Tuesday team list system isn’t a level playing field but a relic of the past that won’t go away


There is an inherent inequity in all NRL coaches having to name their squad on a Tuesday afternoon. 

Depending on the fixtures for any given round, a team could be playing a little more than 48 hours later or as much as six days after the squads are announced. 

Due to integrity reasons (ie, the fight against match-fixing), the NRL has taken major strides in recent years to limit the ability of coaches to practise the ancient art of silly buggers with their team lists. 

For the uninitiated, the 4pm Tuesday deadline came into existence because of the print deadlines for the old magazines who would publish the team lists. 

Long before the days of apps with updating match centres, these were the only way to know who was wearing which jersey for all three grades. 

Watching players trot out in jerseys 27-39 at the start of a game day was how many young league fans learned basic mathematics as they tried to decipher how each number equated to the various positions.

And then they switched the order of the jerseys in the pack so hookers went from 38 to 35. Simpler times, except more complicated in this sense. 

RIP, Big League and Rugby League Week.

Coaches used to be able to bring in any player who was not named in the official team list as long as their name was scribbled on the sheet an hour before kickoff. 

Particularly when players were coming back from injury it was an easy way for them to make it look like one of their stars wasn’t returning until the following week before adding them to the line-up just as they had intended all along but wearing an unfamiliar jersey number usually reserved for the reserves. 

The NRL tightened the set-up seven years ago by mandating that teams had to settle on a squad of 21 on Tuesday and players could not be subbed in or out unless they suffered a fresh injury or had a legitimate reason to withdraw such as an unexpected personal matter. 

That number was raised to 22 in 2022 with some teams getting to name 23 for matches immediately after Origin when they have a heavy representative contingent.

Brian Smith was a compulsive ducks and drakes merchant to the point where even his own players were often in the dark about whether they were actually going to play or not. 

Roosters coach Trent Robinson is the closest comparison along the current cohort, regularly naming players on the interchange before bringing them into the run-on side on game day. 

His greatest selection cliffhanger funnily enough was one that he had little control over – when Cooper Cronk defied the odds and medical advice to decide to play in the 2018 Grand Final with a fractured shoulder. 

Robinson’s favourite selection muse, Mitch Aubusson, was strangely selected at halfback that night with Cronk listed in the reserves in the unfamiliar No.23 jersey before taking the field in one of the most courageous performances in premiership history. 

Cooper Cronk with former teammate Cam Smith in the 2018 GF. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

He admitted to lying the following season about who would replace the injured Luke Keary in the Anzac Day match with the Dragons, stating after the match that he did so because he didn’t want Lachlan Lam to be swamped with attention leading up to his NRL debut.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy had a similar incident where he claimed after the fact that he didn’t lie but “I probably didn’t tell exactly how it was going to be”.

A career in politics beckons if/when Bellamy ever retires from coaching with that kind of spin.

If the NRL had a strict injury policy like the NFL or NBA where players needed to be listed as probable, doubtful or game-day decisions, that would also help stop coaches from keeping late switches under wraps.

The curious thing is not that late selection changes happen but that they don’t happen more often. Rugby league coaches are renowned for pushing many a boundary in search of an advantage, tactical or otherwise. 

Some coaches rigidly stick to the 1-17 they name on Tuesdays, not even contemplating trying to sell their opponents a dummy. 

Craig Bellamy (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The alternative system to the Tuesday tradition would be to tell each coach they have to name their squad a certain amount of time before kickoff, say 72 hours, cut it back to 19 players the day before and then name your 17 with a standby player an hour before the match gets underway. 

That would be a fairer and more logical way of operating. 

It would give coaches more time earlier in the week, particularly if their team had played a Sunday match the previous round, to assess the bumps and bruises before settling on their next squad. 

Not that anyone’s heart bleeds for bookmakers but it would also make it easier to frame betting markets and for the gamblers to make more educated guesses on who’s playing for who. 

But it will never happen – the fans, particularly the fantasy nerds in search of a break-even cashcow reverse cheapie POD, love the 4pm announcements as one of rugby league’s glorious anachronisms. 

Now that’s settled, league fans can concentrate on the big issues like who’s going to be starting at left centre for Manly in Round 1?

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