Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou would like the NRL to introduce maximum salary amounts for young players which would prevent clubs like the Roosters offering big dollars to lure teenaged prospects like Joseph Suaalii from rival teams.
His idea has merit but there is little likelihood of the NRL adopting a system that would disincentivise young athletes from choosing rugby league or one that would reduce their earning capacity, particularly for players aged 18 or above who are effectively working adults.
Many NRL clubs invest huge sums in developing their junior bases to provide a pathway of players into the elite level.
But often top talent gets poached by other teams who do not foster their junior production line as much.
Penrith were up in arms when Isaiya Katoa was convinced to join the Dolphins on a lucrative deal for their foundation season while the Rabbitohs are still fuming over their traditional rivals signing Suaalii three years ago when he was still in high school.
Demetriou, speaking on The Bye Round podcast with James Graham, suggested the NRL should institute a rule where younger players can only earn a certain amount so that they can’t be tempted by massive offers at a rival club.
The South Sydney mentor said they couldn’t keep Suaalii in red and green “because of the ridiculous amount of money he could earn”.
“He had only played Harold Matthews (Cup) when he signed a deal to go to play for someone else. He’d never played at any other level,” Demetriou said.
“It’s a huge amount of money and how much pressure has been on Joseph since he’s come into first grade – it’s been huge.”
He advocated for administrators to set a benchmark number of games and set a maximum amount a young player could earn until they reach that milestone.
For example, a player aged under 21 could earn a maximum of $200,000 per season until they have played 20 games, then more once they hit the 50-match mark.
“When you go through the grades and you’re starting to progress and you’re starting to play more first grade, then you might get some rep footy and then you’re starting to play internationals, your mental resilience and your understanding of your role grows with it,” Demetriou added.
“And then the expectation of what’s on you has already grown. Now you start earning this kind of money, you built that expectation from your own performance.
“But when you’re a kid who’s paid on potential it’s a huge amount of pressure.
“I think after a certain amount of games played, you can earn over a certain amount. That might be a restriction of trade for young players but I see it as protection of young players.”
He cited former Titans halfback Ash Taylor as an example of a precocious talent who had too much pressure put on him at a young age because the Gold Coast lured him from the Broncos on a multimillion-dollar deal and he never lived up to those high expectations.
Other professional sports leagues like the NBA have rules around progressive salaries with set amounts for players on their rookie contracts which are based on where they are selected in the draft.
Unlike the NBA, the NRL is in competition with a similar sport in rugby union and also to a lesser extent, soccer, Australian rules and cricket, for teen prodigies.
If an aspiring NBA player is unhappy with the rookie pay scale, there is nowhere else where they can earn similar money or the chance to become a star like they can in that league where the elite players now can earn north of $60 million a year in salary alone.
The NRL recently changed the rules where players developed by clubs with less than six matches of experience in state cup or the NRL will no longer be able to be approached by rivals until after round six of the final year of their contract.
If that rule had been in place in 2020, the Roosters would have been unable to make Suaalii an offer. Back then they signed him just under a year out from the end of his contract and then negotiated a transfer fee with Souths to get him across Anzac Parade 12 months ahead of schedule.
While top-line talent like Suaalii will always have plenty of suitors, including the likes of a desperate Rugby Australia willing to fork out millions for his services, at the other end of the scale, Demetriou is concerned that the NRL loses many players aged 17-20 because of the narrowing of the roster spots that are available when players reach the professional level.
He would like to see more money invested into the two state cups rather than the idea of a national reserve grade competition which has been floated at various times in recent years.
His ideal scenario would be a combined finals series between NSW and Queensland where the top four sides from each state square off with a Grand Final rather than the two state premiers meeting in the interstate challenge.
Demetriou also believes there should be two transfer windows as part of the NRL’s player movement process – one midway through the season and another immediately after it ends in October.
Sharks skipper Dale Finucane was also on the podcast, arguing that players support the current system where they are free agents from November 1 in the final season of their contracts.
The veteran forward claimed players need more time to switch clubs, particularly if they join a team in another state or country in the case of moves to and from the Warriors, but Demetriou gave that notion short shrift.
“It is a system that’s set up in the players’ favour. I’ve been there as a player and as a coach. If the decision to keep it as it is, is because it makes it easier for players to move, then that in my opinion is ridiculous,” he said.
“Take it from someone who has moved states, countries, multiple times. It’s not that hard. It’s a bit daunting, it’s a bit of a pain in the backside and your kids don’t like it at first.
“The benefits far outweigh the negatives. It’s not only a possibility but it’s a fact that it’s doable.”