The salary cap is the most important cog in the ever-turning wheel that is the NRL. It causes a constant cycle that almost every NRL club (bar the Storm) has experienced in the past ten or so seasons. Generally speaking, that cycle is that your club will experience a sustained period of success due to the recruitment of high-quality players. Off the back of this success, other teams lower down the ladder recognise your superior roster and due to their increased cap space can offer your top end players a higher salary. After the loss of these higher-level players, it is likely that your team will then drop down the ladder and enter the rebuilding phase, as a result, you will have greater cap space and can then go and offer other club’s players more money. Which will lead to the recruitment of higher quality players and then you will begin to climb up the ladder once more. Then the cycle starts all over again.
Without the salary cap, the NRL would be reminiscent of the English Premier League, which has no salary cap constraints. In which the most commercially powerful clubs (Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Liverpool) dominate the competition every year due to their unrivalled spending power. As a result, these clubs are all but guaranteed to make up the top six every season.
The salary cap allows the NRL to stake quite a unique claim in the World’s professional sporting landscape. That being that the NRL is statistically the most even competition on the planet. This notion was presented by mathematician Stephen Woodcock in an opinion piece for The Conversation. In this piece, Woodcock detailed how he examined 26 different elite sporting competitions (comprised of 12 different sports) and created a formula to predict the odds of a repeat premier. And boy those results were revealing, the NRL came out as least likely to experience repeat premiers with odds of 3.8. Those most likely to have repeat premiers was Spain’s La Liga and our noisy neighbours the AFL, with odds of 0.06 respectively.
As the NRL is the World’s most even competition, this has resulted in regular swings of power and rebuilds throughout the NRL era. Now, this article isn’t to say that inept planning and roster management aren’t contributing to the downfall of clubs, but the salary cap certainly does not help clubs in their mission to be a consistent force.
Recent rebuilds that immediately spring to mind are those of the Dragons, Knights, and currently, the Bulldogs. Another notable rebuild was that which was undertaken by Phil Gould at the Panthers in 2012, that was typified by the departures of local juniors and big earners Luke Lewis, Michael Jennings, and Lachlan Coote.
In my personal experience as a Dragons fan, I remember the dark days after the departure of Wayne Bennett and the retirement of Ben Hornby. We immediately dropped down the ladder and trialled more halfbacks than I have had hot dinners, namely: an ageing Jamie Soward, Kyle Stanley, Drew Hutchison, Michael Witt, Sam Williams, and Josh McCrone. I vividly recall being so frustrated at the lack of any seeming succession plan or recruitment, that even when we were linked with Tuimoala Lolohea as a halfback I was hoping we would sign him. When in reality I should have been happy to trust that the Dragons hierarchy had a plan and wait for another few months in which we would sign Ben Hunt.
As is quite often the case, following the capture of a marquee signing like Hunt, that convinces other plays that a club (in this case the Dragons) is a desirable destination. In this case following Hunt’s acquisition, James Graham, Corey Norman, and Korbin Sims have since followed suit, along with a host of high-profile re-signings.
Easily the most obvious example of a rebuild in recent seasons is that of the Newcastle Knights. Who after the departure of the super coach Wayne Bennett, were as far up shit creek as you can be in the NRL. The Knights faithful had to contend with three successive wooden spoons, the bankruptcy of their owner, along with an ageing and vastly overpaid roster.
What the Knights did over the next three years should be a template for every other NRL club that experiences a rebuild. They brought in an experienced coach with a 58%-win record over his coaching career. Who wasn’t afraid to trust in youth, and wasn’t going to spend money for the sake of it. Since Nathan Brown joined the Knights in 2016, they have lived and died by their plan, and not budged for anyone.
It took a while and they got knocked back by plenty of players, but eventually, they got the ball rolling. Firstly, they brought in a pair of experienced and low-cost leaders in Jamie Buhrer and Rory Kostjasyn, this allowed them to mentor their young players and build on the experience gained from the previous season. Following this, they then identified more targets and problem positions for season 2018. This is when things started looking rosy for Knights fans, going on a recruitment drive that netted Mitchell Pearce, Connor Watson, Tautau Moga, Aidan Guerra, Herman Ese’ese, and Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
Naturally, their performances improved off the back of having more quality players at their disposal, and as I previously mentioned, the acquisition of quality players will convince others that their club is a desirable destination. That combined with exemplary salary cap management allowed them to net five more genuine first-graders, in Jesse Ramien, David Klemmer, Kurt Mann, Tim Glasby, and James Gavet. Off the back of this long-term planning, the Knights look ready to return to the powerhouse they were in the late 90s and early 2000s.
A club that looks to be following the Newcastle blueprint at the moment is the Bulldogs. Who after suffering at the hands of Des Hasler’s back ended contracts are well and truly rebuilding the foundations of their squad. Just to remind you of the large-scale turnover the Bulldogs have experienced in the last two seasons, they have lost players of the calibre of Moses Mbye, Josh Reynolds, David Klemmer, Aaron Woods, James Graham, the Morris twins, and Sam Kasiano.
After a lean 2018, the Bulldogs have displayed a clear plan by investing smartly in some inexpensive but quality young players. Including Nick Meaney, Christian Crichton, Jack Cogger, Corey Harawira-Naira, and Rhyse Martin (mid-season).
Even though rebuilds aren’t pretty to watch, with the current implementation of the salary cap we’ve got to accept that they are going to be a part of the game for a long time yet. So, although it is hard to watch your team slide down the ladder, trust that your club is making every move with the best possible outcome in mind.
Whilst it will hurt, for now, not to worry, the cycle will kick back into gear soon enough.