Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco is a player of undoubted potential but the Canberra contract incident highlights some big problems for the NRL.

Wests Tigers fullback James Tedesco is a player of undoubted potential but the Canberra contract incident highlights some big problems for the NRL. Photo: Getty Images

The James Tedesco affair has highlighted a number of problems in our game.

Now the matter has been resolved, I’d like to make a few points. For those people who are not aware of what has transpired, let me provide you with a quick summary.

James Tedesco is a young man who came through the Wests Tigers’ development system. He was born January 8, 1993. He played junior football at Camden Rams and represented Australian Schoolboys from St Gregory’s College Campbelltown in 2011.

He made his NRL debut in 2012, suffering a season-ending knee injury in this match. James returned from injury last season, showing great potential. James started season 2014 in sparking form, quickly establishing himself as not only one of the most improved players in our game, but announcing himself as a player who is capable of being around for the long term. James was injured in the round-five victory over Manly. He is due to return to the playing field now, some seven weeks later.

One hopes this young man has seen the end of his bad luck and can get on with the task of building his career.

So the facts are these; since his NRL debut in March of 2012, two years and three months ago, James has played 25 NRL matches, one City Origin appearance in 2013 and three matches for Italy in the recent World Cup. James has scored 12 tries in the NRL and kicked no goals. I don’t know if he can kick. If he can kick, he is keeping it a secret. For the record I really like this kid. He has great potential. He is quick, strong and very elusive in broken field.

He has tremendous game awareness and can capitalise on the skills of players around him with his instinctive support play. He is tough and unafraid of the collision in both attack and defence. He is a running fullback rather than a playmaker, however, many young fullbacks are the same at this stage of their career and they develop passing skills over time.

If I have one slight concern with this player, (and I mentioned this in TV commentary only moments before he suffered his most recent leg injury), James has what I call a very elaborate and even violent evasive running action, which puts tremendous pressure on his ankles, knees and groins. He has suffered two serious leg injuries in his short career. These are not criticisms. They are merely observations. He is still building his body to cope with the demands and physicality of NRL football. 

In summary, I would rate James as a young man of great potential.

At the end of the 2014 season, James was off contract. The Raiders offered James Tedesco a staggering amount of money. Wests Tigers virtually conceded. Tedesco accepted the Canberra deal.

Within a week, however, young Tedesco got cold feet and revealed he wanted to stay at the Tigers to play with the teammates he had grown to love. James spoke at length with team leaders and club management before putting pen to paper on a new deal with the Tigers, for a sum of money vastly inferior to the Raiders deal. There’s a lot more to this story, however, the above provides a quick snapshot of what has occurred.

Now, here are the points I wish to raise:

1. The Raiders’ offer to Tedesco

It was reported Tedesco received an offer from the Raiders for around $800,000 per season. Such reporting is irresponsible and extremely damaging to the game. Other players and their managers hear and read this and it adversely affects the market for players.

For the record, the Canberra offer was much less than this figure; but over the course of a three-year deal it certainly placed Tedesco in the same class and earning bracket as elite players like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Johnathan Thurston, Greg Inglis, Todd Carney, Jarryd Hayne, Sam Tomkins and Robbie Farah.

So, in effect, this offer from the Raiders places him in the top dozen or so players in the game. Now, with all due respect to young James and the Raiders club, I find this extraordinary. After only 25 NRL appearances, I would suggest he is not in the top 12, top 20, or even top 40 players in the NRL. He has potential, but he has a long way to go.

I would also suggest he is not even in the top five fullbacks in the NRL. I’m sure even James would agree. This offer was just plain wrong. It was an act of desperation from the Raiders. It was damaging to the whole market for players in the NRL.

I dare say it would even be damaging to the Raiders as players currently contracted to that organisation would be questioning their own contract values in comparison to reports of the Tedesco deal. To be fair, I felt the same way when it was reported the Bulldogs had paid $900k per season for Andrew Fifita. I don’t believe this figure was accurate, but again such reports are not healthy for our game.

I will go even further to say the size of the Raiders’ offers to a number of players in recent times has been damaging to the market values of players and other NRL clubs as they try to build playing rosters within the constraints of the salary cap system.

I’m all for elite players earning as much as they can for their ability, however, this is a team game and there has to be some degree of responsibility shown from all concerned, because the game is living well beyond its means.

2. What’s the point of development?

Look at this from Wests Tigers’ perspective. They develop James as a player from school and junior league ranks through to the point he becomes a 25-game NRL player. Just when he starts to show his potential, another club comes and blows them out of the water with a massive offer.

Do they raise their offer to keep the player, affecting their ability to pay or retain other players, or suffer the wrath of their fans for letting him go? Think of how many players Wests Tigers invested time, energy and development dollars in, to produce a player of Tedesco’s potential.

For every junior that makes it through to the top grade, there are hundreds who fall by the wayside in the process. A James Tedesco sits at the top of a pyramid, where the club starts with a large number of hopefuls, before they get to the pointy end, producing an NRL standard player.

The cost of this development pyramid is getting more expensive by the year. The cost of this pyramid explodes at the top end when rival clubs start their bidding for players of potential after all the hard work has been done by the developing club.

There is no compensation for the developing club when they lose a player of NRL status. In fairness to the Raiders too, the same thing happened to them with Anthony Milford and many other hopefuls over the years. They were just doing what has happened to them on a number of occasions.

Under salary cap and second tier competition systems, there is no incentive or reward for investment in player development. Clubs are prepared to invest in junior development because they know this is the lifeblood of our game. However, the system does little to encourage or reward such efforts.

3. James is 21 years of age

I don’t blame James for taking the Raiders' deal. He was placed in a terrible position. On one hand he had this phenomenal offer. On the other hand, his own club virtually gave up halfway through negotiations and conceded defeat. James didn’t really have a choice.

The system is to blame. Kids of 21 years of age should not be getting contracts of this amount. Our game cannot afford to keep paying kids purely based on potential. The fact is these ridiculous contract amounts filter down to the mid and lower levels of the development pyramid, to talented 17, 18 and 19-year-olds, who are being shopped around to the highest bidders.

During the development years kids should just be getting an education, enjoying their football and learning their trade. The pressure of winning in the NRL competition is intense. The difference between success and mediocrity is so fine that emotion and desperation overrule common sense in many instances.

For the record, I am glad Tedesco decided to remain with his mates at the Tigers. I think this will benefit his development as a player and as a person in the long term. The big contract amounts will come later in life as he proves his worth and as he is better equipped to deal with the weight of expectation.

In the bigger picture though, the game really needs to look at player earnings for kids during the development phases and into their rookie NRL years.

Phil Gould is the Penrith Panthers' General Manager