NRL Nines: Panthers Chairman fears for players welfare

By Alex McLeod

Penrith Panthers Chairman Brian Fletcher is skeptical about player welfare for those who participate in the annual pre-season NRL Auckland Nines tournament. Photo / Getty Images
Penrith Panthers Chairman Brian Fletcher is skeptical about player welfare for those who participate in the annual pre-season NRL Auckland Nines tournament. Photo / Getty Images

Penrith Panthers Chairman Brian Fletcher has revealed his concern surrounding the welfare of players competing in the NRL Auckland Nines, stating that player's welfare and the participating clubs' compensation of players needs to be taken into consideration, with the pre-season tournament adding to the prolonged season that players have to endure.

Speaking to Newstalk ZB's Tony Veitch, Fletcher believed there was more of a chance that players would get injured in the Duco-organised event held annually at Eden Park than in a traditional pre-season trial match.

"For sure [players are more likely to get injured playing in the Nines than in a trial match], because there's less players on the field, so naturally they've got to cover more ground, and it's played at such a speed, and it's their first game of the season," Fletcher said.

"They're going to be at more risk than in a pre-season trial, where all the players are on the field, and you can moniter it a bit better.

Fletcher believed that the concept of the Nines was "terrific", but thought that the shortened version of rugby league should follow in the footsteps of sevens in rugby union, in that the Nines should be played by a specialized breed of rugby league players, much like how sevens players differ in both skill set and physical structure to those who specialise in the traditional 15-a-side version of rugby union.

"The elite rugby union players don't play in the sevens. That's a different breed of people again, and I think for the Nines, it could be the same.

"It could be a massive competition with Fiji, Samoa and all those countries participating in it in another elite level of football that's not NRL football.

"All the young superstars coming through, like in the under 20s, there's plenty of stars there that could play in this, and there's players at the other level away from the superstars who would love to play on the concept of the rugby union sevens."

Fletcher supported his argument for an under 20s dominated Nines tournament with the idea that sending integral, highly paid players to such tournaments was a large financial risk for the particpating clubs.

"The problem we've got is if we've got a $600,000 player, that's the wage we pay him every year, and he comes over here and he gets in the Nines, there's no compensation factor for the Panthers for the next 12 months if that player's out, and we've had that happen to us with George Jennings.

"We had to pay him then for the 12 months, there's no compensation in the salary cap to replace him, and the club is just automatically out of place.

"So we get $90,000 to come over here and play, it probably costs us $30,000 to get here and back, and you've got a $600,000 player at risk of getting hurt. I don't think any other business would take that risk."

Fletcher indicated that although it was apart of the Panthers' licensing agreement with the NRL that the club had to play some front line players at the Nines, if it was the solely the Panthers' decision on which squad mebers would be participating in the two-day tournament, key figures within the Panthers squad would not be participating.

"You've got to play a certain amount of players, or otherwise the NRL will come down hard on you, and that's part of your agreement on your license, but if we had a decision to make ourselves at the Panthers, I'm sure the coach, and after speaking to Phil Gould, none of the elite players would be playing in the competition."

Fletcher went on to reaffirm that the players welfare was a key issue, highlighting the length of the NRL season being the main contributor to the situation.

"If you talk to the players, they'll tell you that the [NRL] competition is too long. After round 12 or 15, a lot of the players are playing with injuries, and they carry them right through to the grand final, and then we have surgery during the off-season and get them right for the following season.

"That's all part of the game, but players welfare is a major issue. They go out there every week and get bashed, and it's a big toll on their bodies."

This weekend's spectacle is set to be the second last time the NRL Nines will be held at Eden Park, with Auckland's hosting rights of the tournament set to expire in 2018.

This year's edition of the NRL Nines begins today at midday, with the 2016 NRL premiers Sharks taking on the Jarryd Hayne-led Titans, while the Panthers face off against the Bulldogs in the next match.

- NZ Herald

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