It takes a club several years to build a team capable of winning a premiership, carefully moulding combinations and developing the cohesion required to enact a title-winning game plan. But in the current NRL climate, where the salary cap is the highest law and the bottom line, each victorious grand final side is dismantled in the space of a few seasons. Premierships lead to representative rewards, necessitating contract upgrades for young stars, and the inevitable purging of players to fit under the cap.
The salary cap has undeniably created a more even competition – nine different premiers in the past decade is testament to the NRL’s unpredictability and part of its subsequent appeal. The only club to win more than one title in the last ten years – Melbourne – was found to have blatantly breached the salary cap during their golden period and was stripped of both premierships.
The Panthers are one of the most pertinent examples of the difficulty in keeping a victorious grand final squad together. After Penrith won the 2003 NRL title, Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney, Trent Waterhouse and Joel Clinton won immediate Kangaroo selection, Rhys Wesser and Ben Ross made their Origin debuts the following season, while Joe Galuvao and Paul Whatuira became Kiwi Test regulars. The resultant contract upgrades required to hang on to the new rep stars – from pre-existing incentive clauses or simply increased market value – saw the squad gradually disintegrate. Astonishingly, by 2009 only Lewis and Waterhouse remained at the Panthers from the 2003 grand final 17 – seven were with rival NRL clubs, three in Super League, two with rugby union sides, while the remaining three had retired. After reaching the preliminary final in 2004, the Panthers went on a top-eight hiatus, finally returning to the finals in 2010 with a new-look side.
It was a similar story for 2006 premiers Brisbane, whose grand final side was ravaged by rival clubs and codes over the ensuing few seasons. The Broncos had traditionally been the competition benchmark for retaining the nucleus of their squad – eight players who played in either the 1992 or 1993 grand finals were still with the club during the 1997 or 1998 premiership seasons, while six players (plus injured regular Petero Civoniceva) from the 2000 grand final-winning squad partook in the club’s 2006 grand final celebrations. But in 2010, only captain Darren Lockyer, brilliant centre Justin Hodges and dynamic forward Sam Thaiday remained at Red Hill from the decider four years earlier, and the perennial pacesetters missed the finals for the first time since 1991.
The Bulldogs’ victorious 2004 side was also rapidly picked apart – when veteran fullback Luke Patten departed for the European Super League at the end of 2010, only skipper Andrew Ryan remained at Canterbury. Only six of Newcastle’s grand final side of 2001 played for the club in 2006, 14 of the Roosters’ 2002 grand final squad had departed after just four subsequent seasons, while Manly’s 2008 premiership side had already lost seven players by the time the 2010 season rolled around.
While Melbourne’s flaunting of the salary cap rules between 2006 and 2010 kept the club’s crack squad together temporarily (ten players appeared in both of the Storm’s 2007 and 2009 grand final victories), the NRL’s severe reaction to the breaches forced the Storm to disband their successful squad swiftly. Just six members of the club’s 2009 grand final side fronted up in Melbourne for the 2011 pre-season.
2005 premiers Wests Tigers are the exception to the recent rule. Unquestionably the least-heralded squad to win an NRL title when they defeated North Queensland 30-16 in the 2005 decider, the Tigers fielded eight members of that grand final side during the 2010 season – the next time the club qualified for the finals.
Imminent salary cap increases and concessions may alleviate the modern trend slightly. But the even nature of the NRL is one of its strongest drawcards – and the high turnover of playing rosters is an unavoidable product of maintaining the status quo. A repeat of St. George’s dominance of the 1950s and 1960s is virtually impossible – which is not necessarily a negative outcome – but it will take equally large portions of loyalty, luck and good management for an NRL club to replicate even Parramatta’s three-peat of the early-1980s. The days of a club dominating for several seasons, as Melbourne’s demise in 2010 proves, are over.