It’s been a big week for the Canberra Raiders. They beat the Dragons, Coach Stuart confirmed that Josh Papalii had put pen to paper, and then news emerged that a deal was close to done to keep Sia Soliola at the club for an additional year in 2021. Update: This has now been confirmed by the club.
Getting Sia signed is important. He’s a leader at the club, and from the outside it’s seemed like he’s been central to the strengthening of the club’s culture under Ricky Stuart. He’s also carries his weight on the field – at the end of his career he’s still averaging 90 plus metres a game, even though his minutes have tapered off in recent years. And he’s filled almost every role the Raiders have asked, filling in at prop and lock in the middle, as well as an edge backrower, and at a pinch, in the centres.
While he is ageing, his productivity has remained remarakably consistent in recent years. His 90 metres a game is below his 2019 average (97m per game) but above his 2016-2018 averages. His post contact metres in 2021 (36 per game) are up on 2019 and other years. While it’s a small sample size, and there’s not telling how he comes back from a broken face, there’s enough to suggest that Sia’s performance is not about to fall off a cliff.
But moreso that his on-field performance, there’s another reason that keeping Soliola around in 2021 is a smart move. NRL teams have a salary cap on the coaching department. It was $5.93 million before the season started in 2020. Clubs that exceed that cap have to pay a 37.5 per cent tax on every dollar they spend over the cap.
The purpose of this cap is to stop the big clubs from outspending the smaller clubs on backhouse operations. Also, it gives incentive to clubs to keep their spending on coaches in check. While nothing appears settled (to me at least – if you’ve got better information please let me know), the ongoing pressure across the game will likely see a reduction in that “off-field” salary cap.
Putting pressure on how much clubs spend on backhouse operations means looking elsewhere for an advantage. Players like Soliola increase in importance because they can effectively act as quasi-coaches, able to provide guidance and direction to younger players at the club. In a sense it’s an extension of what Sia seems to already do for the club, only now it’s more import because of the limits on the cash available to the club to spend on coaching.
We’ve already seen this starting to occur in the AFL, which is facing similar pressure on its football department salary cap. Experienced players like Shaun Burgoyne signed to an extra – probably last – year with the Hawthorn Hawks. In Burgoyne’s case there is a more explicit recognition of the deal as part of a transition to an off-field role.
I have no idea how important this will be next year, or even if Sia’s role with change in any way. But as clubs struggle to match their coaching output with reduced funds, having Soliola around represents a comparative advantage to the Milk. Of course this role, or a more formal transition to coaching could be part of his future after next year. Only time will tell on that part.
So not only is Sia an on-field leader. Not only is he an effective ball-runner and a useful utility player across the park. Now he may also be important asset to the coaching staff and an advantage for the Raiders. Is there anything he can’t do?