Salary cap to the rescue: Why NRL won't be so lopsided in 2022

The 2021 NRL season was a notable one for a few reasons, but the most defining feature of the season was just how lopsided it was.

Scoring records tumbled. Nine clubs conceded 50 points in a game. The Storm went on a record-matching 19-game winning streak. The Rabbitohs scored at least 30 points in eight straight games, the first time any team has done so. Manly had three players who scored 20 tries, the first time that's happened at the same club in a single season.

The gap between the first-placed Storm and the eighth-placed Titans was massive - with Melbourne winning 21 games and the Gold Coast just 10.

So, what happened? Were the NRL's bad teams suddenly worse than ever? Probably not - competition easy-beats of years gone by didn't have genuine superstars in their team like Brisbane's Payne Haas or North Queensland's Jason Taumalolo.

Were the best teams better than ever? Again, unlikely - even the record-shattering Storm team could hardly be considered a "better" line-up than one that featured Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Tohu Harris a few years earlier.

So what was the difference? Almost certainly the addition of the six-again rule and further rules designed to increase "ball in play" time (removing scrums for kicks into touch, etc). Those changes meant weaker teams that were forced to do the bulk of defending early in games were gassed quickly, made defensive mistakes, conceded tries, and struggled to get back into the contest. They couldn't risk slowing down the play-the-ball, rarely received penalties inside their own half, and couldn't kick for touch for a breather.

Gifted attacking players like Tom Trbojevic (28 tries and 28 try assists - both career highs by a mile) ran riot, while the best defensive teams happily held players down for as long as they wanted on the first tackle to get their defensive lines set, then pinned their opponents in their own half regardless of whether they were punished by a "six-again" ruling.

It meant the teams that had the best attacking players and the best defences - that is, the best teams in the league - were given a huge boost and promptly smashed all the point-scoring records. Which of course also meant a huge number of tries were scored, meaning the ball actually wasn't kept "in play" any longer than before the six-again rule was introduced.

Keeping games close had been a huge part of the NRL's success in recent years. As recently as 2018 the NRL could rightfully claim to be one of the closest professional leagues in world sport, with just one win separating the first-placed Roosters and the eighth-placed Warriors heading into the finals.

The league has reportedly half-fixed the six-again problem by tweaking the rule, meaning teams will receive penalties rather than an extra set when inside their own 40 metres. But the other saviour for the once fiercely-contested league is the much-maligned salary cap.

Last year there was a yawning gap between the top six teams and the rest. The seventh-placed Knights conceded 143 more points than they scored, and still finished two wins clear of the eighth-placed Titans.

But thanks to the cap, the talent pool is set to be spread around the league in the next couple of years.

So far 17 players have agreed to make the switch from one of the elite clubs to one of the strugglers in 2022 or 2023, including five players leaving contenders to join wooden spooners the Bulldogs.

Penrith fans won't like it but the break-up of their premiership-winning team has already begun, with Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell and Api Koroisau joining the Bulldogs (16th), Broncos (14th) and Wests Tigers (13th) respectively, while grand finalists Souths lost Adam Reynolds (Broncos), Dane Gagai (Knights) and Braidon Burns (Bulldogs) and the Storm machine lost Josh Addo-Carr (Bulldogs), Nicho Hynes (Sharks), Dale Finucane (Sharks) and Brenko Lee (Broncos).

Chances are last year's struggling teams won't instantly become premiership contenders, but with the talent being distributed nicely across the league there's every chance the 2022 season won't be as lopsided as the last one.

Salary cap at work: Good team > Bad team moves

Matt Burton - Panthers > Bulldogs

Josh Addo-Carr - Storm > Bulldogs

Brent Naden - Panthers > Bulldogs

Braidon Burns - Rabbitohs > Bulldogs

Adam Reynolds - Rabbitohs > Broncos

Kurt Capewell - Panthers > Broncos

Brenko Lee - Storm > Broncos

Jaydn Su'A - Rabbitohs > Dragons

Nicho Hynes - Storm > Sharks

Dale Finucane - Storm > Sharks

Dane Gagai - Rabbitohs > Knights

Reed Mahoney - Eels > Bulldogs (2023)

Api Koroisau - Panthers > Tigers (2023)

Isaiah Papali'i - Eels > Tigers (2023)

Marata Niukore - Eels > Warriors (2023)

Ray Stone - Eels > Dolphins (2023)

Felise Kaufusi - Storm > Dolphins (2023)