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Saturday Serve

Long-term contracts a gamble, but some athletes earn the right

Hindsight is 20-20. It's easy to criticise when all the water has gone under the bridge, once the event has come and gone.

The chief executives and coaches of elite sports teams can fully relate when they weigh up whether to "take a punt" and offer a big-name player a long-term deal.

Former Canberra Raiders skipper Terry Campese.
Former Canberra Raiders skipper Terry Campese.  Photo: Getty Images

Lauren Jackson, Terry Campese and David Pocock are the three most high-profile examples in Canberra sport where a long-term deal hasn't totally gone according to plan.

When the Capitals were weighing up signing Jackson to the richest deal in Australian female domestic sport history, she was the greatest player in the game.

David Pocock with the Malilangwe scouts in Zimbabwe.
David Pocock with the Malilangwe scouts in Zimbabwe.  Photo: Instagram

She was also a well-established Canberra identity, the player who came to everyone's mind first whenever the Capitals were mentioned.

Before the deal was struck, the four-time Olympian had suffered hip, Achilles, shin and back issues, which made it a gamble from the beginning.

However, the WNBL schedule is much less demanding than in Europe where teams regularly play four times a week, and the thinking was that would help ease her through the back end of her career.

It didn't work out that way, with her six games last season her only on-court appearances in the five-year, three-season deal.

Lauren Jackson signs autographs after a Canberra Capitals home loss to Dandenong last season.
Lauren Jackson signs autographs after a Canberra Capitals home loss to Dandenong last season.  Photo: Matt Bedford

That's no one's fault, sometimes you push all your chips into the middle of the table and it doesn't work out.

It must be said in the broader scheme of things, not simply on-field performance must be considered when assessing the merit of a long-term player contract.

I covered Jackson's first home game last season against the Dandenong Rangers.

The Rangers were spearheaded by Penny Taylor, whom most consider Australia's second-most decorated female basketballer of the past decade.

Despite being played in early January when virtually the entire Canberra population transplants itself to the south coast, the biggest crowd of the season turned up to watch.

Dandenong won 89-84 in one of the matches of the season, but it was the contribution by both players made after the match which struck home most.

Both Taylor and Jackson sat for a long time at desks at each end of the court as a long line of kids gathered to grab their autographs and take selfies.

Young fans cherish these moments and no doubt would have been bugging their parents to take them to the next match.

Then there's domino effect in player signings to consider.

A fully fit Jackson would have acted as bait for other quality players to follow suit and join Canberra. The best want to play with the best.

The Capitals attract virtually no publicity outside of Canberra unless it involves Jackson. That increase in exposure is simply priceless in female sport.

She is also uses her profile to help others as patron for Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.

The Canberra Raiders can relate with former skipper Campese. Just two days after he played his sole State of Origin game for NSW in 2009, the Raiders announced they had re-signed the five-eighth until the end of 2015.

The following season was definitely the best of his career. On the back of several outstanding displays from "Campo", the Raiders stormed into the finals with a late winning streak.

The Raiders looked like geniuses. Here's a bloke they can build a team around. Then Campese busted his anterior cruciate ligament at Canberra Stadium against Wests Tigers, when the Raiders were making a late rally in an attempt to qualify for a first preliminary final since 1994.

He managed just one game in 2011 after hurting his groin, and did his ACL again seven games into 2012.

What is overlooked is the off-field contribution Campese makes. He works tirelessly raising money for local children in need through his foundation and won the NRL's Ken Stephen Medal in 2013, which recognises community work.

As for Pocock, he also had two knee reconstructions but defied the trend to return to be arguably the best player at last year's rugby union World Cup. He's also a big advocate for political and social justice issues, and isn't afraid to speak his mind.

The flanker spent part of his pre-season in his native Zimbabwe, training whilst learning about efforts to protect white rhinos.

How many other footballers would do that in their down time?

Long-term contracts will always be a risk. But some earn the right to be looked after and have a punt taken on them by being great human beings, as well as great athletes.