Salary cap dilemma as league battles to keep stars

Huddersfield's Brett Ferres, left.
Huddersfield's Brett Ferres, left.
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FRUSTRATED England international Brett Ferres admits it is getting “more apparent” that rugby league players are being enticed to switch codes and views it as increasingly “disappointing.”

The Huddersfield Giants second-row, who almost signed for Leeds Tykes as a junior, is perturbed by the loss of international team-mate Sam Burgess to union.

Explosive forward Burgess, 25, is expected to earn around £1.5m from a three-year deal at Bath when he leaves South Sydney at the end of this season.

He has one eye on playing in the Rugby World Cup for England in 2015 and his departure is seen by some as a critical blow for the 13-man code, who have haemorrhaged leading players recently to both the NRL and the rival code.

When asked if he feels Burgess – touted as England’s next RL captain and potentially one of the best players the game has seen – is bad news for the sport, Ferres said: “You can see it two ways really: a bad one or a really good one in that they’re trying to pinch our best players. I think, personally, it’s disappointing that we’re losing them all the time.

“It seems to be one after the other now. People are getting talked about and Lee Smith’s just gone to union as well.

“It just seems to be getting more apparent now that people are moving on and seem to be getting better deals and better opportunities, which is quite disappointing as a league player.”

Joel Tomkins (Saracens), Kyle Eastmond (Bath) and Chris Ashton (Saracens) are some of the high-profile British departures in recent seasons and, with current England internationals Sam Tomkins (New Zealand Warriors) and Lee Mossop (Parramatta Eels) the latest to head to the NRL, joining the likes of Burgess, his three brothers at Souths, and Canterbury’s James Graham, it is easy to understand the concerns.

Some will say it is a warning sign to the RFL and Super League clubs that their salary cap – just £1.8m compared to £5m in union’s Premiership next season – has to change.

“It’s tough,” said Ferres, a Castlefordian whose own value has soared after a seminal year for League Leaders Huddersfield saw him make Super League’s Dream Team and surge into the England side, alongside Burgess, at the World Cup.

“Everyone wants to get as much money as they can get and to keep all these players and, to help try develop the game as best we can, we need backers in to finance it.

“We don’t want clubs going down the pot every two minutes. We’re seeing it now that clubs are struggling trying to keep up with others so there’s a bit of a balance required, isn’t there?

“The salary cap is there for a reason and it sort of is and isn’t working for some clubs.

“Hopefully, we can address that and get more people to buy in and try keep these good players.”

The glitz and glamour of NRL life in Sydney, plus vastly improved salaries, were always going to be attractive for the best domestic players here, but some of the union deals are dwarfing those.

Ferres, 27, added: “It’s pretty scary isn’t it? The numbers talked about these days for players going to the NRL and union are doubling wages to what we’re earning presently.

“If you’ve a family and have to pay the bills and mortgage, you know it’s only a short career so a lot of people are thinking, ‘Let’s have a go at this’.

“You can’t blame them. It’s a chance everyone wants. Some people get it, some don’t.”

Burgess certainly has. Ferres was an elder team-mate in the Bradford Bulls’ academy when Burgess was emerging at Odsal. Before moving on to Wakefield, he was also in the same pack when the 17-year-old made his senior debut for Bradford in a 26-24 defeat at Leeds in 2006.

“He was always a good kid coming through as an amateur and playing as a kid you can always tell when someone’s got a bit about them,” recalled Ferres.

“I’d heard nothing about the move – I knew he loves it in Oz and enjoys playing for Souths and England,” he said, Burgess having earned a reputation as one of the world’s best players during four defining years Down Under.

“So, obviously, a lot of other factors have come in and that makes it a bit more interesting and probably a bit better proposition for him.

“He’s definitely a big loss for England. He’s one of the main guys in England and, obviously, with Sam (Tomkins) leaving as well, Burgess was the next in line as a bit of a poster boy.

“It’ll be interesting without him, but there’s a lot of other quality guys who will get an opportunity.”

Of his own union experiences, Ferres continued: “I played a lot at school and did enjoy it at the time. In fact, when I was a kid I did think about signing for (Leeds) Tykes. They were doing dual-code contracts with the Rhinos.

“I was playing fly-half and Stuart Lancaster was coaching Tykes at the time. I jumped into Yorkshire trials and things like that, but it wasn’t anything I had any passion or desire to play at that age.

“The opportunity to go to league with Bradford was too good to turn down – and league’s an easier game as well.”

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk