You probably shouldn’t worry about Jack Wighton.
From Tuesday Jack Wighton is free to talk to other teams about the 2024 season. He still has a contract option in his favour with the Raiders for that year, but should someone blow his socks off in the next few months there remains the chance – presumably small one – that next season could be his last in Canberra.
This contract situation has gone largely uncommented for much of the season. There was a couple of reasons for this. Jack has options in his favour for both the 2023 and 2024 seasons from the deal he signed on the back of the 2019 season. After a bit of noise at the end of 2021 that he might want a longer-term deal, he ultimately decided to pick up his option for 2023 in May of this year.
It was less a sign of an impasse in discussions and more recognition by Jack that the Raiders 2021, and the poor start in 2022 put his market value at it’s lowest. When the teams down-swing didn’t provide the leverage that his management needed to push his pay higher, he simply picked up the option for 2023. After an improved back half of 2022, and appearances for both the Blues and the Kangaroos, it’s not hard to squint and see a pay-rise in his future.
From Tuesday people can come knocking again, and it’s been noticed, by the media (such as here and here) as well as Don Furner, who seemed remarkably sanguine about the challenges of retaining Wighton and a host of off-contract players this summer. He told David Polkinghorne of the Canberra Times that “we’re comfortable with where we are. We’ll sit down and talk to them [Jack and other off contract players] early in the New Year.”
While it suggests a level of comfort with the situation, it also reflects circumstantial and structural challenges to reaching an agreement. Even if they wanted to talk earlier, Jack being in England means any negotiations now could only progress so far. In addition, the salary cap figure going forward is as yet still subject to bargaining, a fact that Players Association representative and all-round hero of the proletariat, Josh Hodgson pointedly mentioned this week. Negotiations for the collective bargaining agreement are yet to be finalised, and it means no one knows what the cap figure for 2023 and beyond is. After announcing an increased profit for the 2022, it’s likely that the number will go up, but the uncertainty has created a bit of a handbrake on movement, particularly when you’ve six or seven deals you’re trying to land at the same time.
This will have an impact on a new deal for Jack. While 750k a season was more than most non-Canberra clubs would have been willing to offer Jack, an increased salary cap will likely make that number more realistic. Of course it depends on how much it rises by, but if it’s substantial it changes the metric at the margins, and perhaps 750k plus undergoes a bit of reverse bracket creep, falling into the ‘affordability’ zone for other clubs.
This is only compounded by the addition of the Dolphins to the competition. Again, it’s at the margins, but an extra team means 3 or 4 halves that need to be manufactured in a competition that already highly values them. Suddenly Sean O’Sullivan is a starting halfback, Cameron Munster is being offered $1,4m a season, and things get very real for clubs like Canberra hoping to keep their star playmaker. It only takes one team to ruin the market, and the Dolphins have been proving a willingness to make sure other teams have to pay significantly to keep talent.
Salary cap and competition aside, another factor that makes me think Wighton will move quickly to a longer term deal is age. Jack turns 30 before his next season and is likely looking for his last big contract. While he has an option for 2024, 2023 is probably the best time to seal a long term deal. Taking the option and waiting for 2024 to have this discussion risks diminishing returns. I would not be surprised if Wighton initially declines his option for 2024, while he and the Raiders (and perhaps other teams) seek to finalise a deal. If Jack (and the Milk) performs in early 2023 to push his value above his fourth year option, then that will push all parties to the table (be it Jack and the Raiders or Jack and other teams). Given his age, the cap, and the existence of teams like the Dolphins, I suspect this will occur.
Last time the Milk signed him for 4 years and $3m, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack was looking to sign a deal of similar length but more money this time around. When compared to similar players it shows about what we’ll be looking at. The Dogs just offered Matt Burton 4 years $3m (i.e. what Jack was paid last time). The Bunnies are reportedly finalising a two-year deal with the 33 year old Cody Walker. Those are useful parameters that would likely be the baseline in both years and money that would keep Jack in Canberra.
In all likelihood the Raiders will be paying full value for Wighton and likely ‘overs’ as he ages. It’s a challenge Canberra faced with the Tapine deal – how do you balance the less efficient spend at the back end of the deal against the risk of a bonafide star that you wouldn’t be able to replace through free-agency. Like we wrote then, Canberra can’t bring these sorts of players in from outside, so it better keep them while it’s got them.
But that’s not reason to worry. It’s clear to any observer that Jack is happy at the Raiders, and with the generation ahead of him phasing out, he (alongside Joe Tapine) are set to be the face and leadership of the organisation for years to come. His relationship with Ricky Stuart is a “pull” factor, as is the length of time he’s already been with the club. Whatever his market value is, chances are that the Raiders will pay full market value – they’ve always paid the top end of his worth. It’s also clear that after not having made any high profile moves this summer that they’ll have a bit of spare cash to come up with a little bit more for him.
It’s another watching brief as we had with Joe Tapine over the 2022 season. Like Joey Taps and Josh Papalii before him, the likelihood is that he goes nowhere. But don’t be surprised when there’s noise around his contract. The Raiders will have competition for Wighton’s signature.
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