You can always tell when a rugby union
World Cup is a year or so away – the Australian Rugby Union starts making
offers to high profile rugby league players to switch codes.

Today’s target is the Kangaroos, Blues and
Dragons centre, Mark Gasnier. If the NRL is not very careful, the list
might
soon include other high profile players such as Willie Tonga, Ryan
Cross,
Karmichael Hunt and Anthony Minichiello, thanks to player managers
telling union officials which players are off contract come season’s
end.

With friends like player managers, the NRL
needs to be concerned about the potential drain before the 2007 World Cup.

The new Wallaby coach, John Connolly, met
Mark Gasnier and his manager recently. Since then the Dragons CEO, Peter Doust,
has appealed to the NRL to intervene and prevent Gasnier being lost to union.

The response from the NRL has been
underwhelming. Its determination to protect the integrity of its salary cap
limits its options, though it did get around the cap when Andrew Johns was
sought by the ARU a couple of seasons ago.

It needs to seriously consider doing so
again for three good reasons. Firstly, Gasnier is one of the best players in
the game. As a PR exercise his loss would be greater than that of either
Wendell Sailor or Matt Rodgers.

Secondly, unless the NRL is serious about
preventing the loss of Gasnier to a code not subject to the salary cap rules,
the flood gates will be opened.

And thirdly, if the NRL tops up whatever
the Dragons can offer Gasnier under the salary cap, and the ARU are serious
about buying him, it will have to dig deeper into its war chest to do so. The
deeper it digs the less it will have to spend on other league players.

Good luck to the ARU. If it needs to boost
its player depth before the world cup, it can hardly be blamed for seeking out
rugby league’s most talented players.

But the NRL will be letting rugby league
down if it gives in without a serious fight. And it’s a fight it can only win
if it puts aside its obsession with the salary cap and its already tattered
integrity.

Peter Fray

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