It was in 1990 that the NSWRL introduced the salary cap. It was introduced to ensure the long-term future of clubs who had traditionally battled against the considerable financial advantages that some wealthier clubs enjoyed.
Rugby league through the eighties had been enjoyable, a little low scoring, but generally the game was pleasing to watch. Slick advertising campaigns and marketing were aiding the growth of the sport and the average players’ salary was starting to look more and more like a professional – apt income for athletes dedicated to their craft.
Despite the quality product there was a dominance through the eighties of three clubs. Parramatta, Canterbury-Bankstown and Manly-Warringah were consistently represented in grand finals, finals and major semi-finals, to the point that, as a trio, they won every grand final from 1980 to 1988.
It was claimed that the new salary cap would address this issue and ensure that teams consistently mired to the bottom of the table would become a thing of the past. Quality players would be spread evenly throughout the competition and the week to week football would be of a higher standard because of this dynamic.
Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. Clubs have found clever and intricate ways to work their way around the restraints that the salary cap puts on them.
Subsequently, an imbalance that existed through the seventies and eighties, remains obvious in our game.
In an attempt to examine this fairly I have looked at the twenty five year period since the inception of the cap. I have included Melbourne in the sample despite having not competed in the first seven years of the era.
I have excluded the 1997 Super League season, as the two competitions make an imperfect comparison. Many people probably still wish that the entire season could be removed from the record books, such was the harm caused to the game.
I have also ignored name changes such as Manly to the Northern Eagles and back again, Balmain to Sydney Tigers to Wests Tigers and the two sides who attempted to own the city – the Sydney Bulldogs and the Sydney City Roosters.
Looking at the raw data over the period it became clear that thirteen of the last twenty five minor premierships have been won by five clubs: Bulldogs (3), Roosters (4), Manly (2), Brisbane (3) and the Storm (1).
If you include the three that were rightfully taken from the Storm, the figures are even more askew. I have chosen to leave them out.
In contrast, the four teams that I will use to highlight an endemic imbalance in our supposed level competition are the Wests Tigers, South Sydney, Cronulla Sutherland and Penrith.
Between the four they have rustled up three minor premierships (Penrith can claim two and the Sharks one) and four premiership titles overall.
In contrast, the ‘big five’ can lay claim to 17 premierships. The closeness of the matches each weekend and the large number of upsets that occur throughout the season have hoodwinked fans into thinking that this competition is based on a level playing field.
The statistics suggest this is not the case.
Players missing in Origin periods, form fluctuations and injuries play a significant role in these inconsistencies rather than parity in the competition. The third party agreement rules seem to reinforce a distinct gap between the haves and the have nots.
I hope everyone accepts the sample size here as valid, as it is the only one we have. What is also interesting is that the golden run of the Tigers in ’05, the recently improved Souths under the financial control of Russell Crowe and the brilliant Panthers of ’03 stand out like obvious anomalies in the bigger picture.
We could blame poor management, injuries and other factors that affect clubs, yet over a 25-year period, one could assume that these elements would level out to some extent and a balanced competition would be the result.
Digging a little deeper, participation in finals series, which is a true reflection of the consistency of a club, is another area where these five powerful sides dominate.
The Storm (89%), Broncos (88%), Manly (64%), Bulldogs (60%) and Roosters (52%) fans know they will be in the semi-finals more often than not. Even excluding the series that both Melbourne and the ‘Dogs were denied due to salary cap breaches, these figures are impressive.
The long-suffering fans of the Tigers (16%), Penrith (28%) and the Bunnies (20%) might get to see their team in the finals every three or four years. Sure the Bunnies have broken the trend over the last four years, yet recent form hints at a potential return to the days prior to the arrival of the Gladiator.
The Eels (36%) and Sharks (44%) aren’t statistically that much more likely to enjoy September action. The recent events surrounding Parramatta and the poor leadership and structure emanating from the board point to more of an internal issue than competition imbalance. For this reason I have elected to use other clubs as examples.
The Eels have the money, juniors, fans and resources to be a success and should be much closer to those consistently at the pointy end of the table.
In much the same way, the AFL pleads mercilessly with everyone who will listen to appreciate the even nature of their competition. While it is pleasing to see the improvement in recent times of teams like St Kilda, Richmond, the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne, the power base has been fairly constant for the last twenty five years.
The cap was introduced in 1987, a year after the first modern draft took place, a second tool designed to create parity.
Since 1990, the Sydney Swans (68%), Geelong (72%), Hawthorn (64%) and West Coast (76%) have been solidly locked in to semi-final action more often than most.
St Kilda (44%), Melbourne (36%), Western Bulldogs (48%) and Richmond (20%) have spent more than their fair share of time in the bottom half of the table in the corresponding period and have a grand total of zero when it comes to premiership titles.
Over the same period, the four dominant clubs have amassed a total of 15 titles.
I’m tiring of people telling me how the NRL competition, and the AFL for that matter, are so even, competitive and unpredictable. The fallacy of this statement is proven by the hysteria around the Cronulla Sharks’ performances this year.
Fans have waited patiently for over half a century for the moment they now see on the horizon. For the ‘big five’ this has occurred numerous times.
Yet, are they to become another blip on the radar, just as the Panthers and Tigers amazing seasons now look? Will a Premiership victory or outstanding season be followed by a slow decline into their more customary position on the ladder.
The salary cap keeps all the clubs financially in the game, as does a billion-dollar TV deal. Without it a few may have fallen by the wayside. The financial backing of Leagues Clubs have kept some in a strong position due to poker machine revenue, others have had the benefits, and the difficulties associated with, private ownership, yet all things being equal, has anything really changed?
The buying power of Manly, Canterbury and Parramatta through the seventies and eighties built dynastical teams. At the same time, the Magpies, Bears and Jets battled away without a real chance of challenging.
The same thing is happening now, yet we have a salary cap supposedly aimed at achieving parity. The reality is, more often than not, the well resourced, connected and financially clever Clubs still hold the balance of power in the game.
The fans of the also rans should ask for better.