August 2021 Opinion

COVID Accelerates NRL Loan Plan

COVID seems to have put the hammer down on the NRL's plans to introduce a player loan system.

A loan system in the NRL has long been discussed but often quickly ignored by the administration.

It’s a system that has been in operation for over 100 years in English football, before the game even became professional in the late 1800s.

But with COVID-19 impacting the NRL season in 2020 and forcing clubs to essentially only have 30 man squads with no second tier competition, the governing body decided to allow player loans in that year.

Harry Grant was loaned by the Melbourne Storm to the Wests Tigers, with the joint merger sending centre Paul Momirovski the other way.

It’s a move that benefited both the players and the clubs. Grant, who was stuck behind legend Cameron Smith and Kiwi international Brandon Smith was able to get valuable first grade experience.

Melbourne had a lack of backline depth and although Momirovski was injured during the season, he was able to contribute to the Storm side during the year.

The Tigers were able to receive the services of one of the finest young hookers in the game considering they were very light on depth at the position.

In short, everybody won. Players got valuable game time in a season without a second tier, while clubs filled essential positions.

But with 2021 rolling through the NRL still didn’t codify an official loan policy. Clubs can apply for player loans, but there are no official rules surrounding them.

Mid-Season Signings

Then, with 2021’s player signing window closing in August instead of the usual June 30, clubs began signing players for the back end of the season if they had room in the salary cap.

This has occurred in the NRL previously, but is usually done in the first half of the season.

With the official signing window being shifted, players have been signed a lot closer to the finals.

While some fans have criticised the move, it’s a system that has been employed by the NFL for years.

Some players can bounce around to three teams a season due to being cut, traded, or being unhappy and asking to leave.

NFL franchises are more than happy to wheel and deal throughout the season to both set up their charge towards the playoffs and sort out their future salary cap budgets.

This year we have seen Tevita Pangai Junior signed by the Bulldogs for the 2022 season, be relegated to the reserves by Brisbane and purchased for less than half a season by the Panthers.

This would be normal in the NFL and is something I think should continue. If a club loses a player for the following season and then decides to demote them, that player should be able to find a club to continue playing at for the rest of the season.

A Loan System

In the English Premier League, the loan system is pretty straight forward.

Say you’re Liverpool FC and you have Takumi Minamino on your books. He’s not getting enough game time in the Premier League due to squad depth. 

Meanwhile Southampton are light on in Minamino’s position due to injuries and poor form.

Liverpool sends him to Southampton on loan.

Minamino can play every EPL game for the length of his loan unless it’s against Liverpool. He can also play cup games provided he hasn’t played them already for Liverpool.

In the case of wages – and this would be the main issue for the NRL’s salary cap – they are negotiated between the clubs.

Some “parent” clubs will split the fees between themselves and the receiving clubs. 

Others will see the receiving clubs pay the player’s wages for the length of the loan.

The parent club may also demand an upfront fee, or loan them with an option to purchase the player in full at the end of the loan period.

In the NRL, it should be a negotiation between the two clubs over who pays the player’s wages while they are on loan, however there should be no loan “fee”.

Clubs are either paying the wages or not. If there is no transfer fee like in the Premier League, it makes no sense for a loan fee to exist. 

There have been suggestions that loaned players should not be able to play finals matches in the NRL.

That sounds ill-thought-out. What is the point of having a player on loan if you get to the business end of the season and have an injury crisis but that player isn’t available?

Is it then supposed to be up to the NRL to arbitrarily decide when a loaned player could play finals? The governing body isn’t exactly consistent on those types of decisions.

The loaned player also shouldn’t be prevented from playing finals if their parent club doesn’t qualify. If that club didn’t think the player was good enough to be part of their plans that season, then the player shouldn’t be punished.

The only time a loaned player should be prevented from playing, is when they would be facing their parent club.

Moving Forward

I hope we see a loan system set up and more of these mid-season moves. Alongside a properly structured transfer window the NRL would finally be in line with the largest competitions in the world.

I don’t agree with Phil Gould much, but his point regarding Matt Burton and similar players is correct. Once those players get to a certain point, playing in reserve grade no longer benefits their development.

If a loan system is available then those players can get valuable game time to help develop their skills at the highest level.

I’m not saying what Penrith did was wrong in refusing Canterbury’s request to send Burton over early – he’s proven invaluable for the Panthers this season – but players of Burton’s skill level need NRL football to maintain and improve their performance.

The loan system would also help put paid to the idea there isn’t enough talent to support more teams.

There are plenty of talented players both young and mature running around in reserve grade looking for their shot.

As Andrew Davey showed for Parramatta last year, sometimes all those players need is an opportunity to showcase their ability.

While there are plenty of scouts watching lower grade matches, nothing can help a player more than performing at the highest level.

The loan system provides that and more.

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