Threat of possible strike action looming over new NRL season

Iain Dalton

Players and administrators are currently at loggerheads in the National Rugby League (NRL), the world’s premier rugby league competition, over ongoing talks for a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for the forthcoming season.

Talks were supposed to have been finished at the end of October when the previous agreement expired. Since then, the only progress has been the unilateral announcement by the NRL bosses of an increase in the salary cap clubs can’t spend over on their squads.

The Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) has expressed its anger over being informed mere moments before the announcement, as focusing the issue on headline pay rates – when the issues they want resolving are more complex, and will generally be of benefit more to players at the middle and bottom of the pay scale.

This includes things like a medical fund to support players post-retirement, whereas at present players have 12 months to have any surgeries that need doing post-retirement. But it also includes a first CBA for players of the NRL Women’s competition, which could include important gains such as pregnancy leave, as well as injury hardship funds and better training wages and minimum salaries to protect players coming into the competitions.

It seems like this is being resisted by the NRL bosses due to the potential open-ended nature of what spending on retired players could amount to. Whilst players on the top wages may be able to afford through savings and investments to pay the costs for ongoing medical problems, those who only manage to play a single season can face financial hardship. 

Whilst the possibility of strike action or a lockout has been mooted, both sides seem aware that that would affect the sports income from spectators and TV deals if matches were to be canceled. So far, the action taken by players has been to boycott NRL media and promotional days with the support of their clubs. It seems like for the time being, action short of strike, such as this is how the dispute will develop.

Some NRLW players are also refusing to even train, such as Australian Women’s Jillaroos team captain Abi Brigginshaw, as without a CBA being agreed they have no insurance, so face the potential of no contract to play the coming season if they are injured. So far the players seem to be making a determined stand, star players amongst their ranks such as RLPA President and world cup winner Daly Cherry-Evans.

The players demands seem like they should be supported by all trade unionists. Careers can potentially be very short and players deserve the security that the wealth being generated by the NRL and NRLW could give them.

But this also highlights how the sport is governed. The main obstacle to resolving these issues seems to be the intransigence of those running the NRL’s independent governing board, the Australian Rugby League Commission. This includes the CEO Andrew Abdo, whose background lies with financial firm Deloitte, whilst Chairman Peter V’Landys is the CEO of Racing New South Wales.

This body of businessmen, who aren’t allowed to have any direct connection with Rugby League for 2 years before appointment, is a product of the aftermath of the 1990s Super League war where Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited set up a rival competition for a year, before agreeing to run the NRL as a joint competition in future years. The election of an independent commission was the condition for News Limited’s exit from joint control.

But it is a recipe for decisions to be made without any reference to the views of players, club staff and the fans the game depends upon to survive. Socialists argue that instead our sports should be governed by democratically elected boards made up of representatives of supporters, players, and the workers involved in running the game.

Blog at