Manly allegations set to reignite conversation around salary cap

If allegations of salary cap breaches at Manly, or any other club currently being probed, are substantiated in the future, they might just become the dumbest club in the history of the game.

In every case of systematic salary cap rorting over the last decade – whether it be Parramatta last year, Melbourne in 2010, or the Bulldogs in 2002 – front office stupidity has been to blame for the loss of competition points, premierships and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the administrators at Lottoland will be front and centre once again if the alleged $300,000 third-party offer made to an unnamed Manly player in a car park is proven by the NRL’s integrity unit.

The most boneheaded move in NRL administrative history came last year when it was revealed that Parramatta had been offering its players third-party payments since 2013.

The infamous five, who were shown the door shortly after Todd Greenberg handed down his findings in May 2016, breached the cap year after year despite knowing full well that the integrity unit were tracking their every move like a stalker and had the ability to search e-mails, confidential documents and phone conversations at will.

Yet still, they continued their deception.

The most staggering statement to come out of Todd Greenberg’s announcement of Parramatta’s breach last year was this – “As we sit here today, our preliminary findings suggest that the club is again over the salary cap for 2016.”

Really? How moronic can you get?

Was the NRL’s sanction in May of 2015, where Parramatta were fined half a million dollars and handed a suspended four-point penalty if they didn’t get their house in order by the start of the new season, not enough of a deterrent for Steve Sharp and company to reconsider their approach to governance?

‘The NRL are onto us but, hey, look, what are the chances we’ll get busted again?’

That’s the mindset of a gambler who doesn’t know when to walk away and will risk it all in the knowledge that they might one day hit the jackpot.

No such luck for Parramatta, who left the casino with an empty wallet and facing the reality of having to rebuild a broken club.

What followed was the outcome of the administrator’s sheer stupidity and downright contempt for the rules of operation under the banner of the NRL – points stripped, millions of dollars lost, and the need to move club favourite Nathan Peats on to what has turned out to be greener pastures.

The fans, who can do nothing in these situations but sit back and wait for the chaos to blow over, are the ones who are punished despite being completely innocent in the whole state of affairs.

Just ask those Melbourne fans who had to watch their side play for peanuts back in 2010. Not to mention the pain they went through when the NRL took back two premierships.

Could you ever forgive the administrators who were responsible for deliberately manipulating the books to gain an advantage, particularly given Melbourne have played just as well without having to exceed the cap?

Surely not – many Parramatta fans haven’t.

That is why if the integrity unit find that there is some truth to claims that one of Manly’s players has received paper bag payments, the administrators should be hung out to dry and made an example of.

Of course, it is all alleged at this stage and there are strong rumours that other clubs are following suit.

But giving players third-party payments after what has happened previously is inexcusable and an insult to the paying supporter, who is the most severely impacted in these situations, closely followed by innocent members of the playing group.

Administrators must learn their lesson; in an age where a dedicated integrity unit with a mandate to search and seize documents is in operation, tampering with the books like a tax fraud will land you in hot water.

If they haven’t learnt that yet, then they simply shouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the administrative tree.

Sure, it is the salary cap making third party, under the table deals a more attractive option for club administrators. But to change the current system would be to give rich clubs like Brisbane and the Roosters a significant advantage, and lead to a lopsided and uncompetitive competition that will ultimately lose an already dwindling viewership.

The Australian Government wouldn’t reform its tax laws because instances of evasion have increased in the last decade. So why should the NRL be forced to change the way the competition is run just because cases of systematic salary cap breaches are continuing unabated?

Put simply, they mustn’t give in.

Many will argue that, with the salary cap increasing to around $9 – $10 million next year under the new television rights deal, clubs will have more space to keep their high-profile players on the list without having to tempt fate by breaching the cap.

In truth, and we’ve seen cases of this already, player salaries will increase accordingly as clubs look to outlay more money on their stars to keep them on-side.

The AFL haven’t been required to deal with any major salary cap breaches because, up until this year, the cap has been manipulated to suit the financial needs and situational circumstances of certain clubs.

Brisbane, for example, were given a retention allowance which happened to coincide with their premiership three-peat in the early 2000’s.

New club GWS were also given a greater cap allowance due to their list size and the need to keep them afloat and competitive in their early years.

All this has done is given a group of clubs a significant advantage over the remainder of the competition.

So it is no surprise then that Hawthorn was able to win three flags across three years, while clubs like North Melbourne and Melbourne have been forced to linger at the bottom of the competition ladder for several seasons.

This system is not an out for the NRL, and they certainly shouldn’t be tempted into adopting it simply because the integrity unit are stubbing their toes on salary cap scandal after salary cap scandal.

Contempt for the integrity of the game and corrupt administrative decision making born of a desire to gain the edge, despite the inherent risks demonstrated through past indiscretions, are the key issues.

What we have currently is a system that clubs hate, but is leading to a more balanced competition where most teams are a chance of winning the premiership.

Stick with it.

2017 mid-season predictions

Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark of the season, it is time we took stock of the first 14 rounds of the Telstra premiership and began forecasting what is to come at the back-end of 2017.

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From the end of last year, a number of teams have surprised us by rising to unprecedented heights on the competition ladder. Manly stand out in my mind as the surprise packets of 2017. They currently sit in sixth position on the competition ladder with seven wins and five losses to their name, and have knocked off some of the competition heavyweights along the way.

The Dragons have also exceeded many expectations. Some critics believed this year would go down as one of the worst in the clubs history; a season spent waiting for knight in shining armor, Ben Hunt to arrive and cure their attacking woes. It has been anything but. They sit third on eighteen points and, unless they experience a remarkable form slump, have all but sewn up a spot in the finals. It seems highly unlikely though, given the majority of their last 12 games are against sides currently residing outside the top eight.

Melbourne have done exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Craig Bellamy coached side built around professionalism and discipline. They’ve punished bottom eight sides and fought tooth and bone for victory against the likes of Cronulla, Brisbane and Manly. Which leads perfectly into my first prediction:

Melbourne to win the premiership: 

This is a rather tame prediction given their current position on the ladder and their outstanding track record in the finals, but it is difficult to see them being overrun two years in a row. In last year’s grand final, they were far from their best and many would argue that the Sharks were more hungry for victory given the premiership drought the club had suffered through and the turbulence they faced off the field just years earlier. It might sound like I’m talking in cliches here, but their heartbreaking loss to the Sharks would only add fire to the bellies of Melbourne’s ageing veterans. And that desire will take them all the way this year.

Melbourne were the second best team in the competition last year without Billy Slater, the world’s number one fullback. Now that he has returned, the big three have reunited and already they are showing signs of replicating the magic they created in the prime of their careers. Against the Gold Coast in the double-header weekend at Suncorp Stadium, Slater, Smith and Cronk ran riot up the middle of the ruck, creating three (if I recall correctly) identical tries to stun the Titans and put on a considerable early lead. Of course, the Gold Coast returned to win that game 38 points to 36, but the line breaks that led to those tries couldn’t have been executed by any other players in the game.

The outside backs of the Melbourne Storm are what excites me the most about watching this side play. When Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr are flying down the sideline, or taking a heat seeking missile from the boot of Cronk high above the opposition wingers, it is like watching the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL in action; they pull off unbelievable try-scoring plays that you’d pay a pretty penny to watch on repeat. They are unstoppable at their best and showed against the Dragons that they are capable of blowing the opposition off the park early and hanging on for victory through unbreakable defense.

Only injury can weather the Storm.

Gold Coast to finish in the top eight:

They did it last year, much to the surprise of many punters, and have the ability to do it again in 2017. They sit 11th currently, four wins outside the top eight, but will make a resurgence late in the season to force their way into the finals.

Ashley Taylor has been at his sensational best, while Nathan Peats and Jarrod Wallace are in career best form. Jarryd Hayne is also returning to his best, even if he isn’t a shadow of his 2009 self, and if he can put in more performances like he did in Origin One, than there is no doubt the Gold Coast will be in the mix come September.

Mark my words, the Gold Coast are not as far from a premiership as many think. If they can keep Elgey, Taylor, Peats, Wallace, Hurrel, Roberts and James on the books, than they are capable of pulling a Cronulla by winning a premiership with a mixture of youthful exuberance and experience when nobody expects them to. The Sharks sneaked up on the competition last year and the Gold Coast will go under the radar in a similar fashion in seasons’ to come.

Sharks to set up a Grand Final re-match with Melbourne, Roosters to go close:

Speaking of the Sharks, they are my tip to make the grand final once again this year. It is uncanny how similar this season has been to last for the reigning premiers. They were clearly suffering from a premiership hangover early in the season, but have risen from the ashes to sit in 2nd position at the halfway point of 2017.

Many expected them to struggle without Barba and Ennis, and in some games – such as their clash with the Bulldogs two weeks ago – they have missed their attacking flair and ability to create something out of nothing, but are starting to play off the back of Fifita and Gallen and are reaping the rewards.

Much like last year, Lewis and Graham – two of the most underrated players in the competition – and their bench forwards, are key to the Sharks title defence. Second phase football and a fractured defensive line are where most of their points will come from and will allow Holmes, Maloney and Bird to attack from where they are most dangerous – long range with broken play.

The Roosters will go close, no doubt. But the Sharks have just a little bit more in the way of class.

Wests Tigers to beat the Newcastle Knights to the wooden spoon:

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I made this one a few weeks ago, and since watching them on the weekend against the Dragons, and the Knights against the Storm, I am starting to reconsider my choice. But I will stand by it. Not only are the Tigers one of the most boring sides to watch when Tedesco is not in possession of the ball, I’m struggling to see where their points are coming from? Lolohea is a great addition, and Littlejohn a young player with plenty of ball-playing potential, but other than that, watching them attempt to cross the line is like watching a poorly made soap-opera – it’s clunky, monotonous and will eventually put you to sleep.

Their defence is just as flat, and I’ll be surprised if the Roosters don’t rack up another 40 points, more than half of which will be scored on the wing, like they did against the Eels not that long ago.

Mark Round 17, Tigers v Knights, down in your diary as the battle for the wooden spoon.

As a side note, the Tigers play the Roosters and Manly twice before the end of the season, and their only real shot against a genuine bottom eight team is in Round 26 against the Warriors. Other than that, they take on top eight teams as well as those on the fringe, such as the Panthers and Titans, who will come home with a wet sail in the lead up to the 2017 finals series.

Panthers to narrowly miss out on the top eight: 

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It has been a tough year for the premiership favorites. They struggled through loss after loss across the first ten rounds of the competition but have got their mojo back in recent weeks, stringing together a number of wins to put their finals hopes back on track.

Matt Moylan has been moved to five-eighth; one of the finest positional changes in NRL history. Anthony Griffin has been heavily criticised this season, and duly so, but moving Moylan to five-eighth is a bold decision born out of courage and a desire to change his sides’ fortunes.

I believe he has the potential to become the next Darren Lockyer; already there are great similarities between their running styles.

While Moylan’s positional change will no doubt aid in the Panthers’ run towards the finals, giving them what they were missing in attack at times during the opening rounds, the early season losses will likely see them miss out on a top eight spot by a very narrow margin.

I’ve compiled a list of the club’s remaining fixtures and given each game a result. Overall, the Panthers miss out on the eight by two points to the Titans, who will accrue a total of 30 points.

(Panthers v Raiders – W; Cowboys v Panthers – L; Rabbitohs v Panthers – W; Panthers v Manly (Split Rnd) – W; Warriors v Panthers – L; Panthers v Titans – L; Panthers v Bulldogs – W; Panthers v Tigers – W; Panthers v Cowboys – L; Raiders v Panthers – W; Panthers v Dragons – W; Manly v Panthers – L.)

All they need to do is pick up one extra game that I’ve labelled as a loss and they will be on an even keel with the Gold Coast, making for and against the deciding factor for who goes through and who misses out.

If you’re interested in hearing my reasoning for any of the above results, please leave a comment below. 

As always, I expect there to be a few more unexpected results to throw my predictions off kilter and make me reassess my decision making. However, for arguments sake, my competition ladder at the completion of Round 26 reads as follows:

  1. Storm, 2. Broncos, 3. Sea Eagles, 4. Roosters, 5. Sharks, 6. Dragons, 7. Cowboys, 8. Titans

9. Panthers, 10. Eels, 11. Raiders, 12. Bulldogs, 13. Warriors, 14. Rabbitohs, 15. Knights, 16. Tigers.

Only Parramatta drop out of the top eight as it currently stands, the rest remain to battle it out in the finals.

As always, comments below.

Which clubs are in the Hunt for Cronk?

So, Cooper Cronk and the Melbourne Storm have parted ways. A nightmare for some and a dream for the nine or so Sydney clubs that will soon begin battling it out for the contract of the world’s best halfback.

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Crock announces his Sydney move to the media. Photo: Fox Sports.

The big three, outside of State of Origin, are no longer.

It’s a sad sight but who are we to stand in the way of love.

The question now is where will Cronk end up in 2018 and which club does he best suit?

Perhaps a more appropriate question still is which club will benefit most from his services?

Here are the clubs in line to make a play for the 2016 Dally M medallist.

Parramatta Eels:

When news first broke of Cronk’s move to Sydney yesterday afternoon, Parramatta was one of the first clubs linked to his signature. But with last year’s salary cap dramas still lingering like the smell of two week old rubbish, it’s difficult to see them making a substantial bid, if any.

Corey Norman and Clint Gutherson have been in the halves across the first five rounds of the competition, but haven’t quite provided the spark the Eels require. They remain a work in progress, not a settled combination, so there are grounds for placing an offer for Cronk. But the 2018 cap, which is a bigger mystery than the gunman on the grassy knoll, will force Parramatta’s hand and see them drop out of the contest.

St George Illawarra Dragons:

The signing of Ben Hunt all but rules the joint venture out of the race, while the form of Gareth Widdop so far this year means there is no need to fix what isn’t currently broke.

Sydney Roosters: 

The Roosters are the other strong favourites tipped to lure Cronk like hunters in the African savanna.

The tri-colours have experienced great success with their newly formed halves pairing of Pearce and Keary, but much like the Eels, they aren’t a permanent fixture yet and are still in the beta stage of their partnership. This leaves room for Cronk to slot in alongside Pearce to form what could only be described as a halves pairing plucked from heaven.

The Roosters have 12 players coming off contract at the end of the 2017 season, leaving plenty of space to squeeze Cronk under the cap.

Cronulla Sharks:

James Maloney quipped that he may be out of a job when he heard Cronk was leaving Melbourne. But in truth, he has nothing to worry about.

Maloney and Townsend took the Cronulla Sharks to a premiership no less than seven months ago and sending one of them packing would be an unnecessary and unsavoury move.

Townsend is off contract at the end of 2017, giving the Sharks an outside chance of landing Cronk’s signature. But boy would it be a sucker punch to the gut for the Cronulla halfback.

Much depends on where the Sharks finish this season on the competition ladder.

The no vacancy sign will soon be put up. Surely.

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No longer will we see a Cronk pass to Slater. Photo: ABC

South Sydney Rabbitohs:

Cody Walker was re-signed for three years at the end of 2016 while his partner in crime, Adam Reynolds, did likewise, committing to South Sydney until 2021.

It seems highly unlikely that the Rabbitohs list managers would suddenly feel inclined to head in a different direction having made a choice to secure their future.

Walker has spent some time at Fullback though, so there is the potential for him to be shifted back into the number one. Alex Johnston is yet to sign a contract extension with South Sydney meaning this combination could well come to fruition.

It seems unlikely though. Rabbitohs are the big outsiders.

Newcastle Knights:

The Knights lost Jarred Mullen to a drugs ban at the beginning of the season, allowing youngster Brock Lamb to make his first grade debut. And what a fine job he has done.

Trent Hodkinson still has a year and a half to go on his contract. So, needless to say, he will not be the man making way for Cronk, while Lamb, given his inexperience, will have his head firmly on the chopping block if the Knights were to make a bid.

Newcastle are currently owned by the NRL though so it’s easy to see them being outbid by one of the financially stable clubs.

Canterbury Bulldogs:

If the scramble to sign Cooper Cronk was a horse race, the Bulldogs would be unbackable favourites.

Mbye and Reynolds have come under great pressure from supporters this year following a series of poor performances, leaving the door ajar for one of them to be sent packing.

No doubt both of them will be slipping an extra prayer into their evening’s grace. They are the two most vulnerable players in the league at the moment, outside of ‘they who shall not be named’ at the Wests Tigers.

Wests Tigers:

Again, the Tigers are in contention for Cronk, if for no other reason than because both halves are coming off contract at the end of this season.

The ‘Big Four’ have the board bent over a barrel, and they might just get their way one more time. A new coach and a board that would be hard pressed managing a small business might be reluctant to make any radical changes given recent events. Even if they would drastically change the fortunes of the football club.

Penrith Panthers:

No chance, simply no chance. And why would there be when the development of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary has progressed into its second year. They are two of the most promising playmakers in the competition and Penrith have their heart set on keeping them together for as long as it takes them to form a Thurston/ Cronk like partnership.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles:

Blake Green has just signed with Manly and is working like a charm while Daly Cherry-Evans is still earning $1.3 million dollars a year. They have been worth every cent across the last few rounds of this season and Manly won’t be stumping up a bucket load of cash to sign a single player.

Pass.