Opinion September 2020

The NRL Draft

Do we truly need a draft, or can talent still be dispersed evenly?

“There isn’t enough talent”, “Some teams are forced to buy players”, “How do we even the junior playing field?”

They’re arguments that come up every season. Teams like the Penrith Panthers, Parramatta Eels and Brisbane Broncos have large junior nurseries, capable of ushering through new players like they come off an assembly line.

Looks can be deceiving in that respect. Without a well-structured junior program and significant investment in the junior coaching ranks, diamonds can be missed and talents slip through to other clubs.

Other clubs are perceived to buy their way to success, with the argument being they are sometimes forced into the position because there simply aren’t enough players in their junior catchment.

Whenever these sorts of arguments arise, often a solution that is tabled is an NRL rookie draft. AFL is the only Australian league to have one. Overseas the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have drafts.

What is a draft?

A draft is essentially a way the top rookies are signed to professional contracts through a ballot system.

Teams are given preference based on their ladder position with the view to improving the worst performing sides of the previous season. The team that finished last is given the first pick and it goes from there with multiple rounds. Teams can trade picks/players as part of their strategy.

The draft works in these leagues because there is no junior system attached to the professional clubs, unlike the NRL, where clubs have junior representative sides starting around the age of 14.

In America, they use a college system where athletes are unpaid and those performances are used to help judge a player’s overall ability and worth and whether or not they’re good enough to end up on the draft list.

In the AFL it is slightly different, with younger players competing in their local representative competitions such as the SANFL, WAFL, TAC Cup, NAB League etc.

There is no collegiate system in Australia.

The NRL Draft

The NRL has flirted with a draft just once in its history. In 1991, the NSWRL attempted to operate an internal draft, allowing struggling teams to recruit players from better performing clubs.

It lasted just the one season after South Sydney’s Terry Hill had agreed a deal with Western Suburbs but was drafted by Eastern Suburbs. The matter ended up before the High Court with the court squashing the draft.

The main issue in this instance was a draft being utilised for internal players who already had professional contracts. The players saw it as a restraint of trade and possibly damaging to their careers if they ended up in struggling sides.

The current proposals look to an external draft where rookie players are selected who have no affiliation with an NRL side.

The current set up doesn’t work

Now, the man who is convinced he invented rugby league and is the gatekeeper to all talk about improving the NRL, Phil Gould, maintains that a draft can work provided all of the clubs remain in charge of junior development.

His stance is the NRL isn’t organised to look after the game’s juniors and the clubs are better resourced. On the surface it’s a sound argument but it only takes a little critical thinking to see this idea fall down.

Firstly, why would clubs with large junior bases be motivated by a system that would essentially punish them by taking their best juniors and putting them on the open market?

Secondly, what then motivates other clubs to actually put in the work to develop their own juniors even if their catchments are small, if they know they’ll get a crack at the juniors from other areas?

The new system

The new system would see the reintroduction of a national junior competition, but instead of the clubs being asked to fund and coach it, the NRL would introduce a national junior body. 

It would take in more than just the eastern seaboard and would focus more on regions than individual cities or towns.

A fully independent junior competition provides an elite level of sport to the game’s top prospects, preparing them for life in the NRL.

It also means clubs can put more time into their reserve grade and first grade sides without having to worry about the expenses of a junior system.

There could also be the availability of the father-son rule that is utilised by the AFL which allows clubs where a father has played 100 game or more the side, to recruit his son if they are nominating for the draft, which retains some of the tribalism in the game.

The arguments against the draft

While there have been calls for a draft for decades in the NRL, the current system has functioned well for over 100 years.

Teams go through peaks and troughs and it’s the same in the draft-having sports. What is a draft actually solving?

The current system forces teams to maintain their own junior and recruitment systems to ensure they have the talent to compete, without them being able to rely on achieving a top pick should they be struggling.

The draft system also brings in the concern of tanking towards the end of the season if a side wants to try and get the number one pick. That’s the last thing fans want and most fans would rather see a meaningless game at the end of the season than suspect a side of deliberately losing.

Another consideration is the tribalism still involved in the game. Many fans follow the junior games and can track rookies from those early days through to their first grade debut.

This columnist spent years watching the likes of Reed Mahoney and Dylan Brown ply their trades in the junior grades at the Eels before they hit the NRL.

With a draft, those stories are gone.

And there’s also the question of those players who peak later. Who perhaps aren’t ready to sign a contract at the age of 18. Is there less chance of those players now getting a crack if clubs are more concerned with the next big thing in the draft?

The likelihood of a player going from Jersey Flegg into the NRL is miniscule with even fewer actually managing a meaningful career at the moment. What happens to those players who aren’t selected for the draft but could perhaps peak a little later in life? Do we start losing those stories?

Cody Walker and Nathan Ross both debuted in the NRL at the age of 26. This season Andrew Davey debuted at 28. Even the great Johnathan Thurston was a late bloomer. He was never selected for NRL development squads or pathways sides. There’s every likelihood he’d never have been drafted.

At the end of the day, is the current system actually broken, or are people looking for a way to change something for the sake of change?

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