Eggs in One Basket

Building a sports team in a league with a salary cap is complex. It’s about educated risks and trying to keep good players at a price that is equal to or perhaps even better than their on-field value.

When clubs sign players, the signing has to be judged not only on the ability of the player, but also on whether the club is getting value for money for that player. You might think that as long as the player is good, it doesn’t matter if he is overpaid because he is still contributing, but that would be incorrect.

We live in a world where clubs are all very even and need every little edge they can get. If you are paying a B player the money of an A player, you are losing the ability to pay that money to an actual A player.

The Brooklyn Nets in the NBA have a solid team. They are built around several big names and clearly are a playoff team. Unfortunately, they also own some of the worst contracts in the NBA and therefore will never be able to go from playoff team to true contender, unless their good players turn into great ones. Not only that, but as these players regress with age, they will be paying mediocre players the money of great ones and will have to go many steps backwards before even being in a position to rebuild.

Several successful teams have had to break up their championship winning groups when their players all expect more money in their next contract and only so many can be re-signed. It’s done to prevent dynasties and to keep the competition even and fair.

In rugby league, because there is no draft system, spending money correctly on retaining the right players and signing the right players externally is the main way to build a successful roster. The Melbourne Storm have kept their core of stars, but they also very wisely bring in unwanted guys from other clubs on reasonable contracts and then get the most out of their investment. Sure the team is reliant on Smith, Cronk and Slater to win championships, but they wouldn’t get there without the contributions of unheralded players like Brian Norrie and Ryan Hinchcliffe who were signed from elsewhere without much fanfare.

That brings me to the reason I am writing this article in the first place. The Penrith Panthers have just announced they have signed Jamie Soward from the Dragons for 2014. Ok, the Panthers clearly need a playmaker and Soward needs a change of scenery. It’s not the worst signing in the world in that regard.

The problem is that the Panthers have signed Soward on a four year deal from 2014 through to the end of the 2017 season. This is a bad decision in my opinion for several reasons. First and foremost Jamie Soward has not been playing at a high level since 2011 at best and really since his lead the Dragons to the premiership in 2010. Yes he has the talent and has been there before, so clearly he isn’t as bad as some people like to say about him, but again it matters that we are talking about the past and not the present.

Secondly he is going to be 29 years old when his Panthers contract begins and has done nothing in the last year or two to suggest he should just be handed a long term deal. Unlike a situation where you give a speculative long term contract to a young player who has shown potential, such as Parramatta signing Corey Norman, Jamie Soward by all accounts should have reached his peak by now and the majority of his Panthers years should be the downside of his career.

When you add his age to the fact he has already seemed to slip as a player it obviously means that signing him is a big risk. But ok, let’s say the Panthers think he simply needs a fresh start and can be the Soward of 2010 again… it still doesn’t justify handing him a four year deal.

Was the competition to sign him so fierce that they had to give him such security to get him to sign? I understand he was linked with Japanese rugby, but are the Panthers so super confident in Soward being their missing link that they are going to put all their eggs in his basket?

Why not offer him a one year deal to re-find his mojo and if he refuses that maybe you give him a second year to sweeten the deal?

The Panthers and specifically Gus Gould had done a fantastic job starting the Panthers rebuild. They brought in good players like Josh Mansour, Sika Manu and James Segeyaro. They are also dominating in the lower grades and age groups, which gives them great hope for the future. On top of that they had cap room to bring in the star they needed. They tried and failed to sign Johnathan Thurston and then were linked with Jarryd Hayne and John Sutton. All three players stayed with their current clubs and I’m sure the Panthers don’t begrudge them of that.

But in their desperation to find this star playmaker it appears as though they have given that long term contract being offered to the above names to Jamie Soward, who many believed was on his way out of the NRL altogether.

Again, I have no issue with offering Soward a lifeline and perhaps if things work out perfectly he re-finds his form and fixes the Panthers. But why commit so long term to him when it’s just as likely that he isn’t the answer and they are stuck for four years with a player they don’t want anymore.

Obviously we don’t know the dollar figure Soward has signed for, but I think it’s fair to believe that it’s not a small figure, especially if he is turning down the lucrative Japanese rugby offers. The best case scenario for the Panthers is that Soward equals that contract and they get their money’s worth, however in my opinion the risk for it to fail is too great.

I would have offered him a short term contract with the chance to prove himself and then renegotiate and if he wouldn’t go for it I would have looked elsewhere.

The Panthers just went all in and many will say they could have done it on a better hand.

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