Play­ers in limbo as mar­ket grinds to a halt


MORE than 100 play­ers with first­grade ex­pe­ri­ence are yet to find a club for next year, rais­ing fears the ma­jor­ity could be squeezed out of the NRL.

Some of the big­gest names in the game – in­clud­ing Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Dar­ius Boyd – re­main off con­tract for 2018. While they will have lit­tle trou­ble find­ing a home should they want one for 2018, it will be a much dif­fer­ent story for the fringe first grader.

The player mar­ket has come to a vir­tual halt due to a coach­ing merry-go-round that has seen Neil Henry, Michael Maguire and Des Hasler sacked.

Com­pli­cat­ing the is­sue is the pro­tracted col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment ne­go­ti­a­tions that have left the game with­out an of­fi­cial salary cap for next year. While the fig­ure will al­most cer­tainly be $9.4 mil­lion when de­vel­op­ing and vet­eran player al­lowances are fac­tored in, most of the clubs have al­ready spent their money, while others have over­spent and will need to shed stars to com­ply.

Rather than jump at the un­signed tal­ent avail­able, clubs still with cash to spend are hold­ing out for the likes of Cronk, un­set­tled Pan­ther Matt Moylan, Cronulla play­maker James Maloney or other con­tracted stars that may come onto the open mar­ket. There’s also a be­lief in club land that clubs such as the Raiders and Bull­dogs will need to off­load tal­ent, lead­ing to bar­gain buys ahead of the NRL kick-off next March.

The sit­u­a­tion has left es­tab­lished play­ers such as Ryan Hoff­man, Michael Lichaa, Ty­rone Roberts, Ja­mal Idris, Chris Heigh­ing­ton, Frank Pritchard, Tony Wil­liams, Wil­liam Zill­man, Jorge Tau­fua, Chase Stan­ley, Peter Mata’utia, Drew Hutchi­son, Joel Ed­wards, Kyle Lovett, David Gower, Pauli Pauli, Jack Stock­well and Jae­len Feeney in limbo.

‘‘It’s been tough. I feel very sorry for the play­ers who get caught in the squeeze,’’ said vet­eran player man­ager Steve Gillis.

‘‘We are now go­ing to en­ter a stage where, more than likely, clubs will need to off­load. Ask­ing a player to move at this time of year now is near im­pos­si­ble. It gets harder the longer it goes.’’

Heigh­ing­ton is keen to add to his tally of 318 NRL ap­pear­ances. He will be 36 in Jan­uary, but his body is show­ing no signs of wear and tear. The two-time pre­mier- ship win­ner has missed just four games in the past two sea­son de­spite play­ing in the for­wards.

‘‘There’s a cou­ple of NRL clubs in­ter­ested, a few from over­seas,’’ Heigh­ing­ton said.

‘‘I’m just try­ing to get the right one and get the right de­ci­sion. One more year at this stage, I don’t want to be too greedy. The body’s feel­ing good. I have barely missed a game through in­jury for four or five years. I haven’t had a re­con­struc­tion or any­thing like that. Hope­fully I get through my NRL ca­reer with just a few bro­ken bones.’’

Gower is an­other player who would walk into the best 17 at most clubs. The jour­ney­man for­ward made just seven ap­pear­ances this year for Par­ra­matta, where com­pe­ti­tion for spots in the en­gine room is high. He’s hop­ing he will be of­fered a one-year ex­ten­sion. ‘‘We’ve been talk­ing for a lit­tle while now and I’d like to think we could get some­thing done,’’ Gower said.

The fu­ture is less clear for Idris. The 27-year-old made a come­back with Wests Tigers this sea­son af­ter tak­ing a gap year from to dis­cover the world and him­self. His re­turn was cru­elled by an­other sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury af­ter just five games, with the joint-ven­ture out­fit opt­ing not to of­fer him a new con­tract.

The cult fig­ure de­clared his in­ten­tion to con­tinue play­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter un­der­go­ing surgery in June, but com­pli­ca­tions with the re­cov­ery meant he was less cer­tain when con­tacted by Fair­fax Me­dia dur­ing the week. The Sun-Her­ald

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