Having splashed the cash on Sonny Bill Williams, the Toronto Wolfpack now have to make their roster fit under rugby league’s salary cap.
Thanks to a marquee player rule, Williams is the least of their problems – other than the mountain of money he is owed. But the transatlantic team believes it needs help from rugby league authorities to ensure an even playing field as it graduates to the Betfred Super League, the top circuit in the Northern Hemisphere.
Brian Noble, Toronto’s director of rugby, argues that his North American side is unable to tick a lot of the boxes that its English and French rivals can when it comes to salary cap help.
“We are constantly asking the RFL [Rugby Football League] ... to look at the fact that we’re an expansion club and can we do anything else,” said Noble, a former star player and coach. “I firmly believe on a lot of fronts [that] if you’ve got an expansion team, you need to discriminate positively for them.”
Noble cites the case of the Melbourne Storm, which was granted certain allowances when it entered Australia’s National Rugby League in 1998. (Melbourne was subsequently stripped of its 2007 and ‘09 titles and ordered to pay $1.4-million after being found guilty in 2010 of salary cap breaches).
Williams’s two-year deal is worth a total of $9-million, with the Kiwi getting an ownership stake in the club, according to a source granted anonymity because they were not in a position to publicly divulge the information.
That’s more than the annual Super League salary cap, which rises from £2-million pounds ($3.41-million) to £2.1-million in 2020.
But as with Major League Soccer, Super League has a marquee player designation with two allowed per club. Williams will fall under this category, meaning he will count just £150,000 against the cap.
Australian-born Samoan international centre Ricky Leutele and Australian forward Darcy Lussick occupied the marquee players slots in 2019 when Toronto won promotion out of the second-tier Championship. Noble said Williams and Leutele will be the club’s marquee players in 2020 with no cap relief for Lussick, who remains on the roster.
He becomes another big-ticket salary that the Wolfpack have to squeeze under the cap.
“When you buy expensive players, it kind of restricts what you can bring in on the back of that,” Noble said. “So there’s going to have to be a lot of smart work done, a lot of intelligent work that has taken place behind the scenes.”
Clubs can get dispensations that increase the amount they can spend on salaries. But most are related to talent developed in-house by club academies and Toronto does not have such a pipeline.
“Clearly teams in the [English] heartlands have development systems and have academies,” Noble said. “It might take us 10 years before we get a Canadian player through. Such is the vagaries of development.
“That’s not an embarrassing thing to say, that’s the fact of life. If you look at every expansion club where a new sport’s gone to, it takes time to develop your own talent. And so I would hope that the other clubs recognize that and in particular the Super League and RFL recognize that because there’s no doubt there’s certain challenges that are far more difficult for ourselves as a Super League club that inherent Super League clubs.”
For example, the cap charge for marquee players is reduced to £75,000 pounds if club trained. That does not help Toronto. It also means the Wolfpack cannot collect the £100,000 of dispensation “for producing Super League standard players.”
Toronto announced Friday it had come to terms on new contracts for forwards Andy Ackers, Adam Sidlow, Gadwin Springer and Bodene Thompson and backs Liam Kay, Josh McCrone, Hakim Miloudi, Chase Stanley, Blake Wallace and Gary Wheeler.
Ackers, Kay, Sidlow, Springer, Stanley, Wallace and Wheeler agreed to two-year deals covering the 2020 and 2021 seasons while McCrone, Miloudi and Thompson re-signed for the 2020 campaign.
In additions to Williams, James Cunningham and Brad Singleton are off-season additions. Ashton Sims retired after last season while Bob Beswick (Newcastle Thunder) and Nick Rawsthorne (Hull Kingston Rovers) have moved on.
Toronto currently has 24 players under contract. It would like to increase the squad to 30 given the rigours of Super League play, not to mention the arduous travel schedule facing Toronto.
Players 25 to 30 on the roster, usually younger or developmental talent, don’t count against the cap.
“Clearly we’re a bit skinny at the moment for numbers of players,” Noble said from Australia, where he was visiting family after serving as a pundit for the Great Britain tour.
“The difference between being successful and not [in 2020] will be how healthy we are ... We’re trying really really hard to bolster our squad and finding it difficult if the truth be known,” he added.
One possible solution is looking to rugby union for talent. Under Super League rules, a player who has not previously played rugby league does not count against the cap in the first year with only half of his contract in the second year counting.
Noble says not everyone can change codes and find success, however.
There is also a “returning talent pool dispensation,” which reduces the cap charge for a player who has not played rugby league in the last five years. Such a player has a cap hit of 50 per cent of his salary in the first year of his contract and 75 per cent in the second year.
While Williams last played rugby league in 2014 (for the Sydney Roosters), even his discounted salary would still be too big to fit under the returning talent dispensation.
Noble is hopeful rugby league’s authorities will see his view that Toronto is a special case. And the Wolfpack have had success in the past getting things changed – they helped raise salary levels in the lower leagues as they worked they way up to the top tier.
But just how enthusiastic rival Super League clubs are when it comes to making life easier for the new well-heeled kid on the North American block remains to be seen.
The Wolfpack, who have already opened their training camp in England, kick off their Super League season Feb. 2 against Castleford Tigers. The home opener is April 18 against Hull FC.
Toronto Wolfpack Roster
Adam Sidlow, Andrew Dixon, Andy Ackers, Anthony Mullally, Blake Wallace, Bodene Thompson, Brad Singleton, Chase Stanley, Darcy Lussick, Gadwin Springer, Gary Wheeler, Gareth O’Brien, Greg Worthington, Hakim Miloudi, James Cunningham, Joe Mellor, Jon Wilkin, Josh McCrone, Liam Kay, Matty Russell, Ricky Leutele, Ryan Brierley, Sonny Bill Williams, Tom Olbison.