The bottom 10 players in each NRL squad would be made available for rival clubs to approach as replacements for players suspended due to doping violations under a proposal being considered to ensure the game fulfils its television commitments.
As revealed by Fairfax Media on Tuesday, the NRL has been drawing up a contingency plan to cope with the possibility of players being suspended en masse following an investigation by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority.
Fairfax Media understands leading officials have been discussing options to ensure the NRL fulfils its contractual obligations to Channel Nine and Fox Sports to provide eight competitive matches a week since news broke on the eve of the season kick-off that up to 14 Cronulla players face drugs bans.
However, the Sharks are not the only club under threat of losing players to suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and the player pool would enable teams to restock talent.
Similar to the Super League draft that was used to enable the Adelaide Rams to field a team in the rebel competition in 1997, clubs which lose players to drugs bans could draw on players ranked 16-25 in rival teams.
Suggestions that each club place one or two players in the pool have been rejected as they may each make available a second-rower when the clubs effected may need to replace a halfback or a hooker.
Players would not be forced to join a rival club but some may believe they will have better opportunities by doing so.
The clubs releasing players could also benefit as they would free up room under the salary cap to extend the contracts of other players. However, it is unclear what the salary cap implications would be for a club signing new players - either on loan or a longer-term deal.
Salary cap auditor Ian Schubert is understood to have been given responsibility to devise the emergency player-pool system by NRL chief executive Dave Smith after officials were briefed by ASADA on the possibility of up to 50 players and support staff being caught up in the investigation.
The Sharks are expected to be the worst hit, with 22 members of their 2011 squad believed to be facing doping allegations. They would struggle to field a competitive team if they lost 14 players to suspension as they share a NSW Cup with Melbourne.
NRL club chief executives contacted on Tuesday were unaware of details of the contingency plan but offered their support to ensure the NRL was able to fulfil the terms of its $1.025 billion TV deal.
''It is nice to see some proactive steps being taken by NRL HQ to plan for scenarios that may happen,'' Canterbury chief executive Todd Greenberg said. ''That is a good initiative of any business to make sure they have planning for all of those types of scenarios, so I think that is a really good thing.
''The mechanics of it, and the operational component, I am sure we could work out and it wouldn't be without its challenges, but it is nice to be in a space where we are actually getting on the front foot to actively manage situations.''
Wests Tigers chief executive Stephen Humphreys said he could also see positives in the proposal.
''It would come down to the opportunities for certain players,'' he said. ''If there are some players who felt that their opportunity was better served elsewhere, you would always look at that possibility.
''Everyone starts out the year with high ambitions but sometimes you get caught behind other players so there would be some players who would see that opportunity as one they'd like to pursue. That could be attractive for some players so I can see that potentially working, but it would need a fair bit of delicate discussion and careful management. It would have to be a collaborative and co-operative process.''
- Sydney Morning Herald