Loyalty in the salary cap era is too much to expect from NRL players | Matt Cleary

Matt Cleary
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Aaron Woods has been subjected to booing from his own fans after confirming he will leave the Tigers at the end of the season.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images</span>
Aaron Woods has been subjected to booing from his own fans after confirming he will leave the Tigers at the end of the season. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Maybe those fans who scrawled the signs about Aaron Woods and his Wests Tigers team-mates are just immature. Maybe they crave the “glow” of celebrity-by-association, the fleeting “fame” of seeing one’s “work” on TV.

Maybe they see themselves as rebels or rabble-rousers, as honest-to-goodness “Aussies” calling it as they see it, unadorned, inveterate, un-PC, unapologetic. Maybe they’re the Australian version of Trump voters.

Or maybe they are just Wests Tigers “fans” who actually, truly believe Woods is a “dog” and James Tedesco “is a cock”, and Mitchell Moses is “slimy” because they will play for other football clubs in 2018. And while it’s probably healthier not to delve too deeply into the minds of such self-hating wretches, let’s call this for what it is.

Fans who crave “loyalty” from players and then boo them when they sign with another club or who write nasty messages on signs about players whose futures lie elsewhere are idiots. And to expect loyalty from a footy player in the era of the salary cap, given the constraints that puts a footy club under, is an ill-conceived demand.

Cam Smith and Billy Slater will stay one club players, and Cooper Cronk might too if he doesn’t take the money Des Hasler has freed up at Belmore by punting Josh Reynolds. And there’s the rub: footy is a business. It’s a show business.

Yet some fans seem not to understand that; they actually believe players are playing solely for their club’s jumper and for their personal gratification and feeling of belonging to the tribe and what it represents to them.

That said, the vast majority of fans do get it. They might not necessarily like it, and why would they? Players like Reynolds and Woods, people love these guys. But they understand.

They get that the salary cap has been around as long as there has been a National Rugby League (coming up to 20 years) and that it puts a ceiling on how much a club can spend on players. The cap’s purpose is to even up the competition by spreading the wealth.

How a club manages that wealth in order to trot out the best XVII on any given day and give themselves a legitimate shot at the title in the narrow window when they can keep all their best players in their prime, is a whole other story.

Melbourne Storm do it. Brisbane Broncos do it. Canterbury Bulldogs do it. Wests Tigers do not do it. And if the fans want to vent their spleens they should write silly signs about the chairman Marina Go, CEO Justin Pascoe and the greater Wests Tigers board which admittedly inherited a mess, but have failed to clean it up.

So much of club success is down to a board growing, training and recruiting elite players, and then keeping them. Because as soon as you’re a winning club, everyone wants your players. It’s a market much like real estate, where the better your player/house, the more people want it, the more it’s worth. It’s really that simple.

Wests have played this game poorly and have lost their three best players. And some fans are blaming the players, which is their prerogative. But they shouldn’t boo them for “disloyalty”, for taking more money than their club were willing to give them.

And what about the man, Woods? He’s a local junior who grew up around the corner from Leichhardt Oval. He has the Leichhardt post-code tattooed on his buttock. He drinks tinnies with the bloke in the scoreboard which says “2040 forever”. And for Woods that won’t ever change. Just as Reynolds will always be a Belmore boy.

Woods and Reynolds have given everything of themselves for their footy clubs, playing 132 and 129 games respectively. They’re leaders in the club and community. They’re good people. And to so traduce their legacy in this way is bordering on Trump Rally stuff. It’s idiocy.

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