The 2018 NRL Off-Season Round-Up
The ‘off-season’ in the modern era is a mirage — a mere title for the period of the year where no action takes place on the field. But that doesn’t mean there’s no action to take in. As is increasingly the case across the entire professional sporting landscape, an undying thirst from fans has created a 12-month interest and information gauntlet where the news cycle never rests.
Player movement, coaching changes and scandals dominate the headlines through this time of year. In most leagues that’s the case because there’s no games to report on, but the NRL – notorious for its deep pool of storylines – never fails to amaze and rarely strays from the spotlight.
The World Cup did its best to compress the window between the end of last season and start of this one, but we’ve barely hit February and there have been multiple league-altering changes between the grand final and present day.
With trial games kicking off and the season right round the corner, we brace to shift gears and enter the preseason, each club awash with hope and ambition of what’s to come in 2018. Before we usher in the new season, let’s take a minute to absorb the lessons learnt from the time off.
The NRL Needs a Transfer Window
If it hasn’t dawned on the collective conscious yet, hindsight will confirm the 2017-18 off-season as one of, if not the wildest in the competition’s history from a player movement perspective. Cooper Cronk kicked off a league-wide halves merry-go round that shook up the premiership hierarchy and altered the path for the Storm, Roosters, Warriors and Sea-Eagles. Matt Moylan and James Maloney switched jerseys and Jarryd Hayne came home. Those are just the headliners! All the extra attention is fantastic and the news mighty entertaining, but it shouldn’t be cloaked in such mystery and ambiguity.
Watershed moments have signalled the need for change with some of the game’s other contentious issues over the past few years: GI’s disastrous tackle on Dean Young was the final alarm bell that the shoulder charge had to go. DCE’s backflip and the subsequent media bonanza threw the ridiculous Round 13 contract rule into the fire. The recent explosion of information on the dangers of concussions brought in the HIA system, as player welfare shot to the forefront of concerns. Shortly after each incident, wide-sweeping changes were implemented.
The ludicrous player transfer system currently in place should be the next penny to drop.
As always, it feels as though we’re simply waiting for the next big incident to snap the NRL into action. It shouldn’t be this way: The NRL’s affinity for reactive rather than proactive changes has caught them napping time and time again. This transfer madness has been bubbling for the last few cycles; it’s not the first time we’ve seen it play out.
History repeats itself, and all of the aforementioned issues (which eventually evoked quick-snap reactionary changes) had shown signs of what was coming: Frank Pritchard and Travis Burns nearly decapitating players (along with common sense on where it was all heading) should have been enough warning that the shoulder charge had long passed its expiry date; Luke Lewis, Josh Papalii and James Tedesco all utilised the Round 13 backflip clause to their benefit and pulled out of deals creating messy — and highly unprofessional — situations which deeply altered the paths of the clubs they left in the dark; Concussed players not being automatically and immediately forced from the field seems almost unbelievable in the current climate. In each case, the rule change only came about after an incident caught fire in the media.
Whilst those examples tend more towards player welfare and club equality, the current situation is a failure to properly harness the otherwise exciting events of the off-season and translate them into intriguing narratives, rather than messy and out-of-the-blue stories that reflect poorly on the game.
By failing to set the right structure around player transfers, the NRL is missing a huge opportunity to remain relevant in the media throughout the entire year. Free agency and player contract negotiations are truly captivating for those interested (and that is a considerable audience). With the current system, we consistently see a sizable dip in interest straight after the grand final, disappearing into the shadows to re-emerge mere weeks before the subsequent season. Some decline is inevitable, but to extract full value out of the product, it would make sense to try to maintain some attention on the game through the off-season.
A free agency period opening a fortnight after the season that allows unsigned players to negotiate with other clubs would be far more appropriate. At the very least, scrapping the ridiculously unprofessional practice of players signing contracts elsewhere whilst still on the roster of another club would be a welcome start.
One point is certain, something needs to change.
Starting the NRL Season on the Right Note
Does the NRL pre-season schedule feel a little empty?
The NRL has tinkered with how to kick the season off for some time now. Finding the right note to start on has remained a contentious issue and we might be one step closer to working it out. Ideally, minimal exposure – in terms of on-field action – would create the best contrast, making the arrival of Round 1 feel as significant as possible. However, anticipation still needs to be built.
Gimmick games and tournaments have been trialled in the past few years and haven’t taken off as anticipated: The All-Star game was a neat concept on paper, but the lack of prestige resulted in a game devoid of substance – hardly the ideal introductory point. The Auckland Nines was a fun idea which drew interest and crowds whilst providing an entertaining watch, but the high injury toll suggests it was too harsh of a start and carried too much of a risk to the players. Both were shelved this year due to the World Cup, and their absence does call their necessity into question. The World-club series tournament failed to generate major interest, although if played in Australia that might change. How the stand-alone game in Melbourne fares should be of particular interest to the NRL.
Timing is a problem in the early rounds: scanning over the casualty lists from the last couple of seasons, injuries tended to spike across the first few weeks and concussion rates were abnormally high. Therefore, trial games are a must, and taking them to rural stadiums is a great initiative to give back to the grass-roots. Still, fatigue and injury risk remain a concern. The 24-game regular season is a slog already, and putting additional mileage on the players is a tough ask. Behind-doors opposed sessions are probably the best source of preparation, but these do nothing to build excitement.
The shelving of the recent pre-season events was met with contempt from the rugby league community, but there is a silver lining: any changes provide a chance for experimentation and assessment. The level of interest drawn for the opening round, in comparison to recent years, will give some indication as to which direction should be taken going forward. Watch this space.
The Curious Case of Moses Suli
Since his introduction to the wider NRL audience last season, Moses Suli has quietly been one of the most interesting stories in the league, with the narrative taking an unexpected turn in just his second season. Suli, once viewed as a prodigy by the Wests Tigers, signed a mammoth deal with the joint venture in early 2017, but has now been moved on after only one season amidst rumours of attitude problems.
While Suli’s on field performances last year weren’t spectacular (with the expected struggles of a teenager), he’d certainly flashed the tools to become a contributor shortly down the road before an ankle injury prematurely ended his rookie season. Little did we know, that would also mark the end of his Tigers career a mere 16 games into the opening chapter.
Injuries, controversy and millions of dollars before the age of 20 is rarely a healthy combination, and how young Suli bounces back from this will set the foundation for the rest of his career.
The Bulldogs have taken a sizeable gamble in picking up Suli’s contract in full. They needed to add to some dynamism in the outside back department and Suli could be the fix they were looking for. He carries enormous potential, which could see him top out as one of the league’s most dangerous weapons, but the player Canterbury inherit is far from the finished product.
This situation should also act as a stout warning to teams looking to lock up young talent by throwing them big unearned contracts — the gamble doesn’t always pay dividends. On this occasion, the Tigers escape relatively unscathed, with the Dogs now picking up the remaining risk.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Oust Doust: The End of an Era
The infamous campaign has finally come to fruition, with St. George-Illawarra’s CEO Peter Doust stepping down after an 18-year tenure in charge of the club. Reviews of the Doust-era will be mixed — the club has been the most successful joint-venture, but periods of instability and poor finances, especially over the last few seasons, will tarnish his reputation.
The Dragons have problems, whether directly created by Doust or not. Their junior system, traditionally strong, has not been producing; the direction of their playing group (despite currently being in an encouraging position) is a question mark; their membership is down and exactly where their home stadium should be remains a contentious issue.
That last point is particularly noteworthy: The Dragons have an extremely loyal fanbase and are a big draw wherever they go. Last season they led the league for ‘away’ attendance, but ranked only 12th in average home crowds. These figures shouldn’t be so far apart.
If a change in management brings about a change in fortune, this transition could prove to be a massive step forward. Here’s hoping that glorious banner still makes a regular appearance at Dragons home games.
Cartwright to the Coast
This feels like a bases-loaded home run — the extremely rare case of a mutual victory — with an asterisk on the side of the Titans and Bryce Cartwright, depending on how he performs.
Cartwright, as highlighted by his standout 2016 season, is an immense talent: at his best, a useful combination of silky skills, edge ball-running and remarkable versatility. A former Holden Cup Player of the Year (a title that puts him among strong company) who has hovered around the NSW Origin camp, Cartwright has the pedigree to become a star player in this league.
But Bryce suffered through a tumultuous 2017 campaign, destabilised by much-publicised personal issues, and looked a shell of his former self when he finally got back on the paddock.
It’s easy to understand the move from Penrith’s point of view — they have arguably better players than Cartwright who will help them compete for a title this season. Corey Harawira-Naera, Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris are more dependable, lower maintenance options who made Cartwright and his large salary expendable. The Titans have taken a low-risk gamble at picking up a quality player and added some much needed talent to their squad.
It won’t do anything to dampen the hot seat Gus Gould occupies after seeing two of his prized juniors in Moylan and Cartwright leave in one season – unless of course it takes them one step closer to an elusive premiership.
Hodkinson’s Next Chapter
Trent Hodkinson has more to give. His move to Newcastle was simply poor timing. A solid contributor entering his prime years and coming off the back of the best season of his career, Hodkinson was never a suitable fit for the rebuilding Knights. He helped anchor their late-season surge, but it always felt like a question of when, not if, he would depart.
A return to Manly to fill the void left by Blake Green seemed ideal, but their salary cap drama proved too big an obstacle. Thus, Cronulla makes for an interesting landing spot. With an already strong roster and in the hunt for a top-four spot, the Sharks will need all the depth they can get if they are to repeat their 2016 success, and Hodkinson’s combination of stability and versatility (comfortable at 6, 7 and 9) makes him among the most ideal veteran depth pieces in the league. But on a personal note, Hodkinson will likely be looking for game time – and fitting him into the spine, especially to start the season, seems unlikely.
He won’t just be fighting for minutes – signed to a one-year deal, he’s also fighting for his NRL future. It may feel like an under-the-radar addition, but the stakes are higher than meets the eye.
After being released from his contract at the Knights former NSW Origin halfback Trent Hodkinson has signed a one-year deal with the Sharks
— Cronulla Sharks FC (@Cronulla_Sharks) February 5, 2018
NRL 2018 Premiership Forecast
Parity is a given in the NRL. The notoriously competitive league, supported by a salary cap, usually has a group of contenders only barely separable from the chasing group, spare a few rebuilding teams. It’s far too early to make genuine claims, but for the first time in recent memory the premiership picture does feel slightly fractured.
The Roosters, Melbourne and North Queensland should lead the conversation to kick-off 2018 (the trial match between North Queensland and Melbourne is an intriguing chance to grab an early look at two of the league’s projected best teams) with Penrith, Parramatta and Cronulla right behind in the next tier — picking a top eight hasn’t felt this easy in years!
Take all of that with a grain of salt. This great game never fails to throw a curveball and such complacency is sure to be proven foolish at the end of the year.
Welcome to the pre-season! Footy coming soon.