Rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns has been railing against the NRL’s obsession with expansion for some time.
Last year, when expansion was gathering momentum to give the game the best chance to increase its value for the next broadcast deal, Johns was one of the loudest dissenting voices.
He said it would be bad for a competition in which a divide was growing between the haves and the have-nots and advocated instead for the NRL to have the courage to shed some dead weight and forge a future with just 12 clubs.
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Johns is no oracle and didn’t have the first clue that the NRL was soon to be changed forever by a global pandemic.
However, speaking on Wide World of Sports’ Freddy & The Eighth this week, he said COVID-19 might force that future on the game, which Johns believes will ultimately enhance the product.
“The worrying thing for me, I was thinking last night in bed, was this year I could see a bigger difference between the elite and the poor club, the clubs that were struggling,” Johns said.
“And when we come back (from the COVID-19 forced suspension) the gap is only going to be bigger and bigger and bigger between the wealthy clubs, the strong clubs, the clubs with the best players, and the teams that are down here.
“The stronger will get stronger and the weak will get weaker. I’ve been saying for a while that I think the best number is 12 teams for the competition, I think if you look this year especially, I think the stronger teams, the teams up the top, look far superior to the teams down the bottom.
“How we do that? I’ve been saying for a while, only the strong survive, maybe this forces the hand.
“If you have a look at the juniors, there’s less kids playing, for whatever reason, whatever you want to toss up. Not only rugby league but sport in general.
“So we’ll always have the elite kids coming through but there’s less numbers. So I think 12 is the best number, how it happens I don’t know.”
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NSW coach Brad Fittler agreed that the NRL needed to seize the opportunity to reshape the game and solve some problems that had been exposed by the game’s enforced suspension.
However, he disagreed that a 12-team competition was the way forward at a time when broadcast dollars would be vital to getting the game back on its feet.
“I think the game will definitely change. I’m not sure, I know in an ideal world 12 teams would make them all stronger and the game would be better but the reality is that when we come out of this we’re going to need games to put on TV for broadcasting rights, you know, that’s just going to be the reality.
“Maybe some teams are going to be pushed into different areas, so a new Brisbane team. You look at the Titans and the way they’ve been going at the moment and you’ve got to think that’s got to move up there.”
Fittler said that rather than reducing the number of clubs in the competition it was more likely that the number of football staff carried by each club would be reduced.
“I think the thing that’s going to come out of it is football clubs are going to be reduced,” Fittler said.
“The spending on the staff. There’s going to be less people analysing video, less trainers, less medical staff… So I think what you’ll find is the game’s going to change a little bit.”
One of the biggest current talking points in the NRL is the hit the players will take, with the highest-paid players in the game set to take a huge whack in 2020.
Yesterday it was reported that the NRL had flagged an 80-90 per cent reduction in the wage bill still to be paid between now and when the season was scheduled to end in October.
If the remaining salary pool was shared equally across the competition, top-end players like Daly Cherry-Evans and Cameron Smith, who currently receive about $100,000-a-month, would have their pay reduced to $3000-a-month.
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While some pundits have predicted player salaries will be slashed more permanently following COVID-19, Johns predicted there would still be million dollar players in 2021 and beyond, but those salaries would be reserved for the super-elite.
“I think there’ll still be one or two million-dollar players,” Johns said.
“But some of the players who are getting a million dollars, that’s going to be slashed.
“But once again I don’t know. I don’t know what the salary base is going to be. But the real elite, the super-elite, the top five players, they’ll still command top dollar.”