A rugby league season doesn’t go by without talk of overseas players in Super League, or even eligibility criteria regarding the international game, and this season is certainly no different. The eligibility talk has intensified further this year with Australian Wayne Bennett taking the reins of the English national team, and has held discussions with several Australian-born players in order to persuade them to switch allegiance, some of whom have actually represented Australia. The controversy surrounding this hasn’t gone unnoticed, with England international George Burgess recently declaring he believed it was wrong.
Domestically, the overseas quota debate will always rumble on. However, one thing not usually considered is how Super League compares to the NRL in terms of the number of home-grown players in the respective leagues. It can be quite a grey area, especially when players represent countries they weren’t born in at international level. To allow us to look into this further, the only fair way of doing it is looking at places of birth, although some individual players’ circumstances will still be highlighted to show how the rules can be confused.
With the complex nature and seemingly ever-changing overseas quota rules, it’s sometimes difficult to work out how many overseas players are able to play for each club in Super League. There are loopholes galore, with some overseas players exempt based on where they played several years ago or whether they possess an EU passport, for example. Macgraff Leuluai is a Kiwi for all intents and purposes, but was born in Britain whilst his father, James, was playing for Wakefield. He is therefore exempt from the overseas quota, despite spending most of his life living in New Zealand. His current side Widnes raised eyebrows for their Challenge Cup quarter final game against Warrington in June, when nine of their match day 17 weren’t born in Britain.
When you factor in the above about Leuluai, there’s a case to say Widnes had 10 overseas players in their team that night. Catalans have also had questions asked over the makeup of their squad this season. Are Widnes and Catalans the worst offenders in terms of overseas players?
It turns out that Catalans and Widnes are indeed the two sides with the lowest percentage of home-grown players in their squads. Of the 36 players listed in Widnes’ first team squad, 25 of those were born in Britain. The rest of their squad is made up by six Australian-born, three New Zealand-born, one Samoan-born and even a player born in the Philippines, which is very unique in rugby league terms. That means their squad is made up of just 69.44% British-born players, the lowest number in Super League this season (Catalans have a lower amount of home-grown players but they are assessed using French-born players).
Catalans are viewed at differently as touched upon above. They have 23 French-born players out of a squad of 34 players. Their aim in the long-term is to produce more French players and improve the standard of the national team although at the minute, they have nine players born overseas and two British-born players. They have just 67.65% of French-born players in their squad. At the other end of the spectrum, Wigan lead the way in terms of home-grown talent in their squad with 87.1%, highlighting a significant difference between the benchmark in Super League and the French side. Wigan’s four overseas-born players contrasts with the 11 non-French-born in the Catalans squad. What makes it more significant is that the quota rules are supposed to limit the amount of overseas players you can have in your squad but as mentioned previously with loopholes to get around the system, teams like Catalans and Widnes have done so to the detriment of British-born talent.
British players have always been welcomed Down Under, especially when the Aussies know they’re getting a good player. Some of the greatest rugby league players that Britain has produced have travelled halfway around the world to try their hand, with Lee Crooks and Garry Schofield both still highly acclaimed well after their playing days have ended. More recently, Adrian Morley won a Grand Final with Sydney Roosters and Gareth Ellis won Wests Tigers’ Player of the Year award three years in a row. Following Sam Burgess’ move to Australia, there has been a steady exodus of British players heading to the NRL.
At present, there are 15 British-born players currently playing in the NRL, with more due to follow next year with Dan Sarginson heading to the Gold Coast Titans and Jordan Turner off to join fellow Brits Josh Hodgson and Elliot Whitehead at Canberra Raiders. This is a trend that may continue in years to come, especially after the success of Hodgson who was a very low-key signing for Canberra in 2015, but is now viewed as one of the best hookers in the world and is a leading contender for the Dally M award, handed out to the best player in the NRL at the end of each season.
Unlike in Super League, there isn’t too much said regarding overseas players in the NRL. A lot of those not born in Australia are either raised there or are from one of the islands nearby like Fiji or Tonga, where playing top level rugby league is simply not possible. However, for the purpose of this piece, we’ll examine the numbers to be able to make a comparison to Super League.
Manly Sea Eagles and Newcastle Knights lead the way with the highest percentage of Australian-born players in their squads, with 81.82% and 81.58% respectively. Manly have only six players in their 33-man squad who weren’t born in Australia, giving them the highest percentage in the NRL, with Newcastle’s 38-man squad containing seven players who were born overseas.
Alternatively, Melbourne Storm’s squad only contains 60.61% of Australian born players, they currently sit top of the NRL ladder at the time of writing so the make-up of their squad is probably the last thing on their fans’ minds, especially when some of their top performers this season were born outside of Australia.
Vodafone Warriors vs Catalans Dragons
The NRL and Super League each play host to a ‘foreign’ entity with the Vodafone Warriors of New Zealand competing in the NRL and French outfit Catalans Dragons playing in Super League. The composition of their respective squads is interesting, with both placing an emphasis on attempting to develop and field players from those countries, but do both do this enough?
As previously mentioned, Catalans have the lowest amount of home-grown players in Super League, with 67.65% of their squad made up of French-born players. In comparison, the Warriors have eight teams with a lower home-grown percentage, with them having 73.53% of their squad made up of New Zealand-born players.
Catalans place a larger emphasis on bringing in players from overseas than the Warriors do, with 11 players born outside of France compared to the Warriors’ nine. Even when looking at it simplistically, it shows Catalans in a poorer light but when you factor in the overseas quota rules, it suggests the French side could do more to develop their own players and even sign more British-born players rather than what would be classed as genuine overseas players. This hasn’t been overlooked with owner Marwan Koukash blasting Catalans earlier in the season for the number of overseas players in their side.Whilst they were cleared of any wrongdoing, it only served to highlight more confusion surrounding the quota rules and how they’re implemented.
The Warriors have always traditionally had a core of Kiwi talent in their ranks and will likely continue to do so, as It helps them maintain a close bond with their fans. Their recruitment is usually built around trying to bring Kiwis back to New Zealand too, with Isaac Luke signing last season to return to his homeland. That bond with the fans was most evident after an NRL game in May when Luke performed an emotional haka at the end of the game. Catalans have developed a good fan base since their inception into Super League, but possibly need to retain and increase a core of French players in their squad rather than looking elsewhere.
Comparison of the two leagues
We’ve looked at how individual squads compare but how do the leagues as a whole look? Does the Super League have a higher percentage of British-born players than Australian-born players in the NRL? How about French players compared to New Zealanders? The answers are below:
Staggeringly, there is only a 0.07% difference between British-born Super League players (69.23%) and Australian-born NRL players (69.16%). This might be a surprising figure to some who may have expected a bigger difference between the NRL and Super League. Possibly more surprising is the average number of home-grown players across each squad, with Super League offering the greater number. Super League squads on average are made up of 74.77% home-grown players compared to 72.59% in the NRL.
There are only 30 French-born players in Super League, which makes up just 7.69% of players in the competition. This perhaps highlights the need for the French to develop more players who can play in Super League, with Catalans offering the natural pathway. Although New Zealand is a much bigger rugby league-playing nation, Kiwi-born players make up 23.38% of the NRL with them also having 6.67% of playing talent in the Super League too.
Although Super League clubs could do with reducing the number of overseas imports they have, the numbers aren’t as bad as people might think. By reducing those numbers, it may help improve the standard of the English national team – something that has also been mentioned in football recently following England’s failure at Euro 2016. As well as increasing the number of British-born players in Super League, increasing the number in the NRL may also play a part in improving the national team. The NRL is viewed as the better competition and if more players head across there – increasing on the 2.95% currently making up the NRL – it will hopefully see them improve as players. The team for the forthcoming Four Nations is likely to be made up of a lot of those 15 British-born players with the likes of Sam Burgess, James Graham and Gareth Widdop certain of their places in the squad providing they are fit.