Rugby League

Saturday Serve

NRL's second-tier salary cap should be abolished after Raiders winger Jeremy Hawkins denied debut

You have to feel for Jeremy Hawkins.

On Tuesday this exciting 21-year-old winger was given the news every young player dreams to hear - that he is about to make his NRL debut.

Less than 24 hours later, that dream was cruelly ripped away.

Speaking to Raiders officials and current first-grade players, they are in no doubt it will be a matter of when, and not if, Hawkins, a Junior Kiwi international of enormous potential, will get his chance in the NRL.

Still, it cannot make it any less painful to have it within your grasp before realising that it has gone.

The Raiders and the NRL should shoulder the blame in this continuing saga involving the contentious second-tier salary cap.


The Raiders should never have named Hawkins without knowing whether or not he would be allowed to play.

When Raiders chief executive Don Furner found out that coach Ricky Stuart intended to select Hawkins, he applied on Tuesday afternoon to the NRL for an exemption to the club's second-tier salary cap of $440,000.

The Raiders had reached the limit when it chose hooker Kurt Baptiste - a part of the club's extended player squad - to make his debut in their previous game against Wests Tigers.

The NRL showed its hand last year when it only granted a green light to break the cap for exceptional circumstances, notably when clubs are ravaged by injuries.

That was never going to be the case for the Raiders.

As a spokesman for the NRL said on Wednesday, the Raiders had many players within their top 25 squad who were fit and available to play on the wing, including Reece Robinson and Bill Tupou, while Matt Allwood is also eligible to be picked.

The issue the Raiders have is that all three of these options aren't very good.

Robinson, Tupou and Allwood have all had their chance in the first-grade team on the wing this year and none has played to the level expected of them.

The Raiders are paying the price for having a top 25 squad within a salary cap of $5.5 million that is heavy on forwards and light on outside backs.

The Raiders have used 26 players this year, a pretty reasonable figure given the season is 15 games old.

Six players in their top 25 squad - Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Mark Nicholls, Lagi Setu, Sam Mataora (who has since been released to join the Newcastle Knights), Matt McIlwrick and Tupou - have played a total of three games.

Hawkins would have been the fifth player from the club's extended NRL squad to have seen action this season after Shannon Boyd, Allwood, Baptiste and Kyle O'Donnell.

Centre Brenko Lee has also been promoted from the Raiders' under-20 team in recent weeks.

The second-tier salary cap was this year increased from $375,000 to $440,000 in response to complaints from a majority of clubs last year.

The Panthers were forced to drop Matt Moylan when other players returned from injury, while Roosters Dylan Napa and Kane Evans were prevented from making NRL appearances.

The Raiders also wanted to give a first-grade debut to Mitch Cornish only to be denied.

All four of those players are promising youngsters.

Should we really have a system which stops our next generation of stars from playing at the top level?

Each AFL club has a 38-man senior list along with another six players on rookie contracts.

Those players on the rookie list are eligible to play in the AFL only if they are elevated to the senior list to replace a retired player or a player with a long-term injury.

If that system was in the NRL, the Raiders could have put winger Edrick Lee - who is out for the season with a foot injury - on the long-term injury list and brought up Hawkins to replace him.

The AFL Players Association has proposed to scrap the rookie system in favour of an expanded 46-player list because the demands on rookies are similar to those on the senior list in the professional era.

You can say the same thing for the extended NRL's squad that clubs like the Raiders have.

These players have the same commitments as those in the top 25 squad, but on minimal wages.

With the NRL salary cap set to increase to $7 million by 2017, it would be reasonable that the wealth would be spread among more players.

A simple solution is to abolish the second-tier salary cap and have a larger first-grade squad.

That way there would be no confusion, no messy calculations and less chance clubs are fined for salary cap breaches.

The last thing we want to see is for Hawkins or another talented young player to leave the game because they are disillusioned by a technicality.

The same goes with the fans who pay hard-earned cash to support their teams.

Until then, Raiders fans will just have to wait patiently until next year to see what this exciting prospect can do on the field.