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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nick Tedeschi

The NRL’s funding feud, a breakaway league and what it means for the game

Peter V'landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, and Andrew Abdo, the NRL’s CEO.
Peter V'landys, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, and Andrew Abdo, the NRL’s CEO. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Amid complex collective bargaining negotiations, talk of a potential breakaway competition has stunned Australian rugby league this week. Here are some key questions about the fraught situation answered.

Why are the NRL, clubs and players at loggerheads?

As always, the primary issue is money. The clubs want more of it and the NRL wants to keep club funding model the same. There is also growing frustration from clubs around the lack of transparency from Rugby League HQ and an inability to get key matters – such as the collective bargaining agreement, salary cap and 2023 draw – sorted in a timely and consultative manner.

What are the issues in play?

There are myriad issues at play but at the top of the list is money and power. This is a fight to win greater shares of revenue and a fight over who controls the game. This is playing out in the context of a collective bargaining negotiation between the NRL and players, and club funding discussions with clubs.

Who are the stakeholders involved?

There are three primary stakeholder groupings: the NRL, the clubs and the players (represented by the Rugby League Players Association). The NRL is at loggerheads with both the clubs and the players, a highly unusual situation when it comes to labour negotiations.

What do the players/clubs want?

The players wanted a collective bargaining agreement in place by the official start of the 2023 season on 1 November. While they do want an increase in the salary cap, their two main aims are to keep at a minimum a per-head share of the revenue and a codification of terms and conditions players will play under, particularly around the code of conduct and punishments. The latter is particularly important as it will apply to NRLW players, who do not have a CBA in place.

The clubs, who are seemingly unified, want increases in funding and a change to the way the game is governed. They also want to get on with the business of preparing for 2023, something that has become more difficult than it should be with no salary cap and no draw.

What does the league want?

The league wants stability and to minimise expenditure on clubs and players. The NRL brought in former Nine boss Hugh Marks to lead negotiations on club funding. NRL CEO Andrew Abdo and Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys have cancelled trips to the UK in an attempt to reach an agreement with both the clubs and players as soon as possible.

Melbourne and Australia hooker Harry Grant has claimed the NRL ‘are low-balling’ the players.
Melbourne and Australia hooker Harry Grant has claimed the NRL ‘are low-balling’ the players. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Can the clubs form a breakaway league?

Yes. Club licensing agreements end in 2023. There were talks to make these licences perpetual from 2016 but nothing eventuated and now, in theory, clubs can move away from the NRL at the end of the 2023 season.

Will they form a breakaway league?

No. There is no appetite from either clubs or players to form a breakaway league. Talks of a breakaway league are designed to force the NRL not only to the negotiating table but to potentially force a change in leadership.

Can clubs force a change in NRL leadership?

Yes. While clubs cannot force out any of the executive, including Abdo, they do have the power to remove a commissioner, including V’landys. Currently that would require the support of 14 clubs or 12 clubs and the two state leagues.

What is the timeline for a resolution?

There is no timeline for a resolution. Bargaining, according to the RLPA, has not begun with the NRL and considering the complexity of the issues a CBA seems increasingly unlikely to be completed this year. There will obviously need to be a draw for next season but that has been announced as late as 15 December for the 2015 season. If a fixed salary cap is not settled on soon, the NRL will need to operate under a temporary cap.

Are there similarities with the Super League era?

While there have been some comparisons with the Super League era that saw two separate competitions run in 1997, there are very few similarities. There is no big outside organisations willing to fund a breakaway. There is no different vision for how the game should be run. There is no division among the clubs or players. The only real similarity is the mechanism the clubs are using to make the threat – club licences. They are the same mechanisms the ARL used to stop clubs defecting during the Super League War.

Why is Andrew Abdo under fire?

Abdo is being blamed for the stalemate. In a sense he is a victim of the NRL’s power dynamics with decision-making power seemingly resting exclusively with chairman V’landys.

What is Peter V’landys’ role in this?

V’Landys is the final decision-maker when it comes to all serious matters, particularly finances. A fierce negotiator, he is loth to concede much ground. While he may not have been directly involved in negotiations with clubs, he has final sign-off. Questions have also started to be asked in public about his ability to handle the sizeable roles of both being effectively the executive chairman of the ARLC and the boss of Racing NSW. V’landys has backed his CEO Abdo by telling News Corp “no one has worked harder for the game”. He has also said he is “confident we will get a resolution which not everyone is going to like”.

Is there a chance next season will be affected?

At this stage, it would seem unlikely. Players may take industrial action which could include striking, but we are a long way from there with the RLPA taking a practical and whole-of-game approach.

Which high profile players have spoken out?

Melbourne and Australia hooker Harry Grant has claimed the NRL “are low-balling us at the moment”. He said that “the sooner we can get it sorted, the better for the game”. Penrith and Australian forward Isaah Yeo said that “from a players perspective, it’s just taken way too long”, with the RLPA not “asking for anything crazy or unfair”.

What does the feud mean for rugby league?

Struggles over power and money between the league, players and clubs is nothing new. It was the spark that formed the game and has existed for the 127-year history of the code. This latest stalemate will not see any seismic shift in how the game is played or how the competition operates in any big-picture sense. It will likely see greater concessions made to both players and clubs, particularly around the code of conduct and player punishment. If tensions continue to simmer, we could see a change in at the pointy end of the NRL leadership.

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