Australia: Australian rugby stars becoming poor cousins to NRL as wage gap comes down to players' union clout

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The Rugby League World Cup has been the backdrop for continuing negotiations between the Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) and NRL executives over a new collective Bargaining agreement.

Many of the game’s top athletes have criticised the NRL for attempting to lowball the players financially, despite huge revenue being generated across the code.

As a rugby union fan, the chasm that exists in relation to the representation of rugby union players in Australia as opposed to their league counterparts, as well as the incomparable financial situations both codes find themselves in, has become apparent.

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There has been an incremental increase in the NRL salary cap each year of the modern era. In fact, the cap has more than doubled over the last ten years, from $4.4 million in 2012 to $10 million in 2022. The currently disputed proposed CBA would see the cap rise to $11 million in 2023.

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Compare this to an increase of $4.4 million in 2012 to $5.5 million in 2022 for Super Rugby AU.

Importantly, neither the RLPA nor the players themselves have held back from expressing their dissatisfaction with certain terms of the proposed CBA, searching for longer-term health security and an increase in the minimum wage.

While the outcome may differ slightly from current reports, it looks likely the average contract will reach $400,000 and the new minimum to be close to $125,000.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

This type of advocacy is completely void from Australian Super players.

Why can our league counterparts stand up for themselves and we cannot? Because the RLPA has a financial seat at the table, while RUPA is a limp arm of the RA executive.

Players in Australia exist at the unrestricted discretion of RA. The emergency COVID CBA amendment that was thrust upon players during the 2020 season saw a 60 per cent wage reduction for an initial six-month period, while lower-paid players were placed on jobkeeper payments. Wallabies payments were also slashed in the amendment.

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The players had roughly 24 hours to agree to the cuts or be stood down, placed on JobKeeper payments and have their registrations captured.

While times were extreme, these measures trod the lines of legality. A mandate was handed down from RA and passed on to the players by RUPA.

The 2020 COVID pay reductions were a fast-paced example of the lack of representation the players in Australia have.

Famously, a Reds trio refused to agree to the 2020 amendment. Where was the advocacy for them from RUPA? There cannot be a reasonable expectation of significant increases to player income or wellbeing if there is no driving force behind them.

Can anyone remember a time where RUPA or Australian players came out and stated they would like different or improved outcomes? An increase in the salary cap in line with generated revenue?

The RLPA is a disrupting force for the NRL, in the best possible sense. They create an environment where there will be some push back and disagreement in order to improve outcomes in the sport from the perspective of players.

The salary cap has risen 25 per cent in rugby union in ten years. League’s cap has risen 150 per cent. While the failings of RA commercially have no doubt inhibited the chances of improved financial outcomes, it probably doesn’t help that there isn’t anyone at the table supporting the players’ interests.

Either RA is acting so fair and equitably that there was never any need for push back from RUPA, or RUPA are not doing anywhere near enough.

You be the judge.

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