With a new team in the mix and a new deal between players and referees on the table, the NRL should fly into 2023. But despite all the blue skies, big storms are brewing.
THE BITTER PAID WAR FINALLY ENDS
Player strikes. Boycott of sponsors. Canceled starts. This hot, hellish mess wasn’t the runway rugby league needed for a quick start to the 2023 season.
Only now, after months of clashes and threats, and just days away from the start of the first round, does it appear that the NRL and the Rugby League Players Association have finally negotiated a peace deal.
A new five-year, $1.347 billion collective bargaining agreement will be signed in a few days. Not a minute too early for 68% of club bosses unhappy with how long it took the NRL to do it.
The CBA means higher salaries and better health protection for NRL and NRLW players, autonomy for the RLPA to manage injured/retired player funds, and an end to players signing with rival teams a year in advance (recently Dom Young and Stephen Crichton).
Does that mean more funding for grassroots development in the bush, across the states, or for young women? We’ll see. At least the fans will hear no more about the CBA and will be able to focus on football.
DAWN OF 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 home base from the name, the Dolphins hope to attract football fans from the 500km stretch north of Brisbane to Rockhampton. Easier said than done. Introduced in 2007 to a similarly league-loving region, the Gold Coast Titans have the lowest number of members in the NRL and have only made it to the Finals four times in 16 seasons.
Did the NRL make the right choice with the fourth Queensland club (rejecting offers from Brisbane, Western Australia and Central New South Wales)? And if not, can it hold out long enough to make the Dolphins another storm in Melbourne (introduced in 1998, with four premier titles and over 40,000 members after 25 years in the NRL)?
GET READY FOR A RUGBY RAID
The appointment of Eddie Jones as head coach of the Wallabies is bad news for the NRL. When Jones led the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final, the team featured four league champions – Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuquiri, Mat Rogers and Andrew Walker.
And within weeks of taking back the reins, “Fast Eddie” was planning new raids on the NRL ahead of the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia. Jones’ hit list so far includes high school union stars Joseph Suaalii (Roosters), Will Penisini (Eels), Tolu Koula (Sea Eagles), Nelson Asofa-Solomona (Storm) and Cameron Murray (Rabbitohs).
With sponsors swarming with a 15-man code for the 2023 World Cup and the 2025 British & Irish Lions tour, Jones’ war chest is growing fast. And if the Wallabies start winning again under him, the challenge of code hopping and a World Cup in front of the home crowd will be very lucrative indeed for any NRL player unhappy with the way rugby league is run.
NO MOVEMENT PER PRIDE ROUND
It’s a problem that imploded in Manly’s 2022 season and got their coach Des Hasler fired. And the saga, like the rainbow itself, never ends for NRL. Last week, an anonymous poll of NRL bosses found that 82% do not support the Pride round, 57% are reluctant to introduce the Pride T-shirt to their clubs, and only 38% are open to the Pride T-shirt but only with player consent.
This drew condemnation both in and out of the game. “What are we afraid of?” asked Cronulla star Toby Rudolf, who spoke openly about his same-sex experiences last year. The A-League and NBL have official Pride rounds, and the Sydney Swans have held a Pride match every year since 2015, all wearing rainbow clothes and preaching inclusiveness. However, apparently still boycotting the seven-member Manly boycott on religious grounds last year, the NRL carefully released the “Circle of Respect” compromise that many clubs put in too hard a basket when they bought it.
NRL HEADS ON THE NOSE
They were the league bosses who led the NRL through the Covid storm to global praise. But the honeymoon period for NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo and ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys with league leaders amid record levels of disapproval from club bosses has come to an end.
Not only did the CBA negotiations become nasty and took too long, the NRL’s integrity was severely hit when an employee was allegedly secretly recording the NRL’s negotiations with the RLPA. To make matters worse, the Sydney Morning Herald poll also found that 36% of club bosses feel “unsupported” by the NRL (more than double the number in 2021) and more than half of them believe the NRL was played when the government New South Wales has turned around an $800 million promise to rebuild Brookvale Oval, Penrith Stadium, Shark Park and Leichhardt Oval.
This heart wound was inflamed even further when the NRL rejected threats to take over the 2022 Interstate Grand Final by signing an 11-hour deal to keep it in NSW. But which stadium in which state will host the biggest NRL game in 2023? Your guess is as good as ours.