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What happened to Kyle Laybutt?
Rugby league is a sport run by people who don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
Kyle Laybutt played halfback for the Sunshine Coast Falcons this weekend and scored a try in a 34-16 win over the hitherto undefeated Souths Logan.
This is a simple answer to a simple question that belies the machinations that led the Blackhawks’ most capped player, Papua New Guinea’s starting five-eighth and one-time NRL prospect, Kyle Laybutt, to leave the north of the state for the south-east.
This is first part of a two part story that draws together the Panthers, the Cowboys, the Storm, the Titans, the Queensland Cup and the NRL administration into a web that once again proves the maxim that many people who run this sport don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
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It’s June 2017. Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister, same-sex marriage is six months away, inflation, AI and covid don’t exist and climate change does exist but no one seems to want to do anything about it. It’s the Origin-depleted phase of the season and the Cowboys are good enough for that to be relevant. It’s a time of year when team lists get a little weird. In round 15, Bundaberg native Kyle Laybutt will make his NRL debut - delayed a week due to the early return of Johnathan Thurston - starting at five-eighth against the Storm in Melbourne.
It was an anonymous evening for our protagonist. In the absence of Thurston and Michael Morgan, it became the Jake Granville show. Laybutt makes seven kicks, 19 passes and 15 tackles and over 75 minutes, runs for 31 metres. He has a hand in the Cowboys’ first try, a lanky 21 year old blonde shovelling the ball on to Justin O'Neill, but otherwise doesn't make much of an appearance in the highlights. Even in this clip, it's clear Laybutt is a step off the pace of his colleagues. He’s eventually pulled off the field late to make way for Shaun Fensom’s second stint.
The Cowboys hold the lead through the first half of the match but the Storm pile on three tries in ten minutes to take control, 22-14. As the game slips away, it increasingly looks like Melbourne will cruise to victory. A late short side run gets Kane Linnett over with three minutes to go. Then an obvious penalty is awarded to North Queensland after Granville is taken out without the ball. Feldt nails the goal in the dying seconds to tie the game up at 22-all. We’re going to golden point.
The Cowboys win the toss and receive the kickoff. A relieving penalty gets North Queensland down the business end of the field. Coote takes the shot and he shanks it and Munster collects the ball on the full in goal.
The Storm sweep the Cowboys aside on their seven tackle set. The ball should have gone to someone to take a shot on the fifth but it goes to Brodie Croft, whose chip sits up perfectly in goal, forcing Coote's hand to tap it dead. It only takes a couple of tackles after the monster Feldt dropout before the Storm are in position. Brodie Croft takes the shot.
It wasn’t necessarily the most significant result, nor even the most significant game played between the Storm and Cowboys in 2017, but it is a sliding doors moment for at least two players.
Andrew Voss proclaims “a star is born at AAMI Park” as Croft's winning field goal sails over and for the eighteen months that followed, that seemed true. The Storm put all efforts into turning Brodie Croft, a product of Dalby in the Western Downs and an alumnus of both Churchie and the Easts Tigers, into a replacement for Cooper Cronk. Melbourne eventually admitted defeat, dropping Croft before the 2019 finals and headed into that series with Papenhuyzen (via Sunshine Coast), Munster (Central Queensland and Easts), Hughes (Townsville and Sunshine Coast) and both Smiths (Brandon via Sunshine Coast, then Easts, and Cameron via Norths) in the key playmaking roles. The Storm would lose the preliminary final to the Roosters before going all the way in 2020.
Croft played that weird one-off “junior” Kangaroos game against France, departed for Seibold’s Broncos in the off-season and was integral in securing their first spoon in 2020. He was finally shipped off to Salford, where he claimed the Man of Steel award last year and then signed a long extension to stay in Greater Manchester, where he can stay and flex while executing the same standard of play that got him laughed out of Australian football.
The 2017 Cowboys made a miracle run to the grand final before being thoroughly crushed by one of the most impressive iterations of the 2010s Storm machine. North Queensland would then go into decline as they worked out how to replace their premiership winning generation of veterans.
Laybutt played one more NRL game, the following week in a 14-12 win over Penrith, before returning to the Queensland Cup permanently. His contract with the Cowboys was not renewed at the end of 2018, although he’s been on the fringes of cracking the NRL squad on occasions since.
Other than a season assigned to the Cutters where he made 14 appearances in 2018, Laybutt spent his Cup career at the Townsville Blackhawks, playing 87 games for the black and green. A club which only began in 2015, Kyle Laybutt is Townsville’s most capped player in the Queensland Cup.
From 2016 to 2022, he scored 24 tries and would average about six runs a game for 53 metres, 106 kick metres and 14 tackles. His career WARG is 2.4, more than respectable but also less than a single season of Scott Drinkwater or the career of Ase Boas. Laybutt has also been listed, at one time or another, in every position other than fullback, winger and second row.
Were it not for his eight caps for the Kumuls, resulting in a 4-4 record, including signature wins over Great Britain in 2019 and over Fiji in 2022, we’d never think about Kyle Laybutt.
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We don’t need to relitigate Peter V’Landys’ rise to power in 2019. It happened because he’s aggressive but mostly because he is an empty vessel that the clubs could fill with their hopes and dreams. Primarily, the NRL clubs were looking to take an even greater slice of the revenue generated by rugby league in Australia for themselves. The clubs would make themselves reliably profitable but nothing tangible for the greater good should be expected in return.
The vessel was filled through the pandemic and the PVL cult’s Kool-aid spilled over, to be lapped up by the media, either through the naivete to not know any better or the craven desire for marquee access at the races or, in all likelihood, both. The fans were drenched in it, whether they consented or not.
Nostalgia and homogenisation, along with a disgusting dose of Phil Gould’s dribble, were the main ingredients of PVL Kool-aid. It was nostalgia for a time and place that only existed in the heads of people well past their prime that had no connection to reality and it was the homogenisation of all clubs into the Penrith Panthers.
The Penrith Panthers are the archetypal Sydney club. They are primarily a gambling concern, with 525 poker machines, and they are a sinkhole for community-oriented government funding. Some of that revenue is reinvested in a football team with the same branding. With this ongoing funnelling of money from the most vulnerable members of the local community into the coffers of a casino-slash-football club, the Panthers were able to invest heavily in their junior pathways under the leadership of Phil Gould.
Phil Gould is the archetypal Sydney rugby league boomer. We also don’t need to relitigate this self-evident fact. After Gould was removed from power at Penrith in 2019, the investment in pathways he had championed paid dividends, as the first crop of local juniors had been identified, fertilised and bloomed into first grade footballers. When these juniors were placed at the service of the Clearys and after a round of rule changes that fundamentally altered the sport, the Panthers’ were rewarded with ten losses, three grand finals and two premierships in three years.
If the goal is winning premierships, it is an objectively effective system. The influx of pokie dollars and government pork barrelling allows the Panthers to capitalise on the demographic boom currently impacting Penrith. As waves of suburban Sydney have sprawled out from its historic centre and spilled west towards the Blue Mountains, the front of that wave has carried working class families further from the centre and into the arms of rugby league area recruiters. Penrith’s current success mirrors that of Balmain a hundred years earlier.
Like all NSWRL clubs, the Panthers’ prospects work their way up through the grades, starting at under 16s Harold Matthews, through under 19s SG Ball, under 21s Jersey Flegg, open age reserve grade NSW Cup and, for the very lucky and very talented, onto first grade in the NRL. For those that fail, there’s always more kids to throw at the problem. It’s a framework that has historically driven district footy around the country but as the NRL has expanded since the 1980s, and added new franchises that are not born out of existing Sydney clubs, the framework hasn’t been adapted to meet the needs of new clubs.
The Western Reds could not handle the sudden imposition of costs associated with running first and reserve grade teams on the east coast, and this surprise doubling of costs was a contributor to the $10 million of debt that eventually killed professional rugby league in Western Australia.
"They reason it didn’t work is that the rules of the game were changed," Mulholland said. "We had to fly 25 people over to play us and accommodate them, and then we had to fly ourselves the next week to play away.
"We were set up with only one team and all of sudden they changed to rules so we had to have two teams [first and reserve grade].
"We did all our budgets on one team and all of a sudden it went from 25 people a week over and back to 50 people per week over and back. It basically broke us before we started, hence the need to go to Super League."
-25 years after Reds, Perth is ready for a new NRL team, 10 February 2020, NRL.com
Outside clubs have dipped in and out of the NSW competitions as suited their needs. The Broncos joined in 1988 and left after 1996, due to Super League, and focussed their attention on the Toowoomba Clydesdales in Queensland Cup, a similar arrangement to what the Broncos had wanted at their inception but the QRL had rejected the idea. The Cowboys started in 1995 and exited in 2001, opting to place their talent with the Young Guns in Cup from 2002 until 2007, and then with the Northern Pride from 2008. The Warriors entered the NSW Cup via the Lions (later Vulcans) in 2007, pulled out in the pandemic and briefly tied up with Redcliffe while based there, but have now returned for 2023. The Storm started in 2008 and left three years later to focus exclusively on Queensland feeders, having had Smith, Slater, Cronk and Inglis all pass through the Norths Devils in the early 00s.
The current system for Queensland is that the Titans, Broncos, Cowboys, Dolphins and Storm use the Cup as a feeder system. The QRL has counterparts for the NSWRL statewide competitions: under 16s (Cyril Connell), under 19s (Mal Meninga), under 21s (Colts) and open age reserve grade (Queensland Cup). The constituent clubs are the historic marques of south-east Queensland and newer amalgamations of football districts into junior rep teams and senior clubs in regional areas, from Sunshine Coast up the coast to Cairns and then over the Torres Strait to Port Moresby.
The statewide programs are focussed on development and the professional clubs on winning (and, to a lesser extent, making money) and the two meet in contractual arrangements to share talent, knowledge and money. An economist might conclude the success of these arrangements are due to a network effect.
The QRL clubs benefit by being provided with good players that they don’t have to pay to furnish their own premiership aspirations, there are opportunities for players, coaches and administrators to get in front of the right people to move up to The Show, and they don’t have to compete with NRL reserve grade sides for a limited pool of eyeballs.
For the NRL clubs, they are spared the full financial burden of running juniors or reserve grade teams because there are plenty of people who will pay $10 to watch the Burleigh Bears or Mackay Cutters whereas almost no one would pay an extra $10 on top of a NRL ticket to watch the Titans or Cowboys reserve grade run around three hours before the first grade side.
The children of regional communities aren’t ripped away to ply their trade in the big city - although it may feel like that to move from Muttaburra to Rockhampton, or from Bowen to Mackay, or even from Boonah to Burleigh - and the communities themselves get their own teams and access to a quality of football they would only otherwise see when the Gold Coast hosts the Commonwealth Games or the women’s World Cup takes over several regular NRL venues or during the 2032 Olympics or, in the case of the hosts during Country Week, never.
There’s a lot of upside to this specific formula with the only downside - if you want to call it that - is that the NRL clubs can’t engage in an arms race of spending to micromanage the process of turning teenagers into footballers.
Until the southern governing body clamped down1, the occasional NSWRL club would experiment with Queensland feeders. The Roosters had a relationship with Redcliffe until late 2005, when the Broncos took over. Souths Logan’s 2008 premiership is unlikely without the support of the Raiders and their strip of lime green on the Magpies’ kits that year. Manly sponsored the Sunshine Coast’s re-entry to Cup and immediate success in 2009.
As the sport emerged from covid, it was both strange and entirely predictable to hear that our glorious leader had an idea rooted in nostalgia and homogenisation but with no understanding of any of the above.
ARLC chair Peter V’landys is hellbent on seeing the return of all three grades on NRL game day.
He’s so committed he even declared that he will do “whatever it takes” and that “anyone that gets in the way will get run over.”
As revealed by a News Corp report last week, V’landys and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo were exploring the idea after receiving phone calls from coaches and players in support as well as a 96 per cent result from an online poll in favour of the move.
V’landys has since received approval from the Commission, so this idea is about to take off.
For those unsure of what V’landys means by all three grades, he wants to see Jersey Flegg (under 21s) and NSW Cup (reserve grade) played before an NRL game.
It’s a throwback to the halcyon days in the 1980s and 1990s where fans could follow the development of a player from being a rookie in Jersey Flegg right through to when they make their NRL debut.
-V’landys wants the return of all three grades on NRL game day. This is how it could work, Fox League, 1 February 2021
It went nowhere. The ARLC briefly celebrated aligning the NSW Cup calendar with the NRL calendar, something that happened anyway, as an achievement. In reality, it seems the NRL came to the realisation that the main impediments to all three grades were the NRL clubs, and their need to have players warm-up on the field before the game; fans, who love to say they will do things that they never will, especially in online polls; and broadcasters, who were wholly uninterested in much of the content being offered as it clashed with actual NRL games. In short, no one sensible really wanted it.
But it wouldn’t go away.
The NRL is investigating recreating a national reserve grade competition that would include each of the league’s 17 clubs play [sic] curtain-raisers before their top teams.
That would end Queensland’s four clubs, including the incoming Dolphins, sending fringe players back to feeder clubs to play in the Hostplus Cup.
-Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022
Ben Ikin gave the quotes that should have killed the idea once and for all and mounted an argument that's so concise that I couldn't put it better myself. In fact, if ever asked, I will probably just refer people back to this.
“It will narrow and weaken the pathway, which will eventually weaken the elite game,” Ikin said.
“In Queensland, you would move from 13 second-tier teams across the state, who all operate as rugby league academies, and replace them with four reserve grade sides, ripping players and coaches out of regional development hubs and pushing them back into metropolitan areas.
“I’m a massive supporter of second-tier statewide competitions, in fact, I think the NSW clubs should be forced to have two affiliates. If you want to develop more talent in more places and create more opportunities, you build more academies.
“National reserve grade is all about trading out development and community for entertainment. It’s ridiculous.
“I’m led to believe the big driver behind national reserve grade is to have more content on game day. Seriously, who’s coming to an NRL game that doesn’t already come just because there’s one extra game? No one.
“The whole thing feels like some sort of nostalgic thought bubble.
“Second-tier clubs and competitions are the low cost way to get quality rugby league in more places. All reserve grade does is drag development programs back under NRL clubs.
“The affiliate model forces NRL clubs to get outside their organisation and collaborate with more coaches, players and administrators.
“The Brisbane Broncos support the status quo and will continue to use multiple affiliates. We love the connection with have with our affiliate clubs”
-Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022
But the Broncos were alone. The Cowboys and the Titans wanted changes to suit their agendas.
“We are absolutely in support of the Queensland Cup and always have been,” Cowboys head of football Michael Luck said…
“Our preference would be to play all of our players together. At the moment, we are victims of geography. We’ve got guys that play for Mackay, Townsville and Cairns.
“Our clear preference is to have our own side in the Queensland Cup.
“There is no way we would not support those three clubs either. They are in our region and we believe we are a development club.”
-Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022
The Titans’ CEO Steve Mitchell added:
“But we are also not fans of a seismic change to the Q-Cup that would be detrimental to the game in Queensland. We are trying to find a middle ground…
“There are definitely some that are very bullish supporters of a reserve grade competition. Ours is more about pathways and the ability to develop our player group to transition into first grade.
“We want to find a solution that gives us a little bit more influence in the way they’re coached and what they do, but not at the detriment of Queensland rugby league or the state cup.”
-Broncos slam national reserve grade competition, Courier Mail, 18 June 2022
Unable to get their own standalone team, the Cowboys planned to concentrate their forces at the Townsville Blackhawks.
Cowboys CEO Jeff Reibel and the club’s head of football Michael Luck were in Cairns on Friday to meet with stakeholders across both the Pride and FNQ Rugby League…
“What we, as a NRL club, has been looking to do is trying to ensure our pathway is a pathway that is attractive to players, but also, from our perspective, how can we ensure all of our players are playing together week in, week out, whether that’s at NRL level or at state league level,” Reibel said.
“What we’ve been able to do is work with the Northern Pride, Blackhawks and Mackay Cutters, but this year all of our players will be allocated back to the Townsville Blackhawks.”
It means the Pride and Mackay Cutters will no longer receive fringe talent from the Cowboys to bolster their squads, with the Cowboys’ focus shifting to the development and grassroots level as they finetune the production of future NRL stars…
“What we needed to do was find the balance, what’s good for the Cowboys but still supporting our footprint throughout all of northern Queensland,” Reibel said.
“We were quite open and transparent with this conversation which started more than 18 months ago about what we needed to do, we believe, to be better as a club.
“If the Cowboys are strong, then rugby league is strong within north Queensland
“It’s no different to what any other club is doing, whether that be Penrith and Parramatta.”
-Cowboys change to impact Pride, Mackay, title hopes, Cairns Post, 17 January 2023
While the remainder of that quote indicates a flawed understanding of who the Cowboys should be and how rugby league actually works, I think the last two lines are quite telling in how it presents who the Cowboys think they are and their understanding of the mechanics of the sport.
“If the Cowboys are strong then rugby league is strong within north Queensland“ is entirely ass backwards. Rugby league was played in North Queensland well before the Cowboys were a glimmer in some Sydney administrator's eye. Given that the Cowboys took a decade to even make the finals and since their sole premiership have spent much of their time waving goodbye to prospects that have made other clubs better, it's a wonder the sport isn't dead and buried from Sarina to Bamaga. Rugby league is strong in North Queensland, a fact that the Cowboys owe their entire existence to and whose truth is entirely, and mercifully, unaffected by how the Cowboys are going.
Then “it’s no different to what any other club is doing, whether that be Penrith and Parramatta”. To cite two western Sydney clubs, one that's won four premierships in roughly sixty years and the other that's won four in roughly eighty and none in my lifetime, while pretending to care about the strength of rugby league in north Queensland is embarrassing.
A simple glance at a map would confirm for anyone that North Queensland is not western Sydney and that for all the talk of finding specific solutions to the club’s problems, the best Reibel, Luck and co can come up with is to be the Panthers.
Not withstanding the relative lack of club-branded casinos, North Queensland’s territory is over half a million square kilometres - about two Victorias worth of land - with less than three-quarters of a million people, most of whom live in or around three cities along an 800 kilometre stretch of the Bruce Highway. Western Sydney is 9,000 square kilometres and two million people. It's about as different a proposition of demographics and geography as one gets in professional sport. One would only conclude that the demopgrahic boom in Penrith or Parramatta’s commercial circumstances that rival only the Broncos would be equally applicable to North Queensland if you had no idea what you were doing but were supremely convinced of the opposite. You signed up to be victims of geography and it doesn’t work any other way.
Rather than follow the lead of the Storm, who overcame even greater disparities in geography than the Cowboys to create a conveyor belt of Queensland talent that has sustained them for two decades, and have been right here, showing you how to do it and even picking your pockets on occasion, the Cowboys think the Panthers are the model of the future.
It's the PVL Kool-aid suckering in the only rubes bigger than the rugby league media, the mangement of the North Queensland Cowboys. To implement that plan, they're willing to minimise their ties with Cairns and Mackay to favour Townsville, something that I’m sure is extremely popular in the famously parochial north of the state. It’d be like cutting off both your arms to make you run faster.
While the Cowboys promised more money and resources, the most precious currency in Queensland Cup are NRL contracted players. They are better than the semi-pros and their salaries are not counted towards the cap. One only has to look at the recent seasons of the Ipswich Jets to see what it looks like when a club choose to go it alone.
But for players who have contracts with the Blackhawks, but not the Cowboys, they now have to take a backseat to Cowboys-contracted players. Instead of it being the usual three or four assignees on temporary duty, it’s now going to be closer to ten players displaced. For those whose place in the lineup is now taken, if you want to stay in Townsville, then you’re playing local A-grade. If you want to play Cup, you’re finding a new club that can give you the minutes. The next nearest clubs are in Cairns, 350 kilometres north, or Mackay, nearly 400 kilometres south. It is not a short commute, especially if you have a full time job and a family in Townsville.
Moving across the state for a paltry $50,000 maximum salary for a non-NRL contracted player is a big undertaking, unless the destination club is willing to give the player barwork or groundskeeping roles on the sly, but that’s largely the business they all signed up for. While Laybutt himself might have decided it was time to move on either way, it’s what players like him have had to do to play the game because the Cowboys want to be the Panthers, and not the Cowboys.
It will take years for the consequences of these changes to become apparent. For now, the Cowboys are currently being steered around the park by Caringbah’s Chad Townsend, have a cardboard cutout from Penrith at fullback, Murwillumbah’s own Reece Robson at hooker, and have won only three from eight starts, including losses to both the Dolphins and Broncos. The Blackhawks started the season as premiership favourites, are now 2-3 and lost to the Pride, 13-12, and the world's wobbliest field goal. It clearly meant a lot for the Pride to beat the club the Cowboys had spurned them for.
I can’t say for sure whether this is karmic retribution for the Cowboys’ hubris but I can safely say fuck ‘em both. And while the Cowboys may or may not suceed in the long term, it’s not really about that. It’s about the connection they’re supposed to have with the communities they purport to represent.
Next time, we’ll weigh up whether the Cowboys and Titans are just Sydney-cucks or if they’re also big fat liars.
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The pathways agreements between the Roosters and Ipswich, and the Bulldogs and the Clydesdales today, are weaker and more arms-length than the feeder relationships that exist between the other Cup clubs and the Broncos, Cowboys, Titans, Dolphins and Storm. Given the Jets’ recent run, they’ll have a new partner next year.