Diary Of An Aotearoa Warriors Fan: Staying Flexible Among Salary Cap Dramas

Free *insert fast food chain here* for the boyz!

Free *insert fast food chain here* for the boyz!

Despite being mentioned in a few possible recruitment moves as well as apparent re-signings, the Warriors news feed is eerily quiet. We've heard how Nathaniel Roache has re-signed for a year and that Albert Vete has also re-signed, yet there has been no official announcement from the Warriors and the same goes for off-contract players like Jacob Lillyman, Bodene Thompson, Charlie Gubb and Ryan Hoffman.

Yeah, we kinda know that Roache and Vete have re-signed and that Gubb is nearing a move to link up with former Wynum Seagulls coach Paul Green at North Queensland Cowboys, however the situation with the NRL's salary cap has me wondering if the Warriors are playing things safe. 

Chuck in the uncertainty around Lillyman and Thompson and we've got a fairly murky situation. The elephant in the room is the salary cap and the amount of money that the Warriors have at their disposal for next season. The NRL is fairly silly and they fluffed around far too long in setting a salary cap, thus leaving many clubs with little idea of what the cap would be and now the NRL are faced with a situation where the Rugby League Players Association are making their voices heard.

I'll save the bulk of my views on the RLPA for another day but I'm always going to side with the players earning as much money as they can, especially when the NRL is failing the players on so many fronts - take health insurance for example. The players don't just want more money from increased revenue that they are predominantly responsible for, they want better systems in place for a variety of matters and this, along with the NRL's repeated silliness, has me wondering if we could see a prolonged battle between the RLPA and the NRL take place.

The exact figure of the salary cap and the RLPA's fight for their rights and betterment of rugby league are related but not tightly related. This could lead to the salary cap for 2018 being settled, but a variety of other issues unresolved and the RLPA will continue to fight for what they want. So while the Warriors may know what the 2018 salary cap is, there could still be an ongoing battle between the RLPA and NRL.

All of that, folks, makes for a volatile landscape that clubs are operating in and the wisest move to make in such a landscape is to maintain flexibility.

Throw in a possible move to sign Adam Blair or James Graham and you've got more moving pieces that flow on to other recruitment decisions.

I don't think this will have any repercussions for Roache and Vete, although Vete could find himself in a slightly different situation if certain dominoes fall a certain way. The major cog in all of this is Lillyman, who is unlikely to be re-signed if the Warriors snare Blair or Graham and the differences between the contracts of Blair and Graham are also low key crucial.

Blair is being allowed to shop around by Brisbane for a better offer, while the Bulldogs want to get Graham off their books so they will have to soften the cap blow for any possible suitor. Which means that the Warriors could perhaps keep Lillyman around if they sign Graham, but only if Lillyman's happy to take a smaller contract and the Bulldogs are chipping in. 

I'm more in favour of signing Blair and I seem to be one of very few on Blair Island. Blair does exactly what everyone who complains about the Warriors, moans about as he's an offloading machine and defensive menace. The anti-Blair sentiment seems to stem from the money being thrown at Blair at this stage of his career; I'd happily swap Ben Matulino and Lillyman's contracts for Blair given that the Warriors have younger, cheaper forwards on the rise like James Gavet. 

I won't go into a 'Why the Warriors should sign Adam Blair' yarn (I'm armed and ready) because it's not up to the Warriors right now, it's up to Blair and he's sifting through his options. The Warriors simply have to wait for Blair to make a decision and before you start sippin' hateraide on that idea, if Blair opts to sign with Newcastle or the Dragons, the Warriors will still have to wait for Graham to make a decision; either way, they have to be patient and they aren't really in control here.

Any decision on Lillyman has to be made after Blair and Graham have made their moves because, well, Lillyman's the third-best of the three. Worst case scenario is that the Warriors re-sign Lillyman on a one-year deal, keep some money in the bank and hope that they can lure a better prop over the ditch in the coming years. Even that doesn't sound terrible and the Warriors have enough flexibility to keep Lillyman around if they can't replace him with someone better. They won't be investing a truckload of money into Lillyman either and as long as they only sign him on for a year at a time, Lillyman could continue to offer value for money.

Thompson is the most intriguing of all the off-contract players for me as he can be signed for more than two years, unlike Lillyman, and wouldn't command a hefty salary. A Warriors forward pack with Tohu Harris and Thompson on the edges looks a lot better than having Bunty Afoa there instead of Thompson. This then gives the Warriors a possible bench of Roache, Lisone, Afoa and Pulu, which then results in a crazy level of competition for spots as Vete, Tevita Satae, Isaiah Papalii, James Bell, Jazz Tevaga, Patrick Sipley and Ligi Sao will want a bench spot.

Note the difference between having Lisone and Afoa starting and them coming off the bench. Or having Satae, Papalii, Bell, Tevaga and Sao play limited minutes this season off the bench vs them being wider squad members. The former situation in either example is where the Warriors are now (thanks to injury and limited resource), the latter is where they could be next season and that level of depth is low key exciting.

The funk could come if the Warriors are forced to offload Thompson to accommodate Blair or Graham. This wouldn't be detrimental as Afoa has gained valuable experience this season and can step in on the right edge, but this is where the flexibility comes into play because Thompson might be willing to accept a deal after the Warriors sign Blair or Graham, if they can offload Lillyman.

So in a weird way, assuming that the Warriors manage to get either Blair or Graham, this could become a decision between Lillyman or Thompson. And keeping both Lillyman and Thompson around if Blair and Graham stay in Australia, once again isn't all that bad and this will give the Warriors plenty of cap space to put into use as Stephen Kearney's tenure winds through the gears.

The Warriors could have made a collection of rushed decisions that would have restricted their options as we move into the latter stages of 2017 and that's the whole point of the rather confuzzing situation I've outlined above. Say the Warriors had re-signed Lillyman, Thompson, Gubb and Vete at the start of the year, well then the Warriors wouldn't even be in the conversation with Blair or Graham, let alone anyone else who may come up for grabs as clubs try to slide in under the cap.

I continue to be rather impressed by Jim Doyle's recruitment moves and cap management, which has not only been on display during such crazy times with regards to the NRL salary cap; Doyle is juggling that as well as enabling Stephen Kearney to build a roster of players that he wants and trusts to execute his game plan.

Right now the Warriors are chasing Blair and Graham, who both command decent money. This comes after the Warriors have lured Tohu Harris away from Melbourne and Leivaha Pulu away from Gold Coast, which has come after luring Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke away from their Sydney clubs and re-signing Shaun Johnson. That the Warriors are in the mix for Blair/Graham, on the back of those rather impressive recruitment moves is rather impressive, not only from a cap-management perspective but Harris for example ain't gonna leave Melbourne Storm for the terrible Warriors culture he's heard all about; Harris would have had to have been convinced that of a lovely Warriors future.

Other NRL clubs are trying to get under an unconfirmed salary cap. The Warriors are one of a few clubs who have money to spend and instead of having to get rid of contracted players to make that cap room, they can just opt to not re-sign players. Having held off a few crucial re-signing decisions, the Warriors have put themselves in a strong position while other clubs are taking hits to their roster. Regardless of who they sign, or don't sign, they continue to have wiggle room in a volatile NRL salary cap landscape. 

Peace and love 27.

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