With a new team in the mix and a new player-official deal on the table, the NRL should be flying into 2023. But despite all the blue skies, some big storms are brewing.
BITTER PAYMENT WAR FINALLY ENDS
Player hits. Sponsor boycotts. Launches cancelled. This unholy, hot mess was not the rugby league needed for a 2023 start to the season.
Only now, after months of stalemates and threats, and with just days left until the start of the first round, do the NRL and the Rugby League Players Association finally appear to have negotiated a peace deal.
A new five-year, $1.347 billion collective agreement will be signed within days. Not a minute too early for 68% of club heads unhappy with the time taken by the NRL to do this.
The CBA means higher wages and better health protection for NRL and NRLW players, autonomy from the RLPA over how injured/retired players’ funds are managed, and an end to players signing with rival teams a year in advance (alias Dom Young and Stephen Crichton recently).
Does that mean more funding for grassroots growth in the bush, interstate, or for young women? We’ll see. At least fans won’t hear much more about the CBA and will be able to focus on football.
DAWN OF THE DOLPHINS
For the first time in 16 years, the NRL has a new team: the Dolphins, based in the Brisbane suburb of Redcliffe and coached by seven-time premiership winner Wayne Bennett.
Despite the controversial omission of a base to their name, the Dolphins are hoping to lure football-crazed fans from the 500km belt north of Brisbane to Rockhampton. Easier said than done. The Gold Coast Titans, introduced in 2007 in a region equally passionate about leagues, have the fewest members in the NRL and have reached the finals just four times in 16 seasons.
Did the NRL make the right choice with a fourth Queensland club (rejected bids from Brisbane, Western Australia and NSW’s Central Coast)? And if not, can it keep up enough nerve to turn the Dolphins into another Melbourne storm (introduced in 1998 and with four premierships and over 40,000 members after 25 years in the NRL)?
GET READY FOR A RUGBY RAID
The appointment of Eddie Jones as Wallabies coach is bad news for the NRL. When Jones led the Wallabies to the World Cup Final in 2003, four league greats were in the squad – Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuquiri, Mat Rogers and Andrew Walker.
And weeks after taking the reins again, “Fast Eddie” was planning new attacks on the NRL ahead of the 2027 Rugby World Cup, to be held in Australia. So far, Jones’ hit list includes student union stars Joseph Suaalii (Roosters), Will Penisini (Eels), Tolu Koula (Sea Eagles), Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Storm) and Cameron Murray (Rabbitohs).
With sponsors cramming the 15-player code for the 2023 World Cup and 2025 British & Irish Lions tour, Jones’ war chest is growing fast. And if the Wallabies start winning again under his reign, the challenge of a code hop and the World Cup in front of home fans becomes very lucrative for any NRL player unhappy with the way rugby league is being played out. administered.
NO MOVES IN THE PRIDE ROUND
It’s the issue that imploded Manly’s 2022 season and saw their manager Des Hasler dropped. And the saga, like the rainbow itself, never ends for the NRL. Last week, an anonymous poll of NRL bosses found that 82% do not support a Pride round, 57% are reluctant to feature a Pride shirt at their clubs and only 38% accept the Pride shirt, but only with approval of the player.
It drew criticism in and out of the game. “What are we afraid of?” asked Cronulla star Toby Rudolf, who last year spoke candidly about his own same-sex experiences. The A-League and NBL have official Pride rounds and the Sydney Swans have played a Pride match annually since 2015, all while wearing rainbows and preaching inclusion. However, clearly still reeling from the seven-man Manly boycott on religious grounds last year, the NRL cautiously put forward a ‘respect round’ compromise that many clubs put in the basket very hard to buy.
NRL BOSSES ON THE NOSE
They were the league bosses who steered the NRL through the Covid storm to global acclaim. But the honeymoon was over for NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo and ARL commission chairman Peter V’landys, with league supremes at record levels of disapproval with club bosses.
Not only did the CBA negotiations become complicated and time-consuming, the integrity of the NRL took a huge blow when an official was allegedly secretly recording the NRL’s negotiations with the RLPA. Worse, the Sydney Morning Herald survey also found that 36% of club heads feel “under supported” by the NRL (more than double the number in 2021) and more than half of them believe the NRL was played when the government of New South Wales did a somersault on its $800 million pledge to rebuild Brookvale Oval, Penrith Stadium, Shark Park and Leichhardt Oval.
The heart wound festered further when the NRL backtracked on threats to take the 2022 interstate grand final, signing an 11-hour deal to keep it in NSW. But in which stadium in which state will the biggest NRL game of 2023 be played? Your guess is as good as ours.