Premiers North Queensland, minor premiers the Sydney Roosters and 2015 semi-finalists Canterbury are facing a salary cap squeeze as they fight to retain a swathe of off-contract NRL stars.
Under NRL rules, clubs are permitted to negotiate with opposition players in the final year of their contract. As most contracts run from November 1, that period has begun in earnest.
The Cowboys have nine of their grand final-winning 17 off contract at the end of 2016 in James Tamou, Jake Granville, Lachlan Coote, Justin O’Neill, Ben Hannant, Rory Kostjaysn, Kane Linnett, Ethan Lowe and Antonio Winterstein.
Canterbury have just as onerous a task to keep their successful squad together. Josh Jackson, Moses Mbye, David Klemmer, Shaun Lane, Curtis Rona, and Tony Williams are all uncontracted to Belmore beyond next season.
The Roosters are also feeling the salary cap pressure with Michael Jennings, Sam Moa, Boyd Cordner, Isaac Liu, Mitchell Aubusson and Jackson Hastings all able to chat with rival clubs about where their futures might lie.
Tricolours chief executive Brian Canavan said a difficult situation was made tougher by uncertainty over the size of the 2018 salary cap. That is unlikely to be sorted out until the remainder of the broadcast deal for seasons 2018-2022 is completed. The NRL has agreed on a $925 million deal with the Nine Network for the free-to-air rights but the pay TV and online components are yet to be finalised.
However, the Roosters are quietly confident they can hold on to their stars.
“We have had loose discussions with all of those players; we would like to think we can keep them all at the club,” Canavan told AAP.
“You start the process earlier (than November 1) so we are ahead in that respect.
“But players are of course looking for two and three-year deals into 2018 and 2019 and the mystery about what the salary cap will be in 2018 makes those discussions trickier.”
This season’s salary cap was $6.55 million, that jumps to $6.8 million in 2016 and $7 million in 2017. Given the boost in television rights revenue, the NRL is likely to receive from the new deal, the ARL Commission could increase the cap significantly more in 2018.
There is also the challenge of adding new players to a squad to cover a weakness or lack of depth in positions.
Sonny Bill Williams could return to the NRL in 2017 after featuring at rugby union’s Sevens event at next year’s Olympic Games in Rio. That is something Roosters powerbrokers have to keep an eye on.
“We would like to think that if Sonny does come back to the NRL that we would be his club of choice,” Canavan said.
“There have been a number of relationships forged there and we have had a lot of success together.”