This week’s confirmation that the Melbourne Storm’s Matt King has signed a lucrative contract with the UK Super League club, Warrington, has alarmed many rugby league observers, and rightly so.

Almost since the foundation of rugby league in Australia 99 years ago players have been ending their careers in England. It predates the modern totally professional game, and the salary cap.

But this year what has been a steady flow has become a veritable flood – with the alarm bells ringing because more and more players in the NRL are shifting to England mid-career, not just at the end.

Matt King is the latest, and most significant, player to shift mid-career. He is 26, has only been in first grade for four years, and is a current Kangaroos and NSW Origin player.

And next year he will be joined in the UK Super League by at least two other current State of Origin players, the Maroons’ Shaun Berrigan and Dane Carlaw.

And not only are players shifting to the UK mid-career, they are also doing so mid-season. The Sydney Roosters released Chris Flannery a month or so ago, and he is now playing with St Helens. Just a year ago, he was a member of the winning Maroons Origin team.

A league “tragic” friend of mine, Matt Starkey, has put together two teams of ex-NRL players now in the UK Super League which would be very competitive in the NRL premiership. And when you look at the careers, and ages, of the players he has named you have to agree both teams would give many of the NRL clubs a serious run for their money.

Here are just some of the ex-NRL players he has named – Bryan Fletcher, Chris Flannery, Stacey Jones, Matt Sing, Scott Hill, Trent Barrett, Phil Bailey and Glenn Morrison. And next year King, Carlaw and Berrigan can be named as well.

At present there are at least 74 ex-NRL premiership players in first grade in the UK Super League competition. In 2008 the number will pass the 80 mark.

While players, coaches and clubs officials are alarmed, the NRL has taken a remarkably relaxed approach to the issue – and it has done so for one good reason.

Players are shifting to the UK in droves because of the higher payments on offer (lifted by the relative value of the English currency) and the restrictions the NRL salary cap is imposing on all 16 clubs in the premiership.

The only real “solution” to the player drain is for the salary cap to be lifted significantly. Hell will freeze over before that happens – any rise in the salary cap would have to be funded by the NRL. And that would mean a reduction in the $8 million a year dividend its owners – News Limited and the Australian Rugby League – demand and receive!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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