Jack’s contract shock


Jack Wighton wants to test the free agency market, according to David Polkinghorne of The Canberra Times

Sorry to be dramatic and the human equivalent of a fire alarm going off while your trying to shoo away the smoke coming off what was meant to be your toast, but that means that he’s a free agent right now and could sign with another club as of…well now, starting from next season.

Forget five alarm chilli. After the week most Raiders fans have had it’s enough to make you reach for the strong stuff, turn on old episodes of your favourite comfort show (it’s Archer for me) and pretend this game doesn’t exist and you’ve no idea that who Jack Wighton is or why anyone would care about whatever a “Raider” is. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work. Come wallow with me.

As a talent Jack will undoubtedly be in demand. He’s a football player’s football player. An athlete who lacks a perfect position but an ability to chime in wherever and whenever the spirit catches him. The random acts of brilliance can turn a game, if not provide the stable output most sides need. At its best, and surrounded by the right players, it can make a good side brilliant. At its worst it can infuriate, frustrate, and most of all fail to change to trajectory of a team flirting with disaster.

Up until last week the scuttlebutt had been that Wighton was going to pick up a player option for 2024. The extension he signed at the end of 2020 was a curiously structured deal – two years guaranteed with two additional years subject to player options. Jack picked up his option for 2023 early last season, around the same time as this decision. Then, and now, a little bit of noise emerged about him maybe looking to the free agent market. Last year he decided to take the option. This year he’s hitting the market.

It’s clear the difference now is in the demand for Jack; enough at least that his reported 900k a year deal with the Milk (all numbers approximate) no longer is heads and tails above the free agent market. You might think that’s surprising, given Wighton’s indifferent form this year, and his and the sides’ failure to scale the heights of the 2019/2020 period. But it’s not driven by Jack.

The increase in demand is less to do with Wighton getting better and more to do with the changing salary cap situation forged by the soon to be finalised collective bargaining agreement. 900k was once near 10 per cent of the cap. With that potentially increasing over the near future there could be more clubs with more cap space willing to go up to that amount (or more) for the talent that is worth it. It’s why Mitchell Moses is signing for $1.2. It’s why the Titans were able to find extra cash for David Fifita. It may be why the vultures come to prey on a chaotic Canberra environment. One could look at teams like the Dolphins who already have space, or the Roosters who just lost Joseph Sualii, as places that would be able to stump the cash for Jack. There will be other places too. Don’t worry – you’ll hear plenty. No one will believe it if you don’t get public.

Further, if Jack doesn’t have “ratchet” payments (i.e a stipulation in his contract that his deal goes up with an increase to the cap) then there is incentive for him to not pick up the option. A new deal can instead be signed to allow Wighton to get his share of the cap increase rather than the new agreement be signed and Jack to walk away with no benefit.

So a new deal doesn’t mean he’s leaving. This could just be a mechanism to ensure he’s being compensated to the degree he and his manager Matt Rose think is fit. But teams will no doubt come knocking.

It still seems most likely he stays with the Milk. Wighton is worth more to them than other teams. For Canberra he’s a core player, one given the keys to drive the attack and be paid accordingly. At other clubs he’d either be complementary (and paid less) or moving sideways to a new set of problems, with the added challenge of uprooting a family he recently said he didn’t want to uproot. But this no longer feels inevitable, which, entirely coincidentally, is exactly how Matt Rose wants the Raiders to feel.

Canberra have plenty of cap flexibility to retain him (something I’m sure Wighton’s management is acutely aware of) as most of the squad hits free-agency or comes off contract at 1 November. There’s also arguments about the ease of fit with the Milk’s playing style (such that it is) and his bond with Coach Stuart. So while there may be interest the Raiders are well placed. They’ll have the cap space, they’ll have the inside lane.

The real question is where the line is. Jack is 30, and is looking for his last big pay day. If Canberra are to keep him they are going to have to pay maximum value, something they’ve done for Josh Papalii, Joe Tapine, and also Elliott Whitehead and Jarrod Croker. Is it time to penny-pinch to make sure they don’t give him two years too long? We’ve noted before that the Milk struggle to attract elite talent of a Jack’s quality on the free agent market. Best to keep what you can get your hands on. Here’s hoping they can.

What seemed a problem for November has been brought forward. This discussion will be in overdrive this next few weeks and months. We’ll be watching closely.

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