The Crusaders won a record 10th Super Rugby title when they defeated the Jaguares in Christchurch on Saturday night, a mighty achievement which would be virtually impossible to accomplish in the AFL or the NRL.
Super Rugby started in 1996. Since that time AFL club Hawthorn has won the most premierships with just four, while in the NRL Melbourne Storm, with five, have won the most since 1998. Significantly, the Storm were stripped of two of their premierships because of salary cap breaches, something the Crusaders do not have to worry about.
Unlike the other football codes, Super Rugby does not have a uniform salary cap or, in the case of the AFL, a draft, which work to equalise those competitions and prevent one team from dominating over a long period of time.
Crusaders claim 10th Super Rugby title with victory over Jaguares
Australia is the only Super Rugby territory which has a salary cap, although this was waived for the Melbourne Rebels in the last couple of years to absorb ex-Western Force players into their squad.
At first, there was no official salary cap, but a gentleman’s agreement between the three original Australian franchises – the Brumbies, Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs – not to pay any more than $110,000 for a player. The rest of a player’s contract was topped up by Rugby Australia if the he was required for the Wallabies, which is still the case.
The reason for this arrangement was to protect the Brumbies from the financial strength of NSW and Queensland, but it was abandoned after teams became more aggressive in the player market. As a result, Rugby Australia introduced an official salary cap, which roughly equated to the grants the national governing body distributed to the Super franchises, which was around $5m each, but did not include Wallabies top-ups.
The self-imposed salary cap has put Australia’s Super Rugby teams at a competitive disadvantage against their rivals, particularly the New Zealand sides, because it spread talent thinly around the four teams at a time when there was a mass exodus of players overseas.
Conversely, New Zealand players are primarily contracted by the NZRU and then the Super franchises can offer whatever they like to lure players.
Australia could never produce a dynastic franchise like the Crusaders because the nation’s teams, which have won only four titles in 24 years between them, have been handicapped. If that is to change, Rugby Australia must lobby their Sanzaar partners to create a competition-wide salary cap to spread talent around all the teams or abolish the Australian cap.
It would be extremely difficult to introduce a uniform cap to a competition which includes teams from five different countries, although there will be only four nations represented after the Sunwolves’ impending exit in 2021, but if there was a will, it could be done. The New Zealand Warriors, for example, operate under the same salary cap as the rest of the Australia-based NRL teams.
But maybe Australia’s Super franchises would be better off without a salary cap, even with the financial implications that might have for the Brumbies, who won their two titles during the period of the gentleman’s agreement in 2001 and 2004.
It is difficult enough for Australian teams to beat any Kiwi sides, let alone one with as many All Blacks as the Crusaders boast. There is no point in thinning out the talent to create one decent Australian team and three mediocre sides, which we had this year. Australia needs one or two teams that are capable of winning the Super Rugby title or the competition will continue to lose relevance in the Australian sports market.
Of course, spending money on players does not necessarily guarantee success. The Crusaders may or may not spend more on players than other New Zealand sides, especially as the NZRU centrally contracts players, but it is unlikely they could have achieved their St George-like dynasty if a salary cap had been in place from the start.
The Crusaders are a great example of success breeding success. The club’s early achievements in Super Rugby have helped to create a culture of excellence in Christchurch, which is the envy not just of other club sides, but other sporting codes around the world.
In a Test against the Wallabies in 2002 the entire All Blacks starting line-up was made up of Crusaders. Can you imagine the Sydney Roosters fielding the entire NSW State of Origin team? It just could not happen in the NRL because of the salary cap.
Good luck to the Crusaders. They are a truly great sporting organisation and have played within the rules as they exist, but is it really in the game’s best interests if they win 10 or more of the next 24 Super Rugby titles?
If Sanzaaar does not introduce a salary cap to level the playing field, Australia should seriously consider scrapping its unilateral cap if it wants to produce a team good enough to compete with a side like the Crusaders year after year after year.
This content was originally published here.